Between 1880 and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910, African Americans lived through a time of increasing oppression and disenfranchisement, a time that the black sociologist Rayford Logan called “the Nadir.” Nevertheless, African American literature regained some of its antebellum vitality during this time, moving gradually away from the autobiographical narrative and toward a wider range of literary and cultural production.The African American Essay.One genre that persisted in African American writing after...
Between 1880 and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910, African Americans lived through a time of increasing oppression and disenfranchisement, a time that the black sociologist Rayford Logan called “the Nadir.” Nevertheless, African American literature regained some of its antebellum vitality during this time, moving gradually away from the autobiographical narrative and toward a wider range of literary and cultural production.The African American Essay.One genre that persisted in African American writing after Reconstruction was the secular essay. Like the Reverend Edward Bryant's “Our Duties, Responsibilities: Negro Literature” (1885), many of these essays were secular in subject matter but written by ministers in church-sponsored journals. Other essays were written by lawyers. There were few black lawyers in the United States in the nineteenth century—in 1900, when the total black population stood at about 7 million, there were only 728 black lawyers—and though many of those were ill-educated and faced considerable barriers in their practice, the very best wrote about the issues of their day.In 1886 the A.M.E. Church Review carried both Alexander Clark's essay “Socialism” and E. J. Waring's “The Judicial Function in Government”; in 1888, Aaron A. Mossell's essay “The Unconstitutionality of the Law against Miscegenation” appeared in the same journal. The next year, 1889, the New York Independent published Charles W. Chesnutt's “What Is a White Man?” and the A.M.E. Church Review published T. McCants Stewart's “The Afro-American as a Factor in the Labor Problem.” These essays and some two score like them not only examined the intersection of constitutional law and African American life but also critiqued white stewardship of the federal government, proposed economic reform, sought changes in the American penal system, and extolled the benefits of secularized higher education.Washington and Pragmatism.If blacks were to survive the active opposition of the designers of the “New South” and the benign neglect of an increasingly disinterested North in post-Reconstruction America, they would have to find some pragmatic means to do so. The architect of one approach to survival was Booker T. Washington. As the founder and president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington advocated industrial and agrarian training for the black masses and warned against education for its own sake. Although Washington was not, given his position on liberal learning, a literary man, his policies are often reflected in African American literature of the period, and his autobiography Up from Slavery (1901) stands as the last of the major slave narratives of the nineteenth century.The importance of the autobiography lies in its revisionist quality. Because he needed to assure whites that the Negro in the New South was both aware of and able to shoulder his share of the responsibility for progress, Washington recast slavery as a period of “schooling” from which blacks gained as much as whites. Such a depiction of this shared past pleased whites, who at that time were enjoying a similar recasting of slavery's characteristics in the golden haze of the fictions of the white plantation school writers Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris.Literary Revival.In the last decade of the nineteenth century, African American fiction and poetry were revived by voices that were more problematic in their response to white America's assault on black civil rights and liberties. Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Sutton E. Griggs, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins are recognized as major figures in this revival. There were others—James D. Corrothers (The Black Cat Club, 1902; poetry), “Sanda” (Walter H. Stowers and W. H. Anderson; Appointed, 1894), T. Thomas Fortune (journalism, essays, poetry), “Jack Thorne” (David Bryant Fulton; Hanover; or, The Persecution of the Lowly: A Story of the Wilmington Massacre, 1901; journalism), and John E. Bruce (journalist, biographer, essayist)—all of whose works, less well known or even forgotten today, contributed to the new vitality.Of the poets who found their way into print during this period, with the exceptions of Frances E. W. Harper, James D. Corrothers, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, almost all were limited in the quality or the quantity of their production by one combination or another of poverty, late entry into the field, lack of education, racism, other responsibilities, and health. Only Albery Allson Whitman (1851–1901) rose above the ordinary among these, and a case can be made to place him among the ranks of the constantly anthologized and analyzed. Whitman seems to have produced as much poetry in his short life as Frances Harper did over seven decades, and his interest in the varieties of poetic traditions in English certainly outstripped that of any of his contemporaries; he was the first African American, for instance, to write in Spenserian stanzas. Although Whitman's reputation is less solid than Harper's or Dunbar's for general literary historical importance, taken for its range and command of technique his poetry is better crafted and more sophisticated than theirs is.Prose Fiction.Between 1880 and 1910 white America underwent extensive social turmoil and eventual change, much of which was reflected in and even stimulated by its literature. Little of that change, however, benefited African Americans, and their literature only indirectly reflected its presence outside of issues directly related to the influence of rising public expressions of white racism. One reason for this disparity in content was the increasing institutionalized separation of the races through the disfranchisement of black Americans as the Reconstruction amendments and their enabling legislation were eviscerated or repealed. Civil disfranchisement and the concomitant civil separation of entire communities enforced by Jim Crow legislation at all levels had their parallels in a kind of cultural disenfranchisement. African American cultural citizenship, the ability to participate in the imaginative and creative life of the community, to write its history as well as its laws, for example, was subjected to the same forces of separation that closed the polls and public political offices to blacks. As a consequence African Americans and white Americans met on few civil or cultural common grounds.In formal arenas of cultural production such as literature, separation was the order of the day as well. Most novelists and story writers wrote for black readers in black publications or for black-owned publishing houses. Of the major black novelists of the period, Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911), Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932), Pauline E. Hopkins (1859–1930), Sutton E. Griggs (1872–1932), and Paul Laurence Dunbar (1876–1906), only Chesnutt and Dunbar attempted to secure a consistent audience of white readers, and they were unsuccessful. All of African American life that whites wanted to know was seemingly supplied to them by minstrel shows, the ersatz folk tales of Joel Chandler Harris's “Uncle Remus,” Thomas Nelson Page's romances of the old folks back on the old plantation, and the rapacious racism of Thomas W. Dixon's glorification of the quest for post-Reconstruction white supremacy.Consequently, no white audience existed for the representation of the black middle class's quest for home, hearth, and stability or for the pathos of miscegenation or the barbarism of lynching or the melodrama of the reunited slave family or the problem of passing over the color line. On the other hand, so great was the alienation of blacks from the larger sphere of white American interests that the major themes of white literature of the period—the conquest of the West, European history and legend, the rise of corporations and enormous wealth, class and labor unrest, utopian visions of human progress, and the myth of the common man—are all but invisible in black fiction.Ultimately the separation of subjectivity was substantial enough that the major area of shared practice between an obvious black literature and a white one was formal. In plot and structure, much of African American literature between 1880 and 1910 shared white America's appreciation for the novel of domestic sentiment. Both Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins produced novels—Iola Leroy (1892) and Contending Forces (1900), respectively—that examined for their readers the condition of and the case for true African American womanhood. Each argued that the site of black womanhood was at the center of the racially conscious family. This positioning of the black female subject was a direct response to popular ideas in white America about the black woman, who was portrayed variously as the ignorant but loving mammy to her white family, as the tragic mulatta cursed by her skin color to loveless solitude, and as the sexually profligate jezebel, morally corrupt and corrupting. Although the two novels treat problems of different specificity within the range of African American experience as a community, the figure of Iola Leroy in her eponymous novel, and those of Ma Smith, Dora Smith, and Sappho Clark in Contending Forces, engaged in common enterprises: they overcame personal betrayal by white men, chose fitting mates, built and maintained loving families, and strived for the betterment of their race in the midst of a society determined to deny it any hope.Sutton E. Griggs, a Baptist minister whose several popular novels addressed contemporary racial conflict, similarly delineated a composite black male hero in the two protagonists of his fantastic tale Imperium in Imperio (1899). In this picaresque novel of life in the postwar South, Belton Piedmont and Bernard Belgrave each represent one of the two paradigms of black male identity: dark-skinned rural peasantry and light-skinned elitist privilege. As they grow as friends from precocious childhood to magnificent adulthood as champions of the race, Griggs counters the white American reduction of black maleness to simpleminded Sambo or animalistic rapist, both keystones of white supremacist propaganda in the closing decade of the nineteenth century.In these didactic novels that seek to repair the representation of black identity, male and female, two additional major positions emerge. The first is that white Americans have subverted the fundamental legal premises of the American experiment in republican democracy and are unfit stewards of the nation. The second is that black Americans, far from being of an inferior race, are morally superior to whites as a people and are best served by some condition of full civic citizenship and yet separate social identity. These positions differ from Booker T. Washington's accommodationism in that these novels hold no hope for the gradual integration of the races, nor do they accept an evolutionary approach to the acquisition of civil rights and liberties for African Americans based on the performance of some level of citizenship vetted and found adequate by whites. The protagonists of these novels find themselves far better arbiters of the rule of law and the promise of America than are any of the white characters they encounter.The two major male figures in African American literature at the end of the nineteenth century did not, however, write fiction as openly didactic as that of Harper, Hopkins, and Griggs. Paul Laurence Dunbar, even better known as a poet and arguably the only black poet of his day read by a large white audience, wrote one novel with black protagonists, The Sport of the Gods (1902), and two early collections of short stories with African American themes, Folks from Dixie (1898) and The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900). His poetry, notably the dialect poetry for which most white readers knew him, drew on black oral traditions, and many of those traditions found voice in his short fiction as well. But his interest in racial justice and in the problems faced by ordinary black people at the turn of the century found its way into his nondialect poetry, for which he was praised by the black reading public, and into Sport of the Gods. In that novel a Southern black family goes to New York in search of a better life. Here Dunbar produces the first realistic fiction of African American urban life in the twentieth-century North. Dunbar has no sociological or political argument to make, however, and one leaves the novel and its somewhat gothic ending with a sense only of the relative powerlessness of most ordinary people in the face of larger forces.Charles W. Chesnutt is the major figure to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century in African American letters. This judgment is made a century later, and perhaps it was not so evident at the time, when Chesnutt was trying to become the first black writer to earn a living writing fiction. Certainly Dunbar was more popular than he was, and other black figures were better known for their work in various genres: Frances Harper and Alice Dunbar Nelson in poetry, Ida Wells-Barnett in journalism, W. E. B. Du Bois in the essay. Nevertheless, Chesnutt's three novels from the period—The House behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel's Dream (1905)—are complex attempts to tell stories of African American experience using the considerable options for narrative offered by the novel as a genre. Like Du Bois, who would codify for the oncoming century the problem of America as the problem of the color line, Chesnutt wrote full-length fiction that explored the costs, possibilities, and probabilities of being black in America. Chesnutt's America was one in which what to do about being black and what to do with blacks were the central questions. Often those asking the questions were, like him, light-complected African Americans who had choices to make. Less often they were darker and poorer and had fewer choices. In the case of his last novel of this period the protagonist is a white industrialist with a program for the New South.Chesnutt's early short fiction, which appeared in various white and black publications including the Atlantic Monthly, was brought out in two collections in 1899: Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories. Chesnutt's first stories were popular with most readers, the earlier ones making available to a white public an African American folk tradition that had a sharper, more ironic edge and introducing in the person of Uncle Julius McAdoo a slyer, less reliable narrator of that tradition than Uncle Remus had been. The stories in the second collection range further afield, as Chesnutt seemed to trust more and more his white readers’ ability to use their own moral imagination to accept the conflicts of racial life without the palliative of folk humor. Such an effort was necessary because, Chesnutt believed, no writer could be successful writing solely to a black audience. Yet he could not deracinate his fiction—as Dunbar had attempted to do in his first novels—and still be true to his desire to show how the color line worked in America.Chesnutt's narratives range from the melodramatic to the tendentious, covering miscegenation, hidden identities, the generational legacy of racism, law and identity, politics, racial violence, economics, class and labor conflict, and the comedy of manners. Although Chesnutt created no memorable characters after Uncle Julius McAdoo, his novelistic protagonists are more than serviceable, and in the Colonel of The Colonel's Dream he imagines a certain kind of progressive white capitalist that was rare in its time and manages to make him believable and sympathetic. Despite this range and a comfortable style that was modern for its day, Chesnutt failed to capture the larger audience he was after. His uncompromising insistence on looking at race head-on, even though his tone was far less didactic than that of his contemporaries, proved unacceptable or uninteresting to the white readers on which his career depended. By 1905 Chesnutt had decided that he could not afford to write full-time and he returned to his profitable stenography and legal work in Ohio.From Nadir to the New Negro.The period that began with the promises of Washingtonian accommodationism drew to a close in the depth of despair over prospects for the race. The lynching of blacks by whites was endemic throughout the South and into the Midwest and even the North. In 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson had sealed the fate of the postwar dreams of an integrated civil society by declaring racially segregated public facilities constitutional. In 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, had been the site of an armed coup d’état in which white radicals overthrew a biracial city government, killed many black citizens, and drove the city's African American middle class from their homes and businesses. This riot was at the center of both Chesnutt's second novel and David Bryant Fulton's Hanover. As formal segregation and informal violence drove whites and blacks further and further apart, however, some conditions for the growth of black literature were being seeded. Gradually the black rural peasantry was leaving the land and making its way north to compete for jobs in industry. Western migration after 1877 had been only marginally successful, but movement north seemed more promising. Then, too, increased black West Indian migration to New York was bringing with it new versions of racial relationships and new social theories. Longtime black communities in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C., had developed stable middle classes, and this had also happened in Atlanta. Literacy among blacks was increasing, but the influence of Booker T. Washington on education still resulted in much vocational training and little liberal learning outside of a few historically black colleges.In 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formally established. This coalition of liberal and progressive whites and a few blacks had as one of its charter organizers W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), a Harvard-educated historian, sociologist, novelist, and intellectual. Du Bois is the single literary figure whose career spans the half century between the emergence of the modern movement for African American rights with the founding of the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended school segregation and effectively reversed the Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In African American literature these years are marked by the publication in 1903 of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk at one end and by the publication in 1952 of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man at the other.In 1903 Du Bois, impatient and angry at white America's omnipresent racism and disenchanted with the possibility that academic social science could do anything to change it, published a collection of essays, stories, and memoir pieces, each entry headed by a musical annotation. The Souls of Black Folk is variously romantic, analytic, prophetic, and painful to read. Du Bois's attempt to capture the soul of the folk, a romantic idealization of his race filtered through his exposure to German Romanticism during his graduate study at the University of Berlin, has not been out of print since its first publication. Its most immediate effect, however, was a furor over Du Bois's attack in the book on Booker T. Washington and his policies Du Bois disputed Washington's reliance on vocational education and his willingness to leave the field of intellectual and cultural life to whites.At the NAACP, Du Bois not only sat on the board that directed its policy but also edited the association's influential journal, The Crisis. The Crisis was one of three African American journals associated with black social movements, all of which were important literary outlets as well as political publications well into the twentieth century. The others were The Messenger, the house organ of A. Phillip Randolph's socialist movement in Harlem, and Opportunity, the official publication of the Urban League.Along with Du Bois at the NAACP in its first two decades were several figures who participated in the literary life of black America before and during the flowering of cultural productivity from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s—a flowering popularly called the Harlem Renaissance but now more often referred to by scholars as the New Negro movement. James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a lawyer, poet, songwriter, novelist, anthologist, and the first African American national secretary of the NAACP. In time Johnson's friendship with the publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf would become a crucial link in the network of relationships that fostered the literary manifestation of the New Negro Movement. Johnson was soon joined at the NAACP by Walter White (1893–1955). White eventually succeeded Johnson at the NAACP, but in the arts his career as a novelist (Fire in the Flint, 1924, and Flight, 1926) and as an arbitrageur of all matters cultural in the New Negro Movement was equally important. His reportage and essays between 1919 and his death cover the widest range of literary, political, and social topics.Though some twenty other novels and story collections by African American writers were published prior to 1920, only James Weldon Johnson's work has survived as a critical success; almost all of those novels and stories have been forgotten. Johnson's career as a songwriter and poet was already established when he published his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in 1912, which was presented as an anonymous autobiography set in the first decade of the new century. Like Dunbar's Sport of the Gods, the book exposed a part of black life that black writers usually kept hidden from the white public: the life of bars and gambling houses, prostitution and ragtime music.“Passing” and Its Discontents.Perhaps more important, Johnson presented for the first time a story that does not end in tragedy for the black character who attempts—and succeeds in his attempt—to pass for white. Similar themes, seen in the miscegenation and “tragic mulatta” characters in stories like Charles W. Chesnutt's earlier The House behind the Cedars and William Wells Brown's antebellum novel Clotel, were common enough in white as well as black fiction. In these narratives the fair-skinned girl marries or loves a white man and is rejected or discovered or, failing discovery, dies before she can do miscegenational damage to either race. In Sutton Griggs's 1899 novel Imperium in Imperio, one noble darker-colored character commits suicide rather than marry her almost-white lover, since she fears that she would contribute to the gradual disappearance of the black race through such genetic misalliance. In Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, two half sisters, the black and white daughters of a deceased slaveholder, meet in post–Civil War adulthood, and the “colored” sister loses her only child in a race riot. The issues of the novel are complicated further by the white sister's racial antagonism toward her colored sister, who resembles her so much that she is at times taken for white.Chesnutt had made life along the color line a central theme of his fiction, and that precarious life was characterized again by Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk. In its opening passages he proclaims in no uncertain terms that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Life along that line, he went on, was for blacks marked by a single most distinguishing psychological characteristic, what Du Bois called “double-consciousness”—the necessity of living two lives, one as an American and another as a Negro: “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” in one physical entity. Passing for white had always been one tool for the reconciliation Du Bois sought, but it always had been represented as exacting almost too great a cost to employ.After Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, however, passing novels take a different turn, with one notable exception. In Johnson's novel the nameless protagonist decides, after witnessing a lynching near the end of the book, to pass for white in order to avoid the pain of belonging to a race that is powerless to protect itself. He is successful in his deception, marries, becomes wealthy, and has children. The protagonist's white wife knows his racial secret and loves him anyway. She dies, an inversion of the tragic mulatta trope, and he is left with his wealth and his beloved children to wonder what he gave up for this comfort. Despite this displaced retribution and the angst it stimulates in the protagonist, Johnson opened the door to a new consideration of what it might mean to live life on the color line. The idea of more or less successful passing, crossing the color line without becoming the sport of the gods or the target of their justice, gained more currency in the following decade, especially in the novels of Jessie Fauset and Walter White.Jessie Fauset (1882–1961), whose novelistic treatment of miscegenation and passing goes beyond Johnson's in arguing for the inevitability of miscegenation and the usefulness of passing, was a colleague of Johnson's at the NAACP's national headquarters, having joined the editorial staff of The Crisis in 1920. Between 1920 and 1924 she wrote poetry and short fiction, but she is best known for her four novels of black middle-class life, true African American domestic comedies: There Is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931), and Comedy: American Style (1933). Fauset's characters see the world as a site of conflict between possibilities and probabilities, and the probabilities are only partially determined by race. Her lightest-complected characters generally see passing as one of the weapons in their arsenal, and though its application is often problematic, it is never fatal in its consequences.Such a perspective is, it could be argued, realistic. African Americans had, in fact, always used passing as a solution to the problem of race. Before the Civil War, fugitive slaves made their way to freedom by disguising themselves as whites. By the second decade of the twentieth century, blacks in the South and in the North crossed over to whiteness every year by the thousands. One newspaper article in 1911 worried about the effect on the South's economy if blacks continued to “vanish” from the population in such astounding numbers. By Fauset's time, her characters could be shown choosing to pass for white not only as a solution to the problems of white racism but also as a form of personal entertainment and satisfaction—taking a day off from being black to mingle with white people and observe them unawares, all the while getting good seats at the movies and prompt service in the restaurant afterward.The exception to this laissez-faire attitude toward racial identity is found in the one book from the period that announces its intention in its title, Passing (1929), by Nella Larsen (1891–1964). Although much critical attention has been paid to the multiple uses to which Larsen puts “passing” as a metaphor—for example, as a metaphor for crossing boundaries of class and gendered desire—it is hard to escape reading the melodramatic ending in which the faux-white Clare Kendry falls or is pushed to her death, by a jealous husband or a jealous rival, as other than a reversion to an age in which the wages of racial transgression were death. Larsen's previous novel, Quicksand (1928), had dealt in part with autobiographical matters but had also established her unique claim to a realistic investigation of women's sexuality within the frame of race and racism. That novel's ending, in which the light-skinned Helga Crane seems destined to live out her years locked in poverty and domestic subjection in the rural South, seems to foreshadow the consequential ending of Passing.Larsen's novel was written three years after she had reviewed another passing novel, Flight (1926), by Walter White. White, whose first novel had met with some success, felt that an early review in Opportunity had not done his book justice, and he wrote Charles S. Johnson, the editor, asking for a chance to rebut it. Johnson instead asked Larsen to review the book. Flight, the story of a young girl's growth from pampered daughter of Creole aristocracy to self-sufficient businesswoman, sounds modern in summary but was marred by White's Edwardian language. White had been educated at Atlanta University in the curriculum set there by Du Bois, which took a belletristic approach to literature that only reinforced White's rather proper upbringing in a black middle-class household where he was forbidden to read modern literature. Still, Mimi, White's protagonist, is strong willed and sexually liberated enough to make her way in the world with a fatherless child and then to pass for white as she fashions a career in New York. She even marries a wealthy white man, although she has had to hide the fact of her child from him, not for racial reasons but because of prevailing moral codes. In the end she leaves her marriage not for fear of disclosure but because she realizes that she misses the freedom and authenticity of black life. Mimi thus has it both ways and is never punished.The ultimate African American literary comment on passing came in George Schuyler's 1931 novel Black No More. Schuyler (1895–1977) was a journalist who wrote novels occasionally, most often as serialized tales for his employer, the Pittsburgh Courier. In Black No More, Schuyler tells the story of the effect on American society of the invention of a process to turn blacks into whites. The satire is wide-ranging, and Schuyler lampoons both blacks and whites along the way. As Schuyler saw it, both blacks and whites were wrong to pursue the chimera of race in America. Nevertheless, he had no illusions about the power of racial exclusionism to motivate behavior. At the end of his satire, whites, no longer able to tell Negroes from white people, begin to establish a hierarchy of color in which “authentic” whites are those who, by dint of sun or chemical, can tan their bodies darker. Consequently, in the wonderful world of scientific whiteness, the darker you can be, the whiter you are.The New Negro Movement.In 1926 Schuyler wrote “The Negro-Art Hokum,” an essay that engaged a controversy at the heart of the New Negro movement, the debate over what black art, including literature and music, should be. Schuyler argued that the New Negro movement as a phenomenon of the arts was “hokum,” a fake category of experience. There was, for Schuyler, only American art; blacks had not been connected to Africa for a century and a half, he said. Ranged variously along a continuum from Schuyler's position to that of Langston Hughes, who argued that blacks should be conscious and proud of their racial identity when they write and paint and perform (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” 1926), were Alain Locke (“The New Negro,” 1925), Du Bois (“Criteria of Negro Art,” 1926), Wallace Thurman (“Negro Artists and the Negro,” 1927), Claude McKay (“A Negro Writer to His Critics,” 1932), and Richard Wright (“Blueprint for Negro Writing,” 1937).Given the ongoing nature of this question, which had begun to be formulated as early as 1913 in a Du Bois essay in the Annals of the American Academy of Political Arts and Sciences and was still being argued by the Black Arts theorists of the 1960s, it is reasonable to assert that the New Negro movement ushered in an era that was distinguishable from the past not only by the quantity of its fiction and poetry, which is more or less true, but also by a self-conscious critical perspective on the part of black writers about their art and about its relationship to society.In any case, from the publication of Alain Locke's 1925 anthology The New Negro, formal notice seemed to have been served that black intellectual life in America was entering a new phase. Locke (1886–1954), a Howard University professor of philosophy and the first black American Rhodes Scholar, had been guest editor in early 1925 of a special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, a popular magazine of art, photography, letters, and general intellectual and social inquiry. From that issue Locke solicited revised essays and asked for other, new pieces from writers and artists not included in the issue to make up The New Negro, a collection of position papers on black life in America. Many of those included in the volume went on to be counted among the primary figures of the Harlem Renaissance: Gwendolyn Bennett (1902–1981), Arna Bontemps (1902–1973), Countee Cullen (1903–1946), Aaron Douglas (1898–1979), Jessie Fauset, Rudolph Fisher (1897–1934), Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880–1968), James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay (1890–1948), Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–1987), Anne Spencer (1882–1975), Jean Toomer (1894–1967), Eric Walrond (1898–1966), and Walter White.It is important to separate the New Negro movement as a metaphor used by Locke to suggest the difference between the historically placed, sentimentalized, and reactionarily drawn Old Negro of post-Reconstruction nineteenth-century America and the modern, ironic, mobile, internationalized New Negro of twentieth-century America. The emergence of the New Negro was permanent, a change in the history of American social hierarchies shaped by World War I and its side effects, including not only the exposure of young black soldiers to Europe but also the stimulus to migration that took hundreds of thousands of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North over the next two decades.The moment of cultural flowering called the “Renaissance” in and around Harlem, Washington, D.C., and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, was temporary. It may have been born at the first awards ceremony for Negro achievement in the arts sponsored by Opportunity in 1925. First announced in 1924, the prizes were awarded at a 1925 dinner financed, it is generally believed, by Caspar Holstein, the king of Harlem's numbers racket. Like the cast of contributors to The New Negro, the list of guests and honorees reads like the table of contents of any standard anthology of twentieth-century African American literature. This score or so of writers and artists, editors, teachers, and intellectuals included not only the names already mentioned but also Nella Larsen, the sculptor Augusta Savage (1892–1962), the photographer James Van Der Zee (1886–1933), and Wallace Thurman (1902–1934), whose satirical novel Infants of the Spring (1932) appeared as the Renaissance was coming to a close and mocked the bohemian pretensions of a group of artistically inclined African American young men and women who inhabit a boardinghouse in Harlem. The characters are loosely based on Thurman and his friends and some of their white acquaintances.Thurman's dark skin and homosexuality made him sensitive to two of the three aspects of black life in 1920s Harlem that usually go unremarked in popular accounts of the Harlem Renaissance. One of these, intraracial color discrimination, was the subject of Thurman's first novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929). The other, the extent to which homosexuality played a part in the social and artistic relationships of the time, is considered the subtext of several works of fiction of the period, including McKay's Home to Harlem (1928) and Nugent's 1926 short story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” which appeared in Fire!!, the driving force behind which was Thurman. Fire!!, an iconoclastic journal of the arts that lasted only one issue, announced to the black artistic community that a younger generation of writers and visual artists would not be confined to the themes of racial uplift and political propagandizing called for even at that late date by Du Bois in The Crisis and exemplified by him in his 1928 novel Dark Princess.The third neglected topic is in fact a political one, but not the politics of racial uplift. It is instead the complex relationship between communist and socialist movements in America and black cultural production in the 1920s and 1930s. Though much has already been written of Richard Wright's connection to the Communist Party in the United States, recent scholarship has called for more attention to be paid to the leftist political lives of McKay and Hughes, the early writing of George Schuyler, the influence of Marxism on Du Bois in the 1920s, Andy Razaf (1895–1973) and the socialist journal Crusader, Walter White and his friendship with the American communists Robert Minor and Ben Davis, and the influence of American cultural leftism in general on the next generation of black writers, including Ralph Ellison, Willard Motley, Chester Himes, and William Attaway.Through the efforts of the older generation of black men and women of letters—Johnson, White, Du Bois, Locke, and Fauset—the Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement found itself in print fairly consistently. The photographer and novelist Carl Van Vechten, the publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf, and the editor H. L. Mencken were all white friends of the older group and encouraged, hosted, edited, and published the younger crowd. Integrated parties at Walter White's or James Weldon Johnson's apartments (Johnson was married to Grace Nail, a sister of one of Harlem's biggest realtors; White's wife, Gladys, was considered to be the most beautiful woman in Harlem when they married in 1922) brought white composers, performers, writers, and artists to Harlem. But by the early 1930s the impetus behind the movement was diminishing. The onset of the Depression hit black communities first and the hardest, as blacks in America are traditionally the last hired and the first fired. Book sales dropped and movie ticket sales went up. White writers could make the transition to scriptwriting and move to California, but black writers could not break the racial barrier of studio-based Hollywood. The same was true of radio, the artistic side of which was controlled by the corporate mentality of national transmission networks.At the same time, hard living and hard work was taking its toll. Thurman died, as did Rudolph Fisher, the physician, story writer, and novelist who had given the commencement speech at Brown University back in 1919. That the Renaissance was on its last legs is evident, in retrospect, by the fact that the two best novels by African Americans in the early years of the decade are satires on the assumptions and excesses of the Harlem 1920s themselves.Radicalism and Then the War.Throughout the 1930s many black writers kept working as best they could. Others gave up. James Weldon Johnson retired from the NAACP and went to Fisk University to teach. Walter White took Johnson's old job, made it even more powerful, and gave up fiction after failing to complete a third novel, one he had been working on for three years. Jessie Fauset settled down to matronhood. Nella Larsen suffered a number of professional setbacks, including a charge of plagiarism, and ended up a nurse in New York City. Du Bois was ousted from The Crisis by Walter White in the mid-1930s but went on with a long and distinguished career.The next generation of writers and the survivors of the Renaissance generation—Hughes, Hurston, Bontemps, Cullen, and McKay—struggled through the decade. Hughes produced a substantial body of political poetry and drama and wrote some well-received short fiction. Hurston produced the major works of her career, although they were not as appreciated then as they have been since the 1980s revival of interest in her led by the African American novelist and essayist Alice Walker. Bontemps's two major novels were written in the 1930s, and both Cullen and McKay continued to produce poetry and prose, including Cullen's satirical thrust at the Renaissance years, One Way to Heaven (1934), and McKay's autobiography A Long Way from Home (1937).Far and away the most influential black writer of the decade was Richard Wright (1908–1960). Wright had come north to Chicago in the late 1920s and, through friends at the post office where he worked, had made his way to the Chicago John Reed Club, one of a national network of arts clubs for workers that was organized by the Communist Party in the early 1930s. Wright wrote stories and poetry that were published in small leftist journals, and in 1937 he moved to New York to write for the Daily Worker and pursue his literary career. In 1938 his first major publication, a collection of short stories called Uncle Tom's Children, appeared.Wright's major impact on American letters came in 1940 when his novel Native Son was published as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and went on to become a best seller. The novel was a harsh depiction of urban black despair and the power of circumstance over character. Marxian in its analysis of the forces that determine action, the novel also pointed toward an American existentialism, a choice of interpretations of one's own life narrative in order to salvage some value from it. At the end of the novel, Wright's protagonist, Bigger Thomas, claims for himself a full, determinative intention to murder and dismember his victim, even though the reader understands from Wright's exposition that Bigger is a victim of class, race, and circumstance. Bigger's choice is, however, his to make, and it allows him to claim a distinct subjectivity rather than accept a role as merely another object of implacable forces beyond anyone's control.Native Son was attacked by the black bourgeoisie for its portrayal of “unwholesome” aspects of black life and was attacked by many American leftists for its failure to have Bigger Thomas achieve the requisite class consciousness once his lawyer delineates the social forces arrayed against him. These critiques are, perhaps, less important than the perspective now allowed by time that lets us see Wright's novel as exemplary of a major generic distinction, by 1940, between African American and white American literature. By mid-century, literature by white Americans had more or less accepted the usefulness of at least one of the narrative techniques of what has come to be called “high modernism,” the representation of the psychoanalytic subject. Since the mid-nineteenth century, writers in Europe and America had drawn the psychological subject with increasing fidelity. This character was one whose actions and decisions could be understood as the result of external forces acting on his or her basic drives for love, food, and shelter. In the late nineteenth century, American academic psychology emerged in colleges and universities as a behavioristic study, and this perspective influenced American writers. The importation of Freudian psychoanalytic theory in the opening decade of the twentieth century introduced another possibility for the depiction of character: the source of motivation in internally consistent conflicts surrounding the organism's battle for psychic survival from birth, a set of conflicts only partially understandable by attention to external forces. To depict the psychoanalytic subject, writers developed distinctly associative narrative and structural techniques.All of this was more or less true for whites writing in America, but black writers—as is shown by the texts of the period—avoided such choices. Black writers emerged from the nineteenth century schooled in the practices of late-Romantic realism, the literary imitation of plausibility. By Wright's time, realism had been joined by a racialized naturalism, a literary imitation of inevitability, as the black writer's primary narrative tools. These tools suited the conditions surrounding the problem that usually lay at the center of black fiction in the first half of the century, the problem of the social determination of the African American subject. That is, the question for black writers was not that of the psychoanalytic sources of individual identity as personality, but instead was that of the social origins of individual identity as racial and civic identity. In most cases, the social forces shaping black identity in the aggregate and for the individual were seen as the product of America's racialized legal and economic history, the story of how American capital and American law determined black lives.William Attaway's (1911–1986) Blood on the Forge (1941), a novel of the Great Migration, is one of the best examples of this approach. Because both realism and naturalism focus the writer's and the reader's attention on the influence of external forces on internalized constructions of value and identity, these tools were best suited for the tasks that black writers saw themselves as having. The literary consequence was that for twenty years and more after white writers of fiction began to employ such associative narrative devices as stream of consciousness and indeterminate points of view, black writers of fiction were concentrating on linear, syllogistic narratives of behaviorist exposition, avoiding the influences of twentieth-century modernism.Between Native Son and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man a dozen years later, only one poet, Melvin Tolson (1900?–1966), and three novelists, Chester Himes (1909–1984), Willard Motley (1909–1965), and Ann Petry (1908?