- Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Harlem Renaissance:The Case of Countee Cullen
The biggest mistake we make in discussions of "authenticity" and African American modernism is also generally the first mistake we make: the assumption that the term means something for black writers and artists qualitatively different from what it means for everyone else at the time, rather than simply meaning more, and, even then, simply more of the same. It is not that race plays no role in how "the authentic" is defined and deployed; clearly it does, as it always has for African Americans, where authenticity functions as a measure of success or as a stick with which to enforce the black artist's right relation to black people or to blackness itself. Yet the discourse of racial identity and of the authenticity of both the racial self and the art that it produces exists within and takes meaning from broader discussions about authentic identity and culture and the relative ability of anyone to create or maintain either in the kind of world taking shape in the 1910s and 1920s. This world included Harlem, New York, as well as those other U.S. cities—Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago especially—where New Negro artists and intellectuals gathered to articulate a modern Black aesthetic.
Though self-described as a rebirth of African American arts, the Harlem Renaissance fits squarely in a very American tradition that defines the authentic first as authentically American, by which is meant, most specifically, not British. The call for a real American literature, where "real" connotes the same qualities of natural roughness (later primitivism) and lack of popular or material success David Shumway identifies with authentic rock music, was heard loudly in the early nineteenth century and then again in the early twentieth, when it was propelled by [End Page 507] the twin terrors of late nineteenth-century gentility and the movement of commodity capitalism into the realm of art and literature. On both counts, African Americans had special issues. While I agree with Vincent Sherry that, even in the U.S., the difference between modernists and their 1890s predecessors "may be more willed and rhetorical than substantive or imaginative," it's worth remembering what the precedent actually was if one were a black American. With lynching at its peak, those African Americans appearing in the public arena who were not Booker T. Washington were likely instead to be either already dead or reduced to racist caricature in the service of entertainment and advertising. Most prior literary work was simply invisible, and too much of it suffered from "bombast, bathos and artificiality," as Alain Locke put it, especially when compared to the era's genuine contributions in popular music, the growing commercial success of which threatened to reveal, in the same "loser wins" logic Shumway borrows from Bourdieu, its essential inauthenticity, both racially and aesthetically.1 The studied conventionality and sheer badness of much late nineteenth-century African American writing, poetry in particular, while similar in kind to the worst output of the most popular white writers at the time, was also a direct consequence of the self-censorship imposed in response to the racism of post-Reconstruction American culture (e.g., where racist notions about black women's sexuality led inexorably to the unassailable virtue of fictional heroines). The need to make a clean break with this literary and historical past was quite real for African Americans; indeed, the nostalgia Katherine Lynes identifies in Helene Johnson's "Bottled" for a past never actually experienced in a fictional Africa known largely through racist popular culture reflects the same need to blot out one's immediate past in favor of a history and identity prior to the experience of slavery and the institutionalized humiliation put into place after Reconstruction. As Lynes' analysis of the poem indicates, while this move may have been politically disadvantageous in the long run, it was not made casually or naïvely.
Yet the terms of the break were distressingly familiar. One of the striking aspects of the modernist reaction to both the genteel past and the prospect of a future overdetermined by the commodity form is the central role...