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Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance
Focusing on the years from 1922 to 1938, this book revisits an important moment in black cultural history to explore how visual elements were used in poems, novels, and photography to undermine existing stereotypes. Miriam Thaggert identifies and analyzes an early form of black American modernism characterized by a heightened level of experimentation with visual and verbal techniques for narrating and representing blackness. The work of the writers and artists under discussion reflects the creative tension between the intangibility of some forms of black expression, such as spirituals, and the materiality of the body evoked by other representations of blackness, such as “Negro” dialect. By paying special attention to the contributions of photographers and other visual artists who have not been discussed in previous accounts of black modernism, Thaggert expands the scope of our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and contributes to a growing recognition of the importance of visual culture as a distinct element within, and not separate from, black literary studies. Thaggert trains her critical eye on the work of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, and Aaron Siskind—artists who experimented with narrative and photographic techniques in order to alter the perception of black images and to question and reshape how one reads and sees the black body. Examining some of the more problematic authors and artists of black modernism, she challenges entrenched assumptions about black literary and visual representations of the early to mid twentieth century. Thaggert concludes her study with a close look at the ways in which Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance were reimagined and memorialized in two notable texts—Wallace Thurman’s 1932 satire Infants of the Spring and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968.”
African American Masculinity in the Harlem and Southern Renaissances
Andrew B. Leiter presents the first book-length study of the sexually violent African American man, or “black beast,” as a composite literary phenomenon. According to Leiter, the black beast theme served as a fundamental link between the Harlem and Southern Renaissances, with writers from both movements exploring its psychological, cultural, and social ramifications. Indeed, Leiter asserts that the two groups consciously engaged one another’s work as they struggled to define roles for black masculinity in a society that viewed the black beast as the raison d’être for segregation. Leiter begins by tracing the nineteenth-century origins of the black beast image, and then provides close readings of eight writers who demonstrate the crucial impact anxieties about black masculinity and interracial sexuality had on the formation of American literary modernism. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Walter White’s The Fire in the Flint, George Schuyler’s Black No More, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Allen Tate’s The Fathers, Erskine Caldwell’s Trouble in July, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as other works, provide strong evidence that perceptions of black male sexual violence shaped segregation, protest traditions, and the literature that arose from them. Leiter maintains that the environment of southern race relations—which allowed such atrocities as the Atlanta riot of 1906, numerous lynchings, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and the Scottsboro trials—influenced in part the development of both the Harlem and Southern Renaissances. While the black beast image had the most pernicious impact on African American individual and communal identities, he says the “threat” of black masculinity also shaped concepts of white national and communal identities, as well as white femininity and masculinity. In the Shadow of the Black Beast signals a fresh interpretation of a literary stereotype within its social and historical context.
Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity
From Puritan Execution Day rituals to gangsta rap, the black criminal has been an enduring presence in American culture. To understand why, Jeannine Marie DeLombard insists, we must set aside the lenses of pathology and persecution and instead view the African American felon from the far more revealing perspectives of publicity and personhood. When the Supreme Court declared in Dred Scott that African Americans have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect," it overlooked the right to due process, which ensured that black offenders—even slaves—appeared as persons in the eyes of the law. In the familiar account of African Americans' historical shift "from plantation to prison," we have forgotten how, for a century before the Civil War, state punishment affirmed black political membership in the breach, while a thriving popular crime literature provided early America's best-known models of individual black selfhood. Before there was the slave narrative, there was the criminal confession.
Placing the black condemned at the forefront of the African American canon allows us to see how a later generation of enslaved activists—most notably, Frederick Douglass—could marshal the public presence and civic authority necessary to fashion themselves as eligible citizens. At the same time, in an era when abolitionists were charging Americans with the national crime of "manstealing," a racialized sense of culpability became equally central to white civic identity. What, for African Americans, is the legacy of a citizenship grounded in culpable personhood? For white Americans, must membership in a nation built on race slavery always betoken guilt? In the Shadow of the Gallows reads classics by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, George Lippard, and Edward Everett Hale alongside execution sermons, criminal confessions, trial transcripts, philosophical treatises, and political polemics to address fundamental questions about race, responsibility, and American civic belonging.
Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography
It is no coincidence, Daphne Lamothe writes, that so many black writers and intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century either trained formally as ethnographers or worked as amateur collectors of folklore and folk culture. In Inventing the New Negro Lamothe explores the process by which key figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Sterling Brown adapted ethnography and folklore in their narratives to create a cohesive, collective, and modern black identity.
