The Harlem Renaissance began because African Americans were thinking about race relations in America.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote some nonfiction before, during, and after the Renaissance that helped shape some of the political thought, such as his The Souls of Black Folk. In the early years of the century, James Weldon Johnson‘s poetry became a “national anthem” for African-Americans, and his semi-autobiographical The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, was a landmark, although it was published anonymously because of Johnson’s race; it’s telling that just 15 years later he could republish it fully claiming his identity.
Add Charles Chesnutt‘s early novels and political leadership with the NAACP, some less well-known social activists and writers, and the 1925 anthology of African-American writing edited by Alain Locke, and the Harlem Renaissance was well underway.
W.E.B. Du Bois made an impact on Black America by his dedication to fighting racism actively. According to historian David Levering Lewis, “In the course of his long, turbulent career, W. E. B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism— scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.” (W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963; via Wikipedia). Du Bois wrote more than 4,000 articles, essays, and books in his life.
More biographical information about W.E.B. Du Bois at this post at Rhapsody in Books Weblog.
The Philadelphia Negro (1899; 520 pages). The Philadelphia Negro was originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1899. One of the first works to combine the use of urban ethnography, social history, and descriptive statistics, it has become a classic work in the social science literature. Both the issues the book raises and the evolution of DuBois’s own thinking about the problems of black integration into American society sound strikingly contemporary. (via Amazon)
- “Incredible insights regarding the story of slavery, emancipation, and urban life for African Americans in early Philadelphia. First such sociological study in history. Also contains interesting biographical facts regarding W.E.B. DuBois, especially those associated with his employment with the University of Pennsylvania.” Crenee from Goodreads
- “Very quantitative, crisply objective, protective of the fragile evolving black middle class; anticipating civil rights attitudes of the 1960, but also somewhat subservient to bourgeois attitudes.” Roger Belling at Librarything
- “Not only was “The Philadelphia Negro” a groundbreaking piece of sociological research in its day (the late 19th century), the book also goes a long way to explain the historical roots of much of what we see today in Philadelphia and other cities in America. Organized simply and effectively into clear chapters, we learn how African Americans really lived in Philadelphia after emancipation; detailing family and household arrangements, employment, education, health and religion.” Fay L. Allard at Amazon
The Souls of Black Folk (written 1903; about 250 pages in Oxford Press edition). Although written before the Renaissance, this work was highly influential on the African-American consciousness. (via Amazon)
- “The writing style AWESOME, complicated, and balanced, all at the same time.” doowatt34 at LibraryThing
- “A landmark book from one of the greatest minds that this country has ever produced.” zenosbooks at LibraryThing
- “Du Bois’s book is an interesting piece of work because it manages to utilize so many different genres and styles of writing, though some are more effective than others. … It is this skill and beauty that elevates this work beyond mere rhetoric, that turns it into something more than a call to arms or a mere collection of black “sorrow songs”. For those with the patience and interest in this, you will be rewarded with a surprisingly beautiful work.” dczapka at LibraryThing
John Brown (1909; 304 pages in Modern Library Edition). Written during the height of Jim Crow laws, this is a cultural biography of abolitionist and ultimately martyr John Brown, painting the leader of the raid on Harper’s Ferry as a mythic patriot whose actions helped to precipitate the Civil War. (via Amazon)
- “Excellent autobiography of John Brown. History tends to paint him as some kind of murderous rebel, but Du Bois correctly shows he was a patriot hoping to fight a guerilla war to free America’s slaves.” Greg at Goodreads
- “My only knowledge of John Brown prior to reading several books on him in the last year was that he had been a overzealous and unrealistic idealist that led a raid on Harper’s Ferry to try to spark a slave rebellion. Reading more details about his planning and overall plan show the historical inaccuracies in the standard narrative of both John Brown and of the abolitionist movement, specifically that the there was a wide range of opinion (from the pacifist educationalism of Garrison to the militant direct action of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Brown’s insurrectionalist scheme).” Brian at Goodreads
- “Du Bois’s biography is more an eloquent mythic epitaph than a work of simple scholarship. To read it is to understand Du Bois and the demands of African-Americans for respect and social justice, projected onto the one ‘white’ man of the antebellum Land of the Slave who sincerely shared his humanity with “black” men and women. Du Bois is an eloquent writer; his final chapter, on the Legacy of John Brown, is addressed to the segregationists and colonialists of his own era, but its appeal for justice – sadly – is as pertinent now as then.” Giordano Bruno at Amazon
The Negro (1915; 280 pages). Du Bois here offers one of the earliest histories of African peoples and their cultures, from the devastation caused by European colonization to the lives of blacks in the early 20th century.
