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African American Roots of Modernism

From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

James Smethurst

Publication Year: 2011

In identifying Jim Crow with the coming of modernity, Smethurst focuses on how artists reacted to the system’s racial territorialization, especially in urban areas, with migration narratives, poetry about the black experience, and black performance of popular culture forms such as ragtime and vaudeville. He shows how black writers such as Fenton Johnson and William Stanley Braithwaite circulated some of the earliest and strongest ideas about an American “bohemia.” Smethurst also upsets the customary assessment of the later Harlem Renaissance as the first and primary site of a nationally significant black arts movement by examining the influence of these earlier writers and artists on the black and white modernists who followed. In so doing, Smethurst brings forward a host of understudied figures while recontextualizing the work of canonical authors such as Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson. As such, Smethurst positions his work as part of the current growing intellectual conversation about the nature of African American literature and culture between Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance. Far from being a “nadir” period, Smethurst argues, this period saw black artists creating cultural forms from which issued some of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

This book is a collective effort, even if its shortcomings and errors are strictly my own. No doubt I will forget somebody who helped me because I’m the sort of person who forgets his phone number from time to time. Still, I will do my best to acknowledge the people who made this book possible, and if I...

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Introduction: New Forms and Captive Knights in the Age of Jim Crow and Mechanical Reproduction

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pp. 1-26

There is still a general feeling that something happened in the expressive art of the United States in the early twentieth century that was different from what went before, something that we might call modernism, something that responded to U.S. modernity, often disparagingly. Following in the footsteps...

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1. Dueling Banjos: African American Dualism and Strategies for Black Representation at the Turn of the Century

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pp. 27-65

Paul Gilroy has powerfully claimed that the notion of double consciousness in which the black subject “ever feels his twoness” was used by W. E. B. Du Bois to figure a diasporic and sometimes transatlantic black modernity expressing the ambivalent location of people of African descent simultaneously...

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2. Remembering “Those Noble Sons of Ham”: Poetry, Soldiers, and Citizens at the End of Reconstruction

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pp. 66-95

Following French social historian Pierre Nora, Richard Terdiman has argued that a particular mark of modernity in Europe—and, ultimately, a central concern of modernism—is the “memory crisis” arising from people’s sense of “the insecurity of their culture’s involvement with its past, the perturbation...

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3. The Black City: The Early Jim Crow Migration Narrative and the New Territory of Race

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pp. 96-122

What happened when black became a place, not perhaps yet a country, as Amiri Baraka coined it, and no longer a cluster of cabins on the edge of the plantation, but an urban neighborhood, a seeming city that one could reach by foot, private car, taxi, subway, train, or streetcar? As noted before, one of...

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5. Somebody Else’s Civilization: African American Writers, Bohemia, and the New Poetry

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pp. 123-154

In the United States, as elsewhere, the rise of artistic modernism and the emergence of indigenous bohemias in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were closely linked, though not twinned phenomena. I use the plural rather than speak of bohemia in the singular because, nearly from the...

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5. A Familiar and Warm Relationship: Race, Sexual Freedom, and U.S. Literary Modernism

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pp. 155-187

One of the problems in discussing an “American” modernism or avant-garde before the 1920s is the confusion about whether one is talking about art and artistic circles within the United States or whether one includes such expatriates as Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. While...

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Conclusion: “Our Beautiful White. . ."

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pp. 188-216

By 1919 the symbolic meaning of the East-West and the North-South axes in the United States had changed dramatically. Thousands of black and white U.S. troops had fought on European soil for the first time in World War I. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination for European...


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pp. 217-229


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pp. 231-245


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pp. 247-252

E-ISBN-13: 9781469603100
E-ISBN-10: 1469603101
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807834633
Print-ISBN-10: 0807834637

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
Series Editor Byline: Alex Lubin See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 731680439
MUSE Marc Record: Download for African American Roots of Modernism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Segregation in literature.
  • African Americans -- Segregation.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- United States.
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