The Oldest Organization Of African-American Writers, The Legendary Harlem Writers Guild, 1934-

September 4, 2023

Harlem Writers Guild (HWG) is the oldest organization of Harlem writers, originally established as the Harlem Writers Club in 1950.

Founded by John Oliver Killens, Rosa Guy, John Henrik Clarke, Willard Moore, and Walter Christmas. The Harlem Writers Guild seeks to give African-American writers a platform to present their art in its entirety without censoring their experience of being Black in the United States of America. In addition to publishing works, the Harlem Writers Guild also acts as an organization to promote social change and an entity that hosts events to celebrate and promote their members.

History

The Harlem Writers Guild (formerly known as the Harlem Writers Club) was set up in 1950 as a forum where African-American writers could develop their craft. After funding for an organization active in the late 1940s called “The Committee for the Negro in the Arts” ended, these writers felt excluded from the mainstream literary culture of New York City. The HWG was also part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, and its rationale continues to be to develop and aid in the publication of works by writers of the African diaspora. Other writers who have been associated with the HWG include Lonne Elder III, Douglas Turner Ward, Ossie Davis, Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou and Sarah E. Wright.

In the 1950s, John Oliver Killens had invited several aspiring African-American writers to meet at a shop in Harlem to hear and review one another’s literature. The Harlem Writers Guild thus began expanding, with new authors writing and publishing work emphasizing topics such as racism, oppression, and welfare. The Harlem Writers Guild was a tool that was used by African-American authors of its presence to uniquely divide their literary work against mainstream literature that neglected African-American literature.


Emphasizing on expanding their literary works as well as creating a space for advantageous advertisement of their work, the Harlem Writers Guild used their social circles and their academic voices towards social change. During the 1960s, the group supported Malcolm X, conflicts of independent rights in Angola and Mozambique and organized to dismantle racist policies established in South Africa. The group used their connections to communicate about marches, Freedom Rides, and other progressive organizations.

In 1977, the HWG was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers. In 1986, John O. Killens estimated that members of the Harlem Writers Guild had produced more than 300 published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and screenplays. Several have received literary acclaim.

Harlem Writers Guild Press

In 2000, the HWG announced a partnership with the digital publisher iUniverse to create its own imprint, Harlem Writers Guild Press. The anthology Beloved Harlem: A Literary Tribute to Black America’s Most Famous Neighborhood (Random House, 2005), edited by William H. Banks Jr., former Executive Director of HWG, featured work by HWG members including Dr. John Henrik ClarkeGrace F. Edwards, Rosa Guy, Rachel DeAragon, John Oliver Killens, Walter Dean Myers, Louise Meriwether, Funmi Osoba, Diane Richards, Karen Robinson, Dr. Olubansile Abbas Mimiko and Sarah E. Wright.

Harlem Renaissance

During the 1920s and 1930s, many southern African Americans traveled to Northern urban cities for greater opportunities. The Harlem Renaissance cultivated a boom of literary, music, art expressions as a channel for writers, musicians, and artists cumulatively in Harlem, New York. This boom was so prevalent it was regarded as the rebirth of African-American arts. The prevalence in the Harlem neighborhoods began as a root within African diaspora, somewhere many African Americans traveled to and combined feelings of culture and community. The growing prevalence of African-American art forms paved the way for a new era of African-American literature to enroll.

Members

Past and present members include:

  • Dr. John Henrik Clarke
  • Grace F. Edwards
  • Rosa Guy
  • Rachel DeAragon
  • John Oliver Killens
  • Walter Dean Myers
  • Louise Meriwether
  • Karen Robinson
  • Dr. Olubansile Abbas Mimiko
  • Sarah E. Wright
  • Audre Lorde
  • Paule Marshall
  • Julian Mayfield
  • Terry McMillan
  • Robert McNatt
  • Lofton Mitchell
  • Wilbert Oliver
  • Funmi Osoba
  • Sidney Poitier
  • Charles Russell
  • K. C. Washington
  • Minnette Coleman
  • Gammy Singer
  • Wilbert Tatum
  • Brenda Wilkinson
  • Valerie Wilson Wesley
  • Sarah Elizabeth Wright
  • Sandra L. West
  • Doris Jean Austin
  • William H. Banks Jr.
  • Wesley Brown
  • Rosemary Bray
  • Irving Burgie
  • Judy C. Andrews
  • Godfrey Cambridge
  • Andrea Broadwater
  • Alice Childress
  • Ossie Davis
  • Ruby Dee
  • James DeJongh
  • Lonne Elder III
  • Donis Ford
  • Bill William Forde
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • Bob Desverney
  • Dr. Beryl Dorsett
  • Sheila Doyle
  • Lloyd Hairston
  • Robert Hooks
  • Rose James
  • Alfonso Nicks
  • Betty Ann Jackson
  • Diane Richards

Among writers more recently added to the HWG roster are:

John Henrik Clarke

John Henrik Clarke is just one of the influential co-founders who helped develop the Harlem Writers Guild as a space specifically for African-American literary creatives to preserve their experiences. He was an autodidact, never fully completing his education, but rather learning from his mentor Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Clarke had a strong emphasis on understanding the African American experience through the use of cultural relativism and not through the Eurocentric distortion seen in history books. His emphasis contributed to the idea that African-American lives have worth and value, thus further preserving the black experience.

John Oliver Killens

John Oliver Killens was the first guild member to have their work published. Killens is known for his politically charged stories, which aim to invoke social change. Killens is most notable for his novel Youngblood, which was first published in 1954. This novel in particular is considered a landmark protest novel of the American Civil Rights Movement and revolves around the lives of an African-American family living in Georgia under Jim Crow laws.

Events

On March 12, 1972, the Harlem Writers Guild hosted a party in celebration of Chester Himes’ autobiography The Quality of Hurt (1971) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York.

In March 2021, the spirits brand Rémy Martin teamed up with the Harlem Writers Guild to honor artists from Harlem in the “Voices of Harlem” campaign. This partnership was able to give younger generations the tools and confidence to appreciate and engage in their African-American literary legacies.

Social movements

Members of the Harlem Writers Guild and the Black nationalist literary organization, On Guard for Freedom, are credited for the demonstration of protest in front of the United Nations following the assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961

Photo credit: 1) Rosa Guy. 2) Maya Angelou. 3) Ossie Davis. 4) John Henrik Clarke.


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