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Voices from the Plantation
A close look at a map of Africa and the two Americas, first published by Janheinz John in Muntu, Umrisse der neoafrikanischen Kultur (Düsseldorf-Köln: Eugen Diedrichs Verlag, 1958) reveals the striking form of Africa and South America, the obvious connection between the concave form of Western Africa and the corresponding part of the American continent, both linked by arrows indicating the spreading of the African cultural elements by means of the slave trade. Some arrows lead to the Southern, Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking America, others lead to the English-speaking states of the North. Another arrow connects New Orleans to Chicago and New York, from where the so-called “Harlem style” found its own way to Europe. Along such routes the African slaves crossed the ocean, bringing with them the New World their cultural heritage.
Despised by the new masters, this culture survived, far from the surface of the official culture, as a folk culture. Everything that happened to cross the barrier of refusal and to come to the attention of the literary public was only accepted after being most carefully cleaned by any African element. Any literary production had to obey to the established European norms and values. There was no other way out. Far from the refinement of the first works by African writers in Europe, written in faultless English, Latin, Dutch, and Portuguese – the result of Enlightenment experiments meant to prove the famous statement of Rousseau that all men are, by their nature, equal – the writings of the first African American authors were nothing but simple narratives, based upon their own life experience, written in a vivid language, not seldom brushed up by careful editors.
It is worth mentioning the names of the eighteenth century slaves, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano whose autobiographies, written in an attractive and captivating manner, contain their early expressed appeal to ban slavery. Briton Gammon relates his sufferings at sea, while John Marrant’s narrative is full of fantasy and religious references, written in the picaresque tradition. It does not make very much for more than two centuries of slavery. The explanation is that the African American slave, legally set apart by black codes, and whose only reason for living was work from morning till night, did not give so much thought to conscious literary manifestations.
Most of the African American writers of the nineteenth century were either former slaves, or direct descendents of slaves. Their literary productions suggest a formal division into three distinct groups: autobiographies of escaped slaves, writings of preachers and of the clergy, and creative writings. The autobiographies of escaped slaves served to the political propaganda against slavery. The purpose governed everything: the subject matter, the style, even the authorship of the work itself. Even authors were invented, when necessary. Unfortunately, all emotion which could have made an authentic African American work was eliminated, the language was purified by all African elements, by any traits of folk imagery: the institution of slavery was to be blamed, and not individuals. Uncle Tom was the model to be followed by all slaves in their narratives, with a stress upon the spiritual nobleness not yet spoiled by suffering, their Christian humbleness and piety, with the spirit of justice based upon their petty bourgeois wisdom and sensibility. Such narratives were meant to show that the African American slave I not only equal in value, but absolutely equivalent to the middle Euro-American citizen. Naivete and sincerity were the only specific traits allowed, nothing barbarian, or primitive, or pagan. Nevertheless, such a brilliant writer such as Frederick Douglass (1817-1893), in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston, 1845), proved qualities worthy of the highest consideration: objectivity, honesty, Christian humanism together with expressiveness, persuasion force, and stylistic mastery. One of the foremost spokesmen of the abolitionist movement, Douglass expressed the dichotomy experienced by his contemporaries:
On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting greedily upon our flesh. On the other hand, away back in the grim distance, under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-covered mountain stood a doubtful freedom – half frozen – beckoning us to come and share her hospitality.
The “Narrative…” transcends the category of “slave narrative”; it is a self-conscious literary piece, an autobiography expressing the spirit of the age, sharing the concerns of the reformers and idealists of the day. In order to share the hospitality of the doubtful and half-frozen freedom man must be educated. Thus, the “Narrative…” is situated somewhere between David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), both authors representing opposed attitudes: the “father of the Negro revolt” vs. the “humblest man alive.”
