The Harlem Renaissance and Its Indignant Aftermath: Rethinking Literary History and Political Action after Black Studies
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The Harlem Renaissance and Its Indignant Aftermath:
Rethinking Literary History and Political Action after Black Studies
African American Literary Studies: New Texts, New Approaches, New Challenges, Edited by Glenda R. Carpio and Werner Sollors. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 2011.
The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960, Lawrence P. Jackson. Princeton University Press, 2011.

The "New Negro" renaissance was economically and politically negligible, according to Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). Equally problematic, some memoirists from Cruse's own era have proved incapable of realizing the movement's failings. Case in point is Langston Hughes's "My Early Days in Harlem," which typifies the poverty of Harlem Renaissance leadership and historiography and thus resembles cultural collector Calvin Glenn Carrington's "The Harlem Renaissance—A Personal Memoir." Published in the same 1963 issue of Freedomways, both are the "least instructive of all the historical articles" (305), according to Cruse, and "simply descriptive and anecdotal, presenting no analysis of trends and guides to cultural conclusion" (306). Unable to historicize the "Harlem reality," Hughes concentrates on the purely "artistic, aesthetic, and intellectual" worlds and loses sight of the cultural apparatuses and community mobilization so crucial to social change in Harlem. Such is the cancer, says Cruse, of being "one of the aborted renaissance men—as incomplete an intellectual and artist as the cultural transformation that nurtured him—a man of culture without a cultural philosophy" (307). Cruse's skepticism of African-American writers playing the political role of representative leaders [End Page 775] predominated Harlem Renaissance historiography during the rise of black studies.

Two recent books, African American Literary Studies: New Texts, New Approaches, New Challenges (2011), a collection of essays coedited by Glenda R. Carpio and Werner Sollors, and The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (2011), by Lawrence P. Jackson, respond to the specter of Cruse and his times in contrasting ways, and offer us a portal onto an ongoing debate over the repercussions of black studies, which began in the 1960s, for current political historiographies of African-American literature. The relationship of literary history to political action long underpinning the historiography of the Harlem Renaissance and its aftermath is more controversial now than ever before. Cruse's opinions preoccupy Ernest Julius Mitchell, II, one of the contributors to African American Literary Studies. Tracing the term "Black Renaissance" across rhetorical history, Mitchell shows that Cruse's disparagement of Hughes mirrored the vexation of black studies progenitors and their disciples: the "lasting appeal of the term may derive in part from the narratives of failure to which it gives rise" (660). Even as narratives of the movement's failure were building steam during and after black studies, they were also being corrected. The ongoing replication or renunciation of these narratives ensured their discursive entrenchment in literary scholarship.1

African American Literary Studies leans toward the side of correction. Published as a special 2010 issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies, this collection of short stories, letters, and essays by literary scholars and artists encourages us to look more critically at the assumptions of aesthetics, culture, race, and politics inherited from black studies—assumptions on which Harlem Renaissance scholars have built methods of archival research and principles of reading and writing literary history. The payoffs of the collection include recoveries and representations of Zora Neale Hurston that are more sophisticated, complex, and amenable to recent revaluations of the Harlem Renaissance and its subsequent influence. Jackson, by contrast, does not cast so critical an eye toward black studies, although he likewise revisits the Harlem Renaissance. By 1934, Jackson contends, "a geographic metaphor like 'Harlem Renaissance' could no longer connote the brilliance and vitality of African American writing" (19). What was more, "Hughes's [1940] memoir [The Big Sea] became the standard account of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s" (130), "the mission of [Hugh] Gloster's generation was the correction of white influence that seemed to have tilted the Harlem Renaissance in the direction of the exotic" (276), and for "J. Saunders Redding, too, [End Page 776] the Harlem Renaissance had been overvalued" (277). But to...