The period between the 1920s and the beginning of World War II marked a blossoming of African American literature, especially in New York. Events that precipitated this period, now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, included a widespread migration to northern cities by African Americans from the South; job and educational opportunities for African Americans; the publication of periodicals specifically aimed at the African American audience and a rising consciousness of a black identity as a result of the work of leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Philip Randolph. Educated middle-class black authors as well as those living on hard times in Harlem, rushed to publish their ideas in poetry, fiction and essays widely circulated and, in many cases, still well-known. As Seattle Reads My Jim by Nancy Rawles this spring, a book that emphasizes the importance of passing our stories on to the next generation, read some of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance express their own experience in writing.
Most of us know Hughes chiefly for his poetry, especially his signature, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” but his fiction has the same lyrical and insightful flavor. Hughes’s first novel, Not Without Laughter, features a family experiencing racial discrimination. His first short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, illuminates for his readers the complexities and humor in black/white everyday relationships. Hughes is also the creator of Jesse B. Semple, an African American everyman you can get to know in the Simple stories, which are often incredibly funny!
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is an all-time favorite of mine. How can you help but admire Janie Crawford, a strong black woman who married three men, was accused of murder and is accountable to no one? Hurston used colloquial dialects in her writing, which infuriated many black writers who accused her of encouraging racial stereotypes. Now she’s admired for her accurate portrayal of black life, of women in particular, and her writing is widely read and studied. Try a sampling of her stories and essays in I Love Myself When I am Laughing… and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, or one of her other novels that explore the vagaries and conflicting desires of the human heart— Seraph on the Suwanee or Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
Cullen, a prolific and highly regarded Harlem Renaissance poet, was raised by a man who was not only a pastor, but also the president of the Harlem chapter of the NAACP, and learned early that racial politics and injustice demanded his talent as a writer. His taut poetry reins in, but never truly subdues, the rage that lends it such incredible power. His work was often published in The Crisis under the editorial aegis of W.E.B. DuBois. Best-known for his prize-winning poem “Ballad of the Brown Girl,” Cullen published his own poetry anthologies, beginning with Color in 1923. You can read his work in My Soul’s High Song and One Way to Heaven, a reprint of a 1932 edition.