Before writing down their sermons, the African American preachers delivered them orally, in the Negro Churches which gradually became genuine popular churches, in which the Negro cultural heritage asserted itself at its best. These preachers created their own oratorical style, rich in imagery, and rhythm which was meant to strongly impress the audience. There is a strong fusion of Biblical and African elements in these sermons, the stronger the fusion, the greater the effect.
We have already hinted at the necessity of the African American novelist to achieve universality through a sensitive interpretation of his own culture. The originality consists in the cultural dualism experienced by this writer whose task is to be conversant with Western culture as a whole, especially with the tradition of the English literature of which he is a part, and at the same time to be prepared to exploit at full advantage his African cultural heritage, as a legitimate contribution to the larger culture. His deepest psychological impulses alternate between assimilationism, on the one hand, and Negro nationalism, on the other.
Defined by Langston Hughes as “the urge to whiteness within the race,” assimilationism implies an incorporation of the white ideal, an unconscious urge to internalize the dominant cultural ideal, as well as an unconscious self-hatred. As Richard Wright puts it, “Hated by whites, and being an organic part of the culture that hated him, the black man grew in time to hate in himself what others hated in him.” Thus, an unconscious desire to be white, coupled with feelings of revulsion towards the Negro masses may produce an assimilationist pattern of behavior at the purely personal level. Such an urge to whiteness proves to be a means of escape, a contrived absence of race consciousness and a belittling of estate barriers. By minimizing the color line, the assimilationist loses touch with the realities of Negro life and identifies with the group whose skin color is white. Therefore, assimilationism defines itself as a social-class phenomenon. The African American chooses as his model a middle-class white person, the European composers are preferred to the African American jazz, Baptism tends to be replaced by Episcopalianism, and the matriarchal family will be gradually replaced by the family of the dominant male. This tendency towards assimilationism is at the bottom a matter of changing one’s reference group, an attempt to abandon ethnic ties and identify with the dominant appropriation of the dominant culture, including even its anti-minority prejudices.
Negro nationalism, as the popular opposite of assimilationism, can be conveniently defined as an urge to blackness within the race, which is essentially defensive in character. African Americans are drawn together by their common experience of racial oppression. Segregation creates the conditions of a separate group life, and the common heritage of slavery makes for a separate group tradition, hence a strong feeling of racial solidarity, a growth of race pride obvious in the African American’s striving to rebuild what the whites have torn down. The most cohesive in-group attitude is not race pride, but a bitter hatred of whites. This anti-white sentiment provide the psychological impetus of Negro nationalism. The attitude towards all things white, negative in its essence, is accompanied by a positive valuation of blackness. As a militant movement, Negro nationalism stresses self-determination and resists integration into the dominant culture. Two main periods have been identified in the cultural history of the African American, beginning with folk art before the Emancipation  and becoming literary in the full sense about 1890. Those years between 1863 and 1890 constitute the gestation period of the African American novelist. A strong inspirational emphasis reflects the desire of the so-called Talented Tenth to encourage ambition in the younger generation. A constant stress is placed on the property-acquired virtues: thrift and industry, initiative and perseverance, promptness and reliability. In the early novels these virtues are often reinforced by attitudes which derive from the Calvinist religion at work: a stern regard for duty, injunctions against idleness, sober warnings against self-indulgence. Most of the early novelists adopted a strict Protestant asceticism. As Pauline Hopkins put it, “We must guard ourselves against a sinful growth of any appetite.”
As it grew in number and confidence, the Talented Tenth came to require of its members certain symbols of status, such as home ownership, higher education for children, membership in a selected religious denomination, symbols stressed by the early novelists in their novels.
In addition to its inspirational function, the early African American novel served as an instrument of protest, through which the writers could express their grievances and appeal for justice. The early novelist was an advocate, pleading a cause. The novelists responded militantly to the post-Reconstruction repression, bringing every aspect of the caste system under attack.
Another outstanding feature of these novelists is their open contempt for the African American masses. They believed substantially in the myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority. From their novels, as from their lives, the Talented Tenth sought to eliminate all traces of Negro-ness, in the hope that cultural uniformity would make them more acceptable to the whites. When the Talented Tenth became convinced of the necessity for independent struggle, only then was there an effort to close ranks with the Negro masses.
