Learn about the pivotal authors of the Harlem Renaissance whose lives are
portrayed in the semi-fictionalized film BROTHER TO BROTHER.
Richard Bruce Nugent
Richard Bruce Nugent was born in 1906, to a family of high social position in
Washington, D.C.’s black community. His mother was an accomplished pianist who was trained as a schoolteacher and his father was a Pullman porter. Nugent attended public grade schools and the acclaimed Dunbar High School. He was a frequent attendee of Georgia Douglas Johnson's famous artistic salon, where he met and befriended Langston Hughes, who rescued Nugent’s poem “Shadow” from the trash and eventually helped send it for publication in Opportunity magazine.
Nugent and Hughes eventually moved to New York City and became two of the artists who published Fire!!, the revolutionary literary magazine that formed a vocal break from the black literary establishment. Nugent was also a painter and illustrator, and the magazine contained two of his drawings, as well a short story he wrote called “Smoke, Lilies and Jade”—the first published African American literary work with a gay theme. Nugent continued to write and draw under the pseudonym of “Richard Bruce” in order to avoid the disapproval of his family. His flamboyant personal style, sexual conventions and public relationships with men upset many of the era’s established mores, and he was described as a "bizarre and eccentric vagabond poet” as well as "cutting, good-looking and intelligent." Despite the little written about his life, Nugent was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance. He died of congestive heart failure in 1987 while living in Hoboken, New Jersey.
The “unofficial poet laureate of Black America,” James Langston Hughes was born in 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. He was raised by his grandmother until he moved to Illinois to live with his mother and her husband when he was 13, where he began writing poetry and was the class poet of his eighth grade class. After graduating from high school in Cleveland, Hughes spent a year in Mexico, living with his father, and a year at Columbia University. He also worked as an assistant cook, launderer and seaman, traveling to Europe and Africa.
While attending Columbia, Hughes became an integral part of the Harlem literary and arts scene that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. He befriended writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen and James Weldon Johnson, and published his first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, in 1926, and soon finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Hughes's second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published in 1927 and exemplified the rhythmic free verse format for which he would later be famous. In 1930, Hughes’s first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature.
During the 1930s, Hughes began writing for leftist and socialist publications such as New Masses, a journal associated with the Communist Party, and traveled to the Soviet Union with a group of young African Americans. He also began writing for the theater, and penned the lyrics for 1947 Broadway musical Street Scene. Hughes’s drama Mulatto, about miscegenation and the South, remained for decades the longest-running Broadway play written by an African American. One of his best-known volumes of poetry, Montage of a Dream Deferred, was published in 1951, and after its publication Hughes wrote an additional 20 works before his death in 1967 from what were alleged to be complications from prostate cancer.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the United States. Her father was a pastor and a three-term mayor of Eatonville, and when her mother died in 1904, Hurston was sent to Jacksonville to live with her sister, working as a housecleaner in order to pay her school tuition. After living with various family members and friends of the family throughout her childhood, Hurston attended night school and graduated from high school in 1918. She moved to Washington, D.C. and received an associate degree from Howard University, publishing her first story and poem in the school’s literary magazine.
In 1925, Hurston moved to New York City, enrolling in Bernard College as its only African American student and winning awards for two short stories in Opportunity magazine. She also became an integral part of the group of writers, artists and musicians that would come to signify the Harlem Renaissance, publishing Fire!! with Langston Hughes, Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, Aaron Douglas and Gwendolyn Bennett.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hurston traveled to Florida and the Bahamas collecting anthropological research and discovering the links between African American and Afro-Caribbean folklore that would be captured in her fiction. Between 1934 and 1948 she published four novels, including her most famous, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938). Yet she was also a controversial and highly misunderstood figure, criticized for her use of dialect and her view on integration. By the 1940s, when she was no longer able to support herself as a writer, Hurston returned to the South and worked in a series of menial jobs. In 1960, she died of a stroke in the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her work received resurged interest in the 1980s, with the reissue of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1902, Wallace Thurman came to Harlem in 1925 after attending the University of Southern California. In 1926 he became the editor of The Messenger and Fire!! He also worked as a journalist, a reader, an editor and a ghostwriter.
Thurman was the author of two influential novels of the time, The Blacker the Berry (1929), which focused on the prejudices of the African American bourgeoisie, and Infants of the Spring (1930), which was a satire on the themes of the Harlem Renaissance, featuring as characters such artists as Richard Bruce Nugent and Thurman himself. As one of the first African American editors to be employed in a mainstream publishing house, Thurman co-authored Harlem, a popular Broadway play based on a story, which appeared in Fire!! Thurman died of tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism in 1934, at the age of 32.
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