Lamothe explores how these figures assumed the roles of self-reflective translators and explicators of African American and African diasporic cultures to Western, largely white audiences. Lamothe argues that New Negro writers ultimately shifted the presuppositions of both literary modernism and modernist anthropology by making their narratives as much about ways of understanding as they were about any quest for objective knowledge. In critiquing the ethnographic framework within which they worked, they confronted the classist, racist, and cultural biases of the dominant society and challenged their readers to imagine a different set of relations between the powerful and the oppressed.
Inventing the New Negro combines an intellectual history of one of the most important eras of African American letters with nuanced and original readings of seminal works of literature. It will be of interest not only to Harlem Renaissance scholars but to anyone who is interested in the intersections of culture, literature, folklore, and ethnography.
Ralph Ellison and the American Canon
In 1952 Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for his Kafkaesque and claustrophobic novel about the life of a nameless young black man in New York City. Although Invisible Man has remained the only novel that Ellison published in his lifetime, it is generally regarded as one of the most important works of fiction in our century.
This new reading of a classic work examines Ellison's relation to and critique of the American literary canon by demonstrating that the pattern of allusions in Invisible Man forms a literary-critical subtext which challenges the accepted readings of such major American authors as Emerson, Melville, and Twain.
Modeling his argument on Foucault's analysis of the asylum, Nadel analyzes the institution of the South to show how it moved blacks from "enslavement" to "slavery" to "invisibility"—all in the interest of maintaining an organization of power based on racial caste. He then demonstrates the ways Ellison wrote in the modernist/surreal tradition to trace symbolically the history of blacks in America as they moved not only from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and from the rural South to the urban North, but as they moved (sometimes unnoticed) through American fiction.
It is on this latter movement that Nadel focuses his criticism, first demonstrating theoretically that allusions can impel reconsideration of the alluded-to text and thus function as a form of literary criticism, and then reading the specific criticism implied by Ellison's allusions to Emerson's essays and Lewis Mumford's The Golden Days, as well as to "Benito Cereno" and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nadel also considers Ellison's allusions to Whitman, Eliot, Joyce, and the New Testament.
Invisible Criticism will be of interest not only to students of American and Afro-American literature but also to those concerned about issues of literary theory, particularly in the areas of intertextual relationships, canonicity, and rehistoricism.
America and Beyond
"This fine collection of essays represents an important contribution to the rediscovery of Baldwin's stature as essayist, novelist, black prophetic political voice, and witness to the Civil Rights era. The title provides an excellent thematic focus. He understood both the necessity, and the impossibility, of being a black 'American' writer. He took these issues 'Beyond'---Paris, Istanbul, various parts of Africa---but this formative experience only returned him to the unresolved dilemmas. He was a fine novelist and a major prophetic political voice. He produced some of the most important essays of the twentieth century and addressed in depth the complexities of the black political movement. His relative invisibility almost lost us one of the most significant voices of his generation. This welcome 'revival' retrieves it. Close call." ---Stuart Hall, Professor Emeritus, Open University This interdisciplinary collection by leading writers in their fields brings together a discussion of the many facets of James Baldwin, both as a writer and as the prophetic conscience of a nation. The core of the volume addresses the shifting, complex relations between Baldwin as an American—“as American as any Texas GI” as he once wryly put it—and his life as an itinerant cosmopolitan. His ambivalent imaginings of America were always mediated by his conception of a world “beyond” America: a world he knew both from his travels and from his voracious reading. He was a man whose instincts were, at every turn, nurtured by America; but who at the same time developed a ferocious critique of American exceptionalism. In seeking to understand how, as an American, he could learn to live with difference—breaking the power of fundamentalisms of all stripes—he opened an urgent, timely debate that is still ours. His America was an idea fired by desire and grief in equal measure. As the authors assembled here argue, to read him now allows us to imagine new possibilities for the future. With contributions by Kevin Birmingham, Douglas Field, Kevin Gaines, Briallen Hopper, Quentin Miller, Vaughn Rasberry, Robert Reid-Pharr, George Shulman, Hortense Spillers, Colm Tóibín, Eleanor W. Traylor, Cheryl A. Wall, and Magdalena Zaborowska.
Witness to the Journey
James Baldwin’s Later Fiction examines the decline of Baldwin’s reputation after the middle 1960s, his tepid reception in mainstream and academic venues, and the ways in which critics have often mis-represented and undervalued his work. Scott develops readings of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head that explore the interconnected themes in Baldwin’s work: the role of the family in sustaining the arts, the price of success in American society, and the struggle of black artists to change the ways that race, sex, and masculinity are represented in American culture.
Scott argues that Baldwin’s later writing crosses the cultural divide between the 1950s and 1960s in response to the civil rights and black power movements. Baldwin’s earlier works, his political activism and sexual politics, and traditions of African American autobiography and fiction all play prominent roles in Scott’s analysis.