Literature In The Harlem Renaissance Essays On Poverty

On February 28, 2014, Humanities Texas held a one-day teacher professional development workshop in Austin focusing on the history and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Professor Cary D. Wintz, Distinguished Professor of History at Texas Southern University, opened the workshop with the following lecture titled "The Harlem Renaissance: What Was It, and Why Does It Matter?" In his remarks, Dr. Wintz addresses the origins and nature of the movement—a task, he says, that is far more complex than it may seem.

Dr. Wintz is a specialist in the Harlem Renaissance and in African American political thought. Wintz is an author or editor of numerous books including Harlem Speaks; Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance; African American Political Thought, 1890–1930; African Americans and the Presidency: The Road to the White House; and The Harlem Renaissance in the West. He served as an editor of the Oxford University Press five-volume Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present, and the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Routledge). He is a native Houstonian and a graduate of Rice University and Kansas State University.

What was the Harlem Renaissance and when did it begin?

This seemingly simple question reveals the complexities of the movement we know varyingly as the New Negro Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, the Negro Renaissance, the Jazz Age, or the Harlem Renaissance. To answer the question it is necessary to place the movement within time and space, and then to define its nature. This task is much more complex than it might seem.

Traditionally the Harlem Renaissance was viewed primarily as a literary movement centered in Harlem and growing out of the black migration and the emergence of Harlem as the premier black metropolis in the United States. Music and theater were mentioned briefly, more as background and local color, as providing inspiration for poetry and local color for fiction. However, there was no analysis of the developments in these fields. Likewise, art was discussed mostly in terms of Aaron Douglas and his association with Langston Hughes and other young writers who produced Fire!! in 1926, but there was little or no analysis of the work of African American artists. And there was even less discussion or analysis of the work of women in the fields of art, music, and theater.

Fortunately, this narrow view has changed. The Harlem Renaissance is increasingly viewed through a broader lens that recognizes it as a national movement with connections to international developments in art and culture that places increasing emphasis on the non-literary aspects of the movement.


First, to know when the Harlem Renaissance began, we must determine its origins. Understanding the origins depends on how we perceive the nature of the Renaissance. For those who view the Renaissance as primarily a literary movement, the Civic Club Dinner of March 21, 1924, signaled its emergence. This event did not occur in Harlem, but was held almost one hundred blocks south in Manhattan at the Civic Club on Twelfth Street off Fifth Avenue. Charles S. Johnson, the young editor of Opportunity, the National Urban League's monthly magazine, conceived the event to honor writer Jessie Fauset on the occasion of the publication of her novel, There Is Confusion. Johnson planned a small dinner party with about twenty guests—a mix of white publishers, editors, and literary critics, black intellectuals, and young black writers. But, when he asked Alain Locke to preside over the event, Locke agreed only if the dinner honored African American writers in general rather than one novelist.

So the simple celebratory dinner morphed into a transformative event with over one hundred attendees. African Americans were represented by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and others of the black intelligentsia, along with Fauset and a representative group of poets and authors. White guests predominately were publishers and critics; Carl Van Doren, editor of Century magazine, spoke for this group calling upon the young writers in the audience to make their contribution to the "new literary age" emerging in America.1

The Civic Club dinner significantly accelerated the literary phase of the Harlem Renaissance. Frederick Allen, editor of Harper's, approached Countee Cullen, securing his poems for his magazine as soon as the poet finished reading them. As the dinner ended Paul Kellogg, editor of Survey Graphic, hung around talking to Cullen, Fauset, and several other young writers, then offered Charles S. Johnson a unique opportunity: an entire issue of Survey Graphic devoted to the Harlem literary movement. Under the editorship of Alain Locke the "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro" number of Survey Graphic hit the newsstands March 1, 1925.2  It was an overnight sensation. Later that year Locke published a book-length version of the "Harlem" edition, expanded and re-titled The New Negro: An Interpretation.3  In the anthology Locke laid down his vision of the aesthetic and the parameters for the emerging Harlem Renaissance; he also included a collection of poetry, fiction, graphic arts, and critical essays on art, literature, and music.

For those who viewed the Harlem Renaissance in terms of musical theater and entertainment, the birth occurred three years earlier when ShuffleAlong opened at the 63rd Street Musical Hall. ShuffleAlong was a musical play written by a pair of veteran Vaudeville acts—comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and composers/singers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Most of its cast featured unknowns, but some, like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, who had only minor roles in the production, were on their way to international fame. Eubie Blake recalled the significance of the production, when he pointed out that he and Sissle and Lyles and Miller accomplished something that the other great African American performers—Bob Cole and J. Rosamund Johnson, Bert Williams and George Walker—had tried, but failed to achieve. "We did it, that's the story," he exclaimed, "We put Negroes back on Broadway!"4

Poet Langston Hughes also saw ShuffleAlong as a seminal event in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance. It introduced him to the creative world of New York, and it helped to redefine and energize music and nightlife in Harlem. In the process, it introduced white New Yorkers to black music, theater, and entertainment and helped generated the white fascination with Harlem and the African American arts that was so much a part of the Harlem Renaissance. For the young Hughes, just arrived in the city, the long-range impact of Shuffle Along was not on his mind. In 1921, it was all about the show, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, it was "a honey of a show:"

Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. Besides, look who were in it: The now famous choir director, Hall Johnson, and the composer, William Grant Still, were a part of the orchestra. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the music and played and acted in the show. Miller and Lyles were the comics. Florence Mills skyrocketed to fame in the second act. Trixie Smith sang "He May Be Your Man But He Comes to See Me Sometimes." And Caterina Jarboro, now a European prima donna, and the internationally celebrated Josephine Baker were merely in the chorus. Everybody was in the audience—including me. People came to see it innumerable times. It was always packed.5

Shuffle Along also brought jazz to Broadway. It combined jazz music with very creatively choreographed jazz dance to transform musical theater into something new, exciting, and daring. And the show was a critical and financial success. It ran 474 performances on Broadway and spawned three touring companies. It was a hit show written, performed, and produced by blacks, and it generated a demand for more. Within three years, nine other African American shows appeared on Broadway, and white writers and composers rushed to produce their versions of black musical comedies.

Music was also a prominent feature of African American culture during the Harlem Renaissance. The term "Jazz Age" was used by many who saw African American music, especially the blues and jazz, as the defining features of the Renaissance. However, both jazz and the blues were imports to Harlem. They emerged out of the African American experience around the turn of the century in southern towns and cities, like New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. From these origins these musical forms spread across the country, north to Chicago before arriving in New York a few years before World War I.

Blues and black blues performers such as musician W. C. Handy and vocalist Ma Rainey were popular on the Vaudeville circuit in the late nineteenth century. The publication of W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" in 1912 and the first recordings a few years later brought this genre into the mainstream of American popular culture. Jazz reportedly originated among the musicians who played in the bars and brothels of the infamous Storyville district of New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz there in 1902, but it is doubtful that any one person holds that honor.

According to James Weldon Johnson, jazz reached New York in 1905 at Proctor's Twenty-Third Street Theater. Johnson described the band there as "a playing-singing-dancing orchestra, making dominant use of banjos, mandolins, guitars, saxophones, and drums in combination, and [it] was called the Memphis Students—a very good name, overlooking the fact that the performers were not students and were not from Memphis. There was also a violin, a couple of brass instruments, and a double-bass."  Seven years later, composer and band leader James Reese Europe, one of the "Memphis Students," took his Clef Club Orchestra to Carnegie Hall. During World War I, while serving as an officer for a machine-gun company in the famed 369th U.S. Infantry Division, James Europe, fellow officer Noble Sissel, and the regimental band introduced the sounds of ragtime, jazz, and the blues to European audiences.

Following the war, black music, especially the blues and jazz, became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences. Europe continued his career as a successful bandleader until his untimely death in 1919. Ma Rainey and other jazz artists and blues singers began to sign recording contracts, initially with African American record companies like Black Swan Records, but very quickly with Paramount, Columbia, and other mainstream recording outlets. In Harlem, one club opened after another, each featuring jazz orchestras or blues singers. Noble Sissle, of course, was one of the team behind the production of Shuffle Along, which opened Broadway up to Chocolate Dandies and a series of other black musical comedies, featuring these new musical styles.

