- Revolutionary Potential: African-American Aesthetics in the Depression Era
Part of the fascination with the Harlem Renaissance arises from the tension between the salon and the street, the era’s manifestation of the pleasures of the 1920s set against the deprivations of the 1930s. Does the recent publication of studies focused on African-American artistic production during the Depression era represent an austere turn away from the optimism encapsulated and reinforced by the rhetoric of New Negro Renaissanicism? On the contrary, working within new frameworks, the texts assembled here offer expansive yet nuanced interpretations of the dynamic artistic production and performance culture that flourished in the midst of the Depression. Black cultural production has proved itself fairly resilient, thriving in both the ephemeral interludes of plenty and during the long, lean times that have characterized much of the 400-year sojourn of African peoples in the Americas. Given that the onset of the Great Depression marked the denouement of the Harlem Renaissance and the associated New Negro movement, scholars have mostly overlooked the rich archives of cultural and artistic production occurring outside the established parameters of conventional US and African-American literary periodization. Although some of the books under review directly address Harlem Renaissance studies and the New Negro Era, their globally cognizant interrogations also integrate genres as well as artists and performers who inhabit the margins of the recognizable boundaries of the field. Specifically, these studies broadly manifest the crosscurrents of diaspora, anticolonial interventions, leftist politics, and performance studies in the theoretical and methodological approaches they apply to their chosen archives. [End Page 351]
The shift away from favored critical periods and groupings toward a broad focus on black anticolonialism and engagements of empire yields a complex mélange of aesthetics that nevertheless connects the assembly of texts under discussion here. Three of the studies locate themselves within the chronology of the Depression; the fourth extends its analysis into the close of the twentieth century. Stephanie Leigh Batiste’s study of black performance examines how film and theater productions respond to US imperialism; Aric Putnam privileges hybrid genres of nonfiction, including autobiography and pamphlets, to explore the rhetorical call of the African diasporic imagination; Brian Dolinar positions black art and aesthetics as constituting, rather than merely contributing to the literature of the popular front. Erica R. Edwards’s forward-thinking study elucidates the stakes of fusing aesthetics and politics during this vital period in African-American literary culture. Her focus on the artistic contestations of the “charismatic tableau” of exceptional black male leadership as the only method for achieving social and political change extends beyond the purview of the Depression era, while her identifying and unpacking of “charismatic scenarios” (xx) complements Dolinar’s study of leftist models of leadership that sought to use black subjects as martyrs, thereby revealing analogous instances of black disillusionment with the popular front.
Rather than emphasize the dearth of artistic material produced by the Depression—a period that used to be called the “Lost Years” until recovered by Lawrence Jackson as the “Indignant Generation”—these studies combine to envision conscious engagement with global perspectives as marking the era. They identify how African-American culture responded to, reproduced, and challenged the trappings of empire. Aesthetic representation during this period is necessarily political, and all these works meditate on the divergence of views manifested by the artists and writers studied. Striking areas of convergence include: a conscientious move away from Europe and toward Ethiopia, the Pacific, and Liberia; an industrious mining of print culture for serialized fiction and visual culture; and a sustained analysis of the reproduction of gender dynamics viewed through the discursive framework of performance studies. The tension between pleasure and deprivation in African-American Depression-era writing forms a basis for the present tide...