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  • Black Modernism's Unfinished Business
  • Phillip Brian Harper (bio)
A Change in the Weather: Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary, Geoffrey Jacques. University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.
Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms, Anita Patterson. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Race, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernism: Suzanne Lacascade, Marita Bonner, Suzanne Césaire, Dorothy West, Jennifer M. Wilks. Louisiana State University Press, 2008.


If, as is widely accepted, literary modernism comprises a motivated response to the demands of historical modernity, then any account of "black modernism" would have to reckon the specific challenges that modernity has posed for peoples of African descent. In some respects, this is not especially difficult to do—at least insofar as we understand what the advent of modernity per se has entailed: the expanded and intensified geographical circulation of persons, goods, and capital; the rise of industrial manufacture and the attendant specialization of the labor process; the heightened complexity and dynamism of macro-level social organization; the ascent of the nation-state; the increasing rationalization of key social actions and mechanisms.1 We know, for instance, that the European pursuit of Atlantic exploration ultimately implicated millions of sub-Saharan Africans in a transoceanic circuit in which they constituted persons, goods, and capital simultaneously. We further know that black peoples' induction into this slave economy was a central factor in the eventual solidification of the modern Western nation-state. And we know, too, that racial-political conditions within the US tended to impede African Americans' access to industrial wage labor, even as the latter was becoming an historical imperative. To adapt a point made by Geoffrey Jacques regarding the emergence of various elements of modernist expressive culture, however, these different instances of black peoples' negotiation of modernity did not occur all at once, nor have their ramifications yet fully played out; indeed, as a consequential phenomenon modernity itself just keeps on happening, whether the [End Page 356] prefixal modifier by which we acknowledge and characterize that continuation be high, late, liquid, or post (7).2 But if its very incompleteness (to adduce Jürgen Habermas) confirms that modernity is also temporally extensive, that extensiveness complicates efforts to define—and, more to the point, to delimit—modernism, because the aspects of modernity that might function as the objects of literary interrogation derive at widely disparate historical moments, some of which long predate the emergence of modernist artistic practice.

The intensified circulation cited above is a case in point. If by the fifteenth century this entailed fairly wide-ranging Portuguese forays into western Africa, then it was at least that early that black populations experienced the radically transcultural contact that is understood to be one of modernity's hallmarks—and this is to say nothing of those blacks who, through the peculiar vicissitudes of North African trade, were installed as slaves on the Iberian peninsula as early as the mid-thirteenth century (Thomas 51-59, 40-42). While such contact would of course become much more significant with the establishment of American plantation settlements and their African-descended slave populations, that itself was well underway by the eighteenth century (Thomas 182-209). This fact arguably deepens and complicates the meaning of lines such as these, from Langston Hughes's "Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret":

  May I?  Mais oui.  Mein Gott!  Parece una rumba.Play it, jazz band!You've got seven languages to speak inAnd then some,Even if you do come from Georgia.

(qtd. in Patterson 110)

According to Anita Patterson, the multilingualism of these lines epitomizes the modernist character of Hughes's lyric practice, at once thwarting the easy registration of semantic import and so establishing the poem as a classic instance of artifactual iconicity, and yet figuring the sort of cross-cultural exchange that Patterson contends is equally proper to the modernist project (110). This is a wholly plausible proposition. It is also true, moreover, that while the scene presented in Hughes's poem is clearly contemporary with the composition itself (jazz having become significant in France right around the time Hughes penned his verse, in the mid-1920s [Jackson 13-16, 34-35]), the cross-cultural contact it [End Page 357] entails is...


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