Bearing in mind the racial strategy of the Talented Tenth, as well as their success ideology, we find ourselves in the position to understand the dramatic structure of the early African American novel: the colored protagonist, usually as aspiring, respectable white-collar or respected person, is confronted by the American caste system acting as a handicap or obstacle to his ambition. The dramatic tension of the novel arises from this conflict between the success ideology of the hero and the inimical effects of the caste system.
The African American novelist arrived on the literary scene at a time when the Romantic tradition was rapidly being undermined by literary realism. But the early novelists wrote exclusively within the Romantic tradition, choosing melodrama as their main literary vehicle. They inherited another stock figure from their white predecessors in the person of the tragic mulatto. The novelists of the Talented Tenth were quick to incorporate this device into their own novels, for it was ideally suited to their current racial strategy. Through the figure of the tragic mulatto they could stress the irrational nature of caste, with the implication that the color bar should be lowered, at least for descendents of the dominant race.
The racial attitude of contemporary white novels inevitably affected the content of the early African American novel. Its form was derived from the popular fiction of the day. Why melodrama? Because it deals with the conflict between Right and Wrong. Its moral extremes make it a natural vehicle for racial protest, at it assumes the existence of a stable moral universe, made manifest through the perennial triangle: Hero (a handsome black man) – Heroine (a beautiful mulatto girl) – Villain (a white scoundrel). The moral absolutism of melodramas served the strategic needs of the period. By emphasizing action, melodramas avoid the problems of characterization. Caught between anti-Negro characters, melodrama relies on extrinsic devices to hold the reader’s interest: exotic material from slavery times, such as mysteries of birth or lost inheritances, as well as plot materials which the whites preferred to ignore: miscegenation, passing-for-white, or racial violence. Above all else, melodrama is a literature of social aspiration. It has appealed, traditionally, to the white-collar classes. For them, melodrama is essentially a romantic projection of their future in the upper classes.
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was the most exciting and important cultural movement which African Americans had ever experienced. In fact, it was the first period during which a significant number of Americans actually examined African American culture closely and encouraged increased productivity for artistic reasons.
By 1920, African Americans had been publishing literary works for more than one hundred and fifty years: Lucy Terry, a slave in Deerfield, Massachusetts, is known to have composed a poem as early as 1746; Brutus and Jupiter Hammon wrote poetry and essays in the 1760s; and Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa and enslaved in Boston, had a collection of poems published in 1773. In the first half of the nineteenth century, while America debated the issue of slavery with intensifying fervor, additional African Americans earned modest reputations in literature – in particular, William Wells Brown for fiction and essays, Frances Harper for poetry, and Frederick Douglass for nonfiction. Nevertheless, during the first half of the century Americans generally turned to black writers for pathetic recitations of the agonies of slavery rather than for artistic literature.
After the Civil War, collections of spirituals and Joel Chandler Harris’s collections of folktales familiarized some Americans with African American talent for song and tale. Others, however, continued to doubt the educability and the artistic creativity of Afro-Americans. The first sponsors of Paul Laurence Dunbar rejoiced to discover his poetic talent, not so much because they considered it a possible source for significant contributions to American literature, but because it gave them opportunity to demonstrate the creative potential of a black American. Even the respected critic William Dean Howells, who praised Dunbar enthusiastically in 1896, revealed ignorance of black writers, an ignorance which persuaded Howells and other critics to underestimate the literary potential of Africa’s descendants. In the Atlantic Monthly in 1896, Howells praised Dunbar as the first individual of African ancestry to show innate literary talent; when reminded, or informed, that the very popular French writer, Alexandre Dumas, was of African descent, Howells modified his statement to describe Dunbar as the first African American to show innate talent for literature. Howells did not know or had forgotten the African ancestry of Alexander Pushkin, one of the greatest of all Russian authors; and in 1896 he apparently knew nothing about the African American Charles W. Chesnutt, who had published his first short story in the Atlantic Monthly more than ten years before Howells became acquainted with Dunbar’s work.
