As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s reflect on one of the most culturally significant time periods of African American history: the Harlem Renaissance.
I have always been interested in the Harlem Renaissance, stemming from reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston when I was in high school. I followed that up with reading the beautiful biography by Valerie Boyd, Wrapped Up in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. I was so impressed by the life and writing of Hurston, and what it meant for her to be such a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Before I knew it, I was exploring more. Having already been introduced to jazz music in middle school, I knew the genius of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday. What I didn’t know, however, was the extent of their contribution to the Harlem Renaissance movement and all the other art, music, and writing that was being created during the 1920s and 30s in the cultural epicenter that was Harlem.
If you are looking for some authors, artists, musicians, and other prolific people of the Harlem Renaissance to get you started on your search for learning more about this historic time of rebirth for the African American culture, check out some of my suggestions below. It’s my humble attempt at a beginner’s guide, so please add your own contributions in the comments!
Authors to Read
James Mercer Langston Hughes is one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes wrote poetry, short stories, novels, and essays. To get started with reading Langston Hughes, pick up Knopf’s Collected Works of Langston Hughes or the biographical work, Remember Me to Harlem: the Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964.
Zora Neale Hurston is well known for her popular novels, but she also wrote books compiling African American folklore. Hurston’s research for these collections of folklore resulted in a lasting contribution to the preservation of African American culture. Until you read more about Hurston’s life, you don’t realize how much of her life was spent recording and preserving folklore–she was just as much an anthropologist as she was an author. Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s most famous work, but if you want to read one of her compilations of folklore and anthropological works, check out Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica.
Countee Cullen was a prolific poet and another key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His first published volume of poetry, Color, included a large number of works primarily focused on the theme of race. If you want to read a good selection of Cullen’s work, pick up My Soul’s High Song: the Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance.
Another poet and essayist prominent to the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was born and raised in Jamaica before coming to the United States in his twenties. There is no one work that you need to start with to read McKay; any collection of his poetry that you can find would be a great place to start.
Arma Bontemps, both a teacher and a librarian, produced a vast amount of writing during his lifetime. From poetry and novels to children’s books and nonfiction, though his writing was vast, Bontemps’ work does not get the recognition it deserves and so it may be hard to track down his work in published books. You may be able to find his poetry in collected editions, however.
Another key figure in the Harlem Renaissance was James Weldon Johnson. Johnson’s anonymous publication of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a significant work of its time that examined issues of racial identity.
Modern-day Novels for Tweens and Teens
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes (2003 Best Books for Young Adults, 2003 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and 2007 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
Students in a modern-day high school find inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance when creating their own poems to read aloud at their English class open mike sessions every Friday.
Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford (a 2009 Best Books for Young Adults selection)
Becoming Billie Holiday, is a fictional memoir written in verse, that gives a realistic portrayal of Holiday’s early life, and also shows how strong the singer was to overcome all the struggles of her life to achieve her dreams.
Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers
Set in Harlem in 1925, Mark finds himself working for The Crisis, a magazine published by the NAACP. Mark meets many key figures of the Harlem Renaissance, while at the same time trying to break into the jazz scene.
Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine
When Dave’s father dies, he is sent to the Hebrew Home for Boys in Harlem. It is 1926, and though his life at the Home is hell, it is the times that he can sneak out at night and experience the nightlife of the Harlem Renaissance that allows Dave to keep on living.
Artists to See
William Henry Johnson was a painter whose work primarily depicted the urban life of African Americans. Johnson spent time in Paris, studying post-Impressionism and Expressionism, however most of his life was spent painting and teaching art in New York.
James Van Der Zee, a celebrated American photographer, made a name or himself photographing African American life during the Harlem Renaissance.
Lois Mailou Jones worked in the media of painting and textile design. Jones is an award winning artist who also championed for African and Haitian artists, was a respected professor at Howard University, and is recognized as having an immense impact on the African American experience in art.
Jacob Lawrence was raised and educated in Harlem. Eventually owning his own studio in Harlem, Lawrence produced vivid paintings that depicted the life and people of everyday Harlem.
Aaron Douglas was a painter and graphic designer, who found success when he illustrated Alain Leroy Locke’s The New Negro, a prominent book of the Harlem Renaissance. This lead to Douglas receiving further book and magazine illustration commissions, however he is also known for his murals depicting the African America experience.
Augusta Savage was a prominent sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance. Her works included busts of important African Americans of her time. Savage championed for African American artists during her lifetime, especially when it came to providing access to education and instruction for artists.
Musicians to listen to
Duke Ellington is most famous as a bandleader and composer, but he started out playing ragtime music on his piano as a teen. Many considered Ellington to be one of the most influential jazz musicians of our time.
Louis Armstrong was an innovator of jazz, changing the way in which jazz was to be known and played. Most famous for his singing and trumpet playing, Armstrong is considered an ambassador of jazz, making it mainstream and even popular for everyone to listen to.
Billie Holiday lived a hard life from the day she was born to the day she died. Holiday, however, is one of the most recognized female jazz vocalists of our time. She made a name for herself singing in Harlem nightclubs, and was able to vocalize the hardships that African Americans were experiencing in the ’20s and ’30s.
Most famous as a blues singer, Bessie Smith is known for bringing raw emotion to her signing. As much a personality on the stage as off, Smith was known for her flamboyant attitude and magnetic stage presence.
Much like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway found fame as a bandleader playing clubs in Harlem. As much a performer as a talented musician, Calloway is most famous for introducing the scat style of singing to the American public.
Considered the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey influenced many of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Believed to be the first to coin the style of singing “the blues,” Rainey often sang of the hardships of the African American people of her time.
-Colleen Seisser, currently reading The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey