- Seeing Complexity and Hearing Laughter in the Harlem Renaissance
Three recent books bring their gifts to Harlem Renaissance studies. Taken collectively, these books amplify recent critical work that interrogates the role of the state in the development of black modernism, emphasizes the visual culture of the Harlem Renaissance, and examines the coteries and collectives that propelled African American creativity during the New Negro era. Lena Hill’s Visualizing Blackness offers the widest angle on the Harlem Renaissance by placing it within the centuries-long trajectory of African American literature from the colonial era through the Civil Rights Movement; Dickson-Carr’s Spoofing the Modern focuses more narrowly on a handful of New Negro satirists who were especially active in the 1920s and 30s, and Chinitz’s Which Sin to Bear? zooms in on Langston Hughes, who memorialized the years in Harlem when the Negro was in vogue. Chinitz, Dickson-Carr, and Hill present Harlem Renaissance writers who challenged stereotypical representations and confining social strictures, survived heroically against imposing odds, and opened new discursive spaces for the production [End Page 897] and publication of African American art, thought, and experience. As Dickson-Carr notes, the Harlem Renaissance “has to be considered a resounding success,” and the texts discussed illuminate some of the ways in which that success was achieved (13).
As suggested by his subtitle, Chinitz divides Which Sin to Bear? into interconnected examinations of authenticity and compromise in Hughes’s life and work. In the first three chapters, Chinitz explores Hughes’s lifelong “preoccupation with the problem of racial authenticity and its relationship to identity and art,” and in the next three chapters he discusses Hughes’s evolving political positions and the compromises he made, offering extended readings of Hughes’s closed and open sessions with Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist Subcommittee on Investigations (4). In his richly rewarding study, Chinitz examines the constructed nature of authenticity and demonstrates that “‘compromise’ is not necessarily detrimental to a person’s integrity”, arguing that Hughes’s pursuit of black authenticity and his engagements with a complicated and often hostile world do not reveal a lack of character, backbone, or even consistency (219, n.2; emphasis in original). Instead, his conscious pursuit of a modernist black poetics and his advocacy for racial justice demonstrate his aesthetic and political growth, his subtlety as a thinker and citizen, and his human complexity, intellectual flexibility, and artistic subtlety. Indeed, Hughes’s compromises should be read as “complex ethical decisions rather than simple surrenders; they were not invariably blows to Hughes’s spirit or wounds to his integrity” (7).
The production of African American authenticity was essential to Hughes’s self-fashioning and his poetics. In no small part, Hughes is responsible for the critical posture that considers even a “whiff of inauthenticity” a fatal flaw (9). This, in turn, complicates our reception of Hughes’s later politics, because they seemingly betray an earlier, more “real” person. But Hughes was perhaps never quite the uncomplicated, authentic black self that he constructed and performed. In his youth, Hughes occupied a liminal space between the purportedly inauthentic black middle class and the African American urban masses that he portrayed as the seat of authenticity. As Chinitz demonstrates, Hughes carefully produced an aura of authenticity, and he did so with a self-consciousness that always threatened to complicate and destabilize this ideal. Nonetheless, Hughes’s “vexation over his own authenticity was productive: struggling with his anxiety enabled Hughes as an original creator” (10).
Despite manifold complications, insufficient “attention has been paid to authenticity as a problem” (17). While often taken as an ontological status that “precedes presentation,” authenticity should instead be considered as manufactured, performed, and perceived (11). As Chinitz writes...