- “This book took me on a deep journey. Granted it may take most more than giving it a once over, but if you spend the time and effort to really get to know the book, and research exactly what the author is saying it is well worth the time that you took to understand it. A great read, and will challenge even the most agile mind.” InTheKnow “Knowledge is Power” on Amazon
- “Its a great read for anyone interested in this African-American intellectual giant it may change your perspective on the man you think you know, but it should make you find him even more interesting. I will warn you that the book is dated it was written in 1915 so some of his theories are proven wrong…” Jeffrey Carey at Amazon
Black Reconstruction (1935; 746 pages). A distinguished scholar introduces the pioneering work in the study of the role of black Americans during the Reconstruction by the most gifted and influential black intellectual of his time.
- “Wow. This book is monumental. It took me weeks to read it, and it was completely worth it. Du Bois provides an exhaustively detailed account of the Reconstruction years, delves into the foundations of public education, and, with solid economic/Marxist analysis, thoroughly repudiates the previously published work on the period.” Colin on Goodreads
- Du Bois was a very compelling writer, he cuts through the layers of history to reveal the soul of the persons most greatly affected by Reconstruction. He charts the troubled waters of the Civil War, and the Presidential attempts at Reconstruction which followed the Union victories in the South. He provides a candid view of Lincoln, who struggled with his own prejudices, but eventually came to accept the black man because of the pivotal role he played in the war.” James Ferguson at Amazon
- It is really an amazingly researched and has exciting language. Makes you understand the civil war and reconstruction as a labor struggle. the sad thing was that this book was almost impossible to find.” Megan at Goodreads
James Weldon Johnson was an American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist. Johnson is remembered best for his novels, poems, and collections of folklore. He was also one of the first African-American professors at New York University. Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University. (via Wikipedia)
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (written 1912 anonymously, republished 1927 with full disclosure; 208 pages in Barnes and Noble Classics edition). A biracial young man is forced to choose whether to accept his black heritage or not. Semi-autobiographical.
- “But Johnson’s novel includes a great deal more than a consideration of race issues. The book offers an outstanding picture of life in early twentieth Century America — in the South and in Johnson’s beloved New York City. The book is filled with pictures of dives and gambling dens and of the trade of cigar making in both South and North. It is filled with the love of the piano and of classical music. Most strikingly, the book has the spirit and feel of ragtime, which reached the height of its popularity during the years in which the book appeared. Johnson shows great appreciation for this product of American culture. ” Robin Friedman at Amazon
- “The style of the novel is clear and extremely readable–and very current. The end of the novel dives deep into the issue of racism, causing both black and white readers to question their long-held assumptions about who they are and who they appear to be to others.” A Customer at Amazon
- “I absolutely adored this short read and recommend it to those who are curious about how American’s identity and self perception have (or have not) changed since the 19th century. The book is very well written and is neither confusing or boring, it’s fast paced but very detailed. It’s nice hearing words of observation spoken from a removed intellectual.” Goodreads’ Anastasia
God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (written 1927; 100 pages). A volume of poetry with the musicality of spirituals (via Amazon).
- “Johnson’s poems beg to be read aloud. Whatever your own ethnic heritage or religious inclination, try giving voice to these masterworks: you’ll be amazed at the effect. If you are a lover of Christian inspirational writing, a scholar of African-American culture, or a person who appreciates great poetry, “God’s Trombones” would make a fine addition to your library.”
- Michael J. Mazza at Amazon
- “These poems are short and the book can be read quickly. But they will have a long-lived impact on the reader. This book would make an excellent introduction to poetry for young people. And Johnson has given a lasting and eloquent treatment to the art and spirit of the African-American preacher.” Robin Friedman at Amazon
- “The poems evoke those trombone-like voices of Black preachers ringing with their simple themes, imaginative colorations, and powerful deliveries contrasting the pain of mortal life with the glory and joy of the eternal one. With their plaints and affirmations, their truths and contradictions, they embody a crucial aspect of the American heritage. ” H. Geschichtemann at Amazon
Lift Every Voice and Sing (written 1899; 100 pages). A volume of poetry containing what came to be known as the African-American “National Anthem.”
