- IntroductionIn Conversation: The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies
“When should the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance properly be celebrated? And where shall we celebrate? Presumably, it’s right around the corner—but which corner?” Michael Soto poses these provocative questions in his contribution to this special issue of Modernism/Modernity on the Harlem Renaissance. In doing so, he not so innocently gestures toward a central concern of the entire issue: the trouble with locating the Harlem Renaissance in both time and space. When exactly did the Harlem Renaissance begin, when did it end, and where did it happen? While Harlem in the 1920s remains its most celebrated spatiotemporal arena, the contributors to this issue, reflecting recent scholarly trends, call for a much broader historical and geographical framework for understanding the movement.
Indeed, some scholars have suggested that we retire the term “Harlem Renaissance” as an anachronism and a misnomer. In this issue, Barbara Foley argues that the term “New Negro movement” “more accurately reflects the movement’s contemporaneous self-concept (it became known as a ‘renaissance’ primarily in retrospect)” because it “leaves open the connection between economics and politics on the one hand, art and literature on the other.” While Cherene Sherrard-Johnson shares Foley’s dissatisfaction with the term “Harlem Renaissance,” she questions whether “New Negro movement” is a capacious enough alternative: “Given its fluid boundaries and the fact that the New Negro movement precedes the interwar period most often associated by historiographers with the Harlem Renaissance, how do we continue to argue for the specificity, the ‘newness,’ of this [End Page 427] era without continuing to draw intellectual energy away from the literary 1890s and 1940s?” Numerous scholars have likewise resisted the spatial boundaries and temporal limits implied by the term “Harlem Renaissance.” Michael Nowlin, for example, begins his investigation in 1912—that annus mirabilis for modernism which gave birth to the Masses in New York, Poetry in Chicago, and Poetry Journal in London. Nowlin argues that James Weldon Johnson’s quest for a “normal” literature, which coincided with these modernist interventions in print culture, was as significant and formative as any avant-garde activities to emerge from Harlem a decade later. Indeed we might trace the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance to on or about November 1910, when W. E. B. Du Bois began publishing the Crisis, the journal of the newly formed NAACP, headquartered at 20 Vesey Street in New York City. But because the Crisis attracted contributors and readers from well beyond Harlem and routinely addressed issues of migration, international relations, and global politics, the term “Harlem Renaissance” still seems too narrow to encompass the magazine’s transnational scope, as well as its long duration, which continues to the present day.
The constellation of cultural activities—artistic, musical, theatrical, political, and sociological—not only began much earlier but also extended well beyond the decade “when Harlem was in vogue.” It did not, as has been charged, wither and die in the 1930s or ’40s. As Houston Baker points out here, the myth of the “failure” of the Harlem Renaissance has roots in the 1960s, when “fiercely black nationalist and Black Arts advocates castigated the Harlem Renaissance as a bourgeois, individualistic, narcissistic movement working under the commands of white patronage and black bourgeois audience demands.” While Baker debunks the failure myth in his influential Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), more work is needed to combat its lingering effects and to document the Harlem Renaissance’s roots in earlier literary and artistic movements and its subsequent, continuous contribution to American and global literatures. As William J. Maxwell observes, “the most consequential work now being done in the vicinity of Harlem Renaissance studies proposes various models of elongated renaissance time.” Jean-Christophe Cloutier’s article in this issue is an example of research that extends the temporal reach of the Harlem Renaissance beyond the 1920s, offering the first critical analysis of Claude McKay’s recently discovered late novel, Amiable with Big Teeth. Cloutier argues that McKay found full expression of his aesthetic and political ideals in this previously unpublished novel, written at least a decade after...