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  • New World A-Coming: African American Documentary Intertexts of the Federal Writers’ Project
  • J. J. Butts (bio)

In the twentieth century prior to the Depression, Harlem was defined by turns as the incubator for cultural uplift and the launching pad for black nationalism, a separate sphere for African Americans and the playground of both white and black leisure classes. At the end of the 1930s, however, a new set of contradictory terms emerged reflecting the uncertain future of Harlem. New Deal cultural programs portrayed the neighborhood as a slum, shaping a growing narrative of ghettoization that would be advanced in texts like Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) and St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945). This portrayal somewhat ironically paved the way for New Deal texts to invoke Harlem’s reform as the keystone for an emergent progressive national community. The New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) guidebooks to New York City offered a powerful image of African American inclusion in the national community through New Deal-initiated urban reform. In so doing, they promoted Harlem as a showcase for their efforts. Although the overall framing of the guidebooks worked to ensure that the reader would see New Deal housing and social initiatives as markers of an inclusive community, the materials on Harlem, written primarily by black authors, suggested no small degree of worry. In the final words of one FWP essay on Harlem, “shadows of tragic premonition” hovered over the African American experience, intimating the skepticism many African Americans felt about the actual likelihood of social and economic inclusion in this modernized national community (FWP, Panorama 151). These shadows would emerge more clearly still in the 1940s legacy of the FWP, as documentary texts by black writers who had formerly worked for the Writers’ Project questioned both its hopeful vision and the national government’s resolve to address racial injustice.

Several African American documentary texts written for a public audience in the 1940s, including Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices and Roi Ottley’s New World A-Coming, explored national welfare through a consideration of Harlem as the New Deal made way for wartime priorities. These texts lay at the intersection of several discussions of New Deal culture: the relationship between federal arts patronage and other cultural projects of the era, the growth of the documentary aesthetic, the politics of spatial and racial representation, and African American views of New Deal nationalism. However, critics have not given them enough attention to draw out the relationships among these discussions. Ottley and Wright drew on narrative strategies and textual elements of New Deal documentary projects to discuss Harlem’s problems. However, they advanced competing understandings of urban culture and community, drawing on the growing discourse of racial nationalism to clarify the stakes of lingering injustice.1 Wright rejected Harlem’s status as a unique enclave and contested the New Deal’s futurological discourse of state-sponsored spatial and community reform with an imagined cross-class community, foregrounding racial nationalism as an important marker of blacks’ claim to justice.2 Ottley, on the other hand, presciently mapped the undercurrents of racial nationalism within Harlem politics and social life as a coherent force that threatened national stability. As intertexts of the FWP guides, these documentary texts offer modern readers concrete examples of the politics of New Deal spatial representation, showing us [End Page 649] how rhetorical battles over particular spaces contributed to national debates over community and social justice.

Critics have suggested that the FWP influenced African American literature, particularly in fostering a generation of young black writers, but few have explored this legacy in depth.3 One approach to this issue is through a consideration of African American documentary texts. The national FWP office drew on a network of connections among black and white intellectuals to advance progressive racial agendas that were contested at the state and local levels. Southern state administrators resisted giving voice to African Americans, while even administrators in Northern states muted their history. Overruling these local views, the national office pushed for more inclusive copy with...


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