Black Manhattan (written 1930; 360 pages). A history of Harlem’s development
- “Great book for an introduction to Black Manhattan, especially Harlem community life and culture, during the early 20th c.” Goodreads’ Shannon King
Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (written 1938; 450 pages).
- “I cannot recommend any book more highly. Anyone interested at all in African American life from the 1880s to the 1930s (particularly as it was lived in New York City from about 1899 to the Harlem Renaissance) should buy it. There is not a more fascinating autobiography in print anywhere! And the life of this man!” Hugh Pearson at Amazon
- “Johnson’s life focused upon his efforts to secure the rights of black people in the United States, but his life, work, and writings were universal in theme. In “Along this Way” he gives us the story of a life both active and reflective. His book is a precious work of American literature.” Robin Friedman at Amazon
- “One of the superb American autobiographies, and one of the great autobiographies of any period. After reading an example of this calibre it does not surprise me that I am rarely able to read biographies..” Daniel P. Jameson at Amazon
The Book of American Negro Poetry (edited 1922).
Charles Chesnutt was an author of essays, novels and short stories that focused on complex issues of race and identity. He was influential in starting the NAACP and was close to W.E.B. Du Bois.
Charles W. Chesnutt Stories, Novels and Essays (published by Library of America; 950 pages). A Collection of the most important works in one volume.
- “Wow! If you want a glimpse of American life for African Americans shortly after the civil war this book provides wonderful insights. Charles Chestnutt writes stories of what it was like to be free after a life of slavery…The stories are about African Americans adjustment to freedom and life in the late 19th century. The stories are beautifully written and provide a rare glimpse of this era from the African American point of view. Too bad this author is not well known.” Chester Blasczak at Amazon
- “Charles Chesnutt is a remarkable writer whose works should be taught in high school. He captures the power of slavery and its affter effects as it corrodes both whites and blacks. With a clear eye, he sees deeply the problems that still persist and linger in America as a result of the divide between black and white and how each view America.” George I. Greene at Amazon
The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales (1899; about 210 pages). Chesnutt’s first great literary success, a monumental book of short stories for African-American literature as characters speak in dialect.
- What is most interesting about these stories is both the narrative framework & the way the narrator of the stories about the black community (there are essentially two narrators) uses magic (“The Goophered Grapevine” and “Po’ Sandy” especially) to usurp the authority of the white landowner (the primary narrator, who is re-telling the stories Julius has told him). Maybe it takes an understanding of African American literary traditions– signifying, call & response, etc, to really dig in, but you can still relate without that background. … This is a text that should be taught alongside Faulkner & Flannery O’Connor– another look at the South” Kimberly Wells at Amazon
- “The book is so perfect in achieving its intention, and Chesnutt is such a genius himself, I’m surprised I never heard of him before!! … And, after getting used to the slave-Negro dialect, I grew to much enjoy reading it (most of the book is in this dialect, as the plantation owner records Julius’ stories as he told them). It is so colorful, expressive, and humorous.” J. Morton “L.O.A Reader” at Amazon
- “Five Stars …These are post-slavery tales of the south that aren’t part of the American literary canon, but really should be. It is very funny, ironic and subversive. Love the narrative structure.” Goodreads’ Gina
The House Behind the Cedars (1900; 320 pages). A novel about two African Americans who can pass for white in pre-Civil War North Carolina.
- “This is a fast read as well as an entertaining one, and while Chesnutt plays with many different styles and humors, it is not without historical merit.” Fitzgerald Fan at Amazon
- “This book was amazingly touching and poignant. For anyone with diverse parentage, it will certainly touch you deeply. Just an immensely wonderful book!” Ameena at Goodreads
- “An excellent novel by a somewhat overlooked early 20th century author. One I would definitely recommend, and one I would love to teach one day…”Amanda at Goodreads
The Marrow of Tradition (1901; 400 pages). A historical novel based on a race 1898-1901 race riot in North Carolina
- “I was blown away by this novel. This is an incredible piece of writing that has an ending that … really makes the Reader stop and think and reexamine the motivations of all of the characters in the novel. It is an intentionally ambiguous ending … that is a metaphor for race relations. As a matter of fact, the whole novel is one big metaphor for race relations in the United States in the post-Civil War before the Turn of the Century.” Bryan’s Book Blog
- “One of Chesnutt’s major achievements is in never wholly giving way to group mentalities or broad generalizations with regard to the actors in this drama. Stereotypes are as soon dismissed as acknowledged. He clearly allows for and presents differences in opinion on the level of the individual …Overall, this is an extremely rich novel and very much worth reading.” Melvin Pena at Amazon
- “Chesnutt, however, does not simply retell the story of the “race riot” but uses that event as the basis for a story about the tensions between peoples of different “races” and the disenfranchisement of African Americans at the initiation of Jim Crow Laws. This is an interesting read, and excellent for the classroom, particularly when thinking about using fiction as the basis to teach students to do research.” A Customer at Amazon
The Colonel’s Dream (1905; 320 pages). A former Confederate officers returns to his home town from the North, shocked to see the economic disparities remaining for the African Americans there.