A few talented writers earned national attention at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first years of the twentieth. Dunbar became one of America’s most popular poets. The less popular Charles Chesnutt evoked critics’ respect as a writer of fiction, and W. E. B. DuBois delighted academicians with his scholarly historical and sociological studies and his brilliant essays. Nevertheless, America, in general, continued to judge such writers as exceptions rather than as examples of the creative potential of African Americans.
Ironically, interest in and respect for African American culture developed to a peak during the same decade in which the Ku Klux Klan revived its membership and organized klans farther north than ever before. Ironically, also, this decade of the twenties followed one in which few publishers, editors, or producers permitted African Americans opportunity to demonstrate their talent.
The change in attitude may be attributed to events and ideas which coincided during World War I. One, during the Jazz Age, as the decade is popularly remembered, Americans developed respect for the music – especially the jazz and the blues of black Americans. Performers and listeners alike learned to seek out such black jazz artists as the aging King Oliver or the young and exciting Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who were forming their first bands. The interest in music may have stimulated a desire to learn more about other creative endeavors of African Americans.
Two, rebelling against the mores of what seemed to be a conservative society, many young white Americans saw in black people the models for the kind of freedom they wanted. Not knowing the Harlemite who worked from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., but inferring racial character from the free improvisations of jazz, many whites imposed on African Americans the image of an amoral, unrepressed individual, happy because he was not burdened by the inhibitions of civilized white society.
Still other Americans, inspired by the democratic slogans preached during “the war to end all wars,” may have considered it their humanitarian responsibility to examine more closely the American citizens who had not reaped the full benefits of democracy. Furthermore, white artists – not merely musicians but also writers – became interested in black Americans, although primarily as representatives of a primitive culture. In 1917, Ridgely Torrence wrote Three Plays for a Negro Theater. Three years later Eugene O’Neill produced The Emperor Jones, in which he dramatized the thesis that savagery lurks beneath the civilized veneer of the African American. Within ten years, these writers were followed by Mary Wiborg (Taboo), Em Jo Basshe (Earth), DuBose Heyward (Porgy), Waldo Frank (Holiday), Sherwood Anderson (Dark Laughter), Paul Green (with numerous plays), Julia Peterkin (Black April), Carl van Vechten (Nigger Heaven), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), and Marc Connelly (Green Pastures), to name only some of the better known.
Undoubtedly, blacks themselves helped to win respect for their culture. Such African American scholars as Carter G. Woodson and Benjamin Brawley searched for achievements which they could praise and publicize. Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, and Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity magazine, joined white Carl van Vechten in a search for black talent. Experiences in Europe had developed among black soldiers a pride in themselves and their race. Availability of jobs had encouraged blacks to migrate north to a dignity and a freedom which, though limited, were greater than they had experienced previously.
No matter what the cause or causes, the fact is that during the 1920s white Americans became interested in the culture of African Americans, and the blacks gave them something to see. It was the decade of the “Harlem Renaissance,” so-called because many of the young, productive artists migrated to Harlem; or it was the decade of the “Negro Renaissance,” or, simply, the era of the “New Negro.” And writers abounded. Claude McKay, a West Indian, demonstrated versatility in poetry and fiction in re-creating the tender and the bitter moods of the New Negro. Wallace Thurman and George Schuyler wrote brilliant satires. Rudolph Fisher mixed satire and realism into faithful depictions of Harlem, and Jessie Fauset tried to depict the aspects of Negro life not continually affected by interracial conflicts. Young Langston Hughes earned respect for happy and loving poems and stories about Northern blacks, and his friend Arna Bontemps sympathetically revealed Southern blacks. James Weldon Johnson not only wrote poetry himself but even edited an anthology of African American poetry. Alain Locke edited The New Negro (1925), an anthology of criticism and creativity, Four Negro Poets (1927), and Plays of Negro Life (1927).
It was truly an era of African American artistic exuberance exemplified by black writers who sentimentally or realistically reproduced black primitives; who satirized their black social, economic, and intellectual peers; who laughed at themselves and their white neighbors; who searched for their heritage; and who found pride in themselves and their ancestors. The writers and their works sang a paean to blackness, written in a major key. But a melancholy minor chord was sounded by a triad – Jean Toomer, generally acknowledged to be the most artistic black craftsman of those who wrote before 1950; Countee Cullen, the precocious poet laureate of the Renaissance; and Zora Neale Hurston, the most competent black female novelist before 1950.
At first glance, one might assume that these three patterned after their contemporaries. They wrote about primitives; they satirized their peers; and they searched for their heritage. But they found scant satisfaction in their search. Upon closer examination, they seem to be wanderers – talented artists, perhaps the most talented African American writers of the decade, who searched in creativity and in life for some intangible satisfaction which they failed to find.
A problem for African American writers is that invariably those who become well-known are condemned or praised for non-aesthetic reasons. If they have written about black Americans, some white critics have expressed hope that, in the future, they would write about the human race. If they have written about human beings who are not black, other critics have condemned them for failing to write about people whom they understood; i.e., Negroes. Sometimes black writers have been castigated merely because they failed to establish themselves as social crusaders or because they removed themselves from the United States. At the other extreme, some black writers have been praised by white critics and readers primarily because they presented literary images which faithfully resembled the images of blacks already fixed in the minds of these white readers.
These practices have not abated. Richard Wright has been derided for using Existentialism, a non-American literary tradition, for choosing to write a novel about white people and for writing about blacks who are not middle-class. Not long ago, white critics denounced James Baldwin for subverting art to the promotion of social crusades for blacks; now, black critics denounce him for betraying his race by seeming to reveal love for white people. One well-known literary figure who could find little to berate in the artistic technique of Pulitzer Prize poet Gwendolyn Brooks concluded his critique by observing that she would remain a minor poet until she selected a broader subject than her present one – the lives and emotions of Afro-Americans. Ralph Ellison, who wrote about blacks, has been castigated by blacks for failing to participate in Civil Rights marches, whereas Frank Yerby, who writes about whites, has been criticized by whites for failing to use his talents to write histories about blacks.
The practice of evaluating African Americans’ literary work according to nonliterary criteria is so common that its absurdity becomes apparent only when one considers applying similar criteria to non-Negro authors. Suppose, for instance, that a critic chastized William Faulkner or DuBose Heyward for sometimes writing novels about blacks instead of about their own people. Or that a critic derided Tennessee Williams and Nathaniel Hawthorne as minor and provincial authors because they wrote about Southerners and New Englanders. Or that T. S. Eliot’s worth was estimated on the basis of whether or not he was justified in renouncing his American citizenship to become a British subject.
It is regrettable that such absurdity continues today when the literary talent of African Americans has been demonstrated convincingly. The award of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry to Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen (1949); the selection of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) as the most distinguished American novel published from 1939 to 1964; the drama awards to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (1964), and the Pulitzer Prize for drama to Charles Gordone’s No Place To Be Somebody, all these attest general respect for the ability of black writers, who today are less likely to be destroyed by social criticism.
The situation was more precarious for earlier black writers, who understood not only that whatever they selected as subject matter would be criticized but also that their works would be evaluated primarily by white readers, who often doubted black writers’ ability to create art and who measured verisimilitude according to their own preconceptions of African American character and black-white relationships.
Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston have suffered from aesthetically unsound appraisals of their merits as artists and from myths about their racial stances. Because the talent of Toomer has been highly respected, critics have been somewhat subdued in their objections to his decision to live as a white man rather than as a black; but, knowing little about his life or work, critics have interpreted his stories and sketches to fit their conceptions of what a black man should have thought about black people. For several years, Countee Cullen continued a debate with critics who advised him to write as a Negro poet about Negro subjects. Although he won the debate by changing his subject, some critics seem pleased to point out that he wrote less effectively when he abandoned Negro themes. Zora Neale Hurston alleged that, for several years, she refused to write a novel because she did not want to write about the race question but feared that she would be permitted to write about nothing else. A major objection to her work has been her silence about issues significant to Afro-Americans, but an unanswered critical question is the authenticity of her portrayal of Southern blacks.
To stand ground means to have a belief that you refuse to give up. No matter what conditions you are faced with, if you stand ground you will hold on to your convictions. Standing ground can be as simple as making a choice and holding firm to it or as complicated as believing in something when there is no evidence to prove it.
From the time that Africans were brought to America as slaves to the present, African Americans have had to stand ground. During slavery those who believed their servitude would end one day stood their ground when they held on to their dignity in the face of the horrors of the institution. Since slavery, African Americans have stood ground to earn the right to vote, to obtain an education, to live in decent housing, and to work in jobs where they were paid an equal salary.
African American writers stand ground when they create stories and poems that celebrate the spirit of resistance. Their work records the ability of African Americans to stand ground by taking pride in their culture and celebrating their African heritage. It records their ability to stand ground by affirming that they are entitled to the same rights as other American citizens. Finally, it records their ability to stand ground by refusing to give in when conditions are terrible. African American writers illustrate how African Americans take strength from within themselves and choose actions over which they have control.
A cultural flowering Although the very existence of the Harlem Renaissance has been disputed, with some choosing to emphasize the national scope of the cultural phenomenon and thus downplaying its identification with one district in New York City, the term Harlem Renaissance has remained popular. It has remained so because most scholars and students agree that the 1920s was a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts for black Americans and that much of that creativity found its focus in the activities of African Americans living in New York City, particularly in the district of Harlem.
Unquestionably, at least where the arts (including music and dance) are concerned, these years marked an especially brilliant moment in the history of blacks in America. In particular, the second half of the decade witnessed an outpouring of publications by African Americans that was unprecedented in its variety and scope, so that it clearly qualifies as a moment of renaissance, as such moments of unusually fertile cultural activity are often called. In poetry, fiction, drama, and the essay, as in music, dance, painting and sculpture, African Americans worked not only with a new sense of confidence and purpose but also with a sense of achievement never before experienced by so many black artists in the long, troubled history of the peoples of African descent in North America.
Although the term Harlem Renaissance is convenient and defensible, it is important to remember that what took place in New York City was in many respects a heightened version of the unusual cultural productivity taking place elsewhere in the United States, especially in the major cities of the North. In addition, it is also important not to draw artificial lines between “serious” and “popular” art, although many of the renaissance creators certainly did so. Expressed in various ways, the creativity of black Americans undoubtedly came from a common source – the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of a high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism. What happened in the United States should also be linked to certain trends abroad. By the late 1920s, African and Caribbean students in Paris and progressive young intellectuals and artists in the West Indies were reading the work of black Americans as well as their own thinkers and creators and were taking the first tentative steps toward, in one instance, the Negritude movement, and in another, the flowering of literature in the British West Indies, perhaps best exemplified later in the century by the poetry and plays of Derek Walcott. Negritude was a movement, mainly among French-speaking black writers, that emphasized a distinctly African aesthetic.
Nonetheless, Harlem and New York were crucial to the movement in the United States. The history of the publication of books of poetry and novels, as well as the production of plays, attests to the fact that something new and significant was taking place.
Migration North The cause or causes of a cultural renaissance are almost always difficult to trace precisely. However, New York City had become a magnet, perhaps the most powerful, for the thousands of blacks fleeing the South in the aftermath of the entrenchment of segregation following the end of the Reconstruction era, which itself followed the Civil War and the segregationist rulings of the U. S. Supreme Court, notably the landmark case Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, which endorsed separation in transportation. As legal segregation made living conditions for blacks in the South more and more intolerable, the widespread lynching of blacks bitterly underscored the extent to which they were powerless before the law and less than human in the eyes of many whites. Migration to the North increasingly seemed an absolute necessity for blacks seeking a better life for themselves and their children. In addition, swift industrial expansion in the North created a demand for labor that made many employers eager to recruit and hire black workers. This demand intensified when the United States entered World War I (1914-18) in 1917 and jobs previously held by white males, themselves now serving in the armed forces, became available to newcomers from the South.
While blacks settled in several northern cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, New York City was the destination of choice. Perhaps some migrants were enthralled by living in the largest, most cosmopolitan, and most renowned of American cities. More substantially, the district of Harlem had an additional attraction. Built originally to house middle-class and upper-middle-class whites, Harlem became available to blacks when it seemed clear that the area was seriously overbuilt; facing economic hardship, real estate interests among both races in effect conspired to break the exclusionary practices that had hitherto kept blacks out. Newcomers found grand avenues, broad sidewalks, and finely constructed houses that afforded blacks the chance to live in housing stock far superior in quality to anything available to them elsewhere in the United States. Harlem became home to all classes of blacks, including the leading writers and artists. As the national interest in African American culture grew, encouraged by a variety of factors, such as the growing popularity of jazz, blues, and dance, Harlem seemed well on its way to becoming, as the prominent writer and civil rights leader James Weldon Jones put it, “the Negro capital of the world.”
Harlem and New York quickly became the headquarters of many of the most important African American cultural and political national organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Also important was the effort of socialist groups to recruit blacks. Certain magazines and newspapers, based in Harlem, worked hard to stimulate a cultural wakening or renaissance. Of these, the most important was almost certainly the Crisis, edited by the brilliant scholar and propagandist W. E. B. Du Bois for the NAACP; Opportunity, edited by the urbane and cultural entrepreneur Charles S. Johnson for the National Urban League; the Messenger, edited by the socialist A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen; and Marcus Garvey’s Negro World. Although the Messenger was proud of its radical leftist goals, there was little difference between the kinds of literature published in these journals. Each was dedicated to social and political progress and uplift for black Americans and to the development of literary and artistic traditions of which the typical readers might be proud. Du Bois and the Crisis took the lead in calling for a cultural renaissance among blacks that would prove the genius of black America to the greater world, and especially to white Americans, who presumably would be moved to treat blacks with greater justice and compassion. Indeed, between 1919 and 1926 the Crisis employed a literary editor, Jessie Fauset, a graduate of Cornell University who not only published four novels stating with There Is Confusion (1924) but also discovered and nurtured several younger writers.
The New Writers The first glimmering of the new day in literature probably came not with the work of a black writer but with that of a white – Three Plays for a Negro Theatre, by Ridgely Torrence. James Weldon Johnson called the premiere of these plays in 1917 “the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American theatre.” Overturning the tradition of depicting blacks in stereotypical minstrel forms, Torrence’s plays featured black actors representing complex human emotions and yearnings; in this sense they anticipated not only plays of the 1920s about blacks such as The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1925) by the celebrated dramatist Eugene O’Neill but also the work of African American playwrights, poets, and fiction writers breaking with traditions that diminished and often insulted black humanity. Another landmark came in 1919, a year marked by several anti-black riots nationally, with the publication of the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay’s militant poem If We Must Die.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far out numbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Although the poem never alludes to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance against racism and racist violence unheard in black literature in many years. Then, in 1921, the musical review Shuffling Along, written and performed by blacks, brought to the stage novel styles of song, dance, and comedy that captivated blacks and whites alike and underscored the emergence of a new generation of black artistry.
In 1922, James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of verse, Book of American Negro Poetry, emphasized the youthful promise of the new writers and established some of the terms of the emerging movement. In his preface, Johnson attacked dialect verse, which had dominated black poetry until recently, and wrote of the need for the new black writers to find “a form of expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos” of African Americans that could nevertheless also give voice to “the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations” and the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.”
