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Reviewed by:
  • Edna L. Steeves
Melissa Walker. Down from the Mountain Top: Black Women's Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991. 234 pp. $26.00.
James Dejongh. Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990. 280 pp. $24.95.
Michael Awkward. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 188 pp. pb. $14.00.

Melissa Walker provides new interpretations of twentieth-century novels by black women writers since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. These novels are grouped according to their historical settings beginning with Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), set in the days of slavery and reconstruction, and ending with Alice Walker's Temple of my Familiar (1989), with its contemporary setting. All of the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are treated, as well as selected works by eight other well-known black women novelists: Margaret Walker, Sherley Anne Williams, Louise Meriwether, Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, Kristin Hunter, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Cade Bambara. The author groups these novels under six historical periods: Slavery and Reconstruction; From the Great War to World War II; Harbingers of Change: Harlem; Private Lives before the Movement; From Desegregation To Voting Rights; and In the Wake of the Movement.

Considered as a group in their historical setting, these novels reflect, grow out of, and examine the complex phenomena that make up the struggle for racial justice. The earlier novels reflect the hope and optimism prevalent at the peak of the civil rights movement; the later novels reflect the concern and ambivalence about personal fulfillment that have replaced the movement's promises for the future. Walker's historical approach reveals how these novels probe events of the past, conditions of the present, and possibilities for the future. This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of African-American women's fiction, particularly in its relation to contemporary ideology, social and political.

James Dejongh argues that Harlem has become an image of strength in the mind of the Black Diaspora. As a quintessentially black city ("Black Capital of the World") in the midst of a great modern metropolis, Harlem has since the turn of the century piqued the imagination of writers, both black and white. In this book, Dejongh focuses on the aesthetic and cultural significance of the idea of Harlem: its promise as a cultural capital in the 1920s; its social and political challenge in the 1940s; and its appropriation by African and Caribbean writers as a symbol of shared experience in the 1960s. After each of the race riots of 1919, 1943, and 1964 in American cities with large black populations, a new international generation of Africana writers emerged, using Harlem as the emblem of an ethos of racial renewal. The idea of Harlem became part of the figurative geography of modern writers of all races.

Although blacks had lived in Manhattan from the earliest days of Dutch New Amsterdam, it was not until the early 1920s that Harlem became identified with African-American life in New York City. In the 1880s and 1890s blacks had lived in scattered clusters in various areas of Manhattan. Then between 1890 and 1910, the black population of the city tripled. At the same time, the depression of 1904-1905 collapsed the real estate market in Harlem, which in those decades [End Page 737] was a community of whites, with nice homes north of the business section of the city. This collapse of the Harlem real estate market afforded an opportunity for certain black realtors to get control of numerous buildings on 134th and 135th Streets between Lennox and Fifth Avenue. Harlem suddenly became available to blacks. Black churches moved in, black social and fraternal organizations, newspapers, and clubhouses followed. By 1919, Harlem had become firmly established as a stylish black community. Harlem had become New York's first self-contained Negro community—a place where blacks could be themselves.

DeJongh notes that as America approaches the 1990s, the great migration north from the deep South has begun to reverse itself. As many blacks return to their southern roots...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 737-738
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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