- Unfinished Masterpiece: The Harlem Renaissance Fiction of Anita Scott Coleman
Sometimes it is easy to forget that the Harlem Renaissance is a concept—an ideal—not a location. Although often relegated to the Eastern shores of North America, particularly Harlem, New York, as Laurie Champion and Bruce Glasrud remind us in their imaginatively creative edited collection of writer Anita Scott Coleman's work, the Harlem Renaissance's stirring ideology transcended the boundaries of New York, and can be readily found in the regions of the Southwest. In a well-appointed introduction, these editors speak of the cultural awakening that touched the hearts of African descendants far and wide, and within this legion of artistically gifted muses resided the spirit of Anita Scott Coleman.
Coleman's biographical information is as fascinating as her fictional work. Born in Guaymas, Sonora, in 1890, Coleman is the daughter of a slave mother and a Cuban father (who purchased her mother). Her father moved the family to New Mexico, and Coleman's essay, "Arizona and New Mexico—The Land of Esperanza," included in the appendix to this collection, provides insight into Coleman's observations of the Southwest during its formative years. Coleman's realistic portraits of life are sprinkled throughout the pages of the short stories included in this volume, and each aligns itself nicely with the thematic principles of the Harlem Renaissance—instilling racial pride and demanding social equity for people of African descent. Along the way, Coleman's stories also wrestle with such subject matters as passing, racial forgiveness, gender relations, poverty, single parenthood, and envy. In "The Hand That Fed," for example, Coleman demonstrates her creative dexterity as she unpacks the racial, social, and economic legacy that binds black and white women and their children. In "White Folks's Nigger," Coleman proves that life lessons on love can transcend racial hatred—even in death. Other stories, "The Brat" and "Three Dogs and a Rabbit," concern themselves with the complexities of "passing," and Coleman's trilogy, "The Nettleby's New Years," "Phoebe and Peter Up North," and "Phoebe Goes to a Lecture," deal with social inequality, and the trials and triumphs of black women's lives in the early part of the twentieth century. In perusing the stories contained in this volume, one will find much to admire about Coleman's work.
Although Coleman published award-winning short stories, essays and poems in such esteemed journals as the nationally syndicated Messenger and the Crisis, and her creative work appeared alongside other prominent luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance such as Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, she suffered the same fate as other gifted female artists of the Harlem Renaissance—a short shelf-life. But to everything there is a season. Many of us should remember when Alice Walker brought from obscurity the creative genius of Zora Neale Hurston. It is now hard to imagine an academic curriculum without her work. Unfinished Masterpiece engages in the same recovery effort. In the [End Page 516] spirit of Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey's Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (Rutgers UP 2001), and Sharon L. Jones's Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jesse Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West (Greenwood, 2002), Champion and Glasrud redirect a much needed gaze at the unbalanced portraits of Harlem Renaissance writers, restoring and highlighting the importance of women's writing. As Cary Wintz reiterates in the foreword to the collection, if Coleman were the only black woman writing in the Southwest, we might consider her work an anomaly. But Coleman's artistic renderings belong to a community of Southwestern black women writers who have until recently been forgotten. The rediscovery of these works—Coleman's, poet Bernice Love Wiggins of El Paso and California, and novelist Lillian Bertha Horace of Dallas-Fort Worth—means that scholars will have to reconceptualize the Harlem Renaissance, both geographically and speculatively. Such a reconceptualization is a welcome...