W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
You've got to have some serious guts to attempt to speak for the "souls" of an entire race. Who does Du Bois think he is? If you're wondering whether the book actually lives up to the ambition of his title, though, we're here to tell you: it does. It's got some of the most amazing—and soulful—writing in all of American literature.
Marcus Garvey, "The N****'s Greatest Enemy" (1923)
Who is "the N****'s greatest enemy"? If you're thinking it's the white man, you're only partly correct. Find out the rest of Garvey's pivotal argument here.
Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)
Who says modernist writing is only by and for white people? Move over Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot; it's time to make room for Toomer's Cane. This novel/epic poem broke some serious experimental ground in the world of American literature. Especially African American literature.
Claude McKay, "Soviet Russia and the N****" (1923)
One of the clearest calls for the Harlem Renaissance to embrace communism. And while the essay is definitely not McKay's most famous work, it does give readers a sense of why communist ideals were so important to major writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Alain Locke, "Enter the New N****" (1925)
Who, exactly, is "the New N****?" We know what you're thinking: freed black men and women, right? Well, there's a whole lot more to the New N**** than that. At least according to Alain Locke. Oh, and just so you know—he was the one who coined the term "New N****." And he arguably kicked off the whole Harlem Renaissance/New N**** movement with this article. No big deal.
Alain Locke, The New N****: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (1925)
This was the anthology that made the Harlem Renaissance into an unforgettable artistic and cultural movement. Thanks, Alain Locke. Without him, we might never have heard of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay… the list goes on and on.
Countee Cullen, Color (1925)
The first book of poetry by the other major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen gets overshadowed by Langston Hughes a lot when it comes to Harlem Renaissance poetry, but Cullen's first book was pretty amazing in its own right. But don't take our word for it; take a gander for yourself.
Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (1926)
The first book of the "poet laureate" of the Harlem Renaissance. If you want to hear the voice and sound of Harlem in that era, then this might be your most important resource.
Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)
Claude McKay's known for his poetry, but this novel won a major literary award (The Harmon Award) when it was published. And it was a very popular read, too. In it, an African American ex-soldier returns to Harlem and meets another guy, an immigrant from the Caribbean. This second dude is basically working himself to the bone. The rest is for the history books; the two characters become friends, and Pan-Africanism becomes a thing. But the real central character of the book, in our opinions, is its vibrant setting: Harlem. Delicious.
Nella Larsen, Quicksand & Passing (1929)
Larsen wasn't as big as some of her contemporaries from the HR days. But now, her two stories (now usually bound together in one book) are some of the most widely read, "canonical" texts of the Harlem Renaissance. Why? For one thing, she gives us a sense of the HR period from the point-of-view of black and "mulatto" women. But perhaps even more importantly, she gives us a deep, complex understanding of the trials faced by light-skinned black Americans.
Wallace Thurman, The Blacker the Berry (1929)
In this book, a dark-skinned girl who really, really hates her skin color goes on a journey of self-acceptance that eventually lands her in Harlem. You can already see why it's a classic, right? This novel made a splash during the Harlem Renaissance, and then kind of fell off the literary radar for a while. But recently it's been getting a second life. Find out why for yourself.
James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930)
Someone in the Harlem Renaissance had to write a history of "black Manhattan," and that someone was James Weldon Johnson. This poet-cum-historian writes the definitive historical and sociological account of the African American in New York City. For that era, at least.
Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (1935)
This is the text if you want to know about all the different traditions (including voodoo) and dialects of black Southerners. Hurston took it upon herself to study and document these cultural ways in her first book, an anthropological study that reads like anything but. By which we mean: it's not your grandfather's textbook.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
If you want to read one of the most beautifully-written novels to come out of 20th-century American literature, you must read this novel. It was Hurston's last, and we don't think we can overstate how fantastic it is. The story follows Janie, a black Southern girl who grows into a woman through her often-abusive relationships with three different men. Sure, the novel isn't set in Harlem. Or in any big city. In fact, it's set in the rural South. But it's a prime example of what can come out of a movement that supports art and literature as much as the Harlem Renaissance did. Hurston has a completely unique voice, and this is one of the most heartbreaking American novels you'll ever read.
Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (1945)
What was it like to be Langston Hughes during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance? Lucky for you, you don't have to wonder. Hughes wrote this autobiography just for you. Okay, maybe not just for you. But you get the point.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
So, technically, Ellison's novel came out well after the Harlem Renaissance ended. But Invisible Man, which is set in Harlem during the HR days, is pretty much the last word on the struggle to define a new, black, masculine identity in the "free" city of New York. Plus, Ellison was supported by many of the major players of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes. You can definitely find those writers' influences all over this novel. And just for the record, it is maybe the major American novel of the 20th Century. So it might not a bad idea to pick it up at your local bookstore, eh?
Gene Andrew Jarrett, A Companion to African American Literature (2010)
This is the end-all-be-all of secondary literature on the Harlem Renaissance. And on, as the title suggests, African American literature as a whole. Okay, that second statement may be a bit of an exaggeration, but this collection of recent critical essays on the Harlem Renaissance and other African American literary movements has a lot to offer.
Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (1971, 2007)
This is an oldie-but-goodie and was up for the National Book Award back in 1972. In it, Huggins covers the history of the movement and its key figures.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "The Trope of a New N**** and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black" (1988)
You know how everyone's always going on about how wonderful the Harlem Renaissance was for black Americans? Well, you're not going to get that from Gates. His article exposes the "myth" of the "New N****" and the search for a Renaissance.