Book Recommendations

 

The Harlem Renaissance produced some of America's greatest writers, artists, and musicians and its rich legacy continues to engage both readers and writers. This book recommendations list includes some of the great novels from that period, as well as a contemporary work that both evokes and carries on that tradition, and a pick for kids.

 


 

Home to Harlem 

by Claude McKay (1928)


An enlightening trip through Harlem—from its colorful street life and its incomparable jazz venues to its back rooms. Jake Brown is a lover of life and takes in all that Harlem has to offer like a long, cool drink. Though he's subjected to the same oppression as those around him, he chooses to rise above it and delight in the blessings he does have. Ray, on the other hand, is bent on revolt. Published in 1928, this was Claude McKay's first novel.

 


 

Passing 

by Nella Larsen (1929)


Irene Redfield is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian share a comfortable Harlem townhouse with their sons. Her work on charity balls that gather Harlem's elite creates a sense of respectability for her. But all this begins to splinter when she re-encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend. Clare, light-skinned and beautiful, tells Irene how she left behind the black world and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband.

 


 

A Rage in Harlem 

by Chester Himes (1957)


At once both hilarious and surreal, this is a story full of con men, coolness, and chaos, littered with unforgettable characters like Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed. The plot is driven by the ineptness and naivety of the main character, Jackson. It is that same ineptness that gets him out of as much trouble as it gets him into.

 


 

Their Eyes Were Watching God 

by Zora Neale Hurston 

 

A Southern love story and classic, Zadie Smith says, “For me, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece of prose, as emotionally satisfying as it is impressive. There is no novel I love more.”

 


 

Dancing in the Dark 

by Caryl Phillips (2005)


Against the backdrop of Harlem and New York at the turn of the century, this riveting contemporary novel reimagines the life of Bert Williams (1874 - 1922), the first black entertainer in the United States to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune. Williams was the first black performer to don blackface and was a master, with partner George Walker, of the cakewalk. Phillips renders the wrenching contradictions of this life and its effect on Williams and Walker and their wives, Lottie Williams and Aida Overton Walker.

 


 

For Younger Readers:

 

Zora and Me 

by Victoria Bond & T. R. Simon

 

To introduce children to the Harlem Renaissance, we're recommending this charming book for kids in grades 4-7th. The early life of Zora Neale Hurston comes to life in this fictionalized account, narrated by her best friend Carrie. Zora's storytelling is a gift, but it doesn't come without consequences when she starts imagining a mythical creature lurking in the swamps near her hometown. 

 


 


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