February is Love of Reading Month and Black History Month, so naturally, with two more days we are celebrating the great American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. These poets and authors revolutionized literature and paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning in the 1920s, The Harlem Renaissance was an era of expression and voicing of African-American cultural experiences. Writers, artists and performers spanned the Northeast and Midwest United States – expanding even to Paris, France. At the heart of the movement was New York’s own Harlem. We’re highlighting just a few of the brilliant writers who made American literature a world-class artform.
Festus Claudius McKay was a novelist and leader of the Harlem Renaissance literary movement. His strong stance against authority and bold stories celebrating black life provided a unique view. He published four novels including the renowned Home to Harlem, a Harmon Gold Award for Literature winner and Banjo. In addition to fiction, McKay was a masterful poet and non-fiction author. His two autobiographical works, A Long Way from Home and My Green Hills of Jamaica highlighted his roots in the Caribbean and New York City. McKay’s novel, Home to Harlem addresses the issues of LGBT life in 1920s Harlem. A true revolutionary, Claude McKay continues to inspire readers around the world.
Nella Larsen made her mark in the Harlem Renaissance by presenting revolutionary subject matter in her expertly written novels. Larsen won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship for her writing, the first African American woman to do so. Her most famous book, Passing, explores character Clare Kendry’s attempt to pass as white for her husband and the common yet controversial practice of racial “passing.” Larsen captured a snapshot of life in the 1920s and how complex social standards affected African American women. Larsen’s work remains in the literary canon to this day.
Countee Cullen began his career at the young age of fifteen and went on to become one of the most important poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Honing his cultural and political prowess at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, Harlem’s largest congregation, Cullen worked with early leaders of the NAACP. Influenced by the works of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and A.E. Housman, Cullen’s poetry won numerous awards including the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, academic adventurer, brilliant writer and social genius. Hurston grew up in Florida, a setting that provided inspiration for her writing. She moved to Harlem in the 1920s and met other writers including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Social gatherings at Hurston’s apartment were the the place to be. Hurston wrote short-stories and plays before returning to Florida to focus on collecting African-American folk tales. Her first hand research and ability to capture linguistic accuracy let to her book, Mules and Men. Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a protagonist who endures universal life experiences in order to find peace. Alice Walker said about Their Eyes Were Watching God, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”
Langston Hughes is often described as the heart and soul of the Harlem Renaissance. His talent of using song-like meter to condense profound subject matter into poems and short works is unmatched. Beginning in the 1920s, Hughes traveled through Europe, visited Paris and then returned to the United States. While working various jobs in the states, including busboy for a Washington D.C. hotel, Hughes met poet Vachel Lindsay and showed him a few poems. Impressed with Hughes’ work, Lindsay spread the word about the up and coming genius. Hughes’s poem The Weary Blues won first prize in the Opportunity magazine literary competition in 1925. Hughes then published a full book of poetry titled, The Weary Blues, in 1926. Hughes became a prolific writer, publishing The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, The Big Sea and numerous other works. A famous line from his poem, Harlem inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun. Langston Hughes is one of the most beloved and influential literary figures of all time.
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