- African Americans and the Making of Modernity
When poet Paul Laurence Dunbar lay dying from tuberculosis in late 1905, he admitted to future NAACP executive secretary and fellow poet James Weldon Johnson, "I didn't start as a dialect poet. I simply came to the conclusion that I could write it as well, if not better, than anybody else I knew of, and that by doing so I should gain a hearing. I gained the hearing, and now they don't want me to write anything but dialect" (160). Johnson, who had also begun his writing career using Negro dialect, replied that Dunbar had brought the form "as far as and as high as it could go." "[T]he public," Johnson continued, may have "still demanded dialect poetry, but . . . as a medium, especially for the Negro poet, it was narrow and limited" (161). In this brief exchange, Dunbar and Johnson reveal that the cultural problem of the twentieth century was not so much the problem of the color line, as W. E. B. Du Bois so persuasively argued in The Souls of Black Folk (1903); it was African Americans' desire to be full partners and participants in modernism in all its forms. That desire extended to modernism in artistic circles as well, whether in black writers and artists' wish to be appreciated as modernists or in their shaping of modernism itself by their very presence and cultural riches. Predictably, no single definition of "modern" sufficed for all African Americans, but virtually all would agree that as a group, African Americans could not remain behind in the US's semifeudal past, subject to the whims of their fellow citizens and deprived of agency.
The will to achieve modernism has become the subject of several recent works in African-American studies as it turns its attention to the understudied period between the Civil War and the New [End Page 672] Negro or Harlem Renaissance, when African Americans struggled through a long, slow, frequently tragic, yet successful transition from enslavement to full citizenship over five decades. James Smethurst's The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (2011), Sonnet Retman's Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression (2011), and W. Fitzhugh Brundage's edited collection, Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930 (2011) each posits African-American literary and cultural developments as vital organs within the modern nation's reluctant body, rather than mere appendages. Each shares the argument: know African-American literature and culture in this period, and you shall know modernism. As students in the field know, this argument is hardly new, but together these texts trace how American definitions of modernism depended upon the black Other or Africanist presence, as Toni Morrison might call it.
Smethurst openly admits that his project relies upon Dunbar as a crucial exemplar of that presence, one without whom we might not have an African-American literary tradition as we know it. His "ulterior motive" is to "write extensively" about Dunbar "not to prove that black literature at the turn of the century is worth reading because it is 'modernist' . . . but to rethink the relationship of black literature during the early Jim Crow era, North and South, to a broad sense of 'American' artistic modernity as well as to the development of significant 'American' artistic avant gardes or countercultures" (26, 25). Neither Dunbar nor Johnson wished for their work to be left out of a world moving irrevocably toward modernity, especially since they had helped to usher African Americans into it despite the American public's efforts to deny that place.
As a poet, Dunbar stood above nearly all American poets of his time, while Johnson had worked alongside his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole to become...