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Leading Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Overview

The literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance saw a great outpouring of poetry by black American poets. One of the greatest poets ever to have composed verse is James Weldon Johnson, whose inspirational poem/hymn, "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing," became the Negro National Anthem. About this experience, Johnson wrote in his autobiography, "Nothing that I have done has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being the part creator of this song (Negro National Hymn). I am always thrilled when I hear it sung by Negro children."

Langston Hughes is likely the most recognizable and most widely anthologized poet of the Harlem Renaissance. At the tender age of eighteen, Hughes penned his best poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." However, he went on to compose some the most loved and widely studied works of that literary movement.

Robert Hayden also became a towering figure of the period with his nearly perfect sonnet, "Those Winter Sundays." Other important figures include Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Countée Cullen, and Sterling A. Brown, whose most noted work offers a complex and ironic take on an age old, yet perennially present, issue in his poem, "Southern Cop."

The Great Migration Ushered in the Harlem Renaissance

After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, shameful, offensive Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes continued to keep the black population second class citizens in the South. Thus, a sweeping movement of black Southerners to the North took place beginning in the 1920s:

By the turn of the 20th century, the Great Migration was underway as hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just three square miles, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, giving the neighborhood the largest concentration of black people in the world. Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds. From unskilled laborers to an educated middle-class, they shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial oppression, as well as a determination to forge a new identity as free people.

Alain LeRoy Locke, the Harvard educated intellectual and cultural critic, who is considered the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance," argued for cultural inclusion and integration:

Locke rejected the then popular notion of cultural separatism, believing that that it was possible for an intersection to be forged between black cultural experience and Euro‐American aesthetic forms. It is here where the renaissance of collective of artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives integrated Negro folk heritage and history into the broader movement for racial equality.

That new identity being forged by the black community included artists from painters to poets to musicians to actors interested in and determined to create and feature their works. The Harlem Renaissance became the stage and vehicle to help feature those artists and to promote their important contribution to American culture.

The following brief overview introduces a sampling from the many black poets who helped make the Harlem Renaissance an important and unforgettable experience in American life.

Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

The following brief overview introduces a sampling from the many black poets who helped make the Harlem Renaissance an important and unforgettable experience in American life.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)

James Weldon Johnson was truly a renaissance man, writing poetry, novels, music, and serving as ambassador to Venezuela. His song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing,” became known as the Negro National Anthem.

Johnson was a founding member of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Wintley Phipps offers a powerful rendering of Johnson’s wonderful poem, "The Creation.”

Johnson is likely the most talented of all the Harlem Renaissance figures. His works reveal a highly educated, but more importantly, a deeply spiritual man of great intelligence, charm, and knowledge of how the world works.

Jean Toomer (1894–1967)

Jean Toomer was born in Washington D.C. His skin was light, and he passed as white during various periods of his life, but he remained aware of the great racial divide that plagued the country. He became interested in yoga through the teachings of Gurdjieff; he sought transcendence of the race issues, which the unifying doctrines of yoga impart. Arna Bontemps offers a dramatic reading of Toomer’s poem, "Song of the Sun."

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902–1967)

Langston Hughes is considered a leading figure of that great renaissance and remains the most recognized name from that movement. His poetry is well–known and studied widely in schools and colleges across the country. Probably his most famous poem is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which he wrote when he was only eighteen. Hughes offers a reading of his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Hughes went on to write much unforgettable prose as well, including the Semple Stories. Although Hughes' works occasionally descend into the banal, he has penned some of the finest poetry in the American literary canon.

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden (1913–1980)

Robert Hayden has the distinct honor of having written one of the best poems in American literature, "Those Winter Sundays." In this nearly perfect poem, a man is looking back at his childhood, and as he dramatizes an event becomes aware of a useful attitude that seldom belongs to young people as they are growing up.

Robert Hayden's many other fine works, such as "Frederick Douglass" and "Monet's Waterlilies," place him in the forefront with poem that have become classic as they enrich the landscape of American literature.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000)

Gwendolyn Brooks, who was born in Topeka, Kansas, authored more than twenty books of poetry. Annie Allen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. She published a novel, Maud Martha in 1953 and in 1972 her autobiography Report from Part One. In 1968 she was appointed state Poet Laureate for Illinois.

Brooks later served as U. S. Poet Laureate 1985–86, when the position was titled Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She earned many national awards for her writing. She made her home in Chicago, where she died December 3, 2000. Brooks offers a reading her much anthologized poem, "We Real Cool."

Other Harlem Renaissance Poets

The following poets writing during this literary period also contributed mightily to the making of this rich, important time of creation in the literary world:

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906)
Angelina W. Grimke (1880–1958)
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)
Claude McKay (1891–1948)
Esther Popel (1896–1958)
Sterling A. Brown (1901–1989)
Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902–1981)
Countée Cullen (1903–1946)

The Harlem Renaissance, which has continued to influence American creative life, was a lively time in American history, an important period of growth for the African American community, and nowhere is that liveliness and growth more visible than in the wonderful, dynamic poetry of that literary era.

Sources

Harlem Renaissance Story

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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