Status on My Research Project
The symposium at which I present my paper on folklore and the Harlem Renaissance is just around the corner (Aug 25), so it’s time to actually, you know, write the paper. I’m gonna post my daily fruits here (I’ll be writing in about 1,000 word chunks) to keep myself sort of accountable.
Also, if you’re into: history, literature, and folklore; you might just find what I have to say on the matter interesting.
Anyway, <3 David
Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, James Weldon Johnson and the Privileging of the Folk
My research project has been going on for about two weeks now. Progress has been made, I’ve identified several weaknesses in my approach, and feel like I’m finally walking on solid ground.
Three texts in particular have been helpful in my preliminary stages of research:
The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White by George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance by Nathan Huggins, and Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance by J. Martin Favor.
Hutchinson and Huggins provided me with much of my understanding of the intellectual framework of the movement while Favor’s text has proven remarkably useful in my analysis of the literature.
With six weeks left of my fellowship, I’m now going to turn my attention to Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and James Weldon Johnson and their treatment of the folk and folk culture in their literature. The incredibly long title at this point is serving as my hypothesis—but it’s malleable and more of a tool to guide my research than what I am to prove.
(uncritically) Loving the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, that period where black people produced a crap ton of art (good and bad),etc., is often looked upon romantically by black students of history and literature searching for an intellectual tradition to sustain them.
I should know, I was one of them. Thumbing through the traditional American literary canon I felt excluded, alienated, unwanted. I found little evidence that black people contributed to the intellectual and cultural development of America from the droves of book lists that supposedly determine whether one is well read.
Hurt and rejected by the traditional canon, the Harlem Renaissance was there to console me. When my (white) professor of African American history spent an entire class period lecturing on the history of this literary period, my heart melted. I now had an example of black people doing what I envisioned was possible for myself: engaging in intellectual pursuits and being recognized by white people for it. That last bit, you’ll learn, is awfully important.
I laid on my back and wrapped my legs around the New Negro.
I wanted him to stay with me, to keep whispering poems to me. More than I wanted him in between my legs, I wanted his prose between my ears.
Yet, in my haste to love this New Negro, I never once asked the question, “does this Negro love me?”
What I mean is, I was so eager to unearth texts by black authors, that I did take the time to actually evaluate their merit. I didn’t want to place them in any intellectual context—that would mean recognizing the complex interracial structure that produced much of the literature. And that would mean dispelling a myth that the Harlem Renaissance was a gem of pure black literary production.
It was not.
Renaissance writers were plagued with self-doubt that often kept them looking back to a literary tradition that did not love them. That placed them at disadvantage through sequestration, black writers to have to wait to learn its forms to then attempt to break them.
But recognizing this, recognizing that the Harlem Renaissance was flawed and more nuanced than we thought does not mean we cannot love the movement. It’s just much better to go into a relationship with your eyes wide open.
"Such doubt, however, takes a heavy toll from the traveler. For what is art and beauty, after all, except what other men have applauded? And the world will only salute you, one thinks, when those who make judgements and pronouncements discover you. The more profound one’s doubt, the more his work is likely to be recognizable echoes or reflections of past greats. This explains why Phyllis Wheatley’s voice was that of a feeble Alexander Pope rather than that of an African singer, why Henry Tanner’s art was of the French Academy and Meta Fuller’s a derivative of Rodin’s rather than part of the new wave of impressionism and post-impressionism that was swelling all around them in Europe. Such deep doubt makes conservatives, and, sometimes, mimics. What a cruel paradox that such a troubled traveler’s labor should at best celebrate the past, the already acclaimed. Dead men!"
Nathan Huggins, The Harlem Renaissance (1971)
"The Negro artist in the United States lives in a peculiar province—a spiritual geography. His art is self-consciously national while, at the same time, special—ethnically regional. It attempts to speak with two voices, one from the stage of national culture and the other from the soul of ethnic experience. Nor is this condition wholly a matter of the artists’s will or intent. It is is his ethnic fact. It is as if it were defined in the eternal constitution of things that to be a Negro artist in America one must, in some way, be a race-conscious artist."
Nathan Huggins, The Harlem Renaissance (1971)
When one of your history textbooks argues that Abraham Lincoln could not be racist because he had, wait for it,
Dude, Lincoln and Douglass were like, iono, bffs. No way that Lincoln can be racist!!
Wait, he said:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”
I frown every time I pick up A Patriot’s History of the United States.
~ A Museum Teaches Tolerance Through Jim Crow : NPR
I disagree with the headline. Tolerate what, exactly?
But, the article was interesting nonetheless. Essentially, a museum in Michigan has been erected—collecting artifacts from the Jim Crow era. It showcases the actual and threat of violence that allowed the system to flourish.
You can’t sweep that under a rug, and this museum is a good way to keep to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
I should probably care a bit more about early American political history
In my historiography class, I sit and doodle. My professor goes on and on about the expansion of the United States and failures and successes of the presidency of John Quincy Adams. I’m normally a much better student than this, but I can’t help but feel that everything I’m learning in that class : 1) I have heard before or 2) doesn’t address people that look like me.
And this is a problem. This course, that was meant to be a general introduction to the scholarship on American History, has proven to be a course on the political history of the United States until the Civil War—with a couple of comparative essays thrown in for fun.
I find it odd though, I love politics and exploring the underlying issues in political debates, but it feels different this time.
I think I am developing a mental block to any history that I deem to exclude people of color. I mean, I can read it, I can analyze and criticize it, but I always come away feeling like I don’t really care.
It’s required for my major though and I’m earning an A so I can’t really complain.