The Harlem Renaissance Poets and Musicians

by Samuel Black


This essay provides educational information regarding some of the major poets and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance period of 1919 to 1940. The purpose is to educate individuals about the “African-American Capital” of Harlem, New York. It begins with the concept of duality in nature reflecting on the tragedy of Greenwood, Oklahoma (“The African-American Wall Street”), Rosewood, Florida, and the rising of the Harlem Renaissance. The scope of the essay concentrates on the areas of poetry and music during the renaissance. Distinguished African-American poets such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and others are discussed. Additionally, distinguished musicians as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others who made significant contributions during the renaissance are discussed.

The Harlem Renaissance: Poets and Musicians
Duality in Nature: Precursor to the Harlem Renaissance

The rising of the Harlem Renaissance started around 1919 in Harlem, New York, otherwise known as the “Capital for African-Americans.” In 1921, Greenwood, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, otherwise known as the “Wall Street for African-Americans,” was burned to the ground by vigilante white mobs. Trouble started in Greenwood on May 30, 1921, when a white female alleged that she was assaulted by a black man (Asante 316). Additionally, the community of Rosewood, Florida, a predominantly African-American community, was burned by vigilante white mobs during January 1923. Many of the residents from Rosewood were murdered and the survivors driven into exile, based on the false allegations of a white female that a black male assaulted her (Franklin and Moss 389). As these predominately African-American communities were burned by vigilante white mobs, the Harlem Renaissance rose from the dust and into the annals of African-American history.

Duality in nature is reflective in a good and bad side in everything. In essence, when one side dies another rises. The darkness is as much a part of the whole as the light, and provides what is necessary to learn and grow (Padilla). There exist love and hate, positive and negative, life and death as a reflection of duality in nature. The falling of Greenwood and Rosewood commenced the rising of the Harlem Renaissance. Apparently, residents of Rosewood and Greenwood may have migrated north also to experience the rebirth of African-Americans after such tragic experiences. The move from the south to the north is also a reflection of the duality in nature, in essence from degeneration to regeneration, from negative to positive, from suffering and pain to a maturation of new humanity. The duality of nature was taking its roots in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, a new period of positive growth for African-Americans, and the shaping of a new outlook and visionary prospective for the future.

The Great Migration North to the Harlem Renaissance

The Great Northern Migration from the south, after the ending of slavery and the beginning of World War I, was a turning point for African-Americans. This great exodus to the north was a reflection of the poverty stricken south. African-Americans moved north to seek employment and economic independence, to escape the landscape of torment and torture, to avoid lynch mobs and mean-spirited vigilante groups, to seek new birth and to forget about the past. They also migrated to avoid terrorism, unending debts, and the poor living conditions of southern sharecropping. Eventually, masses of African-Americans moving north came together in Harlem, New York. By the beginning of 1920, approximately 2 million African-Americans had deserted the south seeking a better life in the northern cities (Asante 322). As a result of this great collective body of African-Americans coming together, the variety of talents among them, the creativity they offered each other, and the dynamics of their new found existence, created a rebirth for African-Americans, now known as “The Renaissance.” The name of the place where it happened, Harlem, enabled that period of time to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The diversity of African-American talent reached a high point along the trail of generating rebirth to the nation during the renaissance period of 1919 to 1940. There was an outpouring of confidence, expression, creativity and talent. This collective outpouring established a path for artistic cultural expression leading to social reforms for African-Americans. As a result, Harlem became the “capital of the African-American world” (Asante 352). The rebirth of African-American culture was composed of ingenious works of art, uplifting and eloquent poets, masterful musicians, inspirational political activists, creative painters, inventive sculptors, prolific thinking novelists, dramatic playwrights, visionary choreographers, natural actors, excellent journalists, and imaginative actors. Many of these African-Americans have made unique and long-lasting contributions to the annals of African-American history and became major icons of the American landscape. Poetic verses and music were two of the major influences of the Harlem Renaissance, our journey begins with poetry.

Dynamic and Uplifting Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

Poetry is the inner music of the soul. It is the internal spring which invigorates the mechanism of the inner self with substance to reach a new horizon. Poetry opens the self to a new height of tranquility and essence of being. It unfolds the making of the new dawn. The Harlem Renaissance was a transitional moment in time when poetry transformed a nation of African-Americans to unprecedented heights. Great names such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and others have blazed the path for the future generations to follow. Experience some of their works from the Harlem Renaissance period.

One of the greatest poets during the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. Born on 1st February 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, he was raised by his grandmother. While taking the train to Mexico to visit his father, he wrote the famous poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. He is probably the most influential and remembered poet of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry is well known and is studied in schools and colleges across America (Grimes 2). His dynamic and insightful portrait of African-Americans during the renaissance period and beyond touches the souls of many. His poetry paints a picture of the complications faced by African-Americans with a mixture of music, culture, happiness and environmental struggles. On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes passed from labor to reward due to complications with prostate cancer. His New York residence located at East 127th Street is now a landmark and the street has been declared “Langston Hughes Place” in his honor. This is a site to preserve in our cultural heritage.

