African American literature has a long history, tracing its roots to 18th-century writers such as Phillis Wheatley. In addition to being the first African American to publish a book (“Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral,” 1773), Wheatley was the first person of African descent to achieve an international reputation as a writer. Continuing into the present day, literature by African Americans, often the descendants of slaves, has survived through diversity.
The flowering of the genre occurred between 1920 and 1940 during the Harlem Renaissance. Writers created novels, plays, and poetry that have stood the test of time. Works by African American visual artists and musicians also flourished as part of the Renaissance.
“The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes” is the ultimate book for those interested in one of the better known writers of the Harlem Renaissance. This weighty volume includes 868 poems written over five decades and is the definitive sampling of a writer called the poet laureate of African America. Hughes’ poetry and fiction portrayed the lives of working-class blacks in America and stressed a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism. Hughes championed racial consciousness as a source of artistic inspiration.
Scholars consider “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston a seminal work in African American literature, as well as women’s literature. In the novel, Janie Crawford recounts the story of her life and journey to her best friend Pheoby. Janie’s story revolves around her three marriages to three very different men: an older farmer looking for a domestic servant, an enterprising entrepreneur who treats her as a trophy wife, and a drifter and gambler who finally gives her the love she desires. Hurston’s writings were forgotten during the post-World War II period and rediscovered during the surge of Black Studies programs at universities during the 1970s and 1980s, thanks in part to the author Alice Walker.
“My Soul’s High Song” is the collected writings of Countee Cullen, American poet, and a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The collection includes poems and essays, his only novel “One Way to Heaven,” and his translation of the Greek tragedy, “Medea.” Cullen’s first collection of poetry, “Color,” published in 1925, celebrated black beauty and decried the effects of racism. It remains a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance.
Arna Bontemps, a poet in his own right, edited “American Negro Poetry,” a popular and highly respected collection of poems by more than sixty African American poets in its revised edition. Included were Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, as well as more contemporary writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. Bontemps selected poems that reflected the spontaneity, folklore, and religious sensibilities of African Americans.
Steven Watson’s “The Harlem Renaissance” documents one of the most dynamic movements in twentieth century African American history. The author chronicles the brilliant writings of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer, among others. He also portrays the world that supported this literary and artistic renaissance.
“The Power of Pride” by Carole Marks and Diana Edkins is a visually appealing book full of photographs, letters, and drawings capturing the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance. Among the short profiles of style-makers and rule-breakers of the time are biographies of authors Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, and Dorothy West. Other entries include entertainers such as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith.
Cary Wintz has edited a living history of the Harlem Renaissance in “Harlem Speaks.” This book showcases the artists, writers, and intellectuals behind the outburst of African American culture in the decades after World War I. In a series of biographical essays, experts in the field examine the careers and contributions of individuals including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ethel Waters, and Eubie Blake. The book also includes a CD of sound recordings of many of the people profiled.
Celebrate African American History Month by sampling these and other titles available at the Manhattan Public Library.