Once African-Americans had an audience through periodicals and the community in Harlem, poetry flowered. It’s important to note that most of the individuals we consider “poets of the Harlem Renaissance” also wrote fiction (novels and short stores) and nonfiction or anthologies. The Harlem Renaissance created all sorts of writers.
Langston Hughes is probably the first poet people think of, since he was an active writer and social activist during the Renaissance. His novels, stories, and plays are also notable. Claude McKay was already a published poet when he moved to Harlem, and he also contributed some novels to the movement. Jean Toomer‘s poetic novel Cane (1923) was also a milestone for African-American literature in the 1920s.
Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps were also noted poets, the later a great friend of Langston Hughes. Both also wrote children’s literature after the Harlem Renaissance ended. A few less well-known poets and writers also made a significant contribution.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the new literary art form, jazz poetry. (via Wikipedia, a complete bibliography may be found at answers.com)
Notable Poetry Collections
The Weary Blues (1926). A key poetry collection for the Harlem Renaissance.
Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). A key poetry collection for the Harlem Renaissance.
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (written 1932).
- “The gorgeous verse is evocative of spirituals, prayer, lullabies, the blues, and the music of life in general, African American in particular. This collection was Hughes sole effort composing verse for young readers, but it reads like all of his work, bittersweet and melodic, hopeful and elegiac.” (LibraryThing’s Eliasson
- The poems are accessible to the average person, I think, and yet they have a delicate, beautiful quality to them. Whether a touching sad moment, or a wonderful tranquil moment, each poem captures something special. I am not generally a big poetry fan, but I sure liked these poems. (LibraryThing’s mcvalleri)
Selected Poems (1959).
- “Hughes (1902-1967) is a poet of many moods and voices. His work is at times mournful, humorous, sensuous, or ironic. Many poems capture the rhythms of African-American vernacular speech. A number of narrative poems tell stories of Black life, and a number of his best poems feature female speakers. He also writes poems of social protest that deal with the anti-Black violence that has plagued the United States for so much of its history.” Michael J. Mazza at Amazon
- “Langston Hughes wrote poetry of exquisite pain and beauty throughout his life. His poetry can be sparse and rhythmic. It evinces visions of cities, the south, churches and deep muddy rivers.” booknblueslady at Amazon
- “Independent of age, of your ethnicity, and of your literary grasp, you will enjoy these poems. Simple and superb — read them out loud.” Zachary J. Manes at Amazon
Not Without Laughter (written 1930; 224 pages). Summary extract from continuinged.ku.edu: “Langston Hughes’ first novel … tells the story of Sandy Rodgers, a young boy growing up in the fictional town of Stanton, Kansas during the early part of the twentieth century.”
- This is one of my favorite books because the characters and the situations are so natural and real, you can just hear them speaking. I love Langston Hughes and I would definitely recommend this one.(Goodreads’ Laura Q.)
- “Langston Hughes’s first novel is a masterpiece.” (Goodreads’ Heidi Reed)
- “If you’re not a Langston Hughes fan-once you read this book you’ll be a fan for life.” (Edward Fulton Jr. on Amazon)
The Ways of White Folks: Stories (written 1934, 272 pages). Humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks
- “As timely today as when the book was published in 1934.” (LibraryThing’s zenosbooks
The Jesse B. Semple Story Collections. Stories featuring Jesse B. Semple (sometimes spelled Simple), a middle-aged blue-collar African-American man portrayed comically but sympathetically. Sometimes considered Hughes’s alter ego.(including, Simple Speaks His Mind (1950); Simple Takes a Wife (1953); Simple Stakes a Claim (1957);The Best of Simple (1961); Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965).
- “Simple is one of those characters you’ll never forget. A low class working African-American man of little education but with a lot of common wisdom, he attends the same bar and has discussions with the bartender (ie. the narrator) regarding social and, most important, racial issues during that period in America (the ’50s). Somewhat dated now (or that’s what we hope), the stories are still enjoyable.” (ggaramuno on Amazon)
- “Reading Simple’s tall tales, and his anecdotes as he experienced Harlem reminded me of the stories my Grandparents told of how Chicago was during the great Northern Migration.” (Tamara on Amazon)
- “Simple reminds me of one of my friends. Always bumming money for his vises and having women problems seems to be Simple’s lot in life which he bears with hilarious results. Langston Hughes is funny as his put upon friend dealing with Simple’s strange but oddly common sense philosphies about just about everything from feet to cops to women.” (Myrtle A. McDonald on Amazon)
Laughing to Keep from Crying (stories) (1952)
Tambourines to Glory (novel) (1958)
Something in Common and Other Stories, (1963).
Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. (written in 1930 with Zora Neale Hurston, first produced and published in 1991, 320 pages). A farce about a struggling song-and-dance team and what happens when a woman comes between them.
- “We are fortunate that this play was finally produced well over 50 years after it was written. Hurston and Hughes wrote an interesting play that needs a bit of fine tuning in order to be a truly great play. If they had been able to stage this production in the 1930s, the play could have really changed the ways that African-American culture is expressed through musical comedy.” (grasshopper4 at Amazon.com)
Other plays are included in a collection called Five Plays by Langston Hughes (1963).
The Big Sea: An Autobiography (written 1940, 356 pages). Hughes’s life in 1920s Harlem and Paris.
- “A readable, unpretentious, quickly paced autobiography, with great scenes from the Harlem Renaissance.” (LibraryThing’s ostrom)
I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (written 1956, 406 pages). Hughes’s life and world travel in the 1930s.
- “A fascinating and humble autobiography from one of the USA’s most important literary figures.” (LibraryThing’s eslee)
Black Misery (written 1969, 72 pages). A picture book showing scenes from an African-American childhood in a time of discrimination.
- “Though dated, this book makes some very clear points about being African-American in the U.S. It also looks at the world through a child’s eyes and sees that the world is not always perfect. It stresses that children can be cruel, teachers can say stupid things, and that parents can be snobs or snubbed. The language is very simple, and that makes this book all the more affecting.” (LibraryThing’s emithomp)
The First Book of Jazz (first published 1955, revised edition 1976, 88 pages). A simplified introduction to the history of jazz.
- “The straightforward narrative, although lacking the “poetic” imagery one might expect, is clear and joyful. This is a excellent introduction for young readers. (M. Allen Greenbaum at Amazon.com)
Claude McKay was born in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. in 1913, having already produced two volumes of poetry. Shocked by racisim in South Carolina and spurred to action by Du Bois’ work, he moved to New York and wrote novels and poetry during the Renaissance movement. (via Wikipedia)
Complete Poetry of Claude McKay. McKay’s volume, Harlem Shadows (1922), was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance.
- “The great thing about Claude McKay’s poetry is how easily it can be accessed, but, if you choose to linger on the work longer, you can find fantastic depth and nuance. The poems from Harlem Shadows best capture his strengths as a poet.” Goodreads’ Cenrique
Selected Poems (about 80 pages; 1953). Although it was published posthumously, it is a collection of McKay’s early poetry.
- “A selection of the early poetry (up to 1921) of McKay’s poetry. It shows his development from the early vernacular poetry (some of which, such as ‘The Midnight Woman to the Bobby’ , is of amazing power) to his mature voice as a black poet in a white world.” Fledgist at LibraryThing
- “These poems show McKay to be a master of meter, rhyme, and other aspects of poetry; he uses considerable variety throughout the collection. His best pieces combine a burning passion with his impressive technical prowess.” Michael J Mazza at Amazon
- “McKay’s nation language echoes through the entire collection and relates a stirring narrative of the struggle of a West Indian exile. Each poem uses language, whether the voice of an island peasant, or an American immigrant, to engage the reader in the poet’s struggle; a compelling read.” Thomas Weiler at Amazon
Home to Harlem (about 240 pages; 1928). McKay’s first novel is a visit to the colorful streets of Harlem with it’s back rooms. It tells the story of two different men living life as they can.
