June 1, 2014
by Marsha Dubrow
The Harlem Renaissance was actually born in Washington, D.C., where Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other literary greats were writing and publishing before they went to New York, according to a “Literary Walking Tour: U Street and the Harlem Renaissance” May 24.
The tour, led by literary historian and award-winning poet Kim Roberts, launched an app “DC By the Book”, featuring Washington sites depicted in significant literary works.
“Harlem Renaissance was a horrible name for that movement,” Roberts told the 60 tour members. “If you remember nothing else, remember that D.C. was one of the most significant places for the movement — you could even claim that Washington is actually where the movement was born.”
A better name would have been the “New Negro Movement”, Harlem Renaissance author and poet Sterling A. Brown wrote in “The New Negro in Literature (1925-1955)”. He argued that “Washington was the more serious city for artists during the Harlem Renaissance than New York,” Roberts noted.
D.C. native Brown, with a masters from Harvard, was the first Washington Poet Laureate, and a professor at Washington’s Howard University for 40 years.
The Harlem Renaissance arguably began with the 1925 publication of “The New Negro” anthology, edited by Alain Locke, who wrote the title essay. Locke, like Brown, was also a Harvard-educated, 40-year Howard University professor. Locke was also the first African American Rhodes Scholar, historian Roberts added.
“‘The New Negro’ is still in print, and it’s still terrific,” she added.
The tour’s first reading was from Locke’s foreword to “The New Negro”. It notes “an unusual outburst of creative expression…a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart.”
Howard University fostered creative expression for many of these writers. Howard student Zora Neale Hurston termed it “the capstone of Negro education in the world. It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on the Road”.
Howard’s literary magazine, “The Stylus”, published her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea”, in 1921.
Hurston’s “Why Negroes Are Black”, a segment of her novel “Mules and Men” (1935) was read aloud by a very enthusiastic tour member. Each participant who volunteered to “deliver” one of the 13 excerpts from books featured on the tour, was given a book.
Hurston’s anthropological research was funded by a grant from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, created and funded mostly by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who also briefly hired Langston Hughes as a clerk, said historian Roberts.
Before Dr. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History”, there was very little accurate written history about African Americans. He was the second trained black historian, after W.E.B. du Bois (both earned doctorates at Harvard).