- “It is the Colonel’s valiant efforts to lay the foundation for a progressive community that moves the action in this novel and provides the reader with a certain sense of ethos, humanity, and encouragement to see this novel to its final conclusion. ” The RAWSISTAZ reviewers at Amazon
The Quarry (1928; 320 pages). A foundling of mixed parentage experiences life in the North and racism in the South during the early part of the century.
- “THE COLONEL’S DREAM … is an excellent study of the New South. The Quarry is an excellent view of America in the early part of the 20th Century and perhaps today.”
The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt
As a philosopher, Locke’s writings were at the forefront of the momentum of the Harlem Renaissance movement. He is often called the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance” (via Wikipedia). One of his most significant contributions was the anthology he compiled in 1925, which is somewhat of a key point in the Harlem Renaissance as a whole.
The New Negro (edited 1925; about 400 pages) As an anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays published during the early years of the Renaissance, this volume greatly impacted the subsequent flowering of Harlem.
- “This anthology contains works by many of the most important contributers to the Harlem Renaissance. The best parts of the volume are the poetry selections by poets such as Hughes, Cullen, and McKay as well as the essays by Alain Locke. The works by Hurston and Toomer are also quite good. The essays by Locke (especially the New Negro) feature insight into many of the ideas and developments that took place in order to bring about this important historical and cultural movement. This book is a definite must read.” A Customer at Amazon
- “I was pleasantly surprised to find the history that this book was filled with. It was wonderfully written and I’m sorry I didn’t read it years ago.” Roz S at Amazon
These writers and philosophers made a big impact on the Renaissance, but their works are not widely read today. If you’d like to learn about a new character, here are some of them.
Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893-1956) was a political advocate for civil rights for African-Americans, often contrasted with W.E.B. Du Bois as he is more conservative in his view points. During the Harlem Renaissance, he worked as editor for numerous publications that promoted the developing talents of young African-American writers. He worked with the National Urban League, and yearned to change race relations, working for many years at Fisk University in the South. His notable works (Shadow of the Plantation [1934; 215 pages] Growing up in the Black Belt [1940; 380 pages]) were “studies of the way in which combined economic and social factors produced an oppressive racial structure,” and may have helped encourage the Brown v. Board of Education verdict.
The first husband of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the poets said to have influenced the Harlem Renaissance. Dunbar-Nelson was a poet, journalist, and political activist, the latter especially after marrying her third husband, civil rights activist Robert J. Nelson. Her first published volume was Violets and Other Tales (originally 1895; about 100 pages; Etext at NYPL) and included short stories and poetry, including including “Titée”, “A Carnival Jangle”, and “Little Miss Sophie.” Her complete works are available in 3 volumes. Her diary is also in print, as noted below.
Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. (ed. Gloria T. Hull, New York: Norton, 1984; about 480 pages).
- “You will be intrigued by Ms Dunbar and made a part of her family. Her diary is so well written that it will inspire you to change your form if you keep one. I read it like a novel. Her day to day entries really gives detailed insight into the lives of African Americans and…it highlights important historical facts with dates attached to them. I didn’t realize how valuable this was until I had to do a paper and include some of the information she had referred to. It was wonderful and very entertaining. The writer’s sense of humor was an added, welcome surprise.” E. Powers pearlyvictoria at Amazon
Arthur Schomburg (1874-1938) was a Puerto Rican-born black man, and as a historian, writer, and political activist he was a key intellectual figure during the Renaissance. He studied and archived literature, art, slave narratives, and other things key to the African-American experiences. The materials he collected became a basis for a still-existing research institute in Harlem.