MyAmericanFuture

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MyAmericanFuture

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

February 7, 2012: Remembering the Harlem Renaissance

[In honor of Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—this week I’ll be remembering amazing African American writers who should be a more central part of American literature and identities. For more on the month’s themes and ideas, see http://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/. This is the second in the series.]

Adding three distinct and equally interesting voices into our collective memories of the Harlem Renaissance.

It seems to me that Americans generally have a sense of the Harlem Renaissance, at least as far as our collective memories of any historical moment or literary and artistic community go. The name itself resonates in our collective consciousness, I’d say, and might even be connected by many American to particularly well-known writers and works from the era: the poems of Langston Hughes for many decades now, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) more recently. Compared to African American writers from (for example) Charles Chesnutt’s era, about a couple of whom more in the next couple of posts, the writers and artists who comprised the Renaissance are positively prominent in our national narratives.

But as I have argued many times before in this space, having a general or even specific sense of a history or narrative doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways we can and should seek to expand, deepen, and strengthen our individual and collective memories, and in this case I would argue that many Harlem Renaissance voices and works deserve a fuller place in those memories. For starters, there’s the man known in his own as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance,” Alain Locke; Locke gained that title not only because he expanded his 1925 essay “The New Negro” into a book-length collection of writings and art (with the same title) that really launched the Renaissance, but because his philosophical and practical support for the movement and community, for its ideas and goals, and most especially for its artists were crucial to its growth and success (and remain vital in American life). We can’t remember the Harlem Renaissance, it seems to me, and not remember Alain Locke much more fully than we do.

The Renaissance was first and foremost about artists and writers, though, and there’s similarly work for us to do in expanding our collective memories of those voices and works. Alongside Hughes’s poems, for example, I would say that we can and must include the works of Countee Cullen; Cullen’s poem “Incident,” from his debut collection Color (1925), represents in particular as clear and potent a statement of the meanings and power of racism and bigotry as can be found in American literature. And alongside Hurston’s novel, I would likewise put Jean Toomer’s much more modernist and stylistically radical book Cane (1923), a book which includes multiple literary and artistic genres and pushes the envelopes of form and response just as fully as it does our perspectives of race and place. Neither Cullen nor Toomer should supplant Hughes or Hurston, and there are other potential writers and artists who could be added as well; the key, as always for me, is to add voices to our collective memories and stories as much as possible.

So I’ll ask again—share Cullen’s poem, or a bit of Toomer’s book, with somebody this February! Next in the series tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Any writers or artists you’d highlight?

2/7 Memory Day nominee: Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose “Little House on the Prairie” books (and the subsequent TV series) defined the frontier and childhood and family for many generations of young Americans, and whose own complicated and multi-stage life and identity can help us understand not only those themes, but also America itself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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