The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (4)

The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissnace was such an important part of American history and literary history, but it is woefully neglected in ‘traditional’ history courses. Naturally, I had read some works of the prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, but the majority of the participants were unknown to me. Also, I knew next to nothing about the historical and social context from which the Harlem Renaissance sprang.
In conducting my research, I consulted four books on the Harlem Renaissance, many articles in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, and nine published articles. It would be impossible to describe everything I learned about the Harlem Renaissance in these essays. The aspects of the Harlem Renaissance I will primarily focus on are the philosophical debate between African Americans over how they should be depicted in literature, the writers’ responses to the debate, a brief biographical sketch of eight of the artists, a list of their major works, and how their lives and works connect to American Romanticism.
My first stop in my quest for the Harlem Renaissance was The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. From the article on the “Harlem Renaissance,” I learned there are many ambiguities about the movement. Many critics and literary historians dispute the time period of its beginning and ending. The article states, however, that there is a wide consensus that Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) “heralded a new phase of harsh realism in African American writing,” thus distancing itself from the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance writers (Singh 340). The philosophy of the movement was also controversial; the black intelligentsia and the artists had opposing views on what the literary movement should be.
To explore these opposing viewpoints more fully, I then turned to Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance by Cary D. Wintz. Wintz offers a very detailed description of the social and political forces that fostered the movement, the literary roots of the Harlem Renaissance, an extensive list of the people, both black and white, involved in the movement, and their contributions towards it. I will not give a shortened description of everything I learned from Wintz’ book; to do so would be an injustice to the full scope of his work. But I will point out a few points of his study of the Harlem Renaissance.
Wintz maintains that there was no consensus among the artists, critics, and publishers over what the Harlem Renaissance should be. He states there were two positions taken by the participants: (1) those that thought art should be used for political and propaganda purposes, and (2) those that insisted art should be for art’s sake only and resisted attempts to limit the freedom of artistic expression. Although all or most of the participants in the movement came from a middle-class background, they diverged into two groups that argued over how the Negro should be portrayed in literature. On one side (the ‘promoters’), there was James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and Charles Johnson who promoted artistic freedom. James Weldon Johnson argued that “it was far more important that a black writer find a publisher than that his works embrace middle-class standards of morality or that they consciously seek to uplift the race” (Wintz 108). Alain Locke’s vision of art was purely aesthetic; therefore, he “applauded the lusty vigorous realism adopted by most of the young writers, and he praised their struggle to free themselves from the dictates of their elders who felt that art must fight social battles and compensate social wrongs” (Wintz 113).
On the other side, that argued for the use of art for political and/or propaganda means were such prominent men as W.E.B. DuBois, William Stanley Braithwaite, Charles W. Chestnutt, and Benjamin Brawley. These critics objected to the portrayal of the Negro in what was termed ghetto realism. Braithwaite claimed ghetto realism “praised degradation” and would “stereotype blacks as immoral” (Wintz 132). Brawley viewed ghetto realism and the depiction of Harlem local colour as providing “bigoted whites with ammunition to use in their struggle against racial equality” (Wintz 135). Brawley wanted black writers to use their art as a means of “countering the prevailing prejudices and depicting the race in a favorable light” (Wintz 135). W.E.B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis, was more adamant in his condemnation of art for art’s sake:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda . . . .I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. (Wintz 145)
Even though Alain Locke promoted freedom of expression of the younger artists, he was well aware of the dangers of stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in literature, as were men such as DuBois. In his essay, “American Literary Tradition and the Negro,” Locke identifies seven stereotypical images of African Americans. It was these stereotypes that DuBois and his school worked so hard to dismantle, but unlike DuBois, Locke did not believe that African Americans should be presented as possessing only middle class values but rather as they existed in reality.
Both sides of this debate exhibit elements of Romanticism. The use of art for propaganda side wanted to romanticize African Americans by portraying only good qualities and middle class values; in short, to show that they were just like everyone else. The art for art’s sake focused more on depicting the reality of Harlem’s lower class culture. In effect, this side was rebelling against the idea that blacks must become like whites to overcome stereotypes. They promoted the ‘blackness’ of their culture, and sought a shared identity or racial consciousness.
These opposing viewpoints are derived from the literary history of African Americans. Between the time of Reconstruction and the early period of the Harlem Renaissance, there existed three main genres of literature, which were written by black writers and by white writers who portrayed African Americans. These genres were the Plantation tradition, protest literature, and novels of “passing.”
The plantation tradition was instigated by Southern whites after the Civil War who were “seeking, through romanticized images of Plantation life, to recover for the nation the forms of power and racial order that the war and Reconstruction had dismantled” (MacKethan 579). The North embraced this type of literature:
Northern magazines such as Scribner’s, the Century, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly invited syrupy visions of the Old South delivered in dialect by its slave labor force recast as family retainers and hovering mammies. Thus the reunion of North and South, and the effective establishment of a politics of white racial supremacy, were accomplished through a literary design in which pastoral nostalgia masked the violence of the slave past and stereotyped African American characters became advocates for their own disempowerment. (MacKethan 579-80)
The second genre, protest literature, originated with Phyllis Wheatley, around the time of the American Revolution. While Wheatley’s style was of “genteel piety and classical verse,” she used her poetry mainly to “assert human equality and freedom and to express her opposition to slavery” (Bruce 601). Slave narratives are a part of this genre of protest literature also, such as Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies.
The third genre in the literary tradition is novels of ‘passing.’ While this genre sometimes is used for protest, other times it is not. The characters in these novels who attempt to ‘pass’ for white are doing so for a myriad of reasons, e.g. to escape slavery, avoid racism, or improve their economic opportunities (Little 548). A few examples of this type of genre are William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), Frances Ellen Watkin Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), Charles Waddell Chestnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912).
This genre shows romantic tendencies in that the novels usually contain “the taboo of interracial sex, and the built-in dramas of concealed identity, tangled deceptions, fear of exposure, guilt, and the search for identity” (Little 548). The protagonists are crossing boundaries and are on a quest to define themselves. In these novels, the majority of characters ultimately decide not to pass for white, and as such this genre “has largely been used to promote racial loyalty and solidarity” (Little 548). The young writers of the Harlem Renaissance will utilize all three of these genres, but with the addition of their own distinctive voices.
Like the elders of the Harlem Renaissance, the younger generation of writers would also confront the issue of how African Americans should be presented in literature. And also like the elders, their viewpoints would diverge. While it is difficult to place the poets and novelists of the Harlem Renaissance into one philosophy on art or the opposite philosophy (since at various times both views are present in their works), they generally exhibit tendencies towards one of the philosophies more than the other in the majority of their works. Therefore while Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Claude McKay mainly use their art for propagandist or political purposes; and Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman lean more towards the use of art for art’s sake, I will not neglect to point out in the following discussion where they diverge from those views.
In part two, I begin with examining Countee Cullen’s life and contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.
Bruce Jr., Dickson D. “Protest Literature.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 600-04.
Little, Jonathan D. “Novels of Passing.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 548-50.
Locke, Alain. “American Literary Tradition and the Negro.” The Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940. Ed. Cary D. Wintz. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1996. 79-86.
MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Plantation Tradition.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 579-82.
Singh, Amritjit. “Harlem Renaissance.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 340-342.
Wintz, Cary D. {i}Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance{/i}. Houston: Rice University Press, 1988.