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The Harlem Renaissance: Its Poets and Poems

From the very first time I consciously learned about the Harlem Renaissance (I talk about it more in this post), I have always been pulled towards anything about it. Fiction, nonfiction, movies, and more. So today’s post is about the Harlem Renaissance, well, about poems and poets within the Harlem Renaissance.

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Poetic Potpourri A2Z: The Harlem Renaissance: Its Poets and Poems

The Harlem Renaissance: Its Poets and Poems

What is It? A Brief Introduction

The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural movement in the 1920s and the 1930s that celebrated African American art, music, culture, and literature. Initially, it was known as the “New Negro Movement,” named after The New Negro, an anthology edited by sociologist and critic Alain Locke in 1925.

This period saw the emergence of some very wonderful poets. Their poems were uplifting, inspirational, and were an exploration of the culture of the time as well as a critique of the same.

And like with every major movement, their poems reflect the Harlem Renaissance itself in many ways; in the themes, in the language, and in the rhythms and rhymes. You can see it in their focus on the black American experience as well as on other related, relevant themes including racism, slavery, discrimination, and more. You can also see it in the story telling style of their poetry.

The Poets and Poems

Here are some of the poets (and a couple of their poems as well)

Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902 – 1981)

Gwendolyn B. Bennett (July 8, 1902 – May 30, 1981) was definitely a powerhouse of talent! Throughout her life, she attained success in different fields of work. Bennett was a poet, short-story writer, columnist, journalist, illustrator, graphic artist, editor, arts educator, teacher and administrator on the New York City Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project. While she never published her collected works, they appeared in various literary journals of the time.

Her poems include To a Dark Girland Heritage,” among others. You can read many of her poems at poets.org; and check her bibliography at wikipedia.

Photo description: Photograph of Gwendolyn Bennett taken between 1920-1929; Gwendolyn Bennett photograph collection at NYPL Digital Archives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sterling A Brown (1901 – 1989)

Sterling Allen Brown (May 1, 1901 – January 13, 1989) certainly lived up to his name; sterling meaning ‘conforming to the highest standard.’ Brown was the first Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia. He was a professor, poet, folklorist, and literary critic. While he was a full time professor at Howard University in Washington D.C., he also was a visiting professor at many other veritable institutions including Yale, NYU, and Vassar College.

Brown’s poetry was influenced by music (jazz, the blues, and work songs), and like other poets of the Harlem Renaissance, he often wrote about racism and classism. Some of his popular poems are “Ma Rainey” and “Old Lem.” You can read more of his poems here.

Photo description: Photograph of a book cover displaying Sterling A. Brown; book title The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown.

Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946)

Countee Cullen (born Countee LeRoy Porter; May 30, 1903 – January 9, 1946) was a poet, novelist, children’s writer, and playwright. He also was an editor, reviewer, and a teacher. Cullen believed that “art transcended race” and could be used to remove and reduce barriers between races.

His poetic style was influenced by Keats and  Edna St. Vincent Millay, and was more Eurocentric than other African American poets; and he did not want to be known as a poet defined by his race. Still, race was a recurring theme in his poems. Some of his poems include The Brown Girl Dead and “Heritage.” You can read many of his poems here and here. It was heartening to also read Karenge ya marenge (Gandhi’s cry for freedom in India that translates to ‘do or die’).

Photo description: Countee Cullen — in Central Park, NYC.; Photographed by Carl Van Vechten on 20 June 1941. More information on usage and this photograph is at Wikimedia Commons here.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875 – 1935) 

Alice Dunbar Nelson (July 19, 1875 – September 18, 1935) was a poet, journalist, short story writer, editor, suffragist, and political activist. She was born in New Orleans to an African-American seamstress and former slave and a white seaman. Her multiracial heritage influenced her writings and activism.

While she is best known for her prose, her poems also were popular; some of them include “The Lights at Carney’s Point” and “To Madame Curie.” You can read her poems here and here.

Photo description: Twentieth Century Negro Literature  http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/18772. More information on usage and this photograph is at Wikimedia Commons here.

Angelina Weld Grimke

Angelina Weld Grimké (February 27, 1880 – June 10, 1958) was a journalist, playwright, teacher, author, and poet, was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1880. Even though she was 75% white (with a white mother and a half-white father), she was still a “woman of color,” and race remained a major issue of her life. She was one of the first American women of color to have a play publicly performed.

Her more popular poems include “The Black Finger“, “Trees”, and “At April.”

Photo description: image of American journalist and poet en:Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958). Image source.  Its use is permitted under en:US copyright law governing public domain properties. More information on usage and this photograph is at Wikimedia Commons here.

