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Black Presses, Obscure Writers, and the Literary Renaissance in Harlem

Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are among the most acclaimed authors from Harlem's Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s, but many other writers, while little known to white and even black readers, were equally important contributors to the movement, according to a Franklin & Marshall College professor and his student collaborator. 

"During that period there were tremendous contributions from folks all over the country to the aesthetic, cultural, and political ideas of the movement," said Franklin & Marshall's Patrick Bernard, associate professor of English.

This summer, Bernard and Hackman Scholar Jane Rohrer '14, an English major, are researching the obscure writers of Harlem's bygone literary era, also known as the New Negro Movement, and the six black-owned newspapers and journals that published them. 

  • Harlem Renaissance Hackman Research
  • Franklin & Marshall College English Professor Patrick Bernard and Hackman Scholar Jane Rohrer '14 research the contributions of obscure African-American writers in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s (Photo by Melissa Hess).

Their literary research will be part of a book the professor is working on about the unsung scribes. The work that has kept Rohrer in the stacks at Shadek-Fackenthal Library, sifting through the archives of the era's publications, is bibliographical as well as archival.

"It's really vast," Rohrer said of the research, which entails culling through rolls of microfilm acquired specifically for the project through interlibrary loans. "It has been remarkable to see just the amount that gets brought over when you talk about the Harlem Renaissance."

Rohrer is one of the College's 75 Hackman Research Scholars this year who are collaborating with 43 F&M professors on high-level projects, providing work that supports research by the faculty members. An endowment from the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman established the annual 10-week program in 1984.

Periodicals for the Obscure, and Not So Obscure, Writers

The six publications Bernard and Rohrer are examining, which were widely read by African Americans at the time, are socialist magazine "The Messenger," influential weekly "The Chicago Defender," nationally circulated newspaper "The Pittsburgh Courier," the NAACP’s magazine "The Crisis," edited by author W.E.B. Du Bois,  the literary "Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life," and Marcus Garvey's international and radical "The Negro World."

"These were very prominent, mostly at the point of the Great Migration," Bernard said, referring to the African-American exodus from the rural South to cities in the North, West and Midwest in the early 20th century.

In fact, Bernard said, newspapers such as "The Chicago Defender" and journals such as "The Crisis" (both of which continue to publish today) encouraged African Americans to leave the segregated Jim Crow South for better opportunities elsewhere.

At the same time, these periodicals published poems, essays and stories about racial inequality, gender imbalance, freedom, and the political and intellectual identity of the individual and group. These subjects were also documented in the most representative book that emerged from the movement, "The New Negro," a 1925 anthology on African and African-American culture featuring such literary luminaries as Hughes and Hurston, and edited by Alain Locke, who taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and who Langston Hughes in his autobiography, "The Big Sea," counted among the “three people who midwifed” the Harlem Renaissance into being. 

"These periodicals were the first ‘anthologies’ of African-American writers of the movement,” Bernard said. 

  • The Messenger magazine cover Hackman Scholars
  • "The Messenger" is one of six historical African-American publications that Bernard and Rohrer are examining this summer (Cover of the July 1918 issue of The Messenger)

Like big-name authors such as Hughes and novelist and poet Claude McKay, these writers shared the ideology of the newspapers that printed their works and were aware of the social and political changes African Americans were experiencing at the time.

"That's what we are discovering," Bernard said. "These were voices in the Harlem Renaissance that were equally engaged in what was going on; they demonstrated that engagement by contributing through their writings to the demands African Americans were making for change in Jim Crow America." 

Rohrer, who has a concentration in creative writing, said one reason some of the well-known authors had eclipsed these writers and were published by the white-owned publishing industry was their writing frequency.

"Langston Hughes in particular was so prolific, which is why he's so remembered," she said.

The Harlem Renaissance was about cultural, political and social movements within the African-American community. Bernard's book, which is still in the drafting stage, will focus on "the intersection of literature and music" in that enlightenment. "My interest," he said, "is basically the use of music and musical idioms in the literature. This was the period when Jazz and the Blues were also making their presence in the American cultural landscape, and their impact on the writers was significant."

Rohrer's research is helping Bernard to establish in his book that, if not for black-owned presses, obscure African-American writers would not have had an opportunity to contribute to the Harlem Renaissance.