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Psychology Comes to Harlem

Rethinking the Race Question in Twentieth-Century America

Jay Garcia

Publication Year: 2012

In the years preceding the modern civil rights era, cultural critics profoundly affected American letters through psychologically informed explorations of racial ideology and segregationist practice. Jay Garcia’s probing look at how and why these critiques arose and the changes they wrought demonstrates the central role Richard Wright and his contemporaries played in devising modern antiracist cultural analysis. Departing from the largely accepted existence of a “Negro Problem,” Wright and such literary luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Lillian Smith, and James Baldwin described and challenged a racist social order whose psychological undercurrents implicated all Americans and had yet to be adequately studied. Motivated by the elastic possibilities of clinical and academic inquiry, writers and critics undertook a rethinking of "race" and assessed the value of psychotherapy and psychological theory as antiracist strategies. Garcia examines how this new criticism brought together black and white writers and became a common idiom through fiction and nonfiction that attracted wide readerships. An illuminating picture of mid-twentieth-century American literary culture and intellectual life, Psychology Comes to Harlem reveals the critical and intellectual innovation of literary artists who bridged psychology and antiracism to challenge segregation.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. c-c

Title Page, Copyright, Fronsitpiece

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-18

In 1945, the Wiltwyck School for Boys opened its doors to Richard Wright. While researching a book on youth delinquency, the celebrated author visited the school, which took in and counseled troubled youngsters from impoverished and neglected parts of New York City, including Harlem. Located in a hamlet by the Hudson River,...

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1 Richard Wright Writing: The Unconscious Machinery of Race Relations

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pp. 19-48

Richard Wright regarded himself as ‘‘something, no matter how crudely, of a psychologist.’’1 He offered that designation in 1960, the last year of his life, as a means of understanding his literary achievements and larger intellectual contribution. Many of Wright’s contemporaries were inclined to agree with his assessment and cast his...

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2 Richard Wright Reading: The Promise of Social Psychiatry

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pp. 49-74

Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Dark Legend: A Study in Murder (1941), a clinical account of a matricide, had a powerful effect on Richard Wright. More than a case study, Dark Legend offered a primer on psychoanalytic inquiry. When ‘‘any organized forces in mental life come into diametrical opposition,’’ Wertham wrote, ‘‘we speak...

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3 Race and Minorities from Below: The Wartime Cultural Criticism of Chester Himes, Horace Cayton, Ralph Ellison, and C. L. R. James

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pp. 75-101

During World War II, Richard Wright did not relent in furthering a cultural politics that put segregation and race hierarchy firmly within national debates. In a period that seemed to require unanimity of thought and the suppression of dissent to harness collective effort, Wright continued to press the story of African American...

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4 Strange Fruit: Lillian Smith and the Making of Whiteness

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pp. 102-135

In 1945, an interviewer asked Richard Wright about ‘‘white writers crusading for the Negro.’’ White writers ‘‘should combat white chauvinism while Negro writers combat Negro nationalism,’’ Wright responded. Moreover, in the place of ‘‘special pleas to the Negro to increase his militancy,’’ white writers needed to do more to ‘‘grapple...

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5 Notes of a Native Son: James Baldwin in Postwar America

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pp. 136-169

In ‘‘Alas, Poor Richard,’’ written not long after Richard Wright’s death in 1960, James Baldwin addresses Wright directly, invoking the ‘‘argument which you began in me.’’1 Baldwin first met Wright, sixteen years his senior and the most famous black writer in America, in 1944. In the intervening years, Baldwin would also become an...

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pp. 170-176

This study has concentrated on the ways modern psychological inquiry figured in Richard Wright’s intellectual contribution to U.S. antiracist criticism and helped set its terms more broadly. Wright’s commitments to psychological and psychotherapeutic inquiry prompted him to reopen the question of what constituted a valid and...


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pp. 177-200

Essay on Sources

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pp. 201-208


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pp. 209-216

E-ISBN-13: 9781421405414
E-ISBN-10: 1421405415
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421405193
Print-ISBN-10: 1421405199

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 821708011
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Psychology Comes to Harlem

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Wright, Richard, -- 1908-1960 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Baldwin, James, -- 1924-1987 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Harlem (New York, N.Y.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
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