–1997), produced lasting bodies of work. Tolson's poetry (Dark Symphony, The Libretto for the Republic of Liberia), like Jean Toomer's poetic prose in Cane (1923) before him, is exceptional in that it exhibits a distinct commitment to modernist technique. Motley (Knock on Any Door, We Fished All Night) and Petry (The Street, A Country Place, The Narrows), however, wrote as realist/naturalists, mining the lives of black and white Americans for stories of economic, social, and psychological determinism.Himes, Motley, and Wright illustrate another trend in African American literary life: the black writer as expatriate. Though black writers had always traveled, and some, like McKay and the cartoonist and war correspondent Ollie Harrington (1912–1995), found themselves in a state of almost compulsory exile because of their political activities, Wright, Himes, Motley, and the popular novelist of historical romances Frank Yerby (1916–1991) left the United States to find places to live that were more conducive to their sense of themselves as black artists. Transatlantic travel in both directions has been influential in African American cultural production since the colonial period, and since the early twentieth century, Europe has been a second home to black jazz musicians and artists. After World War II many black soldiers stayed in Europe, including William Gardner Smith (1927–1974), whose novels The Last of the Conquerors (1948) and The Stone Face (1963) depict life as seen by a black man, first as a young soldier in postwar Germany and then as a member of an expatriate community of writers.As the 1940s ended, black veterans were entering college, financed by the G.I. Bill of Rights education provisions. In 1945 Himes had published his novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, the story of a young black defense-plant worker and his psychological disintegration. In 1947 Himes returned to the same setting with a political novel, The Lonely Crusade, that is notable not so much for its politics as for its acceptance of the necessity of understanding its black characters as psychoanalytic subjects, people whose fears and neuroses are produced by, and understood through, more than simply an analysis of external forces. Himes had approached this perspective in his 1945 novel, but he makes it clearer here.By the early 1950s Ralph Ellison, a black musician who had turned to writing in the late 1930s under the tutelage of Richard Wright and the Communist Party, was ready to publish his first novel. Invisible Man (1952) ushered modernism once and for all into African American literature.Approaching the Modern.The early years of America's mid-century were infused with memories of World War II. Movies and books about the war were popular, and its direct and indirect consequences were still being felt in American social and political life. For African Americans these consequences were for the most part beneficial. Wartime policies shaped by militant action on the part of blacks had opened American society to a greater degree than had been seen since Reconstruction. President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 of 25 June 1941 had, in desegregating the workforce in defense plants, opened thousands of jobs to black workers, and California had become a magnet for black migration in much the same way as Detroit, Chicago, Gary, and Pittsburgh had been during World War I. President Harry S. Truman had desegregated the armed forces after the war at the insistence of the NAACP and its allies, and the G.I. Bill of Rights was financing college educations for thousands of black veterans. Even though Walter White and the NAACP had lost the battle for a federal antilynching law, an agenda for the association since the 1920s, that mainstay of rabid racist intimidation was on the decline. At the same time, incremental justice was being won in the courts against school segregation, although only at the college, university, and professional school levels. Nevertheless, cases challenging separate-but-equal public school systems were making their way through those same courts, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund was looking for just the right combination of elements to present to the United States Supreme Court.African American music, specifically jazz, was perhaps the most progressive cultural venue over which blacks had any control. During the war, “swing,” a whitened form of jazz-inflected dance music, had exemplified jazz to most Americans. After the war, however, from California, Kansas City, and New York a complicated and self-referential form of improvisational jazz called “bebop” began to surface in small clubs and on records. Esoteric and even sometimes called harsh or inaccessible, bop belonged to its black practitioners Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk. Working at the higher ends of the intervals between notes in standard American popular jazz chords and in a greatly accelerated tempo, musicians played complex compositions mixed with improvisation, and played these for themselves and for informed listeners, not for dancers, as had been the case with swing. Although this was a temperamental choice for many of the musicians, it was also the pragmatic response to a wartime dance tax in New York City clubs. Because of the tax, many small clubs closed their dance floors, and the musicians, if they wanted to work, played for people who could just sit and listen.Ironically, it was a “mouldy fig” (as the bebopping hipsters called the devotees of old-time jazz), a lapsed musician who hated bebop, who led African American literature into modernist letters. Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) had come to New York in the summer of 1936 to study sculpture with Augusta Savage and earn tuition money for his senior year at Tuskegee. Ellison was a trumpet player with a love of modern literature and fine art, as well as a love of the folkways of his Oklahoma boyhood. He was soon in touch with the previous generation of Harlem literary figures, including Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. Within the year Hughes arranged a meeting between Ellison and Richard Wright, only recently arrived from Chicago. Under Wright's influence and guidance, Ellison added Marxian leftism to the European modernism that informed his literary and intellectual tastes. Throughout the remainder of the 1930s and through the war, Ellison kept close ties to the city's leftist intelligentsia, black and white, and through them, to the Communist Party.Ralph Ellison, 1964. AP ImagesLike many writers on the left in the 1930s, Wright struggled with the difficulty of meshing modernist technique with Marxian analysis. He was, in fact, more sympathetic to the experiment than most, but Ellison was even less troubled by it. In his early fiction published in New Masses and elsewhere on the left, Ellison drew on his close reading of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. This literary apprenticeship was crucial to Ellison's development, but the political apprenticeship was painful. By 1942 Ellison could no longer excuse the Communists’ reversal of overt support for racial justice and the displacement of the Negro Question from the center of the Party's American agenda. From then on he moved further and further from formal support of American Marxist programs, so that by 1950 his political positions were almost completely intellectualized into paradigms rather than beliefs.Late in the war Ellison embarked on a plan for a novel about a captured black flier held in a German prison camp. By the time this first novel was published in 1952, it had become Invisible Man, a picaresque examination of black life as it had been a decade and half past, but so broadly couched in modernist interpretations of long-standing Western literary conventions and intellectual history that it was immediately seen as a text from which anyone in that tradition could generalize. Some of the structure of Invisible Man had come from the earlier flier project, and many of the episodes were autobiographical in their geneses if not in their specifics. Ultimately this vastly influential novel will be understood as a conservative project, as much of modernism is currently being understood.After Ellison.With Invisible Man Ellison established himself as an important American writer, taking Richard Wright's position as the most respected black author of the day. Ellison and Wright had been friends to one degree or another for almost twenty years. Ellison's 1945 review of Wright's autobiography Black Boy, a review that had been a superb defense against Du Bois's denigration of the book and a superb statement of an agenda for black letters, stands in the tradition of black writers’ investigation in print of the nature of African American literary practice that had begun at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the essays of Wallace Thurman, George Schuyler, Du Bois, Hughes, Claude McKay, and, much later, Wright himself. When in 1952 Ellison won the National Book Award, he wrote to Wright about his good fortune but apparently never wrote to him again. Ellison did, however, continue to acknowledge Wright's importance to him and to African American literature.A more public rupture between black writers, one of whom was Wright, was marked in 1949 by the publication of “Everybody's Protest Novel,” an attack by James Baldwin (1924–1987) on the ideological novel and its excesses in general and on Native Son in particular. The essay ended the friendship between Wright and Baldwin, which was never as close as that between Ellison and Wright, but it did, as such attacks often do, establish Baldwin's bona fides as a literary voice with strength and style. Baldwin's career in this period as a novelist and essayist (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953; Giovanni's Room, 1956; Notes of a Native Son, 1955; Nobody Knows My Name, 1961; The Fire Next Time, 1963) hardly faltered, although his essays have been generally regarded as stronger than his fiction, with the exception of the semiautobiographical first novel. In Giovanni's Room, Baldwin took up the topic of homosexuality, but he displaced it into a totally white world, avoiding any necessity of drawing attention to his own sexuality.Giovanni's Room was emblematic of another minor phenomenon in black literature after the war, the experiment in the “raceless” novel. After Willard Motley's success with Knock on Any Door (1947), a naturalistic novel tinged with romanticism about an Italian boy trapped by poverty and ignorance in Chicago, there seemed to be a spate of novels with white protagonists by African American writers: Ann Petry's The Country Place (1947), Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Sewanee (1948), William Gardiner Smith's Anger at Innocence (1950), and Wright's Savage Holiday (1954). In fact, Paul Laurence Dunbar had written three novels in the first decade of the century all of which had white protagonists, and before Dunbar, as far back as 1871, the black writer Thomas Detter had published an antidivorce novel with no black protagonists.By far the major problem in African American literature between the war and 1960 was to what extent that literature could represent or influence the macropolitical struggle between some form of Marxist internationalism and an emerging imperial American capitalism built, as the black community saw it, on racialized social and economic oppression. Black writers of the period who associated with the left side of this debate at one time or another included not only Wright, Hughes, and Ellison but also Himes, Motley, Petry, Attaway, Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965)—the first black woman to have a play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), produced on Broadway—Alice Childress (1916–1994 ), John O. Killens (1916–1987), Margaret Walker (1915–1998), and Lloyd Brown (1913–2003), whose 1951 novel Iron City is a neglected masterpiece of revolutionary romanticism. Only James Baldwin among the major writers of the period served any kind of apolitical apprenticeship in the world of American letters. His formative years were spent under the influence of poverty and fundamentalist Christianity; at fourteen he was a child evangelist.African American poetry after the war and before 1960 was dominated by the figure of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000). Hughes was still active, but McKay and Cullen died in the late 1940s. Robert Hayden (1913–1982) had been publishing since 1940, but his real fame was to come after 1960. Brooks's poetry was rooted in everyday black experience but was not folksy or cute. Her urban scenes were bitter, but the will to survive permeated them. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 for Annie Allen (1949), and her influential novel Maud Martha was published three years later.The Black Arts Movement.Brooks's poetry took a new turn in 1967 when, at the Second Black Writers’ Conference, she was struck by the work and the personal energies of a number of poets associated with the Black Arts Movement. The questions about how black literature should be written and why that were raised by the Black Arts Movement occupied the same place in African American literature in the 1960s that the macropolitical issues of communism and capitalism had in the 1940s and 1950s. In this case the politics of black poetics distilled into a debate over whether black America needed assimilationist art or a cultural black nationalism.Back in 1954 the NAACP's victory in Brown v. Board of Education had been hailed as the formal end of Jim Crowism in America. The truth of the matter was, however, that reports of the death of Jim Crow were greatly exaggerated. In fact America was about to propel itself into a decade with more racial strife than ever before. Part of the impetus came from the unconscionable delays permitted to states in the process of desegregating the schools after Brown v. Board II (1955), which allowed school systems to move with “all deliberate speed.” But the Supreme Court decision and its aftermath was not the only stimulus to open black unrest over the conditions of inequality under which they had suffered for decades. Social change in employment and housing discrimination, anticipated after World War II, was equally slow in coming, and segregation in all public facilities was widespread, especially in the South. The G.I. Bill had paid for college educations for many black men and a few women, but it did not guarantee jobs for those black teachers, pharmacists, engineers, sociologists, economists, and managers. Racial tensions in the armed forces lingered despite federal policy, and black soldiers’ experiences in the Korean War did little to dispel black suspicion that the traditional army had not changed.The yearlong—from 1 December 1955 to 21 December 1956—Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, though successful in integrating public transportation in that southern town, had no immediate effect on any other discrimination, formal or informal. The boycott did, however, bring the Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. to the attention of the public. More important in the long run, King and other ministers from across the South met in the wake of the boycott to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC would become one of the organizations—including not only old-line groups like the NAACP but also the more activist Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the increasingly radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—pressing for the immediate abandonment of Jim Crow.By the end of the decade, despite the passage of the 1957 Voting Rights Bill, the first federal civil rights legislation in seventy-five years, segregation was still the order of the day in the South. Black attitudes toward segregation and toward white domination in general had changed, however. In February 1960, four college students forcefully integrated a public space, a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, marking a new confrontational activism toward race on the part of African Americans. Five years later the African American poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka, b. 1934), responding to the assassination of the African American Muslim activist, essayist, and orator Malcolm X (1925–1965), moved to Harlem and founded there the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. BART precipitated the Black Arts Movement, an oppositional aesthetic program that lasted into the 1970s and was seen by many of its later adherents as the sister of the Black Power movement.Black Power emerged a year later, in 1966, as a loose political coalition centered in SNCC that advocated black self-reliance and self-determination, armed if necessary; rejection of integrationist policies in favor of self-selected separation from American whiteness; and a centering of black identity and physical consciousness as essential to a new culture of beauty and respect. There is some debate about the influence of the Black Arts Movement on subsequent American and African American literature, but its practitioners are included in every major anthology of black poetry and drama and their works are taught at all levels of instruction.The Black Arts Movement was, as much as it was anything else, a modernist project. Twentieth-century modernism had two characteristics that sat at the center of almost every manifestation of it: (1) the loss of belief in the major metanarratives of the past, of the church, the heart, the mind, and (2) the desire to have some metanarrative to replace the lost ones—some overarching system of belief or explanation, some central universal story that would hold all of experience together. One reason African Americans were late coming to modernism as a set of conventions for representing the world is that they held on to two primary metanarratives longer than did white America: (1) religious certainty, in the form of the black Christian church and its narrative of suffering and paradise, and (2) the universality of the principles of American law as natural law, based on universal rights, and the rationality of American law as positive law, as figured forth in the post–Civil War amendments to the Constitution.Many black writers in the twentieth century abandoned the church early on as an interpretive screen for experience, despite the faithfulness of the “folk,” but like the folk, the writers held on past mid-century to a faith in the law as a lens through which to view American life. However, after the obvious failure in the 1940s and 1950s of conditions for African Americans to improve far enough or fast enough, even faith in the law seemed to give way. At the end of Ellison's Invisible Man the center has not held; law, history, science, God, have all failed the anonymous protagonist and the people he has stood for. He retreats to a hole in the ground and plans a new metanarrative; it is not clear what it will be, but it will come and he will speak it, as he says, for all of us. Perhaps one reason Ellison never finished the succeeding novel, a fragment of which was published after his death (Juneteenth, 1999) is that he never found or made the new universal.For the Black Arts Movement, the new metanarrative was art, and art was to be centered in new black aesthetic criteria that were to replace all the failed orders of western European knowledge. In order for that program of replacement to go forward, the movement needed to be self-consciously theoretical and yet not alienate its constituency, the black masses. Consequently the movement was also self-consciously political at the local level. It was political because with a very few exceptions it could not be an economic force. Though the movement was effective, for example, in generating a network of black publishing outlets, these were never designed to be rivals to the major white publishers, whose backlists and slick magazines turned a profit. Without an economic base, Black Arts political radicalism did offer new currency, but for cultural exchange; Black Arts would give the people's desires a voice as well as an image. Thus most Black Arts literature was either poetry or drama, because the performative nature of those two modes allowed a fidelity to language and appearance, and it allowed access to an audience that was hard to replicate in prose genres. Black Arts artists were also performers who looked “black” and sounded “black” as they gave voice and shape to the community's desire.It would be well to remember how central to the struggle for full cultural as well as civic citizenship the issue of “desire” was. One of the legacies of slavery as rewritten in post-Reconstruction white literature and in the laws of the land was the myth of black desire. Blacks in America were seen as creatures of appetite, not even of authentic desire. That appetite was posited as dangerous if unchecked; in the absence of the kind of control provided by the laws that made slavery practical and profitable, African American desire was criminalized at almost every turn. As a consequence, Langston Hughes's poem “A Dream Deferred” spoke to every black man and woman. It is from that poem that Lorraine Hansberry took the title for her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. The line, and the play, both suggest the despair of strangled desire, dreams shriveling and dying, but Hughes's other options in the poem are just as plausible. In the late 1960s the last of his suggested consequences is realized; black America's deferred dreams explode in riots in cities across the country.But the emergence of the Black Arts Movement should be seen—at least in part—as a challenge to the modern civil rights movement, as well as a challenge to white legal, social, and cultural oppression. The difficulty was to reconstitute the African American side of the dialectal relationship between the races through language, to have language explode into the conversation with the same impact as urban rioting. In effect there was to be less conversation with white America, more “walk” and less “talk.” Black Arts narrators of cultural resistance like Larry Neal (1937–1981)—the most influential of the movement theorists—Jones/Baraka, and Don L. Lee/Haki R. Madhubuti (b. 1942), a poet, essayist, and publisher, joined a roster of black male (for the most part) performers in other versions of 1960s resistance narratives: H. Rap Brown and the overall-clad young radicals of SNCC, Martin Luther King Jr. and the ministers of the SCLC, Bobby Seale and the paramilitary Black Panthers, and Malcolm X and the radically conservative brothers of the Nation of Islam and its factions and competitors.The Contemporary World.The list of African Americans in the general field of cultural production between 1968 and the opening decade of the twenty-first century is formidable. There are several reasons why this is so. Many of the artificial distinctions between “high” and “low” culture have been broken down, for example; poststructural theories of textuality and reading have presented critics, theorists, and the public with whole new categories of “literature.” It is also the case that population increase in general and the increase in the size and relative wealth of the African American middle class in particular have created both a larger black audience for black cultural production and a larger pool of trained talent to do cultural work. Finally, the rapid rate of progress in technologies of cultural production have put more media, less expensively, in the hands of more people than ever before, both as producers and as consumers. Qualitatively, however, the demographic shifts that reflect economic change in the black community are not simply Malthusian; they are the positive consequences of programs put in place in the 1960s and later: de jure school desegregation at all levels; affirmative action programs in higher education admissions and staffing, including faculty; similar programs in industry and commerce to regulate hiring and promotion practices; fair housing and lending legislation.In literature and the other arts, the sea change in black self-positioning as a consequence of these and other stimuli was, interestingly, a seeming reversal of the emphases of black political and civic life. That is, by the mid-1970s, with the effective withering away of the Black Arts Movement, African American literature decentered its content away from the preoccupations of the classic African American narrative that had dominated black letters since the 1830s. That preoccupation