Claude McKay, from Jamaica, was another major poet during the Harlem Renaissance. He was born on September 15, 1890 in, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, West Indies. He immigrated to the United States during 1912, and published the volume of poems entitled Songs of Jamaica during the same year. Thereafter, he was immediately recognized as a poet. He completed studies at Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State College. In 1919 he wrote a marvelous piece known as If We Must Die. He resided in England during 1919 to 1921 and worked with the British Socialist Journal during which time he published Spring in New Hampshire. McKay had a superb publication entitled Harlem Shadows in 1922. While in the Soviet Union he compiled The Negroes in America. During 1928 he published Home to Harlem. His first autobiography, A Long Way Home, was published in 1937. McKay had several other successful publications. His poetry gained a lasting respect among African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, and addressed social and political concerns. While residing in Chicago, he had complications of congestive heart failure and passed from labor to reward. His second autobiography, My Green Hills of Jamaica, was published in 1979 posthumously (Giles).

James Weldon Johnson was another influential poet during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871, he studied English Literature and attended Atlanta University. He wrote the famous, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is now the Black National Anthem. After working as a song writer on Broadway, in 1906 he took a position as U.S. Consul to Venezuela. His autobiography, An Ex-Colored Man, which explored the issues of race, it was published in 1912. During the 1920s, he became one of the organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1927, Johnson published God’s Trombones, a poetry book based on his experiences in the south. Johnson passed from labor to reward in 1938. Johnson was a major figure in poetry and African-American history. His contributions to the Harlem Renaissance were noteworthy (James Weldon).

Countee Cullen was another of the rising stars of poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. He was a native New Yorker who attended De Witt Clinton High. He studied at New York University in 1922, and also received a masters’ degree from Harvard University. W.E.B. Dubois was very helpful to Cullen and assisted with the publication of his poems in The Crisis, the official NAACP magazine. On April 9, 1928 he married Nina Yolande, the daughter of W. E. B. Dubois. He was successful in winning various awards for one of his poems, The Ballad of The Brown Girl. Additionally, he was successful in surpassing other poets in accumulating awards for his poetry (Early). He had numerous poetry publications and was a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.

The names of poets who made major contributions to the framing of an artistic network for the outward expression of the inner self are too great to mention in this paper. However, their contributions have elevated our society, and have sparked our interests to a greater level of consciousness. Their leadership set the stage for numerous other poets. Their thoughts, lyrics, similes, metaphors, and expressions of love through words which held many families together have been cherished many times over. The rhymes of poetry also have their roots in music. Music was a vibrant part of the Harlem Renaissance; it soothed and excited the soul, and it was closely linked with poetic verses and remains so today.

Masterful and Soul Stirring Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance

One of the greatest musicians from the renaissance period was Duke Ellington, known as the Duke. The Duke was born in Washington, DC as Edward Kennedy Ellington on 29th April 1899. Thereafter, he moved to New York and started a band. During the Renaissance he appeared with his band at many theaters and nightclubs. He was blessed to appear in Carnegie Hall in 1943. Ellington produced such masterful songs as, Mood Indigo in 1931, Sophisticated Lady in 1933, Solitude in 1934 and others. The favorite theme for his band was Take the ‘A’ Train. His musical compositions and rhythms transcend the spectrum of classical music, jazz, choral music, gospel, spiritual, blues and dance.

Duke Ellington is considered one of the world’s greatest composers and musicians. He played over 20,000 performances worldwide in the course of his musical career, during which time he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States, and awarded the Legion of Honor from the French government (Ellington).

Louis Armstrong is considered to be one of the greatest jazz players of all times. Music and jazz were the love of his life. His ambition, demeanor, abilities, talents, and soul were all focused on the art of playing jazz. Armstrong surpassed all other jazz players of his time and still remained untouched. He was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1900. He had his first real horn, a coronet, at age seven. At a young age he demonstrated brilliance with the coronet and trumpet and played before large audiences in New Orleans, Chicago, and with bands on the Mississippi River. During 1925 he influenced the Harlem Renaissance and played with the Fletcher Henderson New York Band. In 1929, he returned to Harlem after a short absence and performed magnificently on Broadway in Connie’s Hot Chocolates and also made his first nationwide recordings. During 1932 he had several successful European tours and reached unprecedented heights with his music. His personality was advanced by radio, films, television and other appearances. Louis Armstrong is considered to be the true king of jazz and a legend of his time. He passes from labor to reward on July 6, 1971 (Louis Armstrong).

