Poets of the Harlem Renaissance
James Weldon Johnson
The literary period known as the Harlem Renaissance saw a great outpouring of poetry by African Americans. Poets such as James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jean Toomer, and Robert Hayden penned many poems that have become classics in the American literary canon.
These fine poets deserve the attention they receive for their uplifting and inspirational offerings as well as their works that seek to critique the culture. By merely describing the scenes they have observed, they offer their audience entry into their experience as well as into their hearts and minds.
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)
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.
Jean Toomer 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 reads Toomer’s poems, "Song of the Sun."
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Hughes is considered a leading figure of that great renaissance. 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 went on to write much unforgettable prose as well, including the Semple Stories. On youtube, one may find a reading by Hughes of his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
Although Hughes' works occasionally descend into the banal, he has penned some of the finest poetry in the American literary canon, especially his "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which he wrote at only age eighteen.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
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. She later served as U. S. Poet Laureate 1985-86, when the position was titled Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Brooks earned many 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” on YouTube.
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.
Hayden's many other works, such as "Frederick Douglass" and "Monet's Waterlilies," place him in the forefront with works that have become classic as they enrich the landscape of American literature.
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)
Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
The Harlem Renaissance 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.
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© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes