Study Guide

Harlem Renaissance Literature Top Authors

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  • Langston Hughes

    If you haven't already figured out that the whole of the Harlem Renaissance can basically be equated with Langston Hughes, we're sorry, but you haven't been paying attention. Here, allow us to help you out: LH = HR.

    You can call him the "father," "king," or "head honcho" of the Harlem Renaissance movement, if you'd like. We don't care. The point is that he was the heart and soul of the movement.

    And not just because he was the first poet to capture the "rhythms" of that time in his work. The man was everywhere (in some cases literally). He wrote some of the most famous poems of the movement that went on to become some of the most famous poems of the American literary canon.

    He was also a novelist, a memoirist, a playwright, and general organizer of the HR. That meant he literally spoke for and defined this period in American history.

    Sure, there were other key players of the time, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Countee Cullen. But no one was as prolific, accessible and profound, all at the same time. (Yeah, we're a little in love, what can we say?)

    "Harlem (Dream Deferred)

    This poem continues to define exactly what Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance were all about in the 20s and 30s. It's probably the most famous of Hughes's poems because of the oft-quoted phrase "dream deferred."

    This little phrase encapsulates the whole idea that black Americans experience the American Dream as a delayed hope—as something to put off for better times in some distant future—because of the persistent consequences of slavery and racism in the U.S.

    You want the soul of the Harlem Renaissance and black identity during that period in a nutshell? Read "Harlem" and be amazed.

    "The N**** Speaks of Rivers"

    Okay, you might end up feeling a little sorry for yourself after reading this poem. Why? Because Hughes wrote this poem when he was eighteen years old. Yes. Eighteen.

    But that's not why this poem is so important to Hughes's repertoire. "The N**** Speaks of Rivers" shows Hughes at his youthful prime (although, arguably, the man was never off his game), when his vision of what it meant to be African American was both broad and deep.

    He was on a train to Mexico to see his dad when he wrote the piece. And it contains talk of the River Euphrates as the cradle of all—not just black—civilization. So there's some seriously deep history in the poem, too.

    Finally, we think this work demonstrates, more than any of his others, what it might mean for an African American man to feel part of a larger African culture. One that extends way back beyond the horrors of slavery, into the early times of man. Whoa. Mind = blown.

    Someone watch Netflix with us, please? We've reached our Deep Thought Quota for the day.

    Just kidding.

    "Beale Street Love"

    Did you think the Harlem Renaissance was all about showcasing the PG, bright n' shiny side of African American culture and history? Nope. That's exactly what you're not going to get with "Beale Street Love."

    This brief—only seven little lines—but powerful piece describes an abusive relationship between a black woman and a black man. If you want real, read Hughes. Dude knew how to dish it out.

    "The Weary Blues"

    If you're wondering which poem really helped Hughes take off, you're looking at it right here. This wasn't the first poem he ever wrote, but it was the first poem that won an award—it was best poem of the year in 1926, according to Opportunity, an Urban League magazine.

    The work's success gave him an in with the Harlem elite right when the Harlem Renaissance really started kicking. So, why was it so huge when it came out?

    Well, remember the moment when "Rapper's Delight" first hit the airwaves? That song brought a new style of vocals—rapping—into the national consciousness. It gave us hip hop.

    "The Weary Blues" did the same thing for a new kind of poetry. This new style was fast, loose, jazzy, bluesy, accessible. In other words, it was definitely not your high-falutin' T.S. Eliot. It was poetry for music and dance-lovers.

    "I, Too, Sing America"

    How do poets converse with each other across space and time? Boy, do we have a fun example for you. This poem puts a new spin on Walt Whitman's old work, "I Hear America Singing."

    The original piece was about how different workers represented America. Only Whitman forgot one very important kind of laborer: the black slave/servant. Hughes re-imagines that poem and American patriotism from the perspective of the black slave/servant.

    Pretty radical and pretty incredible, if you ask us.

    "Song for a Dark Girl"

    Here's another example of Hughes getting all controversial on us. In this poem, he takes a refrain from an old Dixieland song—one that's about a slave wanting to return to his plantation—and turns it on its head.

    His piece is all about a black girl who's longing for her lynched lover. Sad, yes. A pointed attack on the South and its racist ways? Most definitely.

    "Theme for English B"

    This poem is way important—and not just because it appears on practically every high school English syllabus ever. It's crucial because it's about how a black student views a school writing assignment. (See why this poem is a favorite among teachers?)

    It also gets at the issue of how a budding black writer views the problem of writing in general. Given the ongoing, heated conversations on the state of public schools in America, this poem hasn't lost its relevance. And it first appeared in 1949. That's some serious longevity, folks.

    Chew on This:

    "Harlem (Dream Deferred)"

    It may not seem like a big deal, but titling a poem after a place as famous as Harlem is kind of a huge statement. It's like saying, "Hey, I'm the one who knows what Harlem is all about. Listen to me." But Hughes lives up to the challenge; he pretty much captures the whole spirit of the Harlem Renaissance in the double-title of the poem. The body of the poem is pretty great, too.

    "Theme for English B"

    "Theme for English B" is one of those poems English teachers adore because it shows mastery in form and meter… without even trying. It's a sing-songy poem, but it packs a whole lot of meaning into its easy-to-read lines. Kind of like the occasional really good pop song.

  • W.E.B. Du Bois

    W.E.B. Du Bois is the other "father" of the Harlem Renaissance. If Langston Hughes captured the heart of the "New N****," Du Bois captured the mind. (It's okay, one movement can have two daddies.)

    Try taking a class on American literature in the 20th Century and avoiding reading Du Bois. We're betting you won't get very far in the syllabus before you see his name. Why?

    Oh, you know, he only invented the major terms that defined the philosophical spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. No big deal. Concepts like "twoness" or "double-consciousness" seem normal, even a little boring, now because we're so used to what it means to be a "hyphenated" American.

    And that's what identity politics, especially racial identity politics, are all about: embracing multiplicity. Claiming lots of different identities at once.

    But back then, Du Bois was the man because he made the concept of a double identity new by making it specific to the "New N****." In fact, he was one of the most crucial writers to imagine what the New N**** was like and what the New N**** could become.

    He was also a huge political activist. Unlike Booker T. Washington, Du Bois believed that black Americans should be educated to the highest levels. That way, he thought, black Americans could effect real change over time.

    Which he himself did, by the way. He was the founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

    Oh, and he had some serious Ivy League cred too. Not that we're into that sort of thing, but, you know, it was a pretty amazing feat back then for an African American to get into Harvard. And not just that: he was the first African-American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard.

    That's some serious intellectualism, Shmoopers. Better respect.

    The Souls of Black Folk

    You can pretty much know Du Bois just by reading his one, major work: The Souls of Black Folk. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays on African American life, centering on American politics. Why is the collection so phenomenal?

    In it, Du Bois ended up inventing the major concepts that have since defined race politics in America, especially for African-Americans, ever since. The "color-line," "double-consciousness," the "talented tenth": these terms and ideas all came from Du Bois.

    Plus, the writing is really good. We're not kidding. Don't be surprised if you swoon a little; the writing is just that beautiful.

    Black Reconstruction in America

    The Souls of Black Folk may be the more popular child in Du Bois's family of texts. But make no mistake: Black Reconstruction is pretty major in its own right. It's also huge. Like, 729 pages huge.

    But that's not a good reason to read it. (We know, we know—you're just clamoring to read 729 pages, right?) The real reason to dig into it is because it made some groundbreaking arguments. Here, Du Bois put forth an economic reason for why Reconstruction failed and Jim Crow laws came into existence.

    Hint: white and black laborers just couldn't get it together and unite against the rich, white landowners of the South, even though that would have been in both of their best interests. Bam.

    Chew on This:

    Want a little more Du Bois? There's plenty of info to go around regarding his political background and influence during the Jim Crow era.

    You might think of DuBois as the big granddaddy of the Harlem Renaissance. If he was second to anyone, it was Langston Hughes. And in fact, he was such a big influence on the writers and artists of his day that Hughes dedicated his poem "The N**** Speaks of Rivers" to DuBois. That's some serious creative props right there.

  • Zora Neale Hurston

    If Langston Hughes was the prom king of the Harlem Renaissance, you can view Zora Neale Hurston as the prom queen. For a time, the two were close friends and collaborators. They even tried to develop a play together, called Mule Bone: A Comedy of N**** Life. It didn't work out that well in the end, though.

    So why was Hurston so important to the Harlem Renaissance? Well, her writing provided a desperately needed feminine (and feminist) voice in a movement that was dominated by men. See, Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois may have defined many of the major concepts of the movement, but when they talked and wrote about the "New N****," what they really meant was the "New N**** Man."

    Who was the New N**** Woman? Hurston provided some answers to that question.

    Not that she thought she could represent black women all over Harlem, let alone the world. Actually, she was more interested in showing off her individual aesthetic, which had nothing to do with being a typical "tragic" black American—man or woman.

    This individualistic bent made Hurston quite controversial. She wasn't into rehashing the drama of being an ex-slave, and she didn't buy into the whole idea of the black American as a simple victim of white society.

    So you can imagine how she rubbed parts of Harlem (and black America as a whole) the wrong way. What with the whole New N**** and Pan-Africanism movements gaining momentum and all.

    But she was an eclectic, bold voice. And love her or hate her, she showed the rest of us how the freedom of a black-dominant place like Harlem could produce someone as unique and brilliant as she was.

    Mules and Men

    Hurston was seriously multi-talented. This book combines anthropological field research with the folklore and voodoo (or "hoodoo") traditions of the American South. So, believe us when we say: no other book is like this one. Period.

    It contains incredibly valuable documentation of Black Southern culture, but it's not totally dry and boring. No, this work adopts the actual voices of the people she interviewed. So reading it is almost like sitting around listening to a recording of black Southerners in the 1920s and 1930s. Pretty amazing stuff.

    Their Eyes Were Watching God

    This is the novel to read if you want to know what Hurston's writing is like. It's also one of the most famous novels of 20th Century American lit. And really, it's not hard to read, either. It's a simple story about a girl coming of age through her relationships with different men.

    But it's profound, too. Trust us: while this book may sound a bit like an old-timey Sex and the City, it cuts way deeper than Carrie and her Mr. Big troubles. For one, it's set in the South (Florida, if you want to know) during the early 20th century, and it's written in the way black Southerners spoke back then.

    In other words, it gives you a good sense of what life might have been like back then for a young black girl. And besides that, it packs a whopping good story.

    All in all, this book's a real winner if you ask us… or your English teacher.

    Chew on This:

    We'd like to call Hurston an early feminist. She might not have used that word herself, but in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, she did something almost unimaginable at the time: portray the plight of an African-American woman who was bound to the men in her life.

    What do you get when you mix the voice of a young Southern girl with that of a narrator who sounds like she came straight from Harvard (or maybe Barnard College)? Hurston's writing style. It's an homage to the complexity of the African-American "voice":

  • Countee Cullen

    If Langston Hughes was the cool kid at school with his own rock band, then Countee Cullen was the quiet improvisario who could play the most complex of violin solos.

    Not that Cullen wasn't cool. He was just more of classical dude than Hughes.

    But like Hughes, he was also a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. While still a grad student at Harvard (lots of Ivy Leaguers among the HR crew, you may have noticed), he wrote a lot of what would become his first book of poetry. How's that for ambition?

    Cullen even married W.E.B. Du Bois's daughter. They later divorced, but still—you can't get more with the "in" crowd than that.

    Above all, Cullen's real contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was not his sociability or his precociousness, however. It was his poetic style. He was into traditional formal structures, like the sonnet, but he was not into traditional topics.

    Some people have called him a wannabe white academic for modeling his poetry after people like John Keats. And it's true that Cullen didn't really like to use forms that referenced "blackness." He even pressed Langston Hughes to stop writing in a "black form" that was infused with jazz and the blues.

    But Cullen had his reasons behind his artistic decisions, and he could be pretty radical in his own right. He wrote a poem called "The Black Christ," after all. That doesn't sound apolitical to us.

    "Yet Do I Marvel"

    Can black writers write? Uh, well, duh. But hold your intellectual horses, Shmoopers; we're sorry to say that this was a serious question back in Countee Cullen's day.

    At that time, many people still believed that African Americans weren't supposed to be writers, artists, intellectuals… or anything else that required a brain, talent, and skill. If the popular thinking had been otherwise, we wouldn't have ended up with slavery and then Jim Crow laws.

    So, Cullen showed everyone just what a black writer could do, all while tackling an even bigger conundrum: the ways of God. Yep. Cullen was all about taking on big writerly challenges. Go ahead and marvel away. We'll allow it.

    "The Ballad of the Brown Girl"

    Cullen was a traditionalist. He wasn't even being ironic when he wrote a poem with the title, "The Ballad of the Brown Girl." Nope, this is a straight-up ballad, for which, by the way, he won a slew of awards.

    Why? Let's just say that even though the form is traditional, the content isn't. It's basically about two women—one black and one white—fighting over a white guy. What happens next?

    Spoiler alert: everyone dies. The black woman kills the white woman and then the white guy kills the black woman and then the white guy kills himself. And all for love.

    And wealth. And you know how love and wealth turn people crazy.

    Thanks, Countee Cullen, for reminding us that controversy can be hidden inside of the most straight-laced of packages.

    Chew on This:

    Want to see Cullen's mastery of form in action? Check out his major poem, "Yet Do I Marvel."

    Everyone likes to think that Langston Hughes was the Harlem Renaissance poet with the best sense of rhythm. But we think Cullen wasn't too bad, either. Check out our sound check of "Yet Do I Marvel" for more on Cullen's mad metrical skills.

  • Marcus Garvey

    Before Malcolm X, there was Marcus Garvey, the O.G. firebrand and political activist. The first Black Nationalist.

    And you know someone's important when his name becomes an "—ism." As in: Garveyism.

    What was Garveyism? Oh, just a whole philosophy and movement that aimed to unify all of Africa under an exiled government. That's all. NBD.

    But in all seriousness, Garvey was the person who defined Pan-Africanism, not just for the Harlem Renaissance, but for the whole world. Sounds ambitious, doesn't it?

    That's the kind of guy Garvey was. He might not be your go-to brosef if you're brainstorming famous Harlem Renaissance writers, but his speeches and essays drummed up a serious following.

    His political ideas also influenced the way other writers did their respective things. He didn't get along with everyone, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who thought he was way too radical. After all, Garvey did once meet with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

    But you gotta respect Garvey for not shying away from controversy. He believed in empowering black Americans, and he stuck to his proverbial guns until the day he died.

    "The N****'s Greatest Enemy"

    Garvey didn't write too many autobiographical accounts, so this essay is a rarity. That alone would make a reading worthwhile. But on top of that, this work reveals how Garvey founded the Universal N**** Improvement Association (UNIA), a major pan-Africanist organization back in the day.

    And—shocker—he also tells us who the N****'s greatest enemy is: the N**** himself. That's right. He argues that N****es hold each other back. Can you hear the vicious debates a-brewing? We sure can.

    The N**** World

    This was a weekly newspaper Garvey edited. It was also the mouthpiece of the UNIA. It published some of the major writers of the day, like Zora Neale Hurston.

    Oh, and by the way, The N**** World is still in operation today. Only now, it's a website (go figure). Talk about staying power.

    Chew on This:

    So how, exactly, did Garveyism inspire other writers' work? Take a look at Claude McKay's poem, "If We Must Die." Hint: McKay's speaker isn't about to go down without a fight.

    Now, check out how Langston Hughes does pan-Africanism differently than the more radical Garvey. There's a reason Hughes dedicated "The N**** Speaks of Rivers" to W.E.B. Du Bois, and not to Garvey.

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