Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2015. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
I’ll keep this brief: we know too little about the women of the Harlem Renaissance. The more I look into these poets, writers, dramatists, essayists, critics, social critics, young adult writers, and editors, the more astounded I am at their range and literary output. These women writers run the gamut of political perspectives, editorial and aesthetic approaches, and backgrounds and nationalities. Yet they all converged to create one of the richest periods in American literary history. Here’s to learning more, and please, if I’ve made any mistakes or omissions, include your notes in the comments.
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882 – 1961)
Fauset’s influence within the Harlem Renaissance cannot be overstated. As the literary editor of The Crisis (or Crisis) — the official magazine of the NAACP, founded by W. E. B. Du Bois — she led the development of many of its key ideas, and also the careers of its writers, including Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen. Fauset was the first black woman accepted to Phi Beta Kappa, and the first black woman graduate from Cornell. Her novels, including There is Confusion — considered the first Harlem novel — are said to rank with the work of Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston, according to The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
Nella Larsen (1891 – 1964)
One of the great novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen’s life is mysterious. We do know that she was born in Chicago, and that she later moved to Denmark, where she excelled in school. She later became a nurse, and, eventually, a member of the interracial intellectual scene in New York. The author of indispensable novels like Passing and Quicksand, Larsen was later a Guggenheim recipient.
Dorothy West (1907 – 1998)
Often thought of as the “younger sister” of the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West nonetheless instrumental in the development of its aesthetic perspective. Editor and founder of Challenge and New Challenge, West worked with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, and others. She was the cousin of Helene Johnson.
Marion Vera Cuthbert (1896 – 1989)
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Cuthbert later took became the dean of Talladega College. Still later, she graduated with a PhD from Columbia, where she wrote a dissertation titled “Education and Marginality: A Study of the Negro College Graduate.” She also wrote for Charles S. Johnson’s Opportunity.
Gwendolyn Bennett (1902 – 1981)
An artist and and poet who graduated from Pratt in Brooklyn, Bennett later studied at the Académie Julian and the École de Panthéon in Paris. According to The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: “Many of her poems exalted femininity and, in some cases, natural African beauty.”
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)
Johnson, a playwright, led a salon called the Saturday Nighters Club that was instrumental for Harlem Renaissance drama. Although she wrote more than thirty plays, only five were published: A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), Blue Blood (1926), Plumes (1927), Frederick Douglass (1935), and William and Ellen Craft (1935).
Regina Anderson (1901 – 1993)
Anderson was a multi-racial playwright — of Native American, Jewish, East Indian, Swedish, and other European ancestry — who was also a librarian and host of the “580” or Harlem West Side Literary Salon. Anderson also wrote an unpublished, two-volume work on black New Yorkers, and was later the vice president of the U.S. Council of Women.
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880 – 1958)
Hugely important to the development of the Harlem Renaissance, but routinely forgotten or overlooked, Grimké’s drama Rachel is one of the first to face up to the enormity of lynching. Her excellent, image-laden poetry often deals with themes of lesbian sexuality.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960)
I’ll leave this one to The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance:
As a folklorist, ethnographer, novelist, short-story writer, storyteller, galvanizing personality, and emblematic figure of the celebration of black culture by the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston not only wrote about but also lived the quest of twentieth century blacks to pursue beauty, individuality, and affirmation. Her writings, and her life, are characterized by a spirit of humor, contradiction, and imagination.
Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875 – 1935)
A writer, teacher, and political activist who matriculated at Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, Dunbar-Nelson was also one of the more formidable poets of the Harlem Renaissance, although her first published work was a collection of stories, poems, and essays titled Violets and Other Tales. She was also a fierce and lifelong advocate for equal rights.
Geraldyn Dismond (AKA Gerri Major) (? – ?)
The self-described “publicity agent” of the Harlem Renaissance, Dismond was a University of Chicago graduate who later became the managing editor of The Tattler, where she wrote the gossip column “Between Puffs” as “Lady Nicotine.” She was reportedly a fan of wild nights, and once wrote that “Bacchus himself passed out before midnight and along about two o’clock the shade of Rabelais returned to its tomb with its head hanging low in defeat.”
Clarissa Scott Delany (1901 – 1927)
Delaney wrote across forms for Crisis and Opportunity, but is best known for her poetry. She was the daughter of Emmet Jay Scott, who was Booker T. Washington’s secretary. Delany was a beloved figure who died young from kidney disease, and her poetry was anthologized by Countee Cullen in Caroling Dust.
Helene Johnson (1906 – 1995)
A precocious member of the Renaissance, Johnson arrived in Harlem at the age of nineteen having already won a literary competition at the Boston Chronicle. She was the cousin of Dorothy West and a friend of Zora Neale Hurston. Much of Johnson’s later life, after early years of undeniable talent, is cloaked in mystery, although her poems are collected in This Waiting for Love.
May Miller (1899 – 1995)
Although Georgia Douglas may have written more plays, Miller was the most widely published playwright of the Harlem Renaissance. Later she turned to imagistic poetry. She was a student of Angelina Weld Grimké.
Effie Lee Newsome (Mary Effie Lee) (1885 – 1979)
Newsome is best known as the artist, writer, and curator of “The Little Page” for The Crisis, where she wrote about young black life during the Harlem Renaissance. In this respect she was absolutely crucial for the development of black identity, especially among young readers. She later collected her adult poetry in Gladiola Gardens.
Esther Popel (1896 – 1958)
This, from The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, suggests Popel is ready to be rediscovered:
Esther Popel, a poet who was concerned much more with politics, was a participant in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s literary salon and a frequent contributor to Negro World, Opportunity, and other journals. Popel graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dickinson College and became a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. Her often bitterly ironic poems are as searingly effective as Claude McKay’s.
I would also add that Popel’s “Blasphemy—American Style” (1934), immediately brings to mind Kanye West’s “New Slaves.” See for yourself.
Anne Spencer (1882 – 1975)
The first African-American to have her poetry anthologized in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry, Spencer wrote the rarely published by truly monumental poem “White Things.” In her capacity as an activist, she later hosted George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
Ariel Williams Holloway (1905 – 1973)
A poet and musician who studied at the Oberlin Conservatory, Holloway is best known for the poem “Northboun’,” one of the seminal poems of the era. She published only one volume of poetry, Shape Them into Dreams, in 1955.
Kathleen Tankersley Young (1903 – 1933)
Perhaps because she lived to be only thirty years old, Young represents a strange gap in literary history. She was friends with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound; she co-founded Blues magazine; and she edited Modern Editions Press. According to author Eric White: “Kathleen Tankersley Young’s name appears like a cipher through little magazines of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and in anthologies of Harlem Renaissance and American women’s poetry.”
Eulalie Spence (1894 – 1981)
Spence, who was born in the British West Indies, is perhaps more famous for her feud with W.E.B. Dubois than her actual dramatic output. This is unfortunate, especially considering that the author of Her and Foreign Mail was one of Renaissance’s most prodigious playwrights.
Marita Bonner (1899 – 1971)
After matriculating at Radcliffe College, where she was denied a dormitory, Bonner went out to produce essays, dramas, poetry, and other critical writing all of importance to the Harlem Renaissance. Especially noteworthy is the essay “On Being Young–A Woman–And Colored.”