In the early 20th century, millions of African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North to seek economic opportunity and escape widespread racial prejudice, segregation, and violence. Many of them settled in the New York neighborhood of Harlem, which became the epicenter of a flowering of African-American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Alongside their counterparts in art, music, theater and dance, these seven writers (and others) eloquently demolished racist stereotypes, expressing pride in their African heritage and creating a new understanding of black life and identity in the United States. Additionally, Harlem Renaissance literature brought much-needed attention to the bitter legacy of slavery and racism, helping to lay the groundwork for the later civil rights movement.
1. Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes moved around a lot as a child until his family settled in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote his first and most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shortly after graduating from high school. While studying at Columbia University in New York, he embraced Harlem culture, particularly the popular jazz and blues music he later incorporated so memorably into his work beginning with his first collection, The Tired Blues (1926). As the most influential and famous voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes also wrote essays, novels, short stories, and plays, all of which centered and celebrated black life and pride. African American heritage.
2. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
After growing up in rural Alabama and Florida, Zora Neale Hurston attended Howard University and won a scholarship to Barnard College in 1925, which brought her into the heart of Harlem culture. A trained anthropologist who traveled to Haiti and Jamaica for research, Hurston attracted attention in the 1930s for his collection of African-American folk tales, Mules and men (1935) and his 1937 novel Their eyes looked at God, about the tumultuous life of a black woman in the rural South. Although Hurston struggled to make a living as a writer during his lifetime, interest in his work picked up after his death, when Their eyes looked at God was celebrated as a literary classic and one of the greatest works of the Harlem Renaissance.
3. Earl Cullen (1903-1946)
Kentucky-born Countee Porter was unofficially adopted at age 15 by FA Cullen, a minister of a prominent Methodist church in Harlem. While studying at New York University, Countee Cullen began publishing his poems in Crisis, the literary magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) co-founded by WEB Du Bois, and elsewhere. He soon won a scholarship to Harvard and won wide acclaim for his first collection of poetry, Colors (1925). Unlike Hughes, who wrote in his famous essay “The Negro Artist and His Racial Mountain” that black poets should combat “race’s urge for whiteness”, Cullen was unabashedly influenced in his work by romantic poets like John Keats. After his poetic reputation waned in the 1930s, Cullen taught for years in New York public schools.
4. Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Born in Jamaica, Claude McKay came to the United States to attend college, but left school in 1914 and settled in Harlem. After publishing “If We Must Die”, one of his best-known poems, he traveled to Europe in 1919 and lived in London, before returning to the United States in 1921. The McKay Collection Shadows of Harlem (1922) established him as a major voice of the Harlem Renaissance and an influence on young writers like Hughes. After his novel Welcome to Harlem (1928), about a young army deserter during World War I, became the first commercially successful novel by a black writer, McKay followed up with two other novels, Banjo (1929) and Banana background (1933). A supporter of communism in the 1920s, McKay traveled to the Soviet Union and lived in France. Later in life he converted to Catholicism and moved to Chicago, where he worked as a teacher for Catholic organizations.
5. Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)
A 1905 graduate of Cornell University (where she was perhaps the first black student), Jessie Redmon Fauset was working as a teacher when she began writing for Crisis. In 1919, she moved to New York to become the magazine’s literary editor, helping to introduce writers such as Cullen, Hughes, and McKay to national audiences. As well as promoting the work of other important writers, Fauset continued to publish his own poems and short stories in the magazine, as well as four novels, including There is Confusion (1924) and Plum bun (1929), which chronicles the life and culture of the emerging black middle class.
6. John Toomer (1894-1967)
Born in Washington, DC, Jean Toomer came from a mixed white and black family, and his grandfather had served as the first black governor of the United States during Reconstruction. After attending City College of New York, Toomer wrote poetry and prose for several years, then moved to Georgia in 1921 to take up a teaching position. The experience of returning to her family’s Southern roots inspired her novel Cane (1923), an experimental hybrid of fictional prose, dramatic dialogue, and poetry that has been hailed as an important example of literary modernism. Toomer embraced the spiritual teachings of influential philosopher George Gurdjieff and taught workshops in Harlem and elsewhere. While he continued to write, his later works failed to find an audience. He then adopted the Quaker religion and lived as a recluse in the years before his death.
7.Nella Larsen (1891-1964)
The daughter of a white mother from Denmark and a black West Indian father, Nella Larsen was raised in a predominantly white environment in Chicago after her father disappeared and her mother remarried to a white Dane. She studied nursing at a school in the Bronx created to train black nurses and returned to work there in 1916. Alongside her husband, the eminent black physicist Elmer Imes, Larsen joined the flourishing intellectual and cultural circles of Harlem; she later graduated from the New York Public Library Teaching Program. In 1928, she published the autobiographical novel Quicksands, followed by Who passed (1929), both of which featured mixed-race protagonists and complex dynamics of urban life, racial consciousness, and sexuality. Larsen became the first black woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, but accusations of plagiarism and a disintegrating marriage soon helped derail her literary career. She eventually stopped publishing and returned to nursing in the last decades of her life.