The Harlem Renaissance Poetry Project

An Analytical and Linguistic Examination of Poetry Written by Harlem Renaissance Poets

Home | About | Poem Collections | Analysis | Project Coding Information


Here is some biographical information about the poets featured in our project to provide context for our research with both their individual poems and the Harlem Renaissance time period.

About the Harlem Renaissance Time Period

The Harlem Renaissance refers to the growth and increasing prominence of Harlem, a black neighborhood in New York City in the early 1900s. During this time, African American writers, artists, actors, and musicians published bold and creative work, leading to an explosion of African American culture.

Harlem, located near upper Manhattan, began as a wealthy white neighborhood but somewhat quickly filled with black families as too many buildings were built with too few white families to occupy them. Combined with the large populations of African Americans migrating north to avoid extreme discrimination. This became known as the Great Migration.

The Harlem Renaissance was a beautiful time in African American history, where black literature, music, and art was free to talk about and depict themes, messages, and topics that were important to the black community rather than trying to appeal to white culture. For the first time, African Americans raised their voices and emphasized their own identity. Many scholars stress the significance of the Harlem Renaissance, crediting it with giving the first foothold to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

About the Poets

The poets have been ordered by the project team's most-to-least favorite poet. This order will be consistent over the entire website for viewer convenience.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica on September 15, 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts. In 1912, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica (Gardner), recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. That same year, he traveled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.

In 1917, he published two sonnets, “The Harlem Dancer” and “Invocation," and later used the form in writing about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States. McKay also wrote on a variety of subjects, from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love, with a use of passionate language.

During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and traveled to Russia and then to France, where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.

McKay’s viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. He died on May 22, 1948.

Langston Hughes

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he held odd jobs such as assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. He also travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D. C. Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, (Knopf, 1926) was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, (Knopf, 1930) won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in his book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951). His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

The critic Donald B. Gibson noted in the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1973) that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets . . . in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.”

In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, (Simon and Schuster, 1950);  Simple Stakes a Claim, (Rinehart, 1957); Simple Takes a Wife, (Simon and Schuster, 1953); and Simple’s Uncle Sam (Hill and Wang, 1965). He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography, The Big Sea (Knopf, 1940), and cowrote the play Mule Bone (HarperCollins, 1991) with Zora Neale Hurston.

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer on May 22, 1967, in New York City. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”

Anne Spencer

Anne Spencer was born Annie Bethel Bannister on February 6, 1882 to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales. She was born in Henry County, Virginia, as an only child. It is interesting to note that she was the first-generation born freed from slavery, as her father was born a slave in 1862. Her parents separated after they debated over how to raise a child, and so Bannister's last name changed to Scales, her mother's maiden name. They moved to Bramwell, West Virginia, a town that accepted African Americans, which was unusual for the time period. There, they stayed with the Dixie family, where her mother worked as a cook at a local inn. The Dixie Family were prominant figures in the African American community.

Although the other members of the Dixie Family received education, Anne's mother believed them to be unsuitable for her child, and so Anne had a large amount of freedom. She used this freedom to develop as a poet. It became Bannister's goal to become an intellectual and learn to read, so she spent time in the Dixie outhouse, isolating herself, thumbing through books. Still separated, Bannister's parents still kept in contact, and when her father found out she was not attending school, her father gave an ultimatum and said she must go to school, or she would need to leave with him. At eleven Bannister attended Virginia Seminary where she excelled and eventually gave the valedictory address. After graduation she returned to Bramwell, where she taught in Elkhorn and Maybeury, West Virginia. At the Virginia Seminary Bannister, now Scales, met Charles Edward Spencer, and they married in 1901. They moved to Lynchburg where they raised two daughters and a son.

Spencer wrote her first poem while in Virgnia Seminary, titled "the Skeptic," which is unfortunately now lost. However, she wrote throughout her life and eventually published her "Before the Feast at Shushan" at forty years old in the Crisis Magazine. One of her most popular poems, "White Things," was shown in the Crisis also but then later reappeared elsewhere. Much of her work stemmed from her love of gardening, shown through her poem, "Grapes, Still Life." Before her death in 1975, Spencer wrote poetry, including "1975." In 1975 she died of cancer and is buried Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynchburg.

James Weldon Johnson

Born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was encouraged by his mother to study English literature and the European musical tradition. He attended Atlanta University, with the hope that the education he received there could be used to further the interests of African Americans. After graduating, he took a job as a high school principal in Jacksonville.

In 1900, he wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday; the song was immensely popular in the black community, and became known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to work with his brother Rosamond, a composer; after attaining some success as a songwriter for Broadway, he decided in 1906 to take a job as a U.S. consul to Venezuela. While employed by the diplomatic corps, Johnson had poems published in The Century Magazine and The Independent.

In 1912, Johnson anonymously published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (French and Co.), the story of a musician who rejects his black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. The book explores the issue of racial identity in the twentieth century, a common theme for the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt Brace, 1922), a major contribution to the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry  God’s Trombones (Viking Press, 1927) was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. It was this trip that ignited his interest in the African American folk tradition.James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938.

Arna Bontemps

Arna Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of a Creole bricklayer and schoolteacher. At age three he and his family moved to Los Angeles after his father was threatened by two drunk white men. Bontemps grew up in California and was sent to the San Fernando Academy boarding school with his father’s instruction to not “go up there acting colored.” This Bontemps later noted as a formative moment, and he would resent what he saw as an effort to make him forget his heritage. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin in 1923 with an AB.

