- Questionnaire Responses
How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?
In the twenty-first century, the idea of the Harlem Renaissance has done nearly as much traveling as the transnational corporations said to define our time. Foreign allies of the renaissance have been visited and revisited, transporting the rebirth to Marseilles and Paris noir, London and Dublin, Kingston and Port-au-Prince, Mexico City and Moscow—not to mention the South Side of Chicago and northwest Washington, D.C. Harlem Renaissance studies has thus joined the new modernist studies at large in taking a transnational turn, though in this case a turn unusually attuned to the destructive cosmopolitanism of imperial racisms and the productive failures of intradiasporic [End Page 446] translation. Close on the heels of the spatial enlargement of the field of the Harlem Renaissance has come temporal enlargement, of course: it does not take a believer in planetary “deep time” (a talisman of literary-critical immortality if there ever was one) to recognize that exploded political boundaries hasten expanded periodizations. It strikes me, in fact, that the most consequential work now being done in the vicinity of Harlem Renaissance studies proposes various models of elongated renaissance time. If renaissance scholarship in the first decade of the twenty-first century was steered by critics who read African American modernism through other continents, the second decade may well be led by those who read this modernism through untapped years and moments, episodes of the black modern before and after Harlem. Judging from an otherwise diverse cluster of books published in 2010 or 2011, a transtemporal turn is brewing even in domestically focused literary history.
On the one hand, transtemporal renaissance scholarship appears to be going backward—but in a good way. Picking up on Henry Louis Gates’s earlier backdating of the trope of the New Negro and Houston Baker’s counterintuitive (and later renounced) tracing of Afro-modernism to the 1895 Atlanta Compromise, James Smethurst’s book The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (2011) reroots the emergence of modern black literature in an extended turn-of-century matrix classically associated with black cultural retreat. Training a wide and discursive lens on what can be called the “long nadir,” a period unfolding from the defeat of Reconstruction in the South through the triumph of the Harlem Renaissance in the North, Smethurst maintains that an era of African American history marked by tragic reversals also nurtured a prescient embrace of the modern U.S. metropolis. This embrace, he contends, fostered the rise of a postbellum African American literature just as considerable—and just as appreciably modern—as the literature of the Alain Lockean renaissance proper. In Smethurst’s account, the Harlem movement thus rejoins and concludes the longue durée of the long nadir. Jeopardized in the process is our conviction of Harlem’s privileged access to the culturally prospective, to what comes ever after in the African American grain. Gained, however, is the likelihood that pre-jazz-and-cocktails voices such as Pauline Hopkins and Paul Laurence Dunbar were “in many respects our first modernists” (215). Thanks to their charting of “the territorial racialization of the city” characteristic of U.S. modernity, these African American authors may have “first raised many of the concerns, stances, and tropes associated with U.S. modernism” (3). Smethurst concludes that the regressive regime of legal segregation ironically promoted early access to the groundwork of the modern—an argument effectively restated, beneath all the controversy baiting, in Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011). Not just a playful case for its author’s structural unemployment, Warren’s book inventively encapsulates and diffuses the event of the Harlem Renaissance within a broader Jim Crow–prompted black modernism (born 1896; died 1954) that he conflates with the whole of African American writing.
On the other hand, a second branch of transtemporal renaissance scholarship appears to be going forward—but in a duly nonprogressive way. Lawrence P. Jackson’s massively well-researched The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African [End Page 447] American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2010...