Arts | Literature

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine HansberryLorraine Hanberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” was the first Broadway play written and produced by a black woman.

Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 19, 1930. She became interested in theater while in high school. After high school she attended the University of Wisconsin for two years and studied drama and stage design.

She moved to New York in 1950 and began writing for Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson.

Hansberry married in 1953. Her husband’s success as a songwriter allowed her to quit work and concentrate on writing. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun in 1957. The play’s title came from Langston Hughes poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.”

A Raisin in the Sun which details the experiences of a black family in Chicago opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959.

The play won the New York Critics Circle Award for best drama.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first woman and the youngest person to receive the award.

NOTE: A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway in 2004. It starred Sean “Puffy” Combs and Audra McDonald. It was revived again in 2014 and starred Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo. The 2014 revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Countee Cullen

Countee CullenCountee Cullen was one of the best known poets to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance.

He was born Countee Leroy Porter on March 30, 1903 in Louisville, Kentucky. He was raised by his maternal grandmother until her death in 1918. Countee was then adopted by Reverend Frederick Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, and his wife Carolyn.

The Cullen’s made sure Countee received a good education. He attended New York University, and while enrolled there wrote most of the material for his first two volumes of poetry. Cullen graduated from the NYU in 1925. That same year, Color, his book of poetry that addressed issues of racism, was published.

After NYU Countee Cullen attended Harvard University and graduated in 1927 with a master’s degree in English and French.

Upon his return to New York he became assistant editor at Opportunity, a publication of the National Urban League.

Countee Cullen was educated in classical literary forms and was influenced by the English poet John Keats. He was sometimes criticized because that influence was reflected in his work. Cullen believed that poetry transcended race and wrote using “classical verse’ rather than the “rhythms and idioms” of black American heritage.

Cullen was soon applauded by black and white audiences alike, and by the end of the 1920s was the most popular black poet in the United States.

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset, poet, editor, essayist and novelist, saw the Harlem Renaissance as a historical educational opportunity. For her it was a chance to tell the stories of African Americans through the lens of other blacks and not through the lens of white writers.

Fauset was born on April 27, 1882 in Camden County, New Jersey. She attended Cornell University where she became the first African American woman elected to the academic honorary society, Phi Beta Kappa.

Following her graduation from Cornell, Fauset moved to Washington, DC and taught high school for several years. She moved to New York in 1912 and became a literary contributor to The Crisis Magazine, a publication of the NAACP. Fauset later became the magazine’s literary editor. She was an influential editor and used that influence to turn the magazine into a major publishing channel for black writers. She also used her influence to develop the work of several young writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay.

Jessie Redmon Fauset also published her own work which consisted of short stories, essays, poems and literary reviews. She was inspired to write a novel after reading one by a white author in which African Americans were caricatured. Her first, There is Confusion, about a middle class black family was published in 1924.

Fauset would write three more novels featuring black middle class characters. She once said the goal in her writing was to present “the homelife of the Colored American,” without the melodrama or caricature that she saw from white writers.

Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps, Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist was born on October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California in 1923, and moved to New York the following year to teach at the Harlem Academy in New York City.

Bontemps was motivated and inspired by what was happening in the literary world in New York at the time. He began writing and became part of the group of writers, artist and scholars who were beginning to be recognized for their talent and the work that they produced.

In 1926 his poetry began appearing in Crisis, the magazine published by the NAACP, and in Opportunity, a publication of the National Urban League. He was awarded poetry prizes by both publications.

Bontemps left New York in 1931 to take a teaching position in Alabama. That same year his first novel, God Sends Sunday, about a St. Louis jockey, was published.

Recognizing the need to provide African American kids with positive role models, Bontemps began writing children’s books. His first, Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti, a collaboration with Langston Hughes was published in 1932.

His other work for children and young adults included:  Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman; and Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days.

Much of Arna Bontemps’ work painted a realistic description of the struggle for freedom. Black Thunder, his acclaimed historical novel about Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt was no exception.

Bontemps would later become the librarian for historically black Fisk University. He used that position to preserve the papers of other Harlem Renaissance writers.

Marian Anderson

Marian AndersonMarian Anderson was the first African American invited to perform at the White House and the first to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Anderson was born on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She began singing with the youth choir in her church.  Adult members were so impressed with her voice that they started a fund so she could formally train with a local and well known voice instructor.

After two years of voice lessons she won a contest organized by the New York Philharmonic and later received a scholarship to sing on a tour through Europe.

In 1939 she was invited to perform in the White House when President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining the King and Queen of Great Britain.

Later, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall in Washington DC, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a member of the organization, resigned in protest. Roosevelt then arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. 75,000 people attended the performance.

Marian Anderson made her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera in January 1955, and in 1961 sang the National Anthem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.