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Books and Reading

Opening Remarks by Mrs. Bush at the
Harlem Renaissance Event

Good afternoon. Welcome to the White House Salute to America's Authors. This program, the second in a series on American authors, celebrates one of the richest literary periods in American history, the Harlem Renaissance, and the authors whose genius brought it to life.

In many ways, the Harlem Renaissance began as a dream looking for a creative outlet. African-Americans fleeing the racism of the South found a welcome haven in Harlem. In Harlem, skin color didntt prevent people from having a well-paying job or going out on the town. And in Harlem, people could write what they felt, what they believed, and what they hoped for.

During the 1920s and 30s, Harlem was the place where social forces, cultural pride and creative passion collided. That collision caused a truly remarkable artistic outpouring by African-American writers, artists and musicians.

The writers of the Harlem Renaissance, whom we focus on today, celebrated their culture in poetry and prose while capturing the stark realities of being black in America. In committing their words to paper, they shaped a rich literary history and became agents of change.

W.E.B. Du Bois' character in The Souls of Black Folk captured the frustration of many with the words: "How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."

Zora Neale Hurston captured the extremes of human emotion when she wrote, "I have been in sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands." Lucy Hurston, Zora's niece, is here today. Welcome.

Countee Cullen recorded a wrenching childhood memory of bigotry on a train ride in Baltimore.

Langston Hughes lamented the inequalities around him in "I, Too, Sing America;" and in "Harlem (2)", he asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?"

The words of these writers opened us to the truth at a time when it most needed to be heard. For instance, in Hughes' poem "Freedom", he writes:

Some folks think
By burning churches
They burn
Some folks think
By imprisoning me
They imprison
Some folks think
By killing a man
They kill
But Freedom
Stands up and laughs
In their faces
And says,
No -
Not so!

The Harlem Renaissance brought great change to American letters and it broadened the influence of literature and social commentary. The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance spans decades and generations. We recognize and appreciate it today, in our society and in works of contemporary writers.

Some of those writers are with us today: James McBride, Walter Dean Myers, and Colson Whitehead. We'll hear from them later.

Our first guest has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work on W.E.B. Du Bois (in 1994 and 2001). He's the Martin Luther King, Jr., University Professor at Rutgers University and a 1999 winner of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. Please join me in welcoming Dr. David Levering Lewis.

Related Links
White House Salute to American Authors Series
National Book Festival
Texas Book Festival
Laura Bush: Librarian and Teacher
Resources: Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
White House Conference on School Libraries
White House Colloquium on Libraries, Museums, and Lifelong Learning
Highlights of Mrs. Bush's Library Tours and Visits
Teaching Children to Use their Public Library
Laura Bush's Recommended Reading