- Questionnaire Responses
How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?
When I first began studying the Harlem Renaissance as a multidisciplinary movement the emphasis was primarily on the relationship between jazz, the blues, and poetics of the era. Richard Powell’s exhibition catalogue Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (1997) and the associated exhibit highlighted the visual and performance culture of the era, but the interdisciplinary work had not yet been undertaken in literary studies. Thanks to scholars working in and across genres, the study of Harlem Renaissance literature is now indivisible from an understanding of visual culture, high art, popular art, and race movies. Interartistic engagement has enabled scholars to excavate the dynamic nature of Afro-modernism as in constant conversation with what we once understood to be mainstream European and American modernism. My first book, Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literature Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (2007), argued for an approach that places visual artists and writers in a dialogic relationship by tracing the iconography of the mulatta, which was grafted on and through the ideology of New Negro womanhood. Coterminous studies like Martha Nadell’s Enter New Negro: Images of Race in American Culture (2004) [End Page 454] and Anne Caroll’s Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance (2007) have created a flexible framework for analyzing cross-genre collaborations. There are still pedagogical challenges to teaching the Harlem Renaissance as a multiarts movement; however, the critical scaffolding continues to be buttressed by a variety of republications, anthologies, and digital archives. Moreover, an unprecedented number of biographies of Harlem Renaissance writers and artists produced in the last two decades have expanded the literary history of the era beyond the literature reviews compiled by Nathan Huggins’s Harlem Renaissance (1987) and David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (1997), the foundational studies.
What figures, connections, or areas of inquiry require further attention or reflection?
The Harlem Renaissance should be a touchstone of black performance studies, yet this remains an area that merits further investigation. New historiographies of vaudeville and the chitlin’ circuit illustrate how black theater shaped collective politics and communal interaction in Harlem and, as larger productions like Porgy and Shuffle Along toured, how it fostered international viewing audiences. Working this angle of the field spotlights personas like actress/aspiring writer Dorothy Peterson or the blackface performer Bert Williams. At the 2012 C19 Americanists conference in Berkeley, Shirleen Robinson gave a fabulous paper centered on a microhistory of a mining town where Bert Williams performed and the mob violence that followed his show. Drawing on performance theory to examine unexplored archives, Robinson models an emergent methodology that will invigorate our understanding of the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro movement. This integrated type of critical inquiry also invites the revisitation of incongruent texts like Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930), Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902), Marita Bonner’s avant-garde surrealist drama The Purple Flower (1927), and librarian Regina Andrews’s lynching play Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (1931).
What aspects of the Harlem Renaissance are we missing or ignoring?
Pursuant to the publication of Cheryl Wall’s seminal Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995), scholars have endeavored to contextualize, interrogate, and republish women’s writing; however, critical focus has centered primarily on novelists. Women’s poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is persistently characterized as didactic, formalist, and transparent. Fortunately, critics have finally begun to explore the diverse poetics of black female poets made available in anthologies like Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance (1989), edited by Maureen Honey. Critics like Margo Crawford, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Evie Shockley interrogate the poetics and politics of gender articulated in the form, subject, and subtext of poets like Anne Spencer, and those who never published a single collection but whose anthologized verse illustrates a collective repository that cannot be excluded or overshadowed by the popularity and visibility of Langston Hughes or Claude McKay. [End Page 455]