U.S. Intellectual History Blog

New book: The African American Roots of Modernism

From UNC’s webpage:

The African American Roots of Modernism
From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
By James Smethurst

The period between 1880 and 1918, at the end of which Jim Crow was firmly established and the Great Migration of African Americans was well under way, was not the nadir for black culture, James Smethurst reveals, but instead a time of profound response from African American intellectuals. The African American Roots of Modernism explores how the Jim Crow system triggered significant artistic and intellectual responses from African American writers, deeply marking the beginnings of literary modernism and, ultimately, notions of American modernity.
In identifying the Jim Crow period with the coming of modernity, Smethurst upsets the customary assessment of the Harlem Renaissance as the first nationally significant black arts movement, showing how artists reacted to Jim Crow with migration narratives, poetry about the black experience, black performance of popular culture forms, and more. Smethurst introduces a whole cast of characters, including understudied figures such as William Stanley Braithwaite and Fenton Johnson, and more familiar authors such as Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and James Weldon Johnson. By considering the legacy of writers and artists active between the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, Smethurst illuminates their influence on the black and white U.S. modernists who followed.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this book looks very interesting, thanks for posting it. related question: have you (anyone?) heard about or read Kenneth Warren’s “What was african american literature?” any views on it? i’d be interested to hear from experts.

  2. Thank you Eric.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read Kenneth Warren’s new book, though I did a brief post when he wrote about it in the Chronicle: http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2011/02/is-african-american-literature-function.html.

    We also recorded the plenary given last year at the US Intellectual History Conference by Warren, Adolph Reed, and Dean Robinson. http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2010/10/recorded-talks-from-2010-usih.html

  3. Lauren,

    Ah! I must have missed that. Thanks for pointing me back at those links, i’ll listen later on.

    In terms of the questions you raised in your post about Warren’s argument, thinking about his book, not having read the chronicle article, it seems to me that there are two separable issues. There is the claim about present-day politics: I take Warren to basically be arguing that the politics of racial identity *today* is elitist, and masks more significant (in the sense of causing more human suffering even to those nominally belonging to said race) class differences and domination. Then there is what seems to me to be a different historical argument: the organizing problematic of African American literature in Jim Crow was shaped by legal disenfranchisement, the universal claims of Literature (very much capitalized), and the inescapable specificity of being, after all, as Warren says, Negro writing. He makes much of Du Bois’ answer, in the 1940s, to the question of who is colored: whoever sits jim crow on a train in georgia. in a strong sense, i take warren to be arguing, especially for those educated and wealthy enough to be writing novels, legal discrimination was constitutive of racial identity. their elitism (in claiming to represent the race) had a positive, emancipatory, political meaning under jim crow because it challenged a system under which everyone suffered. this is how the present and historical arguments would fit together: today, this elitism of claiming, in various ways, to represent the race, no longer has the justification of at least combating legal discrimination. now, warren argues, it amounts to a way to perpetuate an elite class–affirmative action, this is to say, should be class rather than race based. or at least so i took to political point to be.

    Anyway, I should go listen to that lecture…

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