In the early 20th century, millions of African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North to seek economic opportunity and escape widespread racial prejudice, segregation and violence. Many of them settled in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, which became the epicenter of a flowering of African-American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Alongside their counterparts in art, music, theater and dance, these seven writers (along with others) eloquently demolished racist stereotypes, expressing pride in their African heritage and creating a new understanding of Black life and identity in the United States. In addition, the literature of the Harlem Renaissance drew much-needed attention to the bitter legacy of slavery and racism, helping to lay the foundations for the later civil rights movement.
1. Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes moved around a lot as a child until his family settled in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote his first and most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” soon after graduating from high school. While studying at Columbia University in New York City, he embraced Harlem culture, especially the popular jazz and blues music that he later incorporated so memorably into his work beginning with his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926). As the most influential and widely celebrated voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes also wrote essays, novels, short stories and plays, all of which centered and celebrated Black life and pride in African American heritage.
2. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
After growing up in rural Alabama and Florida, Zora Neale Hurston attended Howard University and won a scholarship to Barnard College in 1925, which brought her into the heart of Harlem culture. A trained anthropologist who traveled to Haiti and Jamaica for research, Hurston gained attention in the 1930s for her collection of African American folktales, Of Mules and Men (1935) and her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, about the tumultuous life of a Black woman in the rural South. Though Hurston struggled to make a living as a writer during her lifetime, interest in her work revived after her death, when Their Eyes Were Watching God was celebrated as a literary classic and one of the greatest works of the Harlem Renaissance.
3. Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
The Kentucky-born Countee Porter was unofficially adopted at age 15 by F.A. Cullen, minister of a leading Methodist church in Harlem. While attending New York University, Countee Cullen began publishing his poems in The Crisis, the literary magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) co-founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, and elsewhere. He soon won a scholarship to Harvard, and won widespread acclaim for his debut poetry collection, Colors (1925). Unlike Hughes, who wrote in his famous essay “The Negro Artist and His Racial Mountain” that Black poets should combat the “urge within the race toward whiteness,” Cullen was unapologetically influenced in his work by Romantic poets like John Keats. After his poetic reputation waned in the 1930s, Cullen taught for years in New York City public schools.
4. Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Born in Jamaica, Claude McKay came to the United States to attend college, but left school in 1914 and settled in Harlem. After publishing “If We Must Die,” one of his best-known poems, in 1919 he traveled in Europe and lived in London, returning to the United States in 1921. McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows (1922) established him as a major voice of the Harlem Renaissance and an influence on younger writers like Hughes. After his novel Home to Harlem (1928), about a young army deserter during World War I, became the first commercially successful novel by a Black writer, McKay followed up with two more novels, Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933). A supporter of communism in the 1920s, McKay traveled to the Soviet Union and lived in France. Later in his life, he converted to Catholicism and settled in Chicago, where he worked as a teacher for Catholic organizations.
5. Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)
A 1905 graduate of Cornell University (where she was possibly the first Black female student), Jessie Redmon Fauset was working as a teacher when she began writing for The Crisis. In 1919, she moved to New York to become the magazine’s literary editor, helping to introduce writers such as Cullen, Hughes and McKay to national audiences. In addition to promoting the work of other important writers, Fauset continued to publish her own poetry and short fiction in the magazine, as well as four novels, including There is Confusion (1924) and Plum Bun (1929), which chronicled the lives and culture of the emerging Black middle class.
6. Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
Born in Washington, D.C., Jean Toomer came from a family with both white and Black heritage, and his grandfather had been the first Black governor in the United States during Reconstruction. After attending the City College of New York, Toomer wrote poetry and prose for several years, then moved to Georgia in 1921 to take a teaching job. The experience of returning to his family’s Southern roots inspired his novel Cane (1923), an experimental hybrid of fiction prose, dramatic dialogue and poetry that was hailed as an important example of literary modernism. Toomer embraced the spiritual teachings of the influential philosopher George Gurdjieff, and taught workshops in Harlem and elsewhere. While he continued to write, his later work failed to find an audience. He later adopted the Quaker religion, and lived as a recluse in the years before his death.
7. Nella Larsen (1891-1964)
The daughter of a white mother from Denmark and a Black West Indian father, Nella Larsen was raised in a mostly white environment in Chicago after her father disappeared and her mother remarried a white Danish man. She studied nursing at a school in the Bronx created to train Black nurses, and returned to work there in 1916. Alongside her husband, the prominent Black physicist Elmer Imes, Larsen joined Harlem’s flourishing intellectual and cultural circles; she later graduated from the teaching program at the New York Public Library.
In 1928, she published the autobiographical novel Quicksand, followed by Passing (1929), both of which featured mixed-race protagonists and complicated dynamics of urban life, race consciousness and sexuality. Larsen became the first Black woman to win a Guggenheim fellowship in 1930, but plagiarism accusations and a disintegrating marriage soon helped derail her literary career. She eventually stopped publishing and went back to nursing in the later decades of her life.