The Harlem Renaissance
Three writers and their contemporary counterparts
by Jace Clayton
For many young Black writers and artists who gravitated to New York City's Harlem in the 1920s, the sudden interest and support from established media came as a great encouragement. Hope scented the air. Yet these same Black people were denied entrance to Harlem's famed Cotton Club, unless they were performing jazz or working on the light-skinned waitstaff that served the exclusively white clientele. In spite of the many confusions and contradictions of the "Renaissance," a handful of artists produced groundbreaking work that helped to define and direct Black literature.
In 1773 a young Boston slave named Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This unassuming girl birthed the Black literary tradition with her book's printing, the first ever by an African-American. Alice Walker was well aware of Black writing's matrilineal roots when she chose the format of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple. "No book is more important to me than this one," she said of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Walker's novel riffs upon many of the same rhetorical structures found in Hurston's, remaining reverent but adding a signature twist. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel formed by one woman writing to another, documenting her slow ascent into self-discovery and voice.
Although Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, it stands as the Harlem Renaissance's crowning achievement. It is widely considered to be the first novel structured by the rich tradition of Black folk forms (rather than Western texts). Hurston's tale of self-realization and autonomy is composed with high poetry and thick dialect. Her bold the use of dialect was scorned by male critics who were blind to the fact that Their Eyes is a celebration of Black female selfhood and indigenous African-American culture. Janie, the protagonist, lives through three husbands, only the last of whom is able to understand her as a multifaceted human rather than property. In a bold turn for women's literature, Janie's sense of womanhood is not defined by a successful marriage.
Hurston's novel is framed as Janie's narration of her life to a friend. Hurston's narrative tactics quietly underscore the generative potency of Black storytelling. "Lawd!" Phoeby exclaims, "Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh you, Janie." Phoeby has internalized the word's vitality—just as Walker would do four decades later. The story begun by Phillis Wheatley continues . . .
"Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down." It is with these words that Jean Toomer begins his 1923 modernist classic Cane. Toomer's searching lyrical intelligence appeared without precedent, garnering widespread admiration for what was quickly acknowledged to be one of the period's finest texts. An impressionistic portrait of Black life in the South, Cane is composed with avant-garde complexity, the sunlit delight of poetry, and the investigative social scope of a novel.
A true visionary, Toomer eventually sought self-revelation via esoteric spiritualism. His independence from the literary mainstream generates sympathies with Black science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, whose works such as Kindred and Dawn grapple with future-thinking issues of gender and race. Yet Toni Morrison's Jazz is a more fitting inheritor of Cane's legacy. Much like Cane, Morrison's tale is concerned with a multi-layered treatment of Black women. Jazz charts the community's reactions to a girl's murder with lyrical sensitivity and uncanny insight. The neighborhood is Harlem of the 1920s—Toomer's era—when sizeable numbers of Black people from the country where relocating to Northern cities. These urban/rural and North/South divisions common to diasporic Black people are well explored in Cane and Jazz. Her novel unfolds semi-stream-of-consciousness from a partial yet omniscient narrator who is never fully embodied or named; Morrison's stylistic innovations update and advance the inquiry begun by Toomer.
When Hughes asks in Harlem: "What happens to a dream deferred?", the question shimmers with a vitality unbeknownst to lesser poets:
"Maybe it just sags
Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, is one of those rare talents that makes poetry matter. When he asks in Harlem: "What happens to a dream deferred?", the question shimmers with a vitality unbeknownst to lesser poets. "Maybe it just sags / under a heavy load. / Or does it explode?"
Blues and jazz influenced Hughes' verse—from endline rhyme and funky meters to everyday themes and experimental enjambment. As a perusal of his Selected Poems will prove, Hughes' poetry also contains elements of Walt Whitman and his "guiding star" Carl Sandburg. Like Hurston, Hughes drew upon the vast treasure of Black folk forms to further a distinctly American, distinctly Black literature.
Where, nowadays, does poetry still resonate with urgency? Hiphop. While commercial megastars such as Puff Daddy endorse individualistic and materialistic lifestyles, hiphop was birthed in the embattled South Bronx, presenting a politically motivated alternative to crime and violence; it was the voice of the voiceless.
It comes as no surprise that one of hiphop's groundbreaking tunes is entitled "The Message." In their 1982 single, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five deliver deft commentary on the psychological impact of their surroundings and the societal mechanisms that gave rise to (and maintain) the urban ghetto.
The structures of injustice persist, and so hiphop with a message continues to be created—one simply has to look away from MTV. 1998's critically acclaimed Black Star album saw MCs Mos Def and Talib Kweli combine serious hiphop's radical formal wordplay to a consciousness-raising lyrics. Is the album fresh? It certainly is. And, like Flash, Rakim, and a host of other lyricists with vision, it keeps the spirit of Langston alive.