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Kari's Thoughts on Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

From 1920 until about 1930 an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City, this African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become "The New Negro," a term coined in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain LeRoy Locke.

Langston Hughes was one of the most original and versatile of twentieth-century black writers. Born in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hug[h]es, he was reared for a time by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas after his parents' divorce. Influenced by the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg, he began writing creatively while still a boy. After his graduation from high school in Cleveland he spent fifteen months in Mexico with his father; upon his return to the United States in 1921, Hughes spent a year at Columbia University. Disillusioned with formal education, in 1923 he joined the crew of the SS Malone bound for Africa, where the ship visited thirty-odd ports. Before returning to New York, Hughes lived in Paris, Venice, and Genoa. Despite the celebrated story of Hughes's being "discovered" by the white poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a hotel busboy in 1925, by that point Hughes had already established himself as a bright young star of the New Negro Renaissance. One of his most famous and innovative poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois), appeared in the Crisis of 1921; and in 1923, the New York's Amsterdam News carried his "The Weary Blues." Two years later [actually three], his first collection, also entitled The Weary Blues, was published. The most important stage in Langston Hughes's development as a writer was his discovery of New York, of Harlem, of the cultural life and literary circle of the "New Negro" writers: Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Eric Walrond and others. The black revue Shuffle Along was on Broadway, and Harlem was the center of a thriving theater and the new music--jazz. Hughes steeped himself in the language, music, and feeling of the common people of Harlem. Proud of his folk heritage, Hughes made the spirituals, blues, and jazz the bases of his poetic expression. Hughes wrote, he contended, "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America." As his friends said of him, "No one enjoyed being a Negro as much as Langston Hughes." He portrayed the humor, wit, endurance, and faith of his people with extraordinary skill. Subjected to discrimination and segregation, he remained steadfast in his devotion to human rights. His well-known defense of black writers was typical: "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark skinned selves without fear or shame . . ." [The Nation 1926] The versatility of Langston Hughes is evident in his capacity to create in every literary genre--poetry, fiction, drama, essay, and history. He was also the most prolific of black writers; more than 12 volumes of his poetry appeared in his lifetime. Hughes won several prizes, awards, and fellowships, and was in constant demand for readings and lectures throughout the world. His fiction is equally distinguished. In addition to his fine coming-of-age novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), Langston Hughes created the character of Jesse B. Simple, a lively embodiment of urban black life, whose folk wit and wisdom allowed Hughes to undermine the bourgeois pretensions of our society while pointing out the hypocritical nature of American racism. Like Whitman, Hughes enhances our love of humanity, our vision of the just society with a spiritual transcendence and ever-widening horizons of joy and hope. In its spontaneity and race pride, his poetry found a response among poets of Africa and the Caribbean, and in his own country Hughes served as both an inspiration and a mentor for the younger black writers who came of age in the 1960s. With his rich poetic voice, nurturing generosity, warm humor, and abiding love of black people, Langston Hughes was one of the dominant voices in American literature of this century and perhaps the single most influential black poet.

    James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. He was encouraged to study English literature and the European musical tradition. He attended Atlanta University with the intention that the education he received there would be used to further the interests of the black people. After graduation, he took a job as a high school principal in Jacksonville.
In 1912, Johnson published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man under a pseudonym, the story of a musician who rejects his black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. The novel explores the issue of racial identity in the twentieth century, a common theme in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance.
    He had a talent for persuading people of differing ideological agendas to work together for a common goal, and in 1920 he became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), a major contribution to the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry God's Trombones (1927) was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. It was this trip that ignited his interest in the African-American folk tradition.
James Weldon Johnson died in 1938.
photo: Carl Van Vechten

    Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in 1882 in Fredericksville, New Jersey into an affluent family. Her father, Redmon Fauset, was a minister whose family hailed from Philadelphia. Her mother, Anna, died when Jessie Fauset was a child. Fauset attended Cornell University from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1905. She began her professional life as a teacher, taking a teaching post in French and Latin in Washington DC in 1906. In 1919 she received a Master's degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania and honed her skills at the Sorbonne before coming to New York City.
    Between 1919 and 1926, at the height of that explosion of creative activity centered in New York which was known as the Harlem Renaissance, Jessie Fauset was the literary editor of the NAACP's publication the Crisis, under the direction of W.E.B. DuBois. In addition to writing regular articles for the magazine, Fauset was responsible for fostering such notable literary greats as Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. In the early 1920s, she also edited The Brownies Book, an NAACP publication geared toward African American children. Upon leaving her post at the Crisis, Fauset returned to teaching and taught French in the New York City schools for much of the rest of her life.