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Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance
J. Martin Favor. Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. viii + 187 pp.
The artists and cultural productions of the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement continue to be the source of an abundance of critical material. The period has captured the imagination of literary and cultural critics in part because of the vitality of its players and the constant resurfacing of unknown stories, poetry, and essays. More importantly, critics are able to draw broadly on theories of race, gender, and culture as they attempt to explore the concerns of African-American men and women who had recently migrated to America's industrialized Northern urban spaces in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is this latter quality that makes the period between the great wars so relevant to the [End Page 493] concerns of black Americans living at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For J. Martin Favor in Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance, this period is particularly relevant to a discussion of race and authenticity because the artists and intellectuals of the time were "especially self-conscious about their (re)construction of African American identity."
Favor begins this clearly articulated and thorough examination of four major contributors to the period by questioning the very foundation of blackness, arguing that the defining of blackness leads naturally to the evaluation of authenticity. By drawing on examples from contemporary speech (like one's employment of "Oreo" to insult another) and film documentary, the text argues that the problems of representation, color, class, and gender come to bear on determining who is really black. Such was also the case for Harlem Renaissance intellectuals who struggled to "paint a more representative or authentic portrait of black Americans" than the one that emerged from nineteenth-century hegemonic discourse. The problem for Favor is that the identification of authentic blackness is complicated at best given the social, economic, and educational stratification present in the black community in the 1920s and 1930s and now.
In the introductory chapter, Favor outlines his intellectual concerns in the following passage:
My purpose here is to examine various utterances that go into the formation of the critical discourse of literary blackness, and to demonstrate that while some utterances may indeed provide fruitful means of examining texts, they may also limit the ways in which one can read African American literature. By privileging certain African American identities and voices over others, the critic of African American literature often restricts too severely his or her scope of intellectual inquiry into the construction of racial identity.
Ironically, the privileged identities and voices to which Favor refers are those of the African-American folk. He argues that much of the important critical discourse of blackness places the folk (southern, rural, and poor) at its forefront to the exclusion of non-marginalized black identities (northern, urban, and middle class). This vernacular approach to the study of black literature is grounded in a late-nineteenth-century valorization [End Page 494] of the African-American folk by such noted race men as W. E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke. For Favor, the diversity of the African-American experience necessitates a shift in critical emphasis from southern, rural folk as the key to gaining a proper perspective on black America.
In the remaining chapters, Favor accomplishes his goals with excellent close readings and clarity. His treatment of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, Jean Toomer's Cane, Nella Larsen's Quicksand, and George S. Schuyler's Black No More demonstrate these writers' ambivalent relationships to African-American identity, folk, and folk culture and point to race as an unstable entity subject to conflicting interpretations. According to Favor, Johnson, a member of DuBois's Talented Tenth, constructs the concept of black identity as performative, and Toomer's Cane is a text whose "political rightness or wrongness" requires measuring. He then...