- “This book shows Harlem at in its truest form, exploring the boundaries of racial and class conflict in a unique multi-perspective way.” A. Howard at Amazon
- “In terms of plot and character development, this work is average- perhaps even below average. However, McKay does succeed in creating beautiful imagery through his prose; especially in terms of the physical descriptions he provides of African Americans and the city of Harlem. Besides language, another reason to consider reading this work is because of its historical role in the Harlem Renaissance. The release of this book caused a great deal of controversy- much of which centered around the manner in which McKay portrayed African Americans. If you do decide to read this book, it is a quick and easy read.” A Customer at Amazon
- “The characters are smartly drawn, and the main character is fascinating to watch — both for his spirited attitude and raging hubris.” Goodreads’ Robertisinberg
Banjo (about 335 pages; 1929). “Banjo” is a drifter in Marseilles, France, living and talking with other blacks about what it means to be black in the post-World War world.
- “[O]nce reading it, I found myself hungry for its pages every time I put it down, wanting to get through the current adventure and into the next. ” Tony Thomas at Amazon
- “Banjo is a masterpiece of lyric prose.” Goodreads’ Ruth
- “McKay’s descriptions of the port life in 1920’s are lyrical and enticing but the novel is far more than a romantic account of times long gone.” Goodreads’ Kinga
Banana Bottom (about 325 pages; 1933) A Jamaican girl is adopted by white missionaries and raised in England. When she returns home, she finds her black heritage at war with her adopted one.
- “This novel took me to another place, era and culture.” petersonvl at LibraryThing
- “Claude McKay wrote fantastic stories. Like McKay’s earlier novel Banjo, this story can successfully transport a reader to another culture in another time. I enjoyed the detailed description of life in a Carribbean village and the romantic storyline.” Goodreads’ Ruth
A Long Way from Home (about 385 pages; 1937). McKay’s autobiography, describing his odyssey from Jamaica to Harlem and around the world.
Harlem: Negro Metropolis (about 260 pages; 1940). A nonfiction volume about life in Harlem.
Because of his mixed racial decent, Jean Toomer attended both all-black and all-white schools as a child, and consider himself “American” rather than accepting either race. Although he published poetry and a poem-novel during the Harlem Renaissance, as the movement waned, Jean Toomer stopped writing. He eventually joined the Religious Society of Friends and withdrew from society. (via Wikipedia)
Cane (about 145 pages; 1923). As the first significant novel of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a mixture of sketches, poems, songs, and stories about life in the Black South.
- “This is the most glorious, complex, heartwrenchingly beautiful collection of poems and prose that I have ever encountered. Toomer was a lyrical, insightful writer. He was someone who understood and could convey pain.” A Customer at Amazon
- “Unspoken Masterpiece. … A conglomeration of images and metaphors, Cane is honestly a difficult text to read and should not be considered merely as an “easy” set of poems, prose, and stories. There are many intricate layers of meaning within the phrasing and style of writing.” claremonde99 at Amazon
- “This is perhaps one of my favorite works of literature I’ve ever read. This piece of literature uses poetry and short stories to portray the vast experiences of Afican-Americans in America. This novel (of sorts) opens your eyes and does so subtly and beautifully through various characters and the experiences they go through or fight against. Although written over fifty years ago, Toomer’s work relates well to the problems/concerns of race in America today” ttaylor at Amazon
Short Stories, including “Blood Burning Moon
The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988; about 150 pages)
- “His imagery is so amazing it’s almost visual, and he is able to make the political deeply personal and not preachy.” Diane the Teacher at Amazon
- “Jean Toomer’s poetry is sublime and unprecedented.” Goodreads’ Adrienne Stapleton
Essentials: Definitions and Aphorisms (about 130 pages; 1931). A collection of aphorisms.
- “He revives the use of aphorisms to convey timeless truths in a world which is incable of moving beyond its limited definitions of life. … Through it we capture another alternative view of dealing with reality. It is essential reading for anyone interested in metaphysics, African-American literature, Toomer and as an example of a Black writer who refused to be limited by definitions of race for his life.” Bonita L. Davis at Amazon
- “Jean Toomer is far more powerful far than what is usually granted, by narrow racialists, to this author of “Cane”. I believe Toomer is one of the the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. ” Bonvibre Prosim at Amazon
- “in this small powerful book, toomer communicated in short bursts of insight some of his evolving spiritual ideas.” Goodreads’ Author-Poet Aberjhani
Countee Cullen’s Renaissance output focused on poetry, including an edited anthology of poetry from the 1920s. He continued writing during the 1930s and 1940s until he died suddenly at a young age. In addition to the poetry and prose mentioned below, Cullen also authored a drama, St. Louis Woman, in 1946.
My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (1991; about 620 pages). An anthology of the best poetry and prose written by Countee Cullen.
- “Cullen’s poetry is among the best that i’ve ever read.” A Customer at Amazon
- “When I first read his work as a kid I was so excited and humble. What an amazing talent. Very relative for classic poetry. His work is the perfect example of historic harlem renaissance poetry.” Goodreads’ Anarda Nashai
- “move over langston with much love . . . i really enjoyed cullen’s voice . . .” Goodreads’ Donnelle McGee
On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (1947)
- “Color is an elegant but sincere volume of poetry. Although Cullen deals with race, he does through through the lyric poetry Holy Trinity: sex/love, death, and nature. Some of his poems are the kind of thing that would have been called “Song” about two hundred years earlier, about a third are witty epitaphs. … I think the poetry is dated a little, and maybe a bit too earnest. But they are still enjoyable poems and very nicely done.” Goodreads’ Madeline
- “Five Stars” Goodreads’ Elnora
Incident, Near White, Heritage, Tableau, For A Lady I Know, Yet Do I Marvel (all published 1925)
Copper Sun, From the Dark Tower (both published 1927)
The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1928)
The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929)
Any Human to Another (1934)
The Medea and Some Other Poems (1935)
One Way to Heaven (1931; about 280 pages). A novel about class differences among African-Americans.
- “Cullen, in this novel, almost falls into that trap of group-hate, but an inherent sympathy in his prose rescues him from such a dire predicament. …This is mostly a novel about class differences, not racial prejudice. ” John Story at Goodreads
- “Four Stars.” Goodreads’ David Cooper
The Lost Zoo (about 90 pages; 1940). Read-a-loud poems for children about animals that didn’t make it on to Noah’s Ark, narrated by Cullen’s cat.
- “Younger children will enjoy the rhythm and the subject matter of the poems themselves and older children will enjoy the explanation of the origins of the poems.” Kara Reuter at Amazon
- “Have you ever thought about the animals that didn’t get on the ark? Well Countee Cullen and Christopher Cat together tell the story poetically name each poor creature and tells their reason why they did not get on board. A very sweet collection.” Goodreads’ Nancy Tollson
My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942). A child’s story of a cat who goes through his nine lives rather quickly.
- “It’s touching, funny, sad. It shows children the value of family and friends, as well as the simple joy of living every day to its fullest. Read this book no matter what your age; it’s sure to touch your heart.” Cindy at Amazon
“An amusing stor[y] about an accident prone kitten who goes throug[h] eight of his nine lives rather quickly. Be warned though touching, the end is rather sad.” A Customer at Amazon
Arna Bontemps was a young man when his poetry and other writings were a contributing part of the Harlem Renaissance. Although only a few works are noted below, he kept writing after the movement came to an end, including a number of children’s books. Many of his books and anthologies are now out of print. Bontemps was great friends with Langston Hughes.
American Negro Poetry, edited by Arna Bontemps.
- “I especially liked the works included by the Harlem Renaissance poets, particularly Waring Cuney, Frank Horne and Arna Bontemps. Langston Hughes is well represented in this book as well. Any lover of poetry should read this book! Although I have to return this copy to the library, I am going to look around for a copy to purchase – this one is a keeper. ” Goodreads’ Julie
God Sends Sunday (1931; about 210 pages). An African-American jockey in the romantic 1890s sets his heart on the race track, only to find his fortunes changing.
- “This work by an important author of the Harlem Renaissance focuses on African American folk life, folklore, and folk music (Blues) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is a delightful first work of fiction by the author.” A Customer at Amazon
Black Thunder (1936; about 230 pages). A novel based on a real slave revolt.
- “This is the best book by Bontemps, a significant author from the Harlem Renaissance period. This book received the most admiration from his peers such as W.E. B. DuBois and Langston Hughes and continues to receive praise from contemporary literary scholars.” A Customer at Amazon
- ” This is such a beautiful novel. I am still stunned by the power of it. It is not to be missed. Highly recommend this one.” A Customer at Amazon
- “Five Stars. … In 1800 the American and French revolutions were quite fresh, and this revolutionary spirit was sweeping the entire western world. This book is a fictionalized retelling of an actual slave revolt that took place in Virginia.” Karenat Goodreads
Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967 (about 550 pages).
- “This is one of the most touching, endearing books I have ever been blessed to read. Think of it! For forty-two years Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes wrote letters to each other—literally thousands of letters. … We begin during the Harlem Renaissance…then the south and New York City during the Depression…from this, World War II, followed by the many events of the fifties and sixties. … Aside from a really neat chronology following the letters, the whole of the book is dedicated to the letters. There is so much here, folks. This is one, very awesome book, and I highly recommend it to anyone.” IHoldAStar at Amazon
- “Hughes and Bontemps were lifelong friends and correspondents. The letters are full of wit, warmth, common sense, and resilience.” ostrom at LibraryThing
The Book of Negro Folklore, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (1958)
100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961)
The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays, Edited, With a Memoir (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972)
Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, (1932; about 100 pages). Out of print. The story of two children in rustic Haiti of the 1930s.
- “A delightful story that feels real and true over 60 years after it was written. The writing is very descriptive and the characters have very real personalities.” Heather at Goodreads
Story of the Negro (1948; about 250 pages). A children’s book that won the Newbery Honor.
Golden Slippers: an Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers, compiled by Arna Bontemps ( 1941). Out of print. An anthology for children.
- “This is a charming poetry anthology. Although it has the flavor of another era, it is an excellent collection of Black(African American) poetry for younger (pre-k thru 3rd) children. It has examples of poetry from different sources, including traditional songs and spirituals, which may be hard to find. It has many poems from various African-American poets etc. The poems selected are excellent, and well-suited for children. It can be used as a cultural resource for many purposes.” s. farris “birhamc3″ at Amazon
- “This is a very insightful book of poetry. It tells the story of Blacks in the early days. The sad part is…..not much has changed in society in all of that time. This is a treasure and a must have in any library.” A Customer at Amazon
- “It’s just a simple little book from the early 1940s, about two hundred pages of verse illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings of Black Americans, men and women, mostly boys and girls, asleep, awake, happy, lonely, carefree, thoughtful. In my early days of teaching, it was one of the anthologies that I read from frequently, one of the few available at the time collecting poems from African Americans that would appeal to young readers. I cherished the book…” bfrank at LibraryThing
The Story of George Washington Carver (1954). A biography of Carver for young adults.
- “Bontemps radiates much of Carver’s warmth to the reader and you are left with the notion that, despite age difference and distance, they must have met.” Dennis at Holy Apostles at Amazon
Chariot in the Sky: a Story of the Jubilee Singers (1951). A novelization for children of the true story of eleven African-American students post-Civil War, sining to earn money for school.
- “Although this book is written in an easy narrative, it is an amazing story of life after the Civil War, for all parties. A must-read for all as it brings us together in our search for education and freedom. Everyone should know the courageous story of the Jubilee Singers.” Jane Vanmiddlesworth at Amazon
Angelina Weld Grimke (1880-1958) participated in the Harlem Renaissance, but later died in obscurity. Today it’s hard to find collections of her writings. Although her public output was scant, Grimke’s poetry, stories and essays were a noted part of the Renaissance. Notable poems include, “The Eyes of My Regret”, “At April”, and “Trees”. She also wrote a three-act play about lynchings, called Rachel (1920) which was a response to the racist movie Birth of a Nation.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966) wrote four volumes of poetry, as well as some plays (including Plumes, a Tragedy). Although she lived in Washington, D.C., and not in Harlem, she was good friends with the leaders of the movement and contributed to the political thought of the time.
Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was one of the first African-Americans from the South to be recognized as an American poet in anthologies (via Wikipedia). She was also an activist, and during the Renaissance years hosted many of the notable individuals.
Helene Johnson (1907-1995) wrote some notable poetry during the years of the Renaissance, despite the fact that she was rather young. One notable poem was “Bottled,” with unconvential rhythmes and notable slang (via Wikipedia). Although she stopped publishing after the 1930s, she wrote herself a poem a day for most of her life.