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How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?

I see the Harlem Renaissance as being unquestionably a modernist movement in the arts broadly considered. It was a response to modernity, and in that sense on a continuum with African American cultural expression going back generations; but also from the more limited traditional definitions of Modernism with a capital “M” that held sway in the sixties and seventies, it seems inarguable now that black writing and artistic expression of the interwar period can only be bracketed off from “modernism” as such on racial grounds. On the other hand, I wouldn’t call all African American writers of the period “modernist” any more than I would someone like Booth Tarkington. For a while it seemed as if calling the Harlem Renaissance “modernist” involved using “modernist” as a purely honorific term. But our idea of “modernism” today is quite different, generally, from the idea of it that prevailed when it was defined in relation [End Page 443] to a few interconnected all-white coteries during the heyday of the New Criticism and shortly after.

How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?

The first graduate seminar I took (with John McCluskey) was on the Harlem Renaissance, in the fall of 1977. That was before David Levering Lewis’s pivotal contribution. Nathan Huggins’s Harlem Renaissance (1971) was considered the main text on the movement. I can’t remember what I wrote in that class, but looking back now, I can see that Huggins’s argument had a big influence on me in some ways (except for his emphasis on “failure” and his generally low regard for the literature itself), as did John McCluskey’s Ellisonian approach to African American and American literary history. I first began writing about the Harlem Renaissance in relation to Walt Whitman in the late 1980s, because I was teaching sophomore surveys of African American literature semester after semester, on the one hand, and classes in nineteenth-century American literature on the other, and I started out as a Whitman scholar with an interest in African American literature. I wanted to see how these different interests interconnected. There had been very little investigation of African American responses to Whitman (and vice versa). At that time, the writing of the Harlem Renaissance was generally held in low esteem and understandings of the movement were confined by the notion of its “failure,” which was considered mainly to have resulted from white involvement in it. Of course, the Black Arts movement dismissals of the Harlem Renaissance still carried considerable weight, and people studying “modernism” weren’t yet paying much attention to African American writing. “Black” and “white” modernisms were generally considered in polar opposition, and as belonging to separate fields of study, not to mention separate traditions. It was while looking behind the black responses to Whitman in the early twentieth century that a whole cultural formation emerged for me, as if out of the deep, and it kept spreading and spreading across disciplines and communities. A number of other scholars were discovering related trends at about the same time, and within a fairly short period of time it no longer seemed insubordinate to talk about “black” and “white” modernisms as interconnected, at the very least, in all sorts of complicated ways. The battle against the suppression or scapegoating of interracial relationships (which is not the same as celebrating them) seems long over now. The discussion also had moved away (beginning with Houston Baker’s book) from focusing on the movement’s “failure,” and a lot of criticism came out showing why writers who had been dismissed earlier (most notably, for me, Nella Larsen) deserved another look. Black feminist criticism in the ’80s and ’90s had a huge impact (Hazel V. Carby, Cheryl A. Wall, Deborah E. McDowell, and Ann Du Cille especially come to mind). My ideas of the movement changed somewhat between 1996 and 2006, as the significance of Marxism, on the one hand, and sexualities grew much stronger and the international aspects gained more importance for me (as for everyone...


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