The visual arts, particularly painting, prints, and sculpture, emerged somewhat later in Harlem than did music, musical theater, and literature. One of the most notable visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas, arrived in Harlem from Kansas City in 1925. Later that year his first pieces appeared in Opportunity, and ten Douglas pieces appeared as "Ten Decorative Designs" illustrating Locke's The New Negro. Early the next year W. E. B. Du Bois published Douglas's first illustrations in The Crisis. Due to his personal association with Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and other African American writers, his collaboration with them in the publication of their literary magazine Fire!! and his role designing book jackets and illustrating literary works, Douglas was the most high-profile artist clearly connected to the Harlem Renaissance in the mid- to late-1920s. And while these connections to the literary part of the Renaissance were notable, they were not typical of the experience of other African American artists of this period.

More significant in launching the art phase of the Harlem Renaissance were the exhibits of African American art in Harlem and the funding and exhibits that the Harmon Foundation provided. The early stirrings of the African American art movement in Harlem followed a 1919 exhibit on the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner at a midtown gallery in New York, and an exhibit of African American artists two years later at the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library. Even more important to the nurturing and promotion of African American art were the activities of the Harmon Foundation. Beginning in 1926 the Foundation awarded cash prizes for outstanding achievement by African Americans in eight fields, including fine arts. Additionally, from 1928 through 1933, the Harmon Foundation organized an annual exhibit of African American art.


Situating the Harlem Renaissance in space is almost as complex as defining its origins and time span. Certainly Harlem is central to the Harlem Renaissance, but it serves more as an anchor for the movement than as its sole location. In reality, the Harlem Renaissance both drew from and spread its influence across the United States, the Caribbean, and the world. Only a handful of the writers, artists, musicians, and other figures of the Harlem Renaissance were native to Harlem or New York, and only a relatively small number lived in Harlem throughout the Renaissance period. And yet, Harlem impacted the art, music, and writing of virtually all of the participants in the Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem refers to that part of Manhattan Island north of Central Park and generally east of Eighth Avenue or St. Nicholas Avenue. Originally established in the seventeenth century as a Dutch village, it evolved over time. Following its annexation by the city in 1873, urban growth commenced. The resulting Harlem real estate boom lasted about twenty years during which developers erected most of the physical structures that defined Harlem as late as the mid-twentieth century. They designed this new, urban Harlem primarily for the wealthy and the upper middle class; it contained broad avenues, a rail connection to the city on Eighth Avenue, and consisted of expensive homes and luxurious apartment buildings accompanied by commercial and retail structures, along with stately churches and synagogues, clubs, social organizations, and even the Harlem Philharmonic Orchestra.

By 1905, Harlem's boom turned into a bust. Desperate white developers began to sell or rent to African Americans, often at greatly discounted prices, while black real estate firms provided the customers. At this time, approximately sixty thousand blacks lived in New York, scattered through the five boroughs, including a small community in Harlem. The largest concentration inhabited the overcrowded and congested Tenderloin and San Juan Hill sections of the west side of Manhattan. When New York's black population swelled in the twentieth century as newcomers from the South moved north and as redevelopment destroyed existing black neighborhoods, pressure for additional and hopefully better housing pushed blacks northward up the west side of Manhattan into Harlem.

Harlem's transition, once it began, followed fairly traditional patterns. As soon as blacks started moving onto a block, property values dropped further as whites began to leave. This process was especially evident in the early 1920s. Both black and white realtors took advantage of declining property values in Harlem—the panic selling that resulted when blacks moved in. Addressing the demand for housing generated by the city's rapidly growing black population, they acquired, subdivided, and leased Harlem property to black tenants.

Year by year, the boundaries of black Harlem expanded, as blacks streamed into Harlem as quickly as they could find affordable housing. By 1910, they had become the majority group on the west side of Harlem north of 130th Street; by 1914, the population of black Harlem was estimated to be fifty thousand. By 1930 black Harlem had expanded north ten blocks to 155th Street and south to 115th Street; it spread from the Harlem River to Amsterdam Avenue, and housed approximately 164,000 blacks. The core of this community—bounded roughly by 126th Street on the south, 159th Street on the north, the Harlem River and Park Avenue on the east, and Eighth Avenue on the west—was more than 95 percent black.

By 1920, Harlem, by virtue of the sheer size of its black population, had emerged as the virtual capital of black America; its name evoked a magic that lured all classes of blacks from all sections of the country to its streets. Impoverished southern farmers and sharecroppers made their way northward, where they were joined in Harlem by black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. Although the old black social elites of Washington, DC, and Philadelphia were disdainful of Harlem's vulgar splendor, and while it housed no significant black university as did Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Nashville, Harlem still became the race's cultural center and a Mecca for its aspiring young. It housed the National Urban League, A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the black leadership of the NAACP. Marcus Garvey launched his ill-fated black nationalist movement among its masses, and Harlem became the geographical focal point of African American literature, art, music, and theater. Its night clubs, music halls, and jazz joints became the center of New York nightlife in the mid-1920s. Harlem, in short, was where the action was in black America during the decade following World War I.

Harlem and New York City also contained the infrastructure to support and sustain the arts. In the early twentieth century, New York had replaced Boston as the center of the book publishing industry. Furthermore, new publishing houses in the city, such as Alfred A. Knopf, Harper Brothers, and Harcourt Brace, were open to adding greater diversity to their book lists by including works by African American writers. By the late nineteenth century, New York City housed Tin Pan Alley, the center of the music publishing industry. In the 1920s, when recordings and broadcasting emerged, New York was again in the forefront. Broadway was the epicenter of American theater, and New York was the center of the American art world. In short, in the early twentieth century no other American city possessed the businesses and institutions to support literature and the arts that New York did.

In spite of its physical presence, size, and its literary and arts infrastructure, the nature of Harlem and its relation to the Renaissance are very complex. The word "Harlem" evoked strong and conflicting images among African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Was it the Negro metropolis, black Manhattan, the political, cultural, and spiritual center of African America, a land of plenty, a city of refuge, or a black ghetto and emerging slum? For some, the image of Harlem was more personal. King Solomon Gillis, the main character in Rudolph Fisher's "The City of Refuge," was one of these. Emerging out of the subway at 135th and Lennox Avenue, Gillis was transfixed:

Clean air, blue sky, bright sunlight. Gillis set down his tan-cardboard extension-case and wiped his black, shining brow. Then slowly, spreadingly, he grinned at what he saw: Negroes at every turn; up and down Lenox Avenue, up and down One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street; big, lanky Negroes, short, squat Negroes; black ones, brown ones, yellow ones; men standing idle on the curb, women, bundle-laden, trudging reluctantly homeward, children rattle-trapping about the sidewalks; here and there a white face drifting along, but Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere. There was assuredly no doubt of his whereabouts. This was Negro Harlem.7

Gillis then noticed the commotion in the street as trucks and autos crowded into the intersection at the command of the traffic cop—an African American traffic cop:

The Southern Negro's eyes opened wide; his mouth opened wider. . . . For there stood a handsome, brass-buttoned giant directing the heaviest traffic Gillis had ever seen; halting unnumbered tons of automobiles and trucks and wagons and pushcarts and street-cars; holding them at bay with one hand while he swept similar tons peremptorily on with the other; ruling the wide crossing with supreme self-assurance; and he, too, was a Negro!

Yet most of the vehicles that leaped or crouched at his bidding carried white passengers. One of these overdrove bounds a few feet and Gillis heard the officer's shrill whistle and gruff reproof, saw the driver's face turn red and his car draw back like a threatened pup. It was beyond belief—impossible. Black might be white, but it couldn't be that white!

"Done died an' woke up in Heaven," thought King Solomon, watching, fascinated; and after a while, as if the wonder of it were too great to believe simply by seeing, "Cullud policemans!" he said, half aloud; then repeated over and over, with greater and greater conviction, "Even got cullud policemans…"8

Gillis was one of those who sought refuge in Harlem. He fled North Carolina after shooting a white man. Now, in Harlem, the policeman was black. Not that this changed his fate. At the end of the story, one of these black policemen dragged Gillis away in handcuffs. The reality of Harlem often contradicted the myth.

For poet Langston Hughes, Harlem was also something of a refuge. Following a mostly unhappy childhood living at one time or another with his mother or father, grandmother, or neighbors, Hughes convinced his stern and foreboding father to finance his education at Columbia University. He recalled his 1921 arrival:

"I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight. Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again. I registered at the Y. When college opened, I did not want to move into the dormitory at Columbia. I really did not want to go the college at all. I didn't want to do anything but live in Harlem, get a job and work there."9

After a less than happy year at Columbia, Hughes did exactly that. He dropped out of school and moved into Harlem. Hughes, though, never lost sight that poverty, overcrowded and dilapidated housing, and racial prejudice were part of the daily experience of most Harlem residents.

For Hughes, too, the desire to just "live in Harlem" was as much myth as reality. After dropping out of Columbia and moving to Harlem he actually spent little time there. Until the late 1930s, he was much more of a visitor or transient in Harlem than a resident. While Hughes spent many weekends and vacations in Harlem during his years at Lincoln University, during the height of the Renaissance, between 1923 and 1938 he was away from the city more than he was there, more a visitor than a full-time resident.

James Weldon Johnson saw a still different Harlem. In his 1930 book, Black Manhattan, he described the black metropolis in near utopian terms as the race's great hope and its grand social experiment: "So here we have Harlem—not merely a colony or a community or a settlement . . . but a black city, located in the heart of white Manhattan, and containing more Negroes to the square mile than any other spot on earth. It strikes the uninformed observer as a phenomenon, a miracle straight out of the skies."10  When Johnson looked at Harlem he did not see an emerging slum or a ghetto, but a black neighborhood north of Central Park that was "one of the most beautiful and healthful" in the city. "It is not a fringe, it is not a slum, nor is it a 'quarter' consisting of dilapidated tenements. It is a section of new-law apartment houses and handsome dwellings, with streets as well paved, as well lighted, and as well kept as in any other part of the city."11

Without question Harlem was a rapidly growing black metropolis, but what kind of city was it becoming? Harlem historian Gilbert Osofsky argued, "the most profound change that Harlem experienced in the 1920's was its emergence as a slum. Largely within the space of a single decade Harlem was transformed from a potentially ideal community to a neighborhood with manifold social and economic problems called 'deplorable,' 'unspeakable,' 'incredible.'"12  As a result, most of Harlem's residents lived in poor housing, either in poverty or on the verge of poverty, in a neighborhood experiencing the typical results of poverty and discrimination: growing vice, crime, juvenile delinquency, and drug addiction.

In short, the day-to-day realities that most Harlemites faced differed dramatically from the image of Harlem life presented by James Weldon Johnson. Harlem was beset with contradictions. While it reflected the self-confidence, militancy, and pride of the New Negro in his or her demand for equality, and it reflected the aspirations and creative genius of the talented young people of the Harlem Renaissance along with the economic aspirations of the black migrants seeking a better life in the north, ultimately Harlem failed to resolve its problems and to fulfill these dreams.

The 1935 Harlem Race Riot put to rest the conflicting images of Harlem. On March 19, 1935, a young Puerto Rican boy was caught stealing a ten-cent pocketknife from the counter of a 135th Street five-and-dime store. Following the arrest, rumors spread that police had beaten the youth to death. A large crowd gathered, shouting "police brutality" and "racial discrimination." A window was smashed, looting began, and the riot spread throughout the night. The violence resulted in three blacks dead, two hundred stores trashed and burned, and more than two million dollars worth of destroyed property. The Puerto Rican youth whose arrest precipitated the riot had been released the previous evening when the merchant chose not to press charges. Shocked by the uprising, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia established an interracial committee headed by E. Franklin Frazier, a professor of sociology at Howard University, to investigate the riot. They concluded the obvious: the riot resulted from a general frustration with racial discrimination and poverty.

What the committee failed to report was that the riot shattered once and for all James Weldon Johnson's image of Harlem as the African American urban utopia. In spite of the presence of artists and writers, nightclubs, music, and entertainment, Harlem was a slum, a black ghetto characterized by poverty and discrimination. Burned-out storefronts might be fertile ground for political action, but not for art, literature, and culture. Harlem would see new black writers in the years to come. Musicians, poets, and artists would continue to make their home there, but it never again served as the focal point of a creative movement with the national and international impact of the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson did not personally witness the 1935 Riot. He had left the city in 1931, the year after he published Black Manhattan, to take the Spence Chair in Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville. He lived there until his death in 1938.


So, what was the Harlem Renaissance? The simple answer is that the Harlem Renaissance (or the New Negro Movement, or whatever name is preferred) was the most important event in twentieth-century African American intellectual and cultural life. While best known for its literature, it touched every aspect of African American literary and artistic creativity from the end of World War I through the Great Depression. Literature, critical writing, music, theater, musical theater, and the visual arts were transformed by this movement; it also affected politics, social development, and almost every aspect of the African American experience from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s.

But there was also something ephemeral about the Harlem Renaissance, something vague and hard to define. The Harlem Renaissance, then, was an African American literary and artistic movement anchored in Harlem, but drawing from, extending to, and influencing African American communities across the country and beyond. As we have seen, it also had no precise beginning; nor did it have a precise ending. Rather, it emerged out of the social and intellectual upheaval in the African American community that followed World War I, blossomed in the 1920s, and then faded away in the mid-to-late 1930s and early 1940s.

Likewise the Harlem Renaissance has no single defined ideological or stylistic standard that unified its participants and defined the movement. Instead, most participants in the movement resisted black or white efforts to define or narrowly categorize their art. For example, in 1926, a group of writers, spearheaded by writer Wallace Thurman and including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and artist Aaron Douglas, among others, produced their own literary magazine, Fire!! One purpose of this venture was the declaration of their intent to assume ownership of the literary Renaissance. In the process, they turned their backs on Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois and others who sought to channel black creativity into what they considered to be the proper aesthetic and political directions. Despite the efforts of Thurman and his young colleagues, Fire!! fizzled out after only one issue and the movement remained ill defined. In fact, this was its most distinguishing characteristic. There would be no common literary style or political ideology associated with the Harlem Renaissance. It was far more an identity than an ideology or a literary or artistic school. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African American experience.

If there was a statement that defined the philosophy of the new literary movement it was Langston Hughes's essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in The Nation, June 16, 1926:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesn't matter either. We will build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we will stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.13

Like Fire!!, this essay was the movement's declaration of independence, both from the stereotypes that whites held about African Americans and the expectations that they had for their literary works, and from the expectations that black leaders and black critics had for black writers, and the expectations that they placed on their work.

There was, not surprisingly, resistance to this independence, especially among those concerned with the political costs that the realistic expressions of black life could engender—feeding white prejudice by exposing the less savory elements of the black community. Du Bois responded to Hughes a few weeks later in a Chicago speech that was later published in The Crisis as "The Criteria of Negro Art" (October 1926): "Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent."

The determination of black writers to follow their own artistic vision led to the artistic diversity that was the principal characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance. This diversity is clearly evident in the poetry of the period where subject matter, style, and tone ranged from the traditional to the more inventive. Langston Hughes, for example, captured the life and language of the working class, and the rhythm and style of the blues in a number of his poems, none more so than "The Weary Blues." In contrast to Hughes's appropriation of the form of black music, especially jazz and the blues, and his use of the black vernacular, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen utilized more traditional and classical forms for their poetry. McKay used sonnets for much of his protest verse, while Cullen's poems relied both on classical literary allusions and symbols and standard poetic forms.

This diversity and experimentation also characterized music. This was evidenced in the blues of Bessie Smith and the range of jazz from the early rhythms of Jelly Roll Morton to the instrumentation of Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated orchestration of Duke Ellington. In painting, the soft colors and pastels that Aaron Douglas used to create a veiled view for the African-inspired images in his paintings and murals contrast sharply with Jacob Lawrence's use of bright colors and sharply defined images.

Within this diversity, several themes emerged which set the character of the Harlem Renaissance. No black writer, musician, or artist expressed all of these themes, but each did address one or more in his or her work. The first of these themes was the effort to recapture the African American past—its rural southern roots, urban experience, and African heritage. Interest in the African past corresponded with the rise of Pan-Africanism in African American politics, which was at the center of Marcus Garvey's ideology and also a concern of W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1920s.

