What do you think is the most interesting or challenging work being conducted in this field today, and why?
The timing of my completion of this questionnaire is quite apropos, as I have just completed teaching a semester-long upper-division course on the Harlem Renaissance. Thus, as I consider my response, I am motivated by pedagogical concerns. My Harlem Renaissance course was offered as a cross-listed course between the English Department and the African American Studies and Research Center at Purdue University, so I was particularly interested in highlighting the interdisciplinary aspects of the period rather than merely presenting the literature of the era. In fact, this was one of the goals Maureen Honey and I had for our anthology Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (2001). By including artwork and illustrations from periodicals and anthologies of the period as well as song lyrics, we hoped to signal the intersections between the various art forms; however, I wonder if our teaching has, like our research, moved beyond our disciplinary silos.
One of the first images I typically discuss with my students is the cover of the May 1923 “New Negro” issue of the Messenger. We look at this image alongside images of Rodin’s The Thinker and talk about how the image reflects ideas presented in essays such as A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s “The New Negro—What Is He?” and Alain Locke’s “The New Negro.” This is always a dynamic conversation, one that sets the stage for future class sessions, such as a related discussion of Vivian Schuyler’s “The Library Hour,” which appeared in the February 1928 issue of the Crisis. Her image of two young African American women reading books is a perfect complement to our discussion of Elise Johnson McDougald’s essay “The Task of Negro Womanhood.” We also have fruitful discussions about other images that appeared alongside stories or poems, such as Laura Wheeler’s illustration “Wishes,” which appeared in the middle of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Wishes” when it appeared in the April 1927 issue of the Crisis. I generally begin by unpacking students’ interpretation of Douglas Johnson’s poem and then ask them how the illustration adds to their reading of the poem. Navigating these discussions of the interplay of the illustrations and the literature is aided by interdisciplinary research such as Caroline Goeser’s “The Case of Ebony and Topaz: Racial and Sexual Hybridity in Harlem Renaissance Illustrations.” This essay provides a detailed analysis of the illustrations by Charles Cullen and Richard Bruce Nugent as well as a lucid discussion of the editorial approach taken by Charles S. Johnson and the [End Page 449] relationship between the artwork and the literary selections. Goeser’s analysis focuses on the way in which Johnson’s collection of essays, poetry, and illustrations resisted restrictive classifications of race, gender, and sexuality. Goeser builds on this excellent work in Picturing the New Negro (2007), which takes up such topics as Aaron Douglas, magazine illustrations, and book jackets. I should note that my tendency throughout this piece is to use articles as examples rather than books because articles such as these might be references for the instructor or assigned to the class as part of the course readings, depending on the level of the undergraduate course being taught.
In addition to the exciting interdisciplinary work related to visual culture, there is a good deal of research that addresses the influence of blues and jazz on the literature of the period. For example, Bruce Barnhart argues in “Chronopolitics and Race, Ragtime and Symphonic Time in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” that James Weldon Johnson’s narrator uses ragtime and classical music to negotiate a racialized landscape. Discussions of music in connection to Langston Hughes are also quite common, as seen in essays by Felicia M. Miyakawa, Günter H. Lenz, and John Lowney. I regularly address the impact of the blues on writers such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. For instance, I find that students can better appreciate Brown’s “Ma Rainey” after listening to her sing “See See Rider” and discussing the lyrics. However, we...