had been with the representation of the primary field of struggle for African American identity, the law. Between 1830 and 1952, the year of the publication of Invisible Man, the major struggle for the ground of black identity was over one's identity under the law. Black Americans have always been the most litigated people of the society, essentially because of their legal status as property for two hundred years. The transition from being property to being citizens with the right to own property occurred in the narrative of the law with the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, but the transition was not lived in the nation for another century without almost fanatic resistance from white Americans in the courts and legislatures of state and federal governments. The major texts of African American literature had, then, at their centers, or as subtexts in the deep structure of their narratives, the problematic of black identity under the law.This pursuit of the legal subject and legal subjectivity led black writers to privilege representative modes that enhanced the reader's access to the complex of social forces that framed the legal issues through which black identity was argued. In most cases this meant that black novelists, short fiction writers, and dramatists embraced realistic and naturalistic literary forms. Because identity was in the first instance a matter of definition under the law and not of emotional authenticity or depth, less effort was spent in the delineation of psychologically complex characters who were made so by any conflicts of drives and impulses. The outside force that shaped their concerns and drove their behaviors was the law.The emergence of the modern civil rights movement and the legal responses to it that symbolically and then gradually realistically began to dismantle Jim Crow freed black writers from the necessity of chronicling yet another generation of the struggle for legal and therefore personal subjectivity. We might look at the Black Arts Movement as anomalous, almost anachronistic, in its response to events around it. As the civil rights establishment and the Black Power movement that both supplemented and challenged it forged their victories from the mid-1960s for some ten years, the Black Arts Movement rose to reflect that militancy, but did so in aesthetic positions that hearkened back to the 1930s—to a time when leftist American writers, most of them white, struggled to find a modern idiom through which to represent the struggle of the working class to achieve proletarian consciousness but for the most part relied on the same realism and naturalism that black writers of the day practiced. Black Arts theorists lauded pre–World War II black writers, especially Richard Wright, over Baldwin and Ellison. On one level, this retrograde black proletarianism was unsuitable for the opportunities of the moment. American proletarianists of the 1930s, with only a very few exceptions, had failed to do much more in their fiction than chronicle the defeat of the politicized workers’ movement, avoiding or failing to understand the comic utopianism called for by a truly Marxian aesthetic. Black Arts proletarianists made much the same mistake in their program for fiction. That is certainly why there was so little of it.Black Arts poetry and drama, on the other hand, was quite powerful as performative social critique because of its optimistic uses of linguistic celebration. The dynamics of black language trumped the vocabulary of a strictly class-based opposition in poems and plays again and again. Just as SNCC leaders wore the overalls and work boots of the southern black agrarian tenant farmer in their public demonstrations, so was the Black Arts poetry and drama in solidarity with the black peasantry of the Deep South, and so was the urban ghettoized black of the North dressed up in the workaday language of the folk.By the mid-1970s, two factors brought the Black Arts Movement to a close: (1) external forces, among them the sheer cost in terms of energy and resources to keep a literary resistance movement alive, and (2) the seemingly sudden visibility of black women poets, novelists, and dramatists. In the first instance, despite the presence of small black presses in Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, only a few could survive without subsidies. Some scholars argue that for much of its life the Black Arts Movement was, for all of its linguistic populism, a cul-de-sac in the history of black literature, kept alive mainly by grants from major white foundations. When those grants ran out, the movement dwindled, so goes this line of argument. At the same time, the federal government's economic policy of stimulating black capitalism as a response to Black Power's program of community economic cooperation not only deflected public and private resources from neighborhood self-help initiatives but also encouraged major corporate publishing firms to compete with small independent black publishing outlets for authors and audiences. This economic stress coincided and combined with the second influence on the decline of the Black Arts Movement, the rise to prominence of black women writers.By the 1970s, women influenced by the movement were ready to produce other versions of a black cultural resistance. Close identification of blackness with masculinity angered some black women writers such that they sought to stake out a literary territory in which issues of gender as well as race could be examined, although most stayed supportive of the agenda of the movement and of black men in general. Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943), Toni Cade Bambara (1939–1995), Ellease Southerland (b. 1943), and Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) all produced women-centered poetry, essays, and prose fiction in the early 1970s, but some of these writers, especially Giovanni, were criticized for abandoning a revolutionary perspective by the mid-1970s. Audre Lorde (1934–1992) was a poet, autobiographer, novelist, and essayist whose career paralleled those of women associated with the Black Arts Movement yet was outside of it. One of an emerging group of black women writers who also identified with the lesbian literary movement of the time, Lorde, like June Jordan (1936–2002), identified herself as a black feminist. The dramatist Adrienne Kennedy (b. 1931) is often grouped with Black Arts writers although her professional development took place outside the community of artists so identified. Her plays, however, mine the same materials of black life and language.These women were not “feminists” in the same way white women of the same generation were using the term in its second wave, nor did they lose sight of the centrality of race in their construction of a gendered reality. Nevertheless, the high visibility of cultural feminism in the form of fiction, poetry, and drama revealed a market that had been largely unimagined by major publishing houses, and as they acquired works by white feminists they also sought out and made contracts with black women writers who had been or would have been associated with cultural outlets in the black community had not the gender argument and the sudden availability of a wider, whiter audience not alienated them from those outlets.Other equally complex factors were at work determining the presence and popularity of black women writers after 1975. The poets Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Audre Lorde, along with the prose and drama writers such as Alice Childress, Louise Meriwether (b. 1923), Paule Marshall (b. 1929), and Margaret Walker (1915–1998), benefited from the fact that a new generation of black women had graduated from colleges and universities and entered graduate schools or set out to make a way as writers themselves. In graduate programs all over the country, black and white women students were looking for texts by black women writers to adjust a predominantly white male canon and make it reflect their lives and intellectual interests. At the same time, black and white women were entering college English department faculties of all sizes in unprecedented numbers, and their syllabi drove library acquisitions as well as bookstore orders.Meanwhile, black men, whose confrontational personae had driven the early and middle years of the modern civil rights struggle, paid the price in public disaffection. By the mid 1970s most black male literary figures whose careers survived the period—Amri Baraka, Addison Gayle Jr. (1932–1991), Ernest J. Gaines (b. 1933), and Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)—had found refuge in academic positions. Gayle became a distinguished professor of literature in New York, interpreting the Black Arts Movement in his courses and writing. Baraka continued to write as an oppositional figure even into the next century; in 2002 he was named poet laureate of New Jersey, and then lost the job in 2003 when the post was abolished by the state in the wake of a controversy over a Baraka poem on the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York. Gaines had never been associated with the Black Arts Movement. His fiction is set in the Deep South of his boyhood and seeks a kind of universality through the particularity of black experience. Reed, on the other hand, was an early participant in Black Arts discourse but became estranged from its doctrinaire aesthetics and set off on an independent course as a satirist of modern life, drawing on the fantastic magic of Afro-Caribbean and southern folk beliefs as sources of imagery and symbolism.In only one genre did the presence of Black male writers guarantee editions in the tens and occasionally hundreds of thousands. These were the autobiographical narratives and fictions of the pimp life and other variants of the black underworld by “Iceberg Slim” (pen name of Robert Beck, 1918–1992) and Donald Goines (1937–1974). Both were published by the only economically viable black publishing house of the last half of the century, Holloway House. Holloway specialized in various exploitive genres from crime to addiction accounts to prostitute's autobiographies to soft pornography to the realistic and insightful evocations of urban life written by Beck and Goines. Holloway's titles were popular, and the backlist sales of Beck and Goines remain profitable a quarter of a century later, even as the publishing house has broadened its offerings to include a wide range of urban cultural genres.It was, however, the decision of mainstream white and corporate-owned publishing houses to buy books by black women writers that opened the door for the increasing popularity among both black and white readers of African American literature. Just as the pool of literary talent had expanded with the gradual effects of postwar educational opportunities on two generations of black Americans, and as the sites for critical attention to African American literature had increased in number as more and more black scholars, particularly women, entered the academy, so too did the audience for black literature increase as curricula in high schools and colleges broadened, not only in traditional departments but with the growth of black studies departments and interdisciplinary programs. Undergraduates at colleges and universities encountered something like a black literary canon over time, as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison showed up on American literature survey course reading lists. On graduation, these young men and women, and later their children, became the market for the explosion of African American letters in the closing years of the century.The writers who emerged in the 1980s have remained active and popular, either with a general reading public or in academic circles, into the current century. Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, August Wilson, and Toni Morrison came out of the 1970s with reputations and readership. Joining them in the 1980s were David Bradley, BeBe Moore Campbell, Michelle Cliff, Charles Fuller, Charles Johnson, Gayl Jones, Jamaica Kincaid, Terry McMillan, Gloria Naylor, and John E. Wideman. By the 1990s African American culture in general had entered the mainstream of American cultural production. In 1990 Walter Mosley began the publication of his long-running series of best-selling detective novels, and Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for fiction; in 1992 Terry McMillan, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison all had best-selling novels out at the same time, and in 1993 Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature as Rita Dove was being named poet laureate of the United States.Newer writers, some of them Afro-Caribbean, reached the same audience: Caryl Phillips, Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Paul Beatty. What is significant about the work of the cadre of black authors working in English in North America and the Caribbean today is not only its range and sheer size but also its difference from African American literature of the half century previous. For the most part, literary realism and naturalism have faded in appeal to black writers, and all the literary allusiveness and heightened irony and tension of modernism—plus the free mixing of genres and sensibilities of magical realism and postmodern aesthetics—carry the day. Gone, too, is the preoccupation with the law and the legal status of the black subject, along with the issue of class. Identity now is as likely to be shaped by gender or sexual preference, by personal history perhaps informed by a racialized past, or by one or more addictions of the body or the mind. All of these stories, poems, and dramas are played out against the backdrop of white racism and the history of a once subjugated race, but in all of them the African American subject controls the interrogation of that past. Toni Morrison argued, in her groundbreaking consideration of American literary history Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), that American literature is suffused with the African American presence. By the end of the century she could have noted that African American literature was, in fact, triumphant. It would no longer be possible to refer to “an” American literature without meaning the literature of race, and the terms for that discussion had been set by black writers over the course of two centuries.Nobel Prize in Literature. Toni Morrison receives the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Stockholm, 1993. AP ImagesInterestingly, the larger story of African American culture at the end of the twentieth century probably lies to a large extent outside the realm of “serious” literature, in the realm of popular literature and culture, film, popular music, popular novels, and graphic novels and comic books. Film, television, and music are the most visible genres, and as cultural commodities, black performers found themselves increasingly courted by marketers in the 1980s and 1990s. Black writers and director/producers in these genres are less well known to the general public but, especially in the popular music business, control valuable creative assets and have access to distribution networks that only twenty years ago were controlled solely by whites.The African American musical narrative form, rap, and its corollary lifestyle, hip hop, inform most of American popular cultural imagery in the opening decade of the twenty-first century. Rap combines straightforward narrative or essayistic lines for its lyrics with postmodern musical sampling and mixing techniques. As they were performed first in the late 1970s and early 1980s, rap lyrics were spoken in a standard poetic meter, usually rhymed, against a minimal melody line and complex rhythm mix. By the late 1980s rap had developed a social and political content, but in the 1990s this was overtaken by what came to be known as “gangsta rap.” In gangsta rap, black writer/performers produce postapocalyptic visions of a culture in which African Americans inhabit a fragmented, deconstructed society. In that society, romanticized heroes stake out territory on the margins of the law, disdaining not only the everyday structure of civic life under law as whites have constructed it but also the bourgeoisification of black life under that structure. Not that gangsta rap disdains comfort or even luxury, inasmuch as its heroic personae are always powerful wealthy men, albeit men who have made their wealth outside the law—or so they would have you think.Much gangsta rap is written to be performed as faux autobiography, positing the artist as not only a gangster, a criminal of some sort, but an “O.G.,” an original gangsta, an authentic black man whose authenticity lies in his oppositional identity. In this way rap contradicts the main impulse of post-1970 African American literature by reembracing the problem of the legal identity of the black subject and posing a new solution—namely, accepting the criminalization of black life and using its markers of dress and language and a pointed misogyny to define racial authenticity.That few if any of the performers of rap were gangstas before the genre demanded it made little difference. Eventually life did begin to imitate art, and by the early years of the new century several rap artists were dead, shot by persons unknown, or were under indictment or investigation for doing the shooting of someone somewhere. These murders of major figures in the gangsta rap genre rapidly reduced its popularity—although the deceased were accorded the grace of victims. Even so, rap itself had become deeply embedded in the musical/performance discourse of American culture, and its popularity abroad ensured that it would not vanish. Halfway through the century's first decade, white Americans, Japanese, South Asians, South Africans, the French, and even the post-Soviet Russians were performing one or more semi-indigenous variants of black American rap and dressing in the hip-hop styles made popular by urban black boys and girls on countless music videos that sell in the millions around the world.Not so long-lived but significant as an African American narrative form of the 1980s and early 1990s, comic books with black characters created by black writers or producers approached the same postmodern fragmented world that framed the expectations of the hero/performers of rap. These illustrated stories whose complex narratives spun out over several issues centered on superheroic men, and some superheroic women, who act as guardians of order and justice, either as legal minions or as vigilantes. While the urban context of these comics would be familiar to any rap fan, the narrative's positioning of the black hero is different. In these stories, though the protagonist operates in a world in which the formal structure of law seems irrelevant to his or her friends and enemies, his or her role is to bring some normative power to that world rather than to exploit the absence of such power. Unlike the gangsta (or “thug,” as he comes to be called after the turn of the century), however, the comic superhero cannot claim his or her attributes as a source of racial authenticity because in almost every case the powers that make him or her capable of restoring a nonmisogynistic family-friendly, socially stable, and physically safe order to a fragmented community come from beyond his or her intrinsic—that is, racial—identity. The protagonist alters himself or herself to become the hero. Consequently, unlike the hero/performer of gangsta rap who presents heroic levels of complacent superiority while exploiting the legal disorder of his world, the superhero performs ironic anxiety about identity while creating order where law fails.Finally, in the world between the gangsterized ghetto-fantasy of wealth and power and the romanticized techno-fantasy of guilt and responsibility lies the everyday world of men and women caught up in something like “real life.” This world is captured at the end of the century by the burgeoning black popular literature industry. Here, novels and self-help books treat their audience to narratives made of various mixtures of romance, adventure, wealth, beauty, passion, and fairly explicit sexuality. Though the number of black authors published every year since the mid 1990s, both by mainstream full-service houses and by black-oriented specialty houses, has increased to a point never before seen in American literary history, the increase has been almost exclusively in the categories of popular fiction and self-help or personal growth. Unlike the general market, in which nonfiction outsells fiction and biography outsells all other nonfiction, fiction drives black book sales, and there are few biographies of African Americans in the market every year relative to the number of biographies of whites.Opinion may differ as to whether the long-delayed appearance of a wide-based market for popular fiction by blacks, the same kind of fiction that has heretofore been the territory of white women authors, is a good thing. In the past, only two black writers had crossed over in anything like respectable sales numbers for popular fiction: Frank Yerby, whose costume romantic adventure tales of the Old South and of Renaissance Europe were constant best sellers in the 1940s and 1950s, and Chester Himes, whose police novels set in 1960s Harlem—but written and published first in Europe where Himes lived an expatriate life—sold across race lines and, like Yerby's novels, were sooner or later turned into films. Starting in the 1990s, Walter Mosley's detective stories set in immediate postwar Los Angeles were major best sellers in that genre. But the works of contemporary black popular writers such as Zane, Connie Briscoe, E. Lynn Harris, and Omar Tyree have not made that same jump.Each year since the turn of the century new popular novelists have appeared and new black imprints have been established in major publishing houses, some of which employ black editors. Nevertheless, the publishing industry at large, with the exception of entrepreneurial small black publishing firms, does not hire many African Americans in editorial positions. Colleges and universities remain the primary sites of consumption and discussion of African American literary activity outside the realm of the popular market. Although black Americans continue to be underrepresented in English and related departments generally, there are scores of study centers for black culture in major universities, and undergraduates can major in the study of black literature at most levels of higher education. Perhaps most important, graduate programs in African American literature and culture are growing in number, and a sophisticated, distinct body of criticism and theory about black literature is being produced, discussed, and shared. Most black writers now come out of colleges and universities, and many major black writers are on university faculties.Black cultural production as a phenomenon of the marketplace and the academy has never been as diverse or as rich as it is in the first decade of the twenty-first century. African Americans are major figures in almost every genre of literature, film, music, and the performing arts, and they even dominate some of those genres. African American cultural production, once enthralled to the problematics of law and social identity, has finally liberated itself into serious representation and investigation of the full panoply of determinate forces that plague all people and to which literature speaks.
Reference Entry. 16371 words. Illustrated.
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