The history of African American poetry in the twentieth century can be divided into three generational moments: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s, the post-Renaissance poetry of the 1940s and 1950s, and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Harlem Renaissance, part of a more general “New Negro” movement in the United States, was the first major flowering of creative activity by African American writers, artists, and musicians in the twentieth century. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was a revival of African American verse, led by Melvin Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Hayden. Finally, a third wave of African American poetry emerged in the late 1960s with the Black Arts movement or Black Aesthetic. Infused with a newly defined racial and political consciousness, poets such as Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Ishmael Reed, and Michael S. Harper produced poetry that was more clearly militant in its message and rawer in its language and form. This chapter will focus on the two most important cultural moments for African American poets in the twentieth century – the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement – with a brief discussion of the poets who constitute the middle generation.
The “New Negro” and African American poetry
Although we can locate the actual beginning of the Harlem Renaissance in about 1922, the literary and cultural roots of the Renaissance can be traced to the end of the previous century.