Bessie Smith, the greatest blues singer of all ages, was an integral part of the renaissance. She performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem and was called the “Empress of the Blues.” Her recordings over the period of 1923 to 1933 elevated her to one of the highest levels in jazz history. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894 and went from rags to riches. Her presence could be felt when she stepped on the stage and her six foot personality started to sing. She embarked upon her career by performing at the age of nine and often appeared with her brother, Andrew, who was a guitarist. She was mentored by Ma Rainey, who is considered to be the first woman to sing the Blues.

Bessie’s major contribution came in 1920 during the Harlem Renaissance with her recording Crazy Blues. Other smash hits of hers were, Downhearted Blues and Golf Coast Blues. These recordings helped save Columbia Records from bankruptcy because of their high record sales (Hemsworth). Bessie was considered one of the highest paid female African-American entertainers in the United States of America. Over the years she appeared at major concerts and recordings. Bessie was called from labor to reward in September 1937 as a result of an automobile accident in Mississippi. She will always be remembered as the “Empress of the Blues.”

There were other great African-American recording artists whose presence graced the Harlem Renaissance period. The fascinating music of Billie Holiday was marvelous to all Americans. Dizzy Gillespie also made significant contributions to the world of music. Charlie Richard “Bird” Parker, the great saxophonist, elevated the world of jazz music for others to follow, and Ella Fitzgerald gave her special touch to the renaissance. The contribution of these great artists not only established a pattern of great excellence for future African-American musicians to follow, but in essence, it established a legacy of triumphant greatness for the world to see and enjoy the spirited music having its roots in Mother Africa where it all began. Additionally, blues, jazz and other forms of music written, composed, cherished, and played by these great musicians can be traced to and linked with spiritual activities. As a result, music was an integral part of religion and remains so even to this day.

Summation of the Harlem Renaissance

The duality in nature has another side to every event. The discouragement of the south blossomed with encouragement in the north. The discouragement of the south allowed a new civilization for encouragement in the north. The ashes of Rosewood and Greenwood turned to the budding of new birth from the dust of Harlem. The duality of nature transplanted its roots in Harlem for African-Americans in reaching new heights and achieving exponential growth in diverse directions across the landscape of America. Great leaders have come and gone, yet greater ones will arrive in the future. Behind each dark cloud a silver lining still exists, and a rising star awaits the new dawn.

The Harlem Renaissance was the internal spring for African-Americans branching out into the world on their own volition. The renaissance opened a new dimension for African-Americans and brought about the realization of “I can do it, and do it with dignity, grace, and style.” The flowering of new visionary insights, the concept of prominent inner consciousness, and upliftment of the spirit was a new birth to African-Americans in this era. The coming together of such a diverse body of artistic talents, tremendous works of arts, and the interconnected collaboration on many fronts regarding diverse subject matters, coupled with the ability to demonstrate their gift and talent allowed African-Americans make accomplishments that were only dreams.

The renaissance allowed for the flowering of a new consciousness, the emergence of great writers, masterful musicians, the celebration of one’s cultural roots, and the development of self-confidence and consciousness. It is without a doubt that the Harlem Renaissance was like an eternal spring of inspiration in the soul of African-Americans. That spring has provided nourishment and inner drive for sustainment into the eras beyond. That spring has fertilized the earth and has allowed the population of African-Americans to move into new and diverse dimensions regarding their self-worth, marvelous accomplishments, and diverse cultural successes. That spring of life in African-Americans which move them from slavery to freedom, is still watering the garden for future exponential growth economically, politically, philosophically, psychologically, and sociologically in directions beyond our human comprehension. Is that spring in your soul or not, and furthermore in which direction will you progress as African-Americans make the quantum leap forward?

Asante, Molefi K. African-American History. People Publishing Group, Inc. New Jersey. 2002. Early, Gerald. About Countee Cullen’s Life and Career. Modern American Poetry. 27 Sept. 2004 Ellington, Mercer K. Biography about Duke Ellington. Estate of Mercer K. Ellington c/o CMG Worldwide 28 Sept. 2004 Franklin, John H, and Moss, Alfred A. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. McGraw Hill. Boston. 2000. Giles, Freda S. Claude McKay’s Life. Feb 2000. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2004 Grimes, Linda S. Harlem Renaissance Poets. 5 Feb. 2003. 20th Century American Poetry. 27 Sept. 2004 Hemsworth, Joan. Bessie Smith (1895-1937) Empress of the Blues. 14 Dec. 1988. The College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. 28 Sept. 2004 James Weldon Johnson 30 Jan. 2001. The Academy of American Poets. 27 Sept. 2004 Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy. 2000. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. 28 Sept. 2004 Padilla, Ernie. Universal Laws of Duality. Good & Evil…in the Mind of the Beholder. 2002. 2 Oct. 2004

The Harlem Renaissance Poets and Musicians by Samuel Black

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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