It also reflected the general fascination with ancient African history that followed the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922. Poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes addressed their African heritage in their works, while artist Aaron Douglas used African motifs in his art. A number of musicians, from the classical composer William Grant Still to jazz great Louis Armstrong, introduced African inspired rhythms and themes in their compositions.

The exploration of black southern heritage was reflected in novels by Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as in Jacob Lawrence's art. Zora Neale Hurston used her experience as a folklorist as the basis for her extensive study of rural southern black life in her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Jacob Lawrence turned to African American history for much of his work including two of his multi-canvas series' of paintings, the Harriett Tubman series and the one on the Black Migration.

Harlem Renaissance writers and artists also explored life in Harlem and other urban centers. Both Hughes and McKay drew on Harlem images for their poetry, and McKay used the ghetto as the setting for his first novel, Home to Harlem. Some black writers, including McKay and Hughes, as well as Rudolph Fisher and Wallace Thurman, were accused of overemphasizing crime, sexuality, and other less-savory aspects of ghetto life in order to feed the voyeuristic desires of white readers and publishers, in imitation of white novelist Carl Van Vechten's controversial Harlem novel, Nigger Heaven.

A third major theme addressed by the literature of the Harlem Renaissance was race. Virtually every novel and play, and most of the poetry, explored race in America, especially the impact of race and racism on African Americans. In their simplest form these works protested racial injustice. Claude McKay's sonnet, "If We Must Die," was among the best of this genre. Langston Hughes also wrote protest pieces, as did almost every black writer at one time or another.

Among the visual artists, Lawrence's historical series emphasized the racial struggle that dominated African American history, while Romare Bearden's early illustrative work often focused on racial politics. The struggle against lynching in the mid-1920s stimulated anti-lynching poetry, as well as Walter White's carefully researched study of the subject, Rope and Faggot. In the early 1930s, the Scottsboro incident stimulated considerable protest writing, as well as a 1934 anthology, Negro, which addressed race in an international context. Most of the literary efforts of the Harlem Renaissance avoided overt protest or propaganda, focusing instead on the psychological and social impact of race. Among the best of these studies were Nella Larsen's two novels, Quicksand in 1928 and, a year later, Passing. Both explored characters of mixed racial heritage who struggled to define their racial identity in a world of prejudice and racism. Langston Hughes addressed similar themes in his poem "Cross," and in his 1931 play, Mulatto, as did Jessie Fauset in her 1929 novel, Plum Bun. That same year Wallace Thurman made color discrimination within the urban black community the focus of his novel, The Blacker the Berry.

Finally, the Harlem Renaissance incorporated all aspects of African American culture in its creative work. This ranged from the use of black music as an inspiration for poetry or black folklore as an inspiration for novels and short stories. Best known for this was Langston Hughes who used the rhythms and styles of jazz and the blues in much of his early poetry. James Weldon Johnson, who published two collections of black spirituals in 1927 and 1928, and Sterling Brown, who used the blues and southern work songs in many of the poems in his 1932 book of poetry, Southern Road, continued the practice that Hughes had initiated. Other writers exploited black religion as a literary source. Johnson made the black preacher and his sermons the basis for the poems in God's Trombones, while Hurston and Larsen used black religion and black preachers in their novels. Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), described the exploits of a southern black preacher, while in the last portion of Quicksand, Larsen's heroine was ensnared by religion and a southern black preacher.

Through all of these themes, Harlem Renaissance writers, musicians, and artists were determined to express the African American experience in all of its variety and complexity as realistically as possible. This commitment to realism ranged from the ghetto realism that created such controversy when writers exposed negative aspects of African American life, to beautifully crafted and detailed portraits of black life in small towns such as in Hughes's novel, Not Without Laughter, or the witty and biting depiction of Harlem's black literati in Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring.

The Harlem Renaissance appealed to and relied on a mixed audience—the African American middle class and white consumers of the arts. African American magazines such as The Crisis (the NAACP monthly journal) and Opportunity (the monthly publication of the Urban League) employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staff, published their poetry and short stories, and promoted African American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. They also printed illustrations by black artists and used black artists in the layout design of their periodicals. Also, blacks attempted to produce their own literary and artistic venues. In addition to the short-lived Fire!!, Wallace Thurman spearheaded another single-issue literary magazine, Harlem, in 1927, while poet Countee Cullen edited a "Negro Poets" issue of the avant-garde poetry magazine Palms in 1926, and brought out an anthology of African American poetry, Caroling Dusk, in 1927.

As important as these literary outlets were, they were not sufficient to support a literary movement. Consequently, the Harlem Renaissance relied heavily on white-owned enterprises for its creative works. Publishing houses, magazines, recording companies, theaters, and art galleries were primarily white-owned, and financial support through grants, prizes, and awards generally involved white money. In fact, one of the major accomplishments of the Renaissance was to push open the door to mainstream periodicals, publishing houses, and funding sources. African American music also played to mixed audiences. Harlem's cabarets attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. The famous Cotton Club carried this to a bizarre extreme by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers moved their performances downtown.

The relationship of the Harlem Renaissance to white venues and white audiences created controversy. While most African American critics strongly supported the movement, others like Benjamin Brawley and even W. E. B. Du Bois were sharply critical and accused Renaissance writers of reinforcing negative African American stereotypes. Langston Hughes's assertion that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought, accurately reflected the attitude of most writers and artists.

Slow fade to black

The end of the Harlem Renaissance is as difficult to define as its beginnings. It varies somewhat from one artistic field to another. In musical theater, the popularity of black musical reviews died out by the early 1930s, although there were occasional efforts, mostly unsuccessful, to revive the genre. However, black performers and musicians continued to work, although not so often in all black shows. Black music continued into the World War II era, although the popularity of blues singers waned somewhat, and jazz changed as the big band style became popular. Literature also changed, and a new generation of black writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison emerged with little interest in or connection with the Harlem Renaissance. In art, a number of artists who had emerged in the 1930s continued to work, but again, with no connection to a broader African American movement. Also, a number of Harlem Renaissance literary figures went silent, left Harlem, or died. Some, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, continued to write and publish into the 1940s and beyond, although there was no longer any sense that they were connected to a literary movement. And Harlem lost some of its magic following the 1935 race riot. In any case, few, if any, people were talking about a Harlem Renaissance by 1940.

The Harlem Renaissance flourished in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but its antecedents and legacy spread many years before 1920 and after 1930. It had no universally recognized name, but was known variously as the New Negro Movement, the New Negro Renaissance, and the Negro Renaissance, as well as the Harlem Renaissance. It had no clearly defined beginning or end, but emerged out of the social and intellectual upheaval in the African American community that followed World War I, blossomed in the mid- to late-1920s, and then faded away in the mid-1930s.

What was the Harlem Renaissance and why was it important?

While at its core it was primarily a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance touched all of the African American creative arts. While its participants were determined to truthfully represent the African American experience and believed in racial pride and equality, they shared no common political philosophy, social belief, artistic style, or aesthetic principle. This was a movement of individuals free of any overriding manifesto. While central to African American artistic and intellectual life, by no means did it enjoy the full support of the black or white intelligentsia; it generated as much hostility and criticism as it did support and praise. From the moment of its birth, its legitimacy was debated. Nevertheless, by at least one measure, its success was clear: the Harlem Renaissance was the first time that a considerable number of mainstream publishers and critics took African American literature seriously, and it was the first time that African American literature and the arts attracted significant attention from the nation at large.

1Carl Van Doren, "The Younger Generation of Negro Writers," Opportunity 2 (1924): 144–45. Van Doren's Civic Club Dinner address was reprinted in Opportunity.

2Survey Graphic, Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, 6 (March 1925).

3Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation (New York: Atheneum, 1969).

4See Terry Waldo, "Eubie Blake," in Harlem Speaks: A Living History of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Cary D. Wintz (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2007), 151–65.

5Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963), 223–24.

6James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 120–21.

7Rudolph Fisher, "The City of Refuge," in The New Negro, 57–8. The City of Refuge was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1925.

8Ibid. 58–9.

9Hughes, Big Sea, 81–2.

10Johnson, Black Manhattan, 3–4.

11Ibid, 146. Johnson also expresses this view of Harlem in "The Making of Harlem," Survey Graphic, 6 (March 1925), 635–39.

12Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890–1930, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 135.

13Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, The Nation. June 16, 1926, 694.

African American Protest Poetry

Trudier Harris
J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English, Emerita
University of North Carolina
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center


Given the secondary position of persons of African descent throughout their history in America, it could reasonably be argued that all efforts of creative writers from that group are forms of protest. However, for purposes of this discussion, Defining African American protest poetrysome parameters might be drawn. First—a definition. Protest, as used herein, refers to the practice within African American literature of bringing redress to the secondary status of black people, of attempting to achieve the acceptance of black people into the larger American body politic, of encouraging practitioners of democracy truly to live up to what democratic ideals on American soil mean. Protest literature consists of a variety of approaches, from the earliest literary efforts to contemporary times. These include articulating the plight of enslaved persons, challenging the larger white community to change its attitude toward those persons, and providing specific reference points for the nature of the complaints presented. In other words, the intention of protest literature was—and remains—to show inequalities among races and socio-economic groups in America and to encourage a transformation in the society that engenders such inequalities. For African Americans, Some of the questions motivating African American protest poetrythat inequality began with slavery. How, in a country that professed belief in an ideal democracy, could one group of persons enslave another? What forms of moral persuasion could be used to get them to see the error of their ways? In addition, how, in a country that professed belief in Christianity, could one group enslave persons whom Christian doctrine taught were their brothers and sisters? And the list of “hows” goes on. How could white Americans justify Jim Crow? Inequalities in education, housing, jobs, accommodation, transportation, and a host of other things? In response to these “hows,” another “how” emerged. How could writers use their imaginations and pens to bring about change in the society? Protest literature, therefore, focused on such issues and worked to rectify them. Poetry is but one of the media through which writers address such issues, as there are forms of protest fiction, drama, essays, and anything else that African Americans wrote—and write.

Since this category is so large, three arenas of protest poetry will constitute its parameters. The first will deal with protest poetry during slavery, the second with protest poetry during the period of segregation and Jim Crow, and the third with protest poetry after political obstacles to equality were presumably removed.

Protesting against slavery came easily to most African American writers who took up pens before 1865. One of the primary objectives of black Protest poetry during slavery timeswriting during slavery was to bring about the end of slavery. Since slavery existed foremost in the South, writers often directed appeals for freedom to northern whites, whom they hoped would influence their slaveholding counterparts in the South. “Northern sympathizers” as an audience became a kind of catch phrase for much of the black writing from this period. That audience was especially important given the fact that the majority of African Americans not only did not have the power to change their condition, but they were mostly illiterate. It would be well into the twentieth century before a substantially measurable black audience emerged to respond to the commentary of black writers.

Among protestor poets during slavery, scholars debate about the extent to which Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet (publishing in the 1760s and 1770s), should be included in that category. It is true that “On Being Brought from Africa to America” seems to praise whites for “freeing” Wheatley from Africa more than questioning their right to have bodily removed her in the first place (“‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land”).1 However, “On the Death of General Wooster” and “To Samson Occom” can be read to show that Wheatley was not thoroughly duped by the superficial kindnesses that covered over the fact of her enslavement. She remarks in the poem about General Wooster: “But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/ Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind—/ While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace/ And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?”2 Such sentiments make clear that Wheatley was not content with slavery. Also, she did not hesitate to depart the premises on which she was enslaved as soon as she was granted permission to do so.

More prominent in the poetic protest vein during slavery is George Moses Horton. Enslaved in Pittsboro, North Carolina, a short distance from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Horton used his trips to Chapel Hill to sell produce to forge relationships with students at the University. He offered to compose poems for them—although he could not yet write—and recited them on return Saturday outings to Chapel Hill. A professor’s wife, Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz, learned of Horton’s talent and taught him the rudiments of writing. By the time he published his second volume of poetry in 1845, he was skilled in the art. His first volume, The Hope of Liberty, which Hentz transcribed and which was published in 1829, was the first volume of poetry published by an enslaved person who could not read or write. Among the many poems devoted to nature and domestic affairs in the volume, Horton lamented his condition as an enslaved person in poems such as “The Slave’s Complaint” (“Must I dwell in Slavery’s night, / And all pleasure take its flight,/ Far beyond my feeble sight, / Forever?”)3 and “On Liberty and Slavery” (“Alas! and am I born for this,/ To wear this slavish chain?/ Deprived of all created bliss,/ Through hardship, toil, and pain!”).4 Horton also later published “On Hearing of the Intention of a Gentleman to Purchase the Poet’s Freedom,” which is more a series of reflections upon enslavement than a direct appeal, but he makes his dissatisfaction with slavery clear and his hope for relief equally so (“Some philanthropic souls as from afar,/ With pity strove to break the slavish bar;/ To whom my floods of gratitude shall roll,/ And yield with pleasure to their soft control”).5 In spite of his poetic presentation of his plight as well as his letters to potential benefactors, Horton was released from slavery only when the Union Army came through North Carolina. Even in his politest appeals, however, Horton never strayed from labeling slavery the evil he believed it to be.

Although their poems were published following slavery, both Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Paul Laurence Dunbar had much to imagine in verse about how things had been for their enslaved ancestors. In poems such as “The Slave Auction,” “The Slave Mother,” and “Bury Me in a Free Land,” Harper paints heart-grabbing pictures of the separation of families and the yearnings for freedom for which blacks longed during slavery. The concluding quatrain of “The Slave Auction” illustrates the first point: “Ye may not know how desolate/ Are bosoms rudely forced to part,/ And how a dull and heavy weight/ Will press the life-drops from the heart.”6 The first quatrain of “Bury Me in a Free Land” indicts the country for its unholy practice of enslaving human beings: “Make me a grave where’er you will, /In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill,/ Make it among earth’s humblest graves,/ But not in a land where men are slaves.”7 Harper’s retrospective indictment of slavery was perhaps designed to engender—as were other of her poems—better treatment of African Americans in the post-slavery world.

Perhaps Dunbar’s reasons for looking back were similar. He was keenly aware of the poverty of blacks after slavery; indeed, he started a night school to assist some in developing reading skills. He reasoned thus: “Some people . . . think Negroes should be maids and bootblacks, but I am determined that they shall not make menials out of all of us.”8 Depicting conditions of enslaved blacks could, again, presumably inspire readers into better treatment of blacks after slavery. Although Dunbar is criticized frequently for writing in the “plantation tradition” and portraying enslaved blacks who seem to enjoy their enslavement, he also has poems in which protest of slavery is clear.9 They include such poems as “An Ante-bellum Sermon,” in which he suggests that some Moses will come to rescue black people from slavery, and “Accountability,” in which stealing of food is justified during slavery. In these instances, Dunbar relies upon humor to cloak his criticism of the dominant society’s treatment of African Americans.10 As the most-touted African American poet of the 1890s, he had a wide audience for his sentiments.