Langston Hughes (1902–1967)

No listing of Harlem Renaissance poets would be complete without including Langston Hughes. While this list is not an exhaustive one at all, Hughes was definitely one of the first poets of this movement that I read and enjoyed. So here is Langston Hughes!

James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901– May 22, 1967) was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. One can see his pride in the African-American identity in his works, which portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks in America, as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Dreams,” “The Weary Blues” are among his most popular poems. You can read many of his poems here.

Photo description: Carl Van Vechten; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 07:07, 5 August 2010 (UTC), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938)

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was a poet, novelist, and civil rights activist. He was a leader of the NAACP, and served as the executive secretary of the organization for 10 years.

In 1900, he wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday; this song later came to be known as the “Negro National Anthem.”

You can read many of his poems here and here; and learn more about him here and here.

Photo description: Carl Van Vechten , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)

Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1880 – May 15, 1966), was a poet and a playwright. Johnson’s poems explored themes for women such as isolation, loneliness, pain, love and the role of being a woman as well as a mother, as well as issues of racism.

One of her most popular poems was “The Heart of a Woman.” You can read her poems here and here.

Photo description: Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1880 – May 14, 1966), American poet and important member of the Harlem Renaissance. Permissions: Fair Use

Other Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

  • Carrie Williams Clifford
  • Clarissa M. Scott Delaney
  •  Paul Laurence Dunbar
  • Jessie Redmon Fauset 
  • Claude McKay
  • May Miller
  • Esther Popel 
  • Jean Toomer
  • and more

h/t, References, Sources: Wikipedia, Poets.org, PoetryFoundation

Further Reading/Listening About the Harlem Renaissance

I read and loved each of these articles that provides so much more information about the Harlem Renaissance. So I wanted to share these with you and hope you benefit from them the same way I did.

Related Reads

Today’s Book

How to Love the World

Book Info

: How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope

Title: How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope
Compiler: James Crews
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Poetry Anthology
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC (March 23rd 2021)
Source: Digital review copy from NetGalley

Description (excerpted): How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope offers readers uplifting, deeply felt, and relatable poems by well-known poets from all walks of life and all parts of the US, including inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith, and others. The work of these poets captures the beauty, pleasure, and connection readers hunger for.

My Thoughts

The magic words can weave is astounding. As I read the poems in this book, each one different, yet seemingly spun with the same sweetness and strength, I fell in love with words all over again.

Granted, like with any anthology or collection of works, some stand out more than others, while others seemed misplaced or a bit off. And also note I am yet to read all the poems in this anthology – there are many here and I ended up reading a couple of them a few times. But almost every one I read left me with a myriad feelings, a and inspiration to pen words of love and hope myself. (Though I need to complete this overdue post first!)

Themes range from parenting to friendships, from growing old to growing up, from the world around us to the one within, and more. So there is something for everyone.

While I only knew very few (like a couple) of the poets included here, I always treasure the opportunities that anthologies like these provide; the opportunities to read so many varied poems and to discover poets I did not know earlier.

I loved the reflections for pauses inserted at various points in the book that provide points to ponder about the poem just before the reflective pause page as well as an invitation to write and reflect.

Foreword from James Crews; backmatter includes a Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussions section as well as brief poet bios for all the included poets.

Some of the ones I have re-read (and hence still working to finish this anthology) are Alberto Rios’ When Giving is All You Have, Marjorie Saiser’s If I Carry My Father, Garret Keizer’s My Daughter’s Singing, and Hope by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer.

In Summary

A glorious anthology of poems from a wondrous set of talented poets!

Get It Here

Amazon  || Barnes and Noble || Book Depository || BookShop || IndieBound 

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BOOK FEATURE: How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope

I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Additional Poetic ‘H’ Books/Related Reads

And Now, the End of This Post

Dear reader, as always, and always, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions, as well as recommendations. Have you read the featured books or any similar reads? And do you have a favorite poet, author, poem, or work from the Harlem Renaissance?

The AtoZ Challenges

Linking to both the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge and the BlogchatterA2Z-2021 

You can find all my A2Z Challenge Posts here.

12 thoughts on “The Harlem Renaissance: Its Poets and Poems

  1. Such powerful poetry from these men and women! I remember learning about the Harlem Renaissance in school and being quite fascinated with it.

  2. This is interesting. I am not really familiar with Harlem Renaissance but I am happy to read about the poets. So far, I am only familiar with Georgia Douglas Johnson. Thank you for sharing this. I learned something new today.

  3. What an interesting period in poetry. Being from another side of the planet, it’s my first time to hear about the Harlem Renaissance. I guess the messages would have a tinge of revolution in them.

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