In 1924 he accepted a teaching position in Harlem, New York. He married Alberta Johnson, a former student, in 1926; they would eventually have six children. Though his original plan was to obtain his PhD in English, he accepted teaching positions to support his family. Luckily, it was while teaching in Harlem that he would become closely connected to the Harlem Renaissance and befriend major artists such as Countee Cullen, W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and especially Langston Hughes, with whom he frequently collaborated.

Bontemps first published his poems in Crisis in 1924, and also later in Opportunity, both literary magazines that supported the work of young African American writers. In 1926 and 1927 Bontemps win three prizes for his poetry from these publications. His first book of fiction was God Sends Sunday (1931), the story of a fast-living black jockey named Little Augie. The book received mixed reviews: praise for its significance as a book by a black author but also criticism for its emphasis on the seamier side of black life.

That same year Bontemps moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he had accepted a position at Oakwood Junior College. In 1932 he received another prize for the short story “A Summer Tragedy” and published his first two children’s book, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, with Langston Hughes, and You Can’t Pet a Possumin 1934. He began work on Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800, the story of an aborted slave rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser. The novel, published in 1936, was finished in his father’s California house. At the end of the 1934 school year Oakwood dismissed Bontemps, a reaction to the combination of his radical politics, out-of-state visitors, his personal book collection, and the school’s own conservative and religious views.

In 1943 Bontemps received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. He was appointed a librarian at Fisk University, a position he held until his retirement in 1965, followed by honorary degrees and professorships at the University of Illinois and Yale University, and a return to Fisk as a writer in residence.

He died June 4, 1973, from a heart attack, while working on his autobiography. Though Sterling A. Brown and Aaron Douglas noted that his writings have not received the critical attention deserved, his work as a librarian and historian point to him as a great chronicler and a preserver of the documents of black cultural heritage. His family’s old Louisiana home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.

Effie Lee Newsome

Effie Lee Newsome was born Mary Effie Lee on January 19, 1885 in Philadelphia. She was one of five chilren. Her father Benjamin moved the family from Texas to Ohio. Her father, Benjamin Franklin, was a church bishop and also the president of Wilberforce University. She received an education at Pennsylvania University, Wilberforce University, Oberlin College, and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

Newsome is best known for her children's literature, but she also wrote poetry for adults, including "The Poetry of Negroes." In 1917, as an editor for Crisis Magazine, Newsome worked with W.E.B. White and contributed to a column called The Little Page, where she wrote to children about nature and the experiences of being both young and black in a time of deep oppression. She sought to teach young children that instead of using their oppression to fuel hate, they should appreciate their race and be proud of who they are, all while appreciating the world around them. She taught children to channel their anger into love and compassion. She wrote for this column until 1934.

In addition, Newsome illustrated children's pictures for Opportunity and was a librarian at an elementary school in Wilberforce, Ohio. Gladiola Gardens was her only volume of poetry, which was illustrated by the African American painter Lois Mailou Jones. In 1920, Newsome married Reverend Henry Nesby Newsome and then became Effie Lee Newsome. They moved together to Birmingham, Alabama, then later moved to Wilberforce, Ohio, where she was the elementary school librarian. She died in 1979.

Esther Popel Shaw

Esther Popel was born on July 16, 1896 to Joseph Gibbs, a mailman, and Helen King Anderson Popel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She had a younger brother, Samuel, and an older sister, Helen. In 1915 Popel graduated from Central High School in Harrisburg, and then she went to Dickinson College. Popel was the first African American to enroll at Dickinson and also the first to graduate. She graduated from Dickinson in 1919. Popel fulfilled the Latin Scientific Curriculum, which included languages such as French, German, and Spanish. At her college she received the John Patton Memorial Prize for academics, and as a result, she became a member Phi Beta Kappa. Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest honors society for liberal arts and sciences in the United States.

During her senior year of high school, Popel published her first book of poetry, Thoughtless Thinks by Thinkless Thaughter. Her other book was published forty years later, titled A Forest Pool, an anthology of political and lyrical poems. In 1934 she dedicated her next book, titled A Forest Pool, to her mother, who passed away. These were her only two published books, but she also published poetry in magazines at the time. In addition, Popel was a part of Georgia Douglas Johnson's Saturday Nighters literary salon in Washington. She also published poems in The Crisis, the official publication for the NAACP, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in

Popel's piece, "Flag Salute," is one of her most popular pieces, which was a response to the 1933 lynching of George Armwood, an African American man. The poem quotes the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1925, Popel married chemist William Andrew Shaw, and Esther Patricia, their daughter, was born on June 1, 1926. She was a middle-school teacher of English, French, algebra, and penmanship. She taught at Douglass Junior High School, Shaw Junior High, and Francis Junior High, where she taught the longest. Popel was an active member of women's rights movements and African-American rights. Of the National Association of College Women, and a charter member, Popel became appointed chair. In 1933, Popel represented NACW in front of the White House and President Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1952, Popel had to retire from teaching because she suffered from a heart condition, and after her retirement, she started painting. However, on January 28, 1958, she died from a stroke and was buried in the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

For More Information

For more information on the poets, visit The Poetry Foundation.

For more information on the Harlem Renaissance time period, visit: