Volume Five, December 2004

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Several years after the Civil War (1861-1865), the abolition of slavery did not bring the automatic acceptance of the black people into the “big family” of White America. The fact that black culture and literature as well were linked to the black political, social and economic experience was noticed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his book The Soul of the Black Folk (1903), where he says that work, culture, and liberty – are needed, not singly but together, since each grows and aids each. Black literature concerning black life is thus not only a mirror of different époques, ideas and ideologies, but also an expression of the high education of the black people.

Seeking an imagined opportunity for economic and political improvement in the expanding industrial cities of the North, many Southern blacks migrated there. In the early 1900s, those who flooded into New York followed the typical pattern of migrating groups, gravitating towards areas where people of their own culture have already established themselves. In New York this place was Harlem. (Lennox Birch 32)

Harlem offered the black people the opportunity to prove their identity previously denied them. Nathan Huggins describes the twenties in Harlem as “a point of change”.
This summit of black culture developed from some historical elements such as: the aggressive protests of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organization created by Booker T. Washington in 1909, the ferment of the Great Migration, World War I and its aftermath, and “Garveysm.” In 1923, Marcus Garvey awakened pride in blackness and the conviction that “black is beautiful,” with unprecedented vigor. It was called “back-to-Africa movement” and it had an impressive number of supporters. If Garvey was a hero to the uneducated, he was a charlatan, a dangerous demagogue to virtually every educated person of color. He had himself proclaimed Provisional President of the African Republic and appeared in public in a resplendent uniform with plumed hat, accompanied by deputies. The faithful followers were rewarded with membership in honorary orders like the Knights of the Nile, and the Distinguished Service Order of Ethiopia. His Black Star Line, formed to demonstrate the value of self-improvement and especially of black business activity, managed to dissipate completely the $750,000 capital in less than three years. In 1923, Garvey was convicted of using the mails to defraud and was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He was pardoned and deported in 1927, and died in London in 1940 in almost total obscurity.
Trying to prove the uniqueness of their cultural inheritance, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance turned to the art and music of their African ancestors, thus bringing into relief their sound conviction that “the black American was not a cultural orphan”, as Eva Lennox Birch says in her essay “Harlem and the First Black Renaissance” (36).
Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston believed very much in the authenticity of the language used in oral communication by the black population in the Deep South especially, and they knew that their literary success depended upon their use of non-literary language and idioms of the blacks, associated with standard and literary English. Fighting against Alain Locke’s idea of promoting an artistic elite to speak for the silenced majority, these two writers and Wallace Thurman founded a magazine called Fire! in which Harlem writers voiced their fears that art founded on a propagandist or elitist base would become vitiated, as well as their resistance to white standardization. In 1926, in his article on “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” published in The Nation, Hughes expressed the aims of these Harlem writers who regarded Hughes’s words as a kind of manifesto:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves. (in Lennox Birch 36)

In the same article, Hughes pointed out the double bind in which black writers were caught: on one hand their financial dependence upon white patrons, and on the other hand their being constrained by political pressures from black leaders. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston both depended on the financial assistance of a rich white woman, Ms. Osgood Mason, who in return insisted on being called “Godmother” and also claimed editorial rights to their work. That is why Hurston refers to the Renaissance in Harlem as something “so-called” and insists on the fact that the “rebirth” was limited. Hughes also describes the gradual appropriation of Harlem by whites. They come to listen to black musicians and rich whites flooded the cabarets and bars where only blacks drank, laughed, talked and sang before. White people with money are given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the black customers who were “like amusing animals in a zoo” (37). It was now that black artists were shown off, and exhibited, and presented to all sorts of white people with the obvious aim of getting some financial support. But the terms used can be properly applied to valuable works of art, or to freaks or performing animals, but not to human beings.

This feature of the Renaissance, when blacks were lionized and petted, illustrates the constraints under which the writers worked. As exhibits they were owned, or at least controlled by their own political leaders or by rich white patrons. What had begun in the Harlem of the 1920s as an exciting, vibrant explosion of black creativity, with the possibility of regeneration and selfdefinition, had become considerably muted by the mid-1930s.The race riots of 1935 were both an expression of black discontent and an acknowledgement that Booker T. Washington’s dream of full and equal status for the blacks in American society was still just that – a dream. (37)

Even so, young black writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Claude McKay rediscovered the primitive virtues of spontaneity, joy, energy and sensuality of the Renaissance. The liberation from the white standards and values was reached by the reaffirmation of the American past, the use of dialect, the admiration and imitation of folk music and folklore. In this period, which Francis Scott Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age,” the identification with the spirit of jazz, the celebration of sensuality, the belief in improvisation, and authenticity of feeling became the ideology not only of blacks, but also of whites.
Toomer, a great representative of the Harlem Renaissance, too, in the first part of his work Cane (1923) – a part consisting of sketches, stories, poems, and a short play – spotlights the rural, stable dimension of the blacks’life in the South, in Sparta, Georgia. The second part, which is moved into the Cities of Washington and Chicago, describes a sterile life corrupted by the urban materialism and dominated by white values. Thus, the effect of the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban centers of the North, the hardships caused by the low-paying and day-and-night work, the returning to the land working in the South, or the high rate of suicides play their extremely important role in the alienation of black people. Cane is an indirect protest against the white system, which indulged the creation of such a society, and against the effects of the long years of slavery, which made black man dependent on plantations.
Toomer also describes the intra-relationships within the black society. He reflects the familial instability which was a characteristic of the time and presents black women as the rich source of life, in spite of their sexual and racial victimization. More than half a century after it had been published, Alice Walker confessed: “Cane has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens 259).
As regards the way in which the Renaissance writers mirrored the life of their people we must also mention Langston Hughes’s interest throughout all his work, from The Negro Speaks of Rivers in 1921, in which he celebrates the black historical experience and its influence on the soul, to his last volume of poetry, The Panther and the Lash, in 1967, in which he explores the aspects of the black urban experience. Focusing on the life of Harlem, a life of swirling emotions, he passes from the directness of violent racial confrontation, death and murder in the streets, to the subtle nuances of blues singers in the night clubs, and to the gospel singing in the storefront churches in order to present his people’s manners, their talk, their music and dances, their clothes, their thoughts and their dreams. Hughes dealt also with the life of the black family and in his novel, Not without Laughter (1930), he described the life of a colored mid-western town boy, whose drama emerged from his inability to laugh and, in this way, to surpass the accumulating poverty, the conflicting forces which had divided his family.
Although the women writers had to struggle both against racism, the strongly male-dominated cultural theory, as well as against the biased practice of the Harlem Renaissance, two women writers can be mentioned here for their art in depicting the black society of the time. They belong to the so-called “Rear Guard” of the Black Renaissance, not so radical in their works, but “ultrarespectable.” One is J.R. Fauset, the other one, Nella Larsen.
Jessie Redmon Fauset’s novels familiarize the reader with the problems of female sexual identity and with the racial conflict. They show the permutation between power and powerlessness as a result of the fusion of race and gender together. In her novel Plum Bun (1929) she deals with the theme of “passing” which has a double meaning: on the one hand she speaks about the struggle of the mulatto against sexual politics and racial prejudices, and on the other hand she refers to the situation of the woman artist who must conceal (or sacrifice) her life vision in response to social definitions of femininity.
Nella Larsen, the other representative woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance, explores in her novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) the similar theme of female sexuality and frustrated ambitions.
Helga Crane, the heroine of Quicksand, the daughter of a white mother and a black father, begins her career as a teacher at the Naxon Southern Negro College and then moves to Harlem, which provides her a temporary refuge. After a romance with a portrait painter in Denmark, her mother’s native country, she returns to Harlem. Disappointed with her failure in love, she marries the Reverend Green, a pastor who comforted her in a helpless moment. She thus has “to like it or lump it” when she accompanies him to a small town in Alabama County, becomes a child bearer and a domestic drudge. Like any other woman of her social condition, age and color, Helga is both a victim of the chains that tie her to the yoke of black folk, which she has despised, and of the lack of familial stability.
In the aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance, during the difficult era of the Great Depression, the most outstanding representative of the black literature was Richard Nathaniel Wright. His childhood was a time of hunger – for food, for affection, for understanding, for friendship, and for education. Deeply influenced during the first stage of his literary career (1933-1940) by naturalism, existentialism, and above all, communism, Wright later claimed that he had learned from the iconoclastic journalist H. L. Mencken how one could use words as weapons. He contended that all good literature had to be protest literature, and he illustrated his point of view in Native Son (1940), a real document about the life of the blacks in the urban areas of the 1940s. An illustration of the American racial dilemma and a novel of high artistic merit, Native Son materialized Wright’s intimate knowledge of black urban life, his experience in the South and his communist ideology, and made its protagonist Bigger Thomas, a powerful, real portrait of a rebellious black man formed, or better said deformed, by the American racial system.
Similarly, the heroes of Wright’s short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas (1938) had to also face white oppression and racial conflicts which resulted in physical violence and had to resist them either by individual flight (in Big Boy Leaves Home), through protection of the family (in Down by the Riverside), or by directed, collective resistance (in Fire and Cloud). In all these tales, set in the Deep South, Wright notably showed his skill in writing communist-style narrations, but also his gift for writing far less didactic fictions.
Native Son, the above mentioned collection, his pictorial history Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), his well-known and appreciated autobiographical novel Black Boy (1945),and his posthumous collection of stories Eight Men (1961) and the novel Lawd Today (1961) influenced a whole generation of black novelists. Those writers influenced by Wright in their literary careers, his contemporaries, included: Ann Petry, Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith, Owen Dodson, Dorothy West and William Demby. Later, they were dubbed part of the “Wright School of Writers.”
It is true that Wright had been the leading figure of the 1930s, but, as I have shown, he also bred many successors in the years to come. Ralph Ellison is an outstanding one. Born in Oklahoma, a Southern state with a mild tradition of slavery, Ellison felt it his duty to reveal what he himself felt, rather than what he thought that the other people of color were supposed to feel. He always considered that the Oklahoma black people had “a tradition of aggressiveness” in preserving their budding identity, and life there was not so tightly structured as it would have been in the traditional South.
Ellison’s single, massive novel, Invisible Man, was published in 1952, and it is the story of an unnamed black protagonist who moves through the stages of modern American Black history: the beginning, is about his Deep Southern childhood; then the protagonist attends a Negro College supported by Northern philanthropy (Ellison himself attended Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington); the next stage brings into attention industrial factory work in New York; then the reader is told about the protagonist’s exposure to the Negro ferment in Harlem: a “back-to-Africa” anti-colonialist movement and a communist-like organization called simply “the Brotherhood”; then there comes the “hipster” scene, and finally, the protagonist ends by writing his memoir, in a fantastic underground retreat from which he meditates on the necessity of returning to the surface. But to what new phase of the black experience this time? Because any possibility of getting back to the past is rejected.
The Invisible Man can be interpreted as a kind of anti-Ellison, lacking his creator’s exceptional childhood, his feelings for the values of a black heritage. The book as such bears the mark of inspiration from American writers like Dostoevsky and Kafka.
Both Ralph Ellison and the next outstanding writer meant to bring “change” in the field of black literature, James Baldwin, although deeply influenced by Richard Wright in the beginning of their careers, found themselves in conscious rebellion against their precursor. They believed he suffered from a provinciality of imagination, despite the fact that Wright lived many years as an expatriate in Paris and he was in contact with international personalities like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Nevertheless, the only conclusion I would reach is that in Ellison’s desire to explore his own experience as a human being with the fullest possible freedom he created one of the most outstanding novels of the mid 20th century.
James Baldwin, the most important black writer who emerged between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties, did not begin as a partisan of the protest literature. On the contrary, having been in opposition with his father who died in 1943, within a year later Baldwin adopted Richard Wright’s figure as his spiritual father and what followed was very simple: Baldwin’s habit of defining himself in opposition to “the name of the father” was transferred to the new relationship. Thus, if Wright was committed to protest literature, Baldwin launched himself into his own artistic career with a fiery essay called Everybody’s Protest Novel. His novels and essays do deal with the black people’s cause; they link the identity problems with those of white oppression in colonial system in an age when the search for both an ethnic and a historical identity was being reaffirmed the concept of negritude.
The best of his novels is Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). According to Bone, “It ranks with Jean Toomer’s Cane, Richard Wright s Native Son, and Ralph Ellison s Invisible Man as a major contribution to American fiction” (218). In dealing with the world’s postwar concern with the problems of personal identity, its main hero belongs to the numberless armies of darkness and must forever share their pain, but somehow, at the same time, he has to find his own identity and to alleviate his own suffering, in order to find his inner peace.
Giovanni’s Room (1956) is by far the weakest of Baldwin’s novels. Its action goes backward linking itself to Go Tell It on the Mountain, and forward towards the next novel, Another Country. “The characters are vague and disembodied, the themes half-digested, the colors rather bleached than vivified. We recognize in his sterile psychic landscape the unprocessed raw material of art” (Bone 226).
As regards the intra-relationships within the black family, Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) has a black woman as its central character and it presents black woman in diverse roles.
Although he had also written three collections of essays: Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963), and two plays: The Amen Corner (1955) and Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), his most outstanding literary piece of work remains beyond question his first novel. In his book The Negro Novel in America, in chapter 10, entitled “James Baldwin,” Robert A. Bone says: “I find Baldwin strongest as an essayist, weakest as a playwright and successful in the novel form on only one occasion” (215).
Escaping the pattern of African-American literature of her times, male dominated and whose most-often-dealt-with themes were racial affirmation and radical racial protest, Zora Neale Hurston shifted the focus of her work to the black womanhood. “She emerges as a complex, tragic and talented figure; a woman who had to combat the societal pressures exercised by class, race, gender and religion” (Lennox Birch 39). Being not the only woman writer in Harlem, she shared very much in common with Nella Larsen, for instance. Like the latter, Hurston explored and presented the dilemma of the educated mulatta and their search for a meaningful position in the American society, engaged with sexual and racial politics, and brought also into discussion the most problematic area of the ambiguous nature of female sexuality. Both women writers created and published within a male dominated literary milieu, and both had to combat the sexism and racism in their lives, facts which they used as the raw material of their fictions.
In her “Forward” to Robert E. Hemenway’s Zora Neale Hurston – A Literary Biography (1980), Alice Walker makes for the reader two of the shortest, but most realistic and shocking descriptions of the Southern black woman writer: “Zora, who became an orphan at nine, a runaway at fourteen, a maid and manicurist (because of necessity and not from love of the work) before she was twenty, with one dress, managed to become Zora Neale Hurston, author and anthropologist at all” (in Hemenway xvii). “She was funny, irreverent (she was the first to call the Harlem Renaissance literati “the niggerati”), good looking and sexy” (in Hemenway xiv).
Author of four novels, a book of folklore, an autobiography, and more than fifty essays and short stories, Hurston always dealt with historical and social aspects, which disturbed the already agitated lives of the black people in her time. During the thirties and forties, black authors did not receive much acceptance, and publishers did not court them. If their work was not about racial problems, and Hurston’s were not, they did not sell well at all. That is why this spicy black woman writer, who was like a gift from God to all her kinship writers in the post Harlem Renaissance period, left this world in a relative obscurity in 1960, the year which also marked the death of another native son of black America, Richard Wright.
She had collected folklore on large areas in the rural South, and the fruit of her researches were published in Mules and Men (1935), the first popular book about the life, culture and folklore of the blacks written by an African-American. Her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is regarded, even now, as one of the most poetic works of fiction written by a black writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Both white and black American critics have favorably compared this book to Richard Wright’s Native Son, and they have pointed out that it manages to express Hurston’s own hopes for a meaningful place in a male-dominated world. It is the story of Janie’s grandmother who lived in a slave society and who tried to teach Janie the rules a black woman has to follow in order to survive: in a black community characterized by lack of money, of power and of social position, she must subdue to the white man and she must act according to the circumstances, and not according to her own feelings. But young Janie does not want to follow her granny’s pieces of advice and breaks this rule in order to find her own happiness and fulfillment in life. Unlike other black women who find in work a compensation for the lack of their husband’s love, Janie finds her liberation by creating a balance between love and work. In the end, her love affair fails, when her beloved “Tea Cake”, enraged by the biting of a rabid dog, attacks her, and she kills him in self-defense. But the female-female relationship proves to be both stronger and more successful, as shown in the case of intimacy between Janie and Phoeby. By telling Phoeby the story of her life, Janie finds another way of surmounting the hardships of her life: that of creativity, of re-creating herself through introspection and storytelling.
I hope I am not mistaken if I take Zora for Janie and Janie for Zora. In fact, they are both black poor Southern females who strive hard after their aims in life. And for a certain period of time they could be viewed as winners who cannot make without laughter. But only Zora’s laughter was remembered. “It was a laughter born of the pain of being poor, black and female” (Lennox Birch 39).
In 1949 Gwendolyn Brooks, the best-known and most successful black poet of the postwar years became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize with Annie Allen. During the first decades of her career strongly encouraged by Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, she worked hard to express the lives of the urban poor she knew well, the Chicagoans especially creating rather black portraits than a picture of the black way of protesting. She wrote about love, hate, fear, tragedies, triumphs and deaths which inextricably intertwine the lives and destinies of the black people very much like those of the people belonging to any other race. In her first book A Street in Bronzeville, she hoped her readers would admit that black people did not differ from other races except by color. She dealt with common themes, and very much like Phillis Wheatley and Countee Cullen before her; she made use of both the biblical speech of black preachers and the vivid talk of the ghetto inhabitants. She began and continued for a long time as a poet in the orthodox literary tradition, writing sonnets and short lyrics, and using strongly accented and rhymed lines.
In the late sixties, no longer content with what Langston Hughes had called “the ordinary aspects of black life”, the reader finds out a new Gwendolyn Brooks, who undertook a radical change of direction. She acquired a black publisher and wrote primarily for black audiences. The traditional forms of her early poetry were gone then and her new poetic creation juxtaposed fragments of anger, bafflement and protest.
A first and natural conclusion to be drawn is that an astonishing burst of creativity among black women writers, beginning with Gwendolyn Brooks and Paule Marshall, and continuing with younger artists like Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and the even more popular author Alice Walker, brought about a much – dreamed – of resurrection of women written literature.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. With a Foreword by Alice Walker. Urbana and Chicago: U. of Illinois P., 1980.
Lennox Birch, Eva. Black American Women’s Writing. A Quilt of Many Colours. Leicester: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

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