Both Harper and Dunbar complained in their poetry about the conditions of black people after slavery. Protest poetry during the Jim Crow eraThey thereby straddle the divide between protest directed against slavery and protest during the period of segregation and Jim Crow. Harper used her “Aunt Chloe” poems to highlight the negative conditions in which many of the newly freed found themselves. In addition to issues internal to the black community, Harper depicted politicians who pressured those blacks who could vote to change their votes, or they simply bought their votes. Her two-pronged, internal and external to the community, approach to protest is echoed in many poets of the twentieth century. Contemporary with Harper, however, Dunbar also addressed issues of the late nineteenth century, including segregation in public transportation (“To Miss Mary Britton”), lynching (“The Haunted Oak”), and general restrictive conditions for black people (“Sympathy,” “We Wear the Mask”). Having graduated from high school (a feat in itself for African Americans in the 1880s), Dunbar knew from being confined to a job as an elevator operator while his white classmates went into the corporate world that opportunities for blacks needed desperate improvement. Loyalty that blacks had exhibited in war time (“The Colored Soldiers”—one of the few poems in which Dunbar addresses whites directly) needed to be reciprocated in the closing couple of decades of the nineteenth century.11

Poets of the Harlem Renaissance take up where Harper and Dunbar leave off in the second category of protest during segregation and the Jim Crow eras. Directly addressing contemporary conditions, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and a host of others (such as James Weldon Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Angelina Weld Grimke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, and Jean Toomer) comment on the social and economic conditions of a people seemingly doomed to second class citizenship by the violence that victimizes them, the socioeconomic conditions that keep them locked in poverty, and the unwavering resentment that turns hope into resignation when they leave the violent South for what they anticipate is a more receptive and tolerant North. Hughes depicts the violence that prompts black folk to move to the North (“One-Way Ticket,” “Bound No’th Blues”), the resistance they meet there (“Ballad of the Landlord”), and their resignation to inner-city living (the Madam poems, “Harlem” [“Here on the edge of hell/ Stands Harlem”]), while McKay portrays graphic images of lynching (“The Lynching”), denial of citizenship “(If We Must Die”), an unwelcoming America (“Baptism,” “Tiger,” “America,” “The White House”), and an equally unwelcoming north (“Harlem Shadows”).12

Countee Cullen joined Hughes and McKay in criticizing conditions for African Americans. One of his briefest, most effective pieces is “Incident,” in which he portrays a young black boy who has a visit to Baltimore marred when a young white boy calls him a “nigger.” The “incident” has such an impact upon the youngster that the slur is all that he remembers. In “Incident,” as well as in several other poems, Cullen, the quieter of the protest poets of the 1920s, shows that America is not fully American for blacks living on its soil. They are shut out (“The Shroud of Color”), closed in (“Saturday’s Child”), and generally denied access. God seems to fail to hear their prayers (“Pagan Prayer”), and even in heaven, Cullen asserts, whites assume that black folks will be waiting on them (“For a Lady I Know”).13

While the general assertiveness of the 1920s showcased blacks who demanded equal rights, who supported the NAACP’s campaigns against lynching, and who formed other organizations for self-help and advancement, the 1930s are officially labeled the decade of protest, probably bowing to Richard Wright’s hard-hitting critical prose of the period, especially in his collection of short stories entitled Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). The thirties were less dramatic than the 1920s or the 1960s for African American protest poetry, but some poets are worth mentioning, the most prominent of whom is Sterling A. Brown. His graphic depictions of sharecropping existence in Southern Road (1932) paint vividly the limits on human possibility as well as on the human spirit.

The 1940s brought the advent of Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker, both of whom wrote and published poetry for the remainder of the twentieth century. Brooks focused her attention on the thousands of blacks who migrated from the South to the south side of Chicago. There, they met “up South,” that is, pretty much the same conditions from which they had escaped, except perhaps the overt violence. In A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Brooks captures these denizens in all their hopes and their hopes denied. They have come to the city expecting better conditions, only to find themselves in “kitchenette building[s],” the same kind of one- or two-room “apartments” with down-the-hall baths that Lorraine Hansberry depicts in A Raisin in the Sun (1959). They try to make it in the city through hustling (“The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”), loitering (“We Real Cool”), or taking advantage of each other (“the vacant lot”), but they are ultimately consumed by and/or resigned to the forces around them (The Bean Eaters (1960). Walker also depicts black dreams conjured and lost, as her personas in For My People (1942) find themselves in ghettos with hopes lost and dreams long deferred.14Cities consume them, cities not of their own creation, whether they live on Rampart Street in New Orleans, or 47th Street in Chicago, or Lenox Avenue in New York. Indeed, perhaps their most creative intents are the compromises they make with the urban spaces—both north and south—that contain their potential just as easily as they contain their bodies. In the 1970s, Walker’s Prophets for a New Day, which contains portraits of civil rights leaders and activists named after Old Testament prophets, continued her artistic protest.15

In addition to Brooks and Walker, Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson provide glimpses of protest in their poetry of the 1940s through the 1960s. Hayden’s signature poem, “Middle Passage,” looks backward in its protest to the point of African enslavement in the New World. In a beautifully crafted poem of multiple voices, Hayden explores what the transportation of black bodies meant to the transporters as well as to those enslaved. For the captives, the Middle Passage was a “Voyage through death/ to life upon these shores,” though the quality of that life is dramatically diminished. In Harlem Gallery (1965), Tolson paints a panorama of Harlem and its elusive “Negro” inhabitants: “The Negro is a dish in the white man’s kitchen/ . . . a dish nobody knows.”16

Hayden, Tolson, Brooks, and Walker, all publishing through the 1960s, joined younger poets such as Amiri Baraka (then LeRoy Jones), Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Haki R. MadhubutiProtest poetry after Jim Crow(then Don L. Lee), and many others in their militant protestations during the Black Aesthetic and the Black Arts Movement. Perhaps protest poetry in this third period is so vehement because it is after official segregation and other presumed barriers to inequality between blacks and whites presumably ended. Baraka, who began his publishing career in the 1950s and shared poetic sentiments and acquaintances with the Beat poets, became the iconic figure of protest of the 1960s, in a variety of genres. His most militant poem, perhaps, is entitled “Black Art.” The poem captures the essence of a group of young writers who were trying to encourage the masses of black people to a renewed sense of appreciation of their own beauty even as they denigrated the society that had caused them to feel less than happy in their own skins. In “Black Art,” Baraka (then known as LeRoy Jones) declared that black people needed “poems that kill./ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/ guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/ and take their weapons leaving them dead/ with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”17 Castigated not only for its violence, but for its seeming anti-Semitism, the poem was initially withheld from anthologies. However, it now appears in almost every large anthology of African American literature. Expansive in his multi-pronged attacks on a racist, capitalist society, Baraka became the poster writer of protest of the 1960s, as a quick perusal of almost any of his verse will reveal. Strikingly, Baraka remains just as unrelenting in his criticisms of America in the twenty-first century as he was in the sixth and seventh decades of the twentieth century. His “Somebody Blew Up America,” a multi-page poetic commentary on 9/11, recognizes the infamy of the assault but also suggests that America and its capitalist practices were as much to blame as the hand of any terrorist. 18

Giovanni, Sanchez, Knight, and Madhubuti all joined Baraka in the 1960s in pointing out the inconsistencies in a presumed American belief in democracy and the obvious gaps between belief and practice. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, they joined a chorus of poetic voices condemning America. Giovanni’s “Reflections on April 4, 1968” is one of her angriest poems, one in which she asks a questions and provides multiple answers: “What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy america?/ . . . There is one answer—I can kill. There/ is one compromise—I can protect those who kill. There is/ one cop-out—I can encourage others to kill. There are no/ other ways.” In “Assassination,” Madhubuti implies that the police were complicit in King’s death. 19

What is striking about the works of the 1960s poets, however, is that their protests are often directed as much inward to the black community as In the 1960s African American poets aimed their protest at both the white and black communities.they are outward to the dominant white power structure. Consciousness-raising is crucial to Giovanni and Sanchez, as Giovanni urges the masses of black people to become truly militant by playing games that are relevant to them, such as “run-away slave” and “Mau Mau” (“Poem for Black Boys [With Special Love to James”]).20 Sanchez urges blacks to “get the white out of their lives” and to remember that, now that Native Americans are confined to reservations, the only “Indians” left are black people who are being systematically exterminated (“right on: white america”).21 In “TCB,” Sanchez urges blacks to get over the superficiality of calling whites out of their names and on to the business of helping their own communities.22 At the institutional and personal level, Knight focuses on drugs and their consequences for African Americans and their communities. Having been imprisoned for robberies committed to support his cocaine habit, Knight also provides poignant glimpses of prison life, one in which inmates are systematically reduced to automatons who respond to any and all orders (“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane”).23

The 1960s were perhaps the height of protest poetry in the sense of a traditional meaning of protest. Post-1960s poets, such as Pulitzer-Prize winners Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, are less inclined to overt protest. That, of course, is not to suggest that their poetry is devoid of complaint about American society and the conditions of black people in it. It is to say, however, that their canvases of exploration are broader than rural black America or inner city urban America. Dove deals with issues of inequality and repression in the Dominican Republic (“Parsley”) as well as in other international portraits she offers in her volume Museum (1983), while Komunyakaa examines the details of the Vietnam War from the perspective of black soldiers. He still manages, however, to show how American racism has been transplanted to Vietnam. Several of the poems in Dien Cai Dau (1988) make that clear, especially “One More Loss to Count,” “Tu Do Street,” and “The One-legged Stool.”24