“What the colored poet of the United States needs to do,” Johnson wrote, “is something like what Synge did for the Irish.” Thus Johnson sought to link what was happening among blacks in the United States to the Irish Renaissance that had produced such internationally renowned figures as the poet William Butler Yeats and the playwright John Millington Synge. In alluding to “the racial spirit” he was identifying a counterpart to the so-called Celtic or Irish muse that was seen as quite distinct from the English literary imagination. In calling for a form “freer and larger than dialect,” he challenged black writers to disentangle themselves from the stereotypes that had reached their highest forms of art in the poetry of the African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had died in 1906. Above all, Johnson set the manipulation of language and other patterns of signification, not the overt assertion of political ideals, as the heart of the African American poetic enterprise. And he did so while reminding the young black writers, through his anthology, that they were also heirs to their own tradition – the tradition of African American literature from Phillis Wheatley in the eighteenth century down to his own work – on which they could draw with a measure of confidence as they moved into the future.
In Johnson’s anthology and in Robert Kerlin’s Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923) appeared the early work of many of the writers who would dominate the movement, including Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. With very few exceptions, none of the younger writes of the movement saw himself or herself as part of the radical modernist strain of literature set in motion in America mainly through the efforts of poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H. D., and Wallace Stevens or by the Irish writer James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses appeared in 1923. Such crucial texts of radical modernism as a learned allusiveness and a necessary complexity of expression that demands an exclusive literary audience attracted few African American writers. Like most white poets of the age, most black poets were enthralled by traditional forms of verse as established by the major British and American Romantic poets and their admirers. Modernist verse that resembles the work of Pound, for example, would not appear until much later, and then on a highly restricted scale. Among major American Romantic poets after Whitman, only E. A. Robinson and Carl Sandburg would exert any particular degree of influence on the Harlem Renaissance. In part, this distance was owing, no doubt, to some inattentiveness on the part of the younger writers; in part, however, these writers were after a different business altogether. Most could not be completely taken, for example, by T. S. Eliot’s epochal figuring of the entire modern world as a “Waste Land.” For many of them, the 1920s was a decade of unrivaled optimism, and all through the generations of slavery and neo-slavery, black American culture had of necessity emphasized the power of endurance and survival, of love and laughter, as the only efficacious response to the painful circumstances surrounding their lives.
Even more important than Johnson’s anthology as a text helping to define the emerging spirit of the movement was another anthology, albeit one of a far more varied sort: The New Negro (1925), edited by the Howard University professor Alain Locke. Locke’s anthology combined essays, stories, poems, and artwork by older as well as younger writers, white as well as black, into a book that defined with incomparable clarity and flair the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. Merging racial awareness with a desire for literary and artistic excellence, the text exuded a sense of confidence in the black world emerging from generations of repression in the United States, and in the spirit of Johnson’s challenge, it conceived of black America as linked not only to other African-based cultural movements around the world but also to other movements, such as the Irish or Czech, that fused ethnic pride or nationalism with a desire for a fresh achievement and independence in art, culture, and politics.
Between the appearance of Johnson’s anthology and Locke’s, the publication of Jean Toomer’s Cane independently illustrated several of the peculiar challenges and opportunities of the nascent movement. Opening with brief but hauntingly evocative portraits of the black South, then moving to a powerful rendition of blacks in northern cities, before returning to the South with a shrouded drama about a black northerner of troubled, fatalistic consciousness terrorized by the threat of violence at the hands of whites, Cane is a text that few of the young writers could resist. Technically, the work embraced certain principles of modernism and even the avant-garde and yet is saturated with African American racial feeling offered now nostalgically, now militantly, but always in highly affecting language. Quite apart from the fiction in the book, the poems included almost casually in the volume were of a quality to challenge the best of the young Harlem writers, who read Cane and saw Toomer as an authentic star.
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