by Sarah Pruitt
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)
Countee Cullen (1903-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.