Men of the Harlem Renaissance

Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay and Arna Bontemps
Collage Created by Femi Lewis/Public Domain

The Harlem Renaissance was a literary movement that began in 1917 with the publication of Jean Toomer's Cane and ended with Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.

Writers such as Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes all made significant contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. Through their poetry, essays, fiction writing, and playwriting, these men all exposed various ideas that were important to African-Americans during the Jim Crow Era

Countee Cullen

In 1925, a young poet by the name of Countee Cullen published his first collection of poetry, entitled, Color. Harlem Renaissance architect Alain Leroy Locke argued that Cullen was “a genius” and that his poetry collection "transcends all of the limiting qualifications that might be brought forward if it were merely a work of talent."

Two years earlier, Cullen proclaimed:

"If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it."

During his career, Cullen published poetry collections including Copper Sun, Harlem Wine, the Ballad of the Brown Girl and Any Human to Another.  He also served as editor of the poetry anthology Caroling Dusk,  which featured the work of other African-American poets. 

Sterling Brown

Sterling Allen Brown may have worked as an English professor but he was focused on documenting African-American life and culture present in folklore and poetry. Throughout his career, Brown published literary criticism and anthologized African-American literature.

As a poet, Brown has been characterized as having an “active, imaginative mind” and a “natural gift for dialogue, description, and narration,” Brown published two collections of poetry and published in various journals such as Opportunity. Works published during the Harlem Renaissance include Southern Road; Negro Poetry and 'The Negro in American Fiction,' Bronze booklet - no. 6. 

Claude McKay 

Writer and social activist James Weldon Johnson once said: "Claude McKay's poetry was one of the great forces in bringing about what is often called the 'Negro Literary Renaissance.” Considered one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay used themes such as African-American pride, alienation, and desire for assimilation in his works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

In 1919, McKay published “If We Must Die” in response to the Red Summer of 1919. Poems such as “America” and “Harlem Shadows” followed. McKay also published collections of poetry such as Spring in New Hampshire and Harlem Shadows; novels Home to Harlem, Banjo, Gingertown, and Banana Bottom

Langston Hughes 

Langston Hughes was one of the most prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance. His first collection of poetry Weary Blues was published in 1926. In addition to essays and poems, Hughes also was a prolific playwright. In 1931, Hughes collaborated with writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston to write Mule Bone. Four years later, Hughes wrote and produced The Mulatto. The following year, Hughes worked with composer William Grant Still to create Troubled Island. That same year, Hughes also published Little Ham and Emperor of Haiti

Arna Bontemps 

Poet Countee Cullen described fellow wordsmith Arna Bontemps as “at all times cool, calm, and intensely religious yet never "takes advantage of the numerous opportunities offered them for rhymed polemics” in the introduction of the anthology Caroling Dusk.

Although Bontemps never gained the notoriety of McKay or Cullen, he published poetry, children's literature and wrote plays throughout the Harlem Renaissance. Also, Bontemps work as an educator and librarian allowed the works of the Harlem Renaissance to be accessible to generations that would follow. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Men of the Harlem Renaissance." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). Men of the Harlem Renaissance. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Men of the Harlem Renaissance." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).