How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?
I see the Harlem Renaissance and modernism as two overlapping but not necessarily interdependent movements, each emerging from traditions that both precede and outlive their intersection. The Harlem Renaissance emerges from a historically, culturally, and aesthetically specific African American literary tradition, whereas literary modernism grew from a fundamentally different set of artistic and philosophical concerns. Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston—modernist writers, all—develop their literary aesthetic from distinctly Afrocentric influences, each of them in one way or another evoking slavery, vernacular rhetorical forms, and the black American folk culture. At the same time, while self-consciously modernist writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein also tried to understand and represent blackness in their work, for each of them, black identity served more as an idea than a fact: a passing fancy, the embodiment of “otherness,” a carful of symbolic characters driving by on the way in to the city. So while the Harlem Renaissance and modernism are not necessarily interdependent, in my view, they each profoundly influenced the other, and almost always to the good. Toomer’s inspiration for Cane came while he was teaching rural blacks in Georgia, but he also read Gorham Munson and Kenneth Burke as he wrote and revised.
How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?
Well, I first began writing about the Harlem Renaissance as a graduate student—untenured, insecure, self-conscious, and defensive—so much of my early understanding was shaped by the fact that I may have been somewhat book-smart but that my ideas were young and also untried in the classroom. Even once I obtained a tenure-track position, all of those adjectives still defined my attitude in 2000, when the Nigger Heaven reissue appeared. Looking back, I was right to feel that way: my work on Van Vechten did create conflict, both at professional conferences and in my own institution. But my work on Van Vechten also shaped a career of recovery work: it led directly to my reissue of Waldo Frank’s Holiday, which led directly to Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank (2010). “Way leads on to way,” as Robert Frost points out in “The Road Not Taken.” In the dozen or so years since my book on race passing and the reissue of Nigger Heaven appeared, I have had opportunities to teach [End Page 452] numerous Harlem Renaissance courses—not only as American studies interdisciplinary classes but as senior seminars for English majors and as graduate seminars for master’s students, and so my thinking about the Harlem Renaissance has been shaped as much by my classroom experience as it has by the scholarship I’ve read.
I mention my teaching experience because these courses fall into one of two categories: upper level courses for English majors, where we focus primarily on issues of genre and the literariness of our texts; and general education “knowledge applications” classes, where we examine course texts in terms of diversity, societal structures, and their ethical application in the contemporary world. In each crucible, I have seen the lasting value of Harlem Renaissance writing, both aesthetically and politically. Moreover, I have come to a fuller appreciation for the central debates of the era as they continue to inform contemporary literature and culture. “The Negro in Art” symposium questions, the debate between art and propaganda, the ideological divide between the “old Negro” and the “New Negro”—these all address the issues that continue to animate my students’ imaginations and their understanding of literature generally; they also continue to inform my understanding of the political stakes in black studies.
What do you think is the most interesting or challenging work being conducted in this field today, and why?
I am most fascinated by and most appreciative of the recovery work done by the Modernist Journals Project and other such efforts. For one thing, I find the sheer beauty and imaginative range of many of these recovered journals and little magazines to be a source of great aesthetic and...