There are hundreds of contemporary African American poets and thousands of poems, from spoken word artists to additional award winners such as Natasha Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007. Contemporary workThis survey barely scratches the surface of what can be considered protest poetry in African American literature. It simply highlights some of the significant poets and poems, as well as some of the subjects and patterns of protest. Serious teachers and students will want to be diligent in exploring beyond what is offered here. One place to start is with Cave Canem, a collective of young poets founded by poet and essayist Toi Derricote. Many contemporary published poets worked on their first books in workshops sponsored by Cave Canem. With their teaching and publishing records, and with individuals having passed through the workshops for more than a decade, they have had a substantial impact upon the current state of African American poetry. Another resource is the Furious Flower Poetry Center, currently housed at James Madison University. Director Joanne V. Gabbin sponsored international poetry conferences on that campus in 1994 and 2004; she has amassed a wealth of material for scholars and readers. One of her latest projects, focusing on Hurricane Katrina, gave voice to many young poets throughout the United States as they shared their compositions in a volume entitled Mourning Katrina (2009).25

Guiding Student Discussion

Begin by having your students contemplate definitions of the word “protest.” What are the contexts in which they are Have students begin by reflecting on protest in general.familiar with the word being used? Invite them to meditate on the differences between public protests, say the efforts of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan or animal rights PETA, that are directed outward for political purposes in intense emotional spaces and writings that encourage reflection in the quiet comfort of one’s home, though those writings might also have political purposes. What are the differences in objectives? What do the various groups hope to achieve? Is “protest” the best word to use for both sets of activities?

Now turn to some African American poetry to make further distinctions. Ask students to read Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” and Rita Dove’s “Parsley.” Have students identify what it is that each poet hopes to achieve in his/her poem. Earlier, I labeled Wheatley’s and Dove’s poems as protest, but they are distinctly different. Have students account for those differences. Can “Mother to Son” be considered a protest poem? If so, what makes it so? If not, what makes a designation of protest poetry inappropriate? What are the strategies that each poet uses to effect his/her objective?

Have your students imagine that they are slaveholders (yes, all of them) at the time that George Moses Horton published his poetry and his appeal for release from bondage. Students as slaveholdersSelect two of his poems on which to focus. Encourage your students to put as much of their twenty-first century sentiments aside as they can as they try to respond emotionally to the poetry. How many of them would have been touched to respond favorably to Horton? Why would that have been the case? What would have prevented them from responding sympathetically to Horton? Now, let them shift their roles and become “northern sympathizers.” How would their responses have been affected? Can those responses be identified exclusively as simply human or as part of an acquired anathema to the South and southern slaveholding?

The poems that Horton composed for students at Chapel Hill were frequently in the form of acrostics. Have your students look up examples of acrostics from Horton’s time or some other period. An exercise for them might be this: Write an acrostic focused on protesting something in contemporary society. What issues or problems do they find worthy of protest? Who would be the likely audiences for such protests?

In another exercise, ask your students to compare Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Colored Soldiers” with Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Negro Hero.” Both poems deal with war, but they have varying levels of protest in them. What accounts for the differences? What social and political factors may have influenced how Dunbar developed his poem? What different such factors may have influenced Brooks? As one of the few female poets writing about war, Brooks is unique in the annals of such creativity. She manages to showcase a history of failed democratic principles and ideals in “Negro Hero,” one that makes it particularly rich for comparison with the legacy of service that Dunbar documents in “The Colored Soldiers.”

Authors who composed protest poems in the 1960s often directed their protests as much at black people as at white people. Consider The Last Poets’ “When the Revolution Comes.” What are the protests directed toward African Americans? Given the history of black people in America, which seem most valid to you? Are the criticisms in the poem legitimate, or are they a matter of airing dirty linen in public? Ask the same question of Sonia Sanchez’s “summer words of a sistuh addict.” Is her focus something that African Americans—and other readers—would perhaps believe should best be left unsaid? Is unspoken—or spoken—censorship something that can be tolerated in the literary arena? Why or why not? Is there a difference between speaking something on an album or CD and writing it in a book? Would one have a greater impact than the other? Why? Are there situations that your students believe are worthy of protest but about which things are best left unsaid? Would these instances fit into that schema? Are there other examples that your students can come up with that would fit? Are there contemporary situations not yet written about that warrant protest but about which the general public—and writers—remain silent?

A significant part of any poetry appreciation is hearing it read or listening to it on recordings. Get copies of Amiri Baraka’s “Dope” and “Somebody Blew Up America” and have your students read them, then play them (“Dope,” “Somebody Blew Up America”) for your students. How are reactions different from seeing the words on pages and hearing them? Again, this is an issue about audience and how audiences respond to protest in whatever vein it is delivered. Baraka got into trouble with authorities in New Jersey for publishing “Somebody Blew Up America,” because some considered it un-patriotic. This is an issue that falls under censorship as well. Although America professes democratic values, it at times places limits on what one can and cannot say. What are some of those limiting times? In what ways can one criticize one’s country without being un-patriotic? Does quiet protect yield the same result as more vocal or artistically sharp protest? Why or why not?

Throughout theiryears of writing protest poetry in America, African American authors have directed their gaze upon subjects that include slavery, the Black Codes following slavery, the Convict Lease system, Jim Crow laws, lynching and other forms of violence—especially in the South, segregation, discrimination in educational and other institutions, and general unfair treatment at all levels of American society. Assign your students to research two of these areas and report on the four or five most salient features of their selected areas that have drawn most frequent criticism in poetry. Have the strategies that the poets used been mostly emotional, logical, shaming, or a combination of these? What evidence within the poems supports these conclusions? Have your students consider protest poetry from the era of Phillis Wheatley to twenty-first century spoken word artists and identify the features of the poetry, if any, that have remained constant. Are there subjects or topics other than those listed that have also remained constant?

Another exercise would be to have your students consider the structures of protest poems. What formal features do the poets seem to rely on most? Do Wheatley’s rhyming couplets carry more responsive weight than Horton’s almost sing-songy quatrains? What about Rita Dove’s detached, almost clinical presentation in “Parsley”? What causes it to be effective? Or is the narrative, first-person voice of complaint that many poets use the most compelling form of presentation for protest? In connection with this last question, read and compare Countee Cullen’s “Incident,” Nikki Giovanni’s “For Saundra,” and Audre Lorde’s “Power.” Which poem seems to carry most emotional weight? Why? What impact does diction have upon your responses to protest poems? Do poems in dialect or vernacular speech exhibit a power that those in standard English do not elicit? Provide examples for your conclusions. As a result of these readings and analyses, what overall conclusions can you draw about the form in which protest sentiments appear in poetry?

Scholars Debate

Perhaps the two most salient debates surrounding protest literature of any kind have to do with what the creators of the protest hope to achieve as well as why they have chosen particular methods to attempt their achievements. The first centers upon audience. It certainly made sense during slavery to direct pleas for help toward audiences Writing for a white audiencewho were in positions of freedom and influence, which clearly did not apply to those enslaved. Northern whites therefore became the ideal audience toward whom protest was directed, though certain treatises, such as David Walker’s Appeal (1829), were directed toward blacks with the intent of violently overthrowing the system of slavery. Mostly, those who wrote with the intention of bringing about the end of slavery did so through moral suasion. They, like Frederick Douglass in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), aimed to enumerate the atrocities of slavery in such vivid detail that those not caught in its hypnotic grip could take actions to bring about its demise. During slavery, therefore, northern whites were a logical audience for protest literature of any kind that concerned African Americans, and that included poetry.

The same might be asserted of the period immediately following slavery. The majority of African Americans were still illiterate; indeed, it would be almost 1900 before W. E. B. Du Bois introduced the idea of a “Talented Tenth” among the black population that should become educated and lead the others. When Charles W. Chesnutt, writing in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, was asked about black audiences for the novels and stories he published, he concluded that it was not worth his publisher’s time to try to determine how many black readers there were. Logically, therefore, the audience for African American creative productions remained mostly white and northern.

