How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?
When I first started writing, I (and most other scholars) viewed the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement with political and racial overtones. I saw it as part of the process of African American urbanization and nationalization that was reflected in the black migration and the concurrent rural to urban transition of blacks during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Politically it was connected to the rise of the New Negro, the emergence of the NAACP, and the intensified struggle for equal rights that followed the First Word War. While I was certainly aware of the explosion of blues and jazz in African American music, the nightlife of Harlem, and even the art of Aaron Douglas, I viewed these elements principally as the cultural backdrop for a literary movement. And, while I recognized that most of the writers and poets of that literary movement came from outside Harlem, Harlem remained the geographical heart of the movement and the center of African cultural and artistic activity. The renaissance was viewed through the lens of Harlem.
Today I envision the Harlem Renaissance quite differently. Literature remains at the core of it, but it’s clear that music, art, theater, musical theater, film, and dance all contributed to define and enrich the movement. And while Harlem, as the largest urban concentration of African Americans in the heart of the largest city and the cultural center of the nation, was central to the renaissance, the movement also impacted Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, and virtually every other city that contained a significant concentration of African Americans. The Harlem Renaissance was a national movement and one whose impact spanned the globe—certainly it was influential in London, Paris, Berlin and the other capitals of Europe but also throughout the Caribbean, into Africa, and even Asia. So, today I envision the Harlem Renaissance as a much broader, more complex, and more nuanced movement than I did when I first encountered it some forty years ago.
What do you think is the most interesting or challenging work being conducted in this field today, and why?
In the past ten years the most interesting work has included a number of biographical/analytical studies of the work of individual writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance and a growing number of studies that bridge the disciplines of the Harlem Renaissance, such as literature and music or politics and art. Among the biographies I am especially impressed with George Hutchinson’s study of Nella Larsen. Harlem Renaissance studies have reached the point where we should be seeing additional first-rate biographical works of the quality of David Lewis’s excellent study of W. E. B. Du Bios or Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Langston Hughes.
I am also very interested in the recent trend toward examining visual images and the relationship between images and text, especially literary texts. Amy Kirschke followed up her informative biography of Aaron Douglas with an interesting study of Du Bois [End Page 462] and the use of images in The Crisis in Art in Crisis (2007), while Anne Elizabeth Carroll has examined the iconic illustrated publications that combined text and images as they attempted to define and/or promote the Harlem Renaissance in her book Word, Image, and the New Negro (2007). Three other works provide different perspectives on the use of images in the analysis of the Harlem Renaissance. M. Genevieve West’s Zora Neale Hurston and American Literary Culture (2005) adds images in the form of book covers and marketing art work in her analysis of Hurston’s work and its reception in the later years of the Harlem Renaissance. Martha Jane Nadell’s Enter the New Negro (2004) and Caroline Goeser’s Picturing the New Negro (2007) broaden the use of images, analyzing them as documents through which to explore race and African American culture during the years of the Harlem Renaissance.
Finally, I am impressed by the growing effort to analyze the Harlem Renaissance from an international perspective. Two very different works that take this approach...