Harlem Writers Guild

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Harlem Writers Guild

In the late 1940s, a number of talented and ambitious young African Americans were seeking a way to simultaneously express their creativity and promote social change. Two such figures were Rosa Guy (b. 1925/28) and John Oliver Killens (19161987), who had studied literature and writing at prominent institutions like New York University, but realized that the mainstream literary world was largely inaccessible to blacks. Consequently, they began meeting with the writers Walter Christmas and John Henrik Clarke (19151998) in a Harlem storefront to critique each other's ideas and stories. By the early 1950s this workshop became known as the Harlem Writers Guild. During the guild's early years, meetings were frequently held in Killens's home, as well as at the home of the artist Aaron Douglas. As membership grew, the Guild influenced several generations of African-American writers.

Killens's Youngblood (1954) was the first novel published by a guild member. Appearing to critical acclaim at the beginning of the civil rights movement, it told the story of a southern black family struggling for dignity in the early twentieth century. Although Killens was a native of Georgia and a tireless voice protesting racial injustice in the United States, he was also involved in left-wing politics as a young man, and guild participants, many of whom were union organizers or Progressive Party members, were encouraged to think globally. Christmas and Clarke were both contributors to Communist periodicals, while other writers, such as novelists Julian Mayfield (19281984) and Paule Marshall (b. 1929), called attention to the lives and struggles of slave descendants in Cuba and the West Indies.

Although its main goals were literary, the guild believed in political action. In 1961, for example, Guy, Marshall, and the poet Maya Angelou staged a sit-in at the United Nations to protest the assassination of the first Congolese premier, Patrice Lumumba. That same year, when the Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev met in Harlem, guild members joined another organization, Fair Play for Cuba, in welcoming them to the African-American capital of the world.

During the 1960s a number of guild members found work as professional writers, journalists, and editors in the publishing industry. As a consequence, the guild, in addition to offering workshops, began sponsoring writers' conferences and book parties. The celebration at the United Nations for Chester Himes's biography The Quality of Hurt drew 700 people, while more than a thousand people attended a 1965 conference, "The Negro Writer's Vision of America," which was cosponsored by the New School for Social Research. This event featured a widely reported debate between Killens and Clarke and two white intellectuals, Herbert Aptheker and Walter Lowenfels, on the proper role of the artist in the fight against racism. The actor and playwright Ossie Davis (19172005), a participant at the conference, summed up his viewpoint when he wrote in Negro Digest that the black writer "must make of himself a hammer, and against the racially restricted walls of society he must strike, and strike, and strike again, until something is destroyedeither himselfor the prison walls that stifle him!"

In 1970, guild member Louise Meriwether published Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, and the next two decades saw the publication of acclaimed books by Grace Edwards-Yearwood, Doris Jean Austin, Arthur Flowers, and Terry McMillan, famed for her popular third novel, Waiting to Exhale (1992). Other guild members, such as Guy, Joyce Hansen, Brenda Wilkinson, and Walter Dean Myers, focused on writing literature for children and young adults.

In the early 1990s the guild sponsored several literary celebrations including a centennial salute to Zora Neale Hurston; "The Literary Legacy of Malcolm X," and two tributes to Rosa Guy for her leadership in the organization. Some former guild members also received national attention after the election of Bill Clinton as U.S. president. Maya Angelou was chosen to read her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" at the 1993 presidential inauguration. In addition, Clinton made it known that his favorite mystery character was Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlings.

In 1991, guild director William H. Banks Jr. began hosting "In Our Own Words" for the MetroMagazine section on WNYE, a television station owned by the New York City Department of Education. This weekly program brought many guild members exposure in six viewing areas in the United States and Canada. Since 1988, writing workshops have met most frequently at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

See also Angelou, Maya; Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Children's Literature; Davis, Ossie; Harlem Renaissance; Himes, Chester; Killens, John Oliver; Literature in the United States


Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967. Reprint, New York: New York Review Books, 2005.

Johnson, Abby Arthur, and Ronald Maberry. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of Afro-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

sharon m. howard (1996)
Updated bibliography