With the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, a new attitude toward audience emerged. Black authors begin to be The white audience becomes a problemviewed as pandering to whites in their works, more concerned about acceptance from them than perhaps focusing on the truth of their creations. Langston Hughes captured the dilemma in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” his 1925 manifesto for younger black writers:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. If black people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.26

The white audience, from some perspectives, had now become as problematic as the actual conditions of black existence in America. Why should black writers go pandering to whites, hat in hand, essentially begging for things in the same ways they did during slavery, so this argument went. Why should they not simply take their place in American society, white people be damned? As long as blacks were willing to ask for rights and privileges, so this logic went, they would always remain subservient to whites and in a secondary position within American society. They would never be equals.

That position intensified as the decades of the twentieth century progressed. Why are we always complaining to whites about our plight, many asked. Why cannot we, within our own communities, solve our own problems? Yet the 1930s and 1940s, the era of Richard Wright and Ann Petry, are considered the greatest period of protest in African American literature. In the creation of Bigger Thomas (Native Son, 1940), Wright offered a monstrous character designed to show white America all its failings as far as incorporating black citizens into the body politic was concerned. Those who complained about protest nonetheless had to admit that Wright and other protest writers had valid points. The issue was perhaps one of dignity. How could blacks grow and develop strong communities on their own if they were always bringing their lacks to white audiences for examination and redress? Why were they always dependent upon whites to rectify problems? Obviously the power structure of the United States made such supplications necessary, but they were nevertheless galling to people who would have preferred to maintain their pride instead of appearing to beg for change.

By the 1960s, the audience issue had morphed into one in which African American writers actively attacked white audiences. The white audience becomes the enemyIn agit-prop theater, for example, it was not uncommon for actors on various stages to leave the demarcation of the fictional stage and walk among audiences directly indicting or insulting white attendees. In poetry, one of the most vivid examples is Sonia Sanchez’s “TCB.” On the one hand, the poem marks the migration from supplicating approaches to white audiences actually to abusing them, while, on the other hand, it calls for change among blacks. That migration also marks the second issue in considering protest poetry, that is, the questioning of writer reliance upon protest at all.

Critics such as Stanley Crouch began castigating black writers for adherence to what he and others termed “victim studies.” Protest literature as victim studiesFrom this perspective, victim studies were identified as any form of literature in which characters are actively engaged in showcasing the lacks they believe to be societally induced or complaining about their so-called secondary positions in American society. Instead, writers should start from the assumption that they are American and thus heir to all the rights and privileges of all Americans. Such an approach would eliminate the need for literature that essentially said “I hurt racially,” “I am in racial pain,” “The racist society is responsible for my condition,” “Please change the racist society.” In the abstract, there should be no need for such assertion. However, American history has proven that the lingering effects of early ill treatment still exist—even into the twenty-first century—for those of African descent on United States soil. Still, writers such as Ralph Ellison preceded Crouch in suggesting that protest should be downplayed in African American literary creations. However, a quick perusal of Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man (1952), will show that it is not exactly protest-free. Equally, protest is not its dominant strand.

To eliminate protest from African American writing would be to deny the history from which it was forged. That history is one laced with violence and inequality, and, like writers of any other culture, African American authors have been drawn to the land and the society that shaped them. That shaping is filled with many things that are protestable, thus protest, whatever nuanced forms it may take to conform to the time period in which it is produced, will undoubtedly continue to be a part of the African American literary landscape. What W. E. B. Du Bois articulated in 1926 in “Criteria of Negro Art” remains true in the twenty-first century:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.27

A seamless combination, as Du Bois suggests, is the objective for which most African American artists strive even as they continue to wield the weapon of protest in their imaginative creations.

For an early general study of the political nature of African American literary creativity—not exclusively devoted to poetry—see Donald L. Gibson’s The Politics of Literary Expression (1981). While poetry is perhaps the most neglected genre of African American literary creativity in terms of scholarship produced on it, there are nonetheless some helpful texts. For the early poets, Jean Wagner’s Black Poets of the United States (1973) remains a standard. Eugene B. Redmond’s Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (1976) has been bolstered recently by Keith Leonard’s Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights (2006). A volume that focuses on poets of the 1960s is Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (1973). There are also volumes devoted exclusively to poets, such as George Kent’s and D. H. Melhem’s volumes on Gwendolyn Brooks, Joanne V. Gabbin’s volume on Sterling A. Brown, and Angela Salas’s Flashback Through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa (2004); Arnold Rampersad’s two volumes of biographical and critical studies of Langston Hughes and his works are particularly noteworthy. In addition, special issues of journals are available on specific poets, such as the Callaloo volume devoted to Komunyakaa (Volume 28, Number 3; Summer, 2005) and another to Rita Dove (Volume 31, Number 3; Summer, 2008). Encyclopedic reference tools such as the Dictionary of Literary Biography also have volumes devoted exclusively to African American poets and their poems.


1 Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” in Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, ed. Patricia Liggins Hill, et. al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), p. 98.

2 Wheatley, “On the Death of General Wooster,” in Call and Response, p. 103.

3 Horton, “The Slave’s Complaint,” in Call and Response, pp. 372-73.

4 Horton, “On Liberty and Slavery,” in Call and Response, p. 373.

5 Horton, “On Hearing of the Intention of a Gentleman to Purchase the Poet’s Freedom,” in Call and Response, p. 375.

6 Harper, “The Slave Auction,” in Call and Response, p. 350.

7 Harper, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” in Call and Response, p. 352.

8 See Virginia Cunningham, Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969), p. 245.

9 For a concise description of the “plantation tradition,” see Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 49.

10 Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lyrics of Lowly Life (Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer Company Publishers. 1991), pp. 26 and 6.

11 An example of Harper’s Aunt Chloe poems is in Call and Response, p. 355. All of the Dunbar poems mentioned in this paragraph are available either in Lyrics of Lowly Life or through the official Paul Laurence Dunbar Digital Collection at Wright State University.

12 All of the Hughes poems mentioned here are in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 1994). McKay’s poems are available in Call and Response, pp. 883-885 and Selected Poems of Claude McKay (New York: Harvest, 1953).

13 Cullen’s poems are available in Color (New York: Arno Press and The York Times, 1969).

14 The Brooks poems mentioned are in Selected Poems (New York: HarperPerennial, 1963); see also The Bean Eaters (New York: Harper, 1960). Margaret Walker, For My People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942).

15 Walker, Prophets for a New Day (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1970).

16 Hayden, “Middle Passage,” in Call and Response, p. 1135. Tolson, excerpt from Harlem Gallery, in Call and Response, p. 1121.

17 Baraka, “Black Art,” in Call and Response, pp. 1501-1502.

18 A quick Google search will easily locate the text of Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America.”

19 Nikki Giovanni, Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgement (New York: Morrow, 1970), p. 54. Madhubuti, “Assassination,” in Call and Response, pp. 1543-44.

20 Giovanni, “Poem for Black Boys,” in Black Feeling, p. 50.

21 Sonia Sanchez, We A BaddDDD People (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1970), pp. 25-28.

22 Sanchez, We A BaddDDD People, p. 59.

23 Knight, “Hard Rock . . . ,” in Call and Response, pp. 1485-86.

24 Rita Dove, Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1983). Poems by Komunyakaa are in Dien Cai Dau (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1988).

25 Joanne V. Gabbin, ed., Mourning Katrina: A Poetic Response to Tragedy (Buena Vista, VA: Mariner Publishing, 2009).

26 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Call and Response, p. 902.

27 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” in Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, ed. Angelyn Mitchell (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 66.

Trudier Harris is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English, Emerita at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During 1996-97, she was a resident Fellow at the National Humanities Center. She has written and edited more than a dozen books on African American literature and folklore. In 2003, her memoir, Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South, was published by Beacon Press. In 2005, she received the John Hurt Fisher Award of the South Atlantic Association of Departments of English (SAADE) for the outstanding contributions she has made to the field of English scholarship throughout her career.

Address comments or questions to Professor Harris through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

To cite this essay:
Harris, Trudier. “African American Protest Poetry.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *