Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . .
He did a lazy sway. . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
When considering essential movements in American poetry, no conversation would be complete without a discussion of the Harlem Renaissance. With a lyricism seated in the popular blues and jazz music of the time, an awareness of black life in America, its assertion of an independent African American identity, and its innovation in form and structure, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is unmistakable.
Though the exact dates of the movement are debatable, most consider its beginnings to be rooted in the end of the Reconstruction era, when legal segregation made living conditions for African Americans in the South unbearable. The lack of economic opportunities, and, more importantly, the prevalence of prejudice, lynching, and segregation in public spaces all contributed to the intolerable conditions of African Americans. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, jobs previously held by white males suddenly became available, and industrial expansion in the North provided opportunities for African Americans to seek a new lifestyle. They settled in various northern cities during this Great Migration, though New York City was the most popular, particularly the district of Harlem. African Americans of all social classes joined together in Harlem, which became the focal point of a growing interest in African American culture: jazz, blues, dance, theater, art, fiction, and poetry. Harlem and New York also became the home of many seminal African American institutions, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Crisis, and more.
The Harlem Renaissance ushered in a time of many renewed firsts for African Americans in publishing: Langston Hughes, a central figure of the movement, published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in the June 1921 of The Crisis; two years later, Jean Toomer’s Cane was the first book of fiction (though it is more accurate to deem it a hybrid text, as it also contains dramatic dialogue and poetry) by an African American writer to appear from a New York publisher since Charles Chestnutt’s The Colonel’s Dream (Doubleday, Page, 1905); and Countee Cullen’s first poetry collection, Color (Harper & Brothers, 1925), was the first book of poetry written by an African American to be published by a major American publisher since Dodd, Mead published Paul Laurence Dunbar.
These writers sought to examine and celebrate their experiences. In his preface to his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), editor, author, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson writes that African American artists need to find “a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos” of their experience. Another important anthology of the time appeared three years later: The New Negro, edited by sociologist and critic Alain Locke. The anthology collected essays, stories, poems, and artwork by a diversity of artists old and young, black and white. Locke’s term “The New Negro” became popularized during the Harlem Renaissance, promoting a sense of pride and advocacy in the African American community, and a refusal to submit to the injustices they were subjected to. In fact, the Harlem Renaissance is alternately referred to as the “New Negro Renaissance.”
The same year The New Negro appeared, Cullen’s Color, a collection of poems that addressed racial injustice in the style of the English Romantics, was published. In his book, Cullen discussed his own and the collective African-American identity. Some of his strongest poems question the benevolence of a creator who has bestowed a race with such mixed blessings. His book was soon followed by Hughes’s The Weary Blues, a lyrical text whose sounds and cadences moved with the rhythms of the jazz and blues he was exposed to in his daily life in Harlem.
Other major writers of the time included Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. McKay, born and raised in Jamaica, wrote of the immigrant’s nostalgia and the black man’s pride and rage. Toomer remains a mystery; light enough to “pass” and alone constituting the generation’s symbolist avant-garde, he appeared briefly on the Harlem Renaissance scene, became a follower of the mystic Gurdijeff, and disappeared into the white world.
Brown, for many years a professor at Howard University, emerged in the thirties with sometimes playful, often pessimistic poems in standard English and black vernacular and in African American and European forms. In many of Brown’s poems, strong men and women resist the oppression of racism, poverty, and fate.
By 1928, the literary tides seemed to shift away from poetry and more toward fiction, with the publication of such texts as Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, McKay’s Home to Harlem, and Bontemps’s God Sends Sunday, among others.
The Harlem Renaissance, which was sparked by industrial expansion and prosperity in the art fields, began its decline with the crash of Wall Street in 1929. Harlem became affected by rising unemployment and crime, and the neighborhood erupted in the Harlem Riot of 1935. Still, the immediate effects of the movement would echo into the Negritude movement of the 1930s and beyond.
The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance opened doors and deeply influenced the generations of African American writers that followed, including Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks. In the forties, fifties, and sixties, Hayden taught at Fisk University and the University of Michigan and served two terms as the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. After the publication in 1945 of her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, Brooks combined a quiet life with critical success. Her second book, Annie Allen, won the 1950 Pulitzer prize, the first time a book by a black poet had won that coveted distinction, and the last time until Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, almost forty years later. Many of the poets who would follow the Cullens and the Hugheses, these descendents of the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent cultural, social, and literary trends, would also bring in the politically and socially radical Black Arts Movement of the sixties, which similarly sought to promote social change and a uniquely self-crafted African American identity.