African American Short Fiction Analysis

The Harlem Renaissance

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

After World War I, black soldiers returned to America having fought in Europe for the concepts of equality and freedom. The 369th Battalion, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” was the most decorated American unit, and when they marched up Fifth Avenue to Harlem after the war’s end, the black population felt part of a new beginning. This was the celebrated time for the “New Negro.” The new black writers generated a powerful and refreshing voice which was heard with a great deal of respect by the white community. These writers, artists, intellectuals, and jazz musicians came to represent the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most fertile periods in America’s literary history. The Harlem Renaissance not only exemplified the advancement of black arts but also staged the independence and liberty of African American writing and publishing. Two leading African American journals of the day, Opportunity, edited by Charles S. Johnson, which aimed to give voice to black culture hitherto neglected by mainstream American publishing, and the magazine of W. E. B. Du Bois’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Crisis, along with newspapers such as Baltimore African American, continued the fashion established by Pauline Hopkins of publishing and establishing black American writers and entered the short-story competition trend between 1920 and 1935. This publishing effort dispersed the Harlem Renaissance nationwide. Both periodicals and newspapers brought great attention to the black literary market, launching the careers of such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Gwendolyn Bennett, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countée Cullen, who made up the lively Harlem writers’ group. Their works began to examine the stigmatizing stereotypes of African Americans that slavery and the post-Reconstruction period promoted in white American minds.

In the 1920’s, the Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, burst into bloom, bringing a new creative energy to African American literature and changing forevermore what had earlier been viewed as folklore or imitation “white writing” into proud, complex investigations of black culture. Although the peak of this Renaissance era extended from 1921 to 1931, it remained influential throughout the 1930’s. Centered on the black neighborhoods of Harlem, in New York City, and funded by philanthropic grants and scholarships, the movement cultivated and encouraged the hopeful young black writers who were central to the Harlem domain. Sadly, the Great Depression adversely affected this dynamic group of writers and many were ultimately forced to leave New York.

Jessie Redmon Fauset is said to be a focal figure of the Harlem Renaissance because of her extensive support of other black authors. Primarily a novelist, she also wrote numerous short stories as well as acting from 1919 to 1926 as the literary editor of the highly influential Crisis magazine. By confronting race and sex stereotyping, Fauset demonstrated a deep awareness of the unique situation of the American black woman. Born in Camden County, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she came from a poor family who placed a premium on education. She received a scholarship to Cornell University and graduated in 1905; she remains possibly the first black woman to be elected to the academic honorary Phi Beta Kappa. During her tenure at The Crisis, she published a large number of women writers, black and white, who voiced convictions ranging from conservative to radical. After she left in 1926, the magazine never regained its former literary stature. In addition, she played a major influential role in the recognition and promotion of black art during the period of the Harlem Renaissance.

Zora Neale Hurston, a primary, influential African American folklorist and short-story writer, temporally captured and celebrated rural, black, southern American culture. Early in life she made her way to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, where she associated with such writers as Langston Hughes, the prominent African American poet. Although she never finished grade school, she attended Howard University, going on to become a cultural anthropologist and ethnologist. In her scholarly endeavors, Hurston traveled to Haiti, where she researched voodoo. Hurston’s first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” was published in the literary magazine Stylus in 1921 and republished in 1926 in Opportunity, the leading periodical of the Harlem Renaissance. The story deals with young John Redding’s incapacity to accomplish his goal of seeing the world (a desire brought about by a witch’s spell) because the women in his life attempt to tie him down and encourage him instead to settle and marry rather than follow his dream. Throughout his life, John allows himself to be tied down and views the world only after he dies from drowning. This story set the themes Hurston was to develop throughout her career: the dream and the resistance against improving one’s life and the strong, pervading sense of the supernatural.

“Drenched in Light” was published in Opportunity in 1924. The highly imaginative, eleven-year-old protagonist Isis (nicknamed Isie) Watts feels stifled by Grandmother Potts. Similar to the dreamer John Redding, young and impressionable Isis envisions wearing golden slippers and long princess robes while riding white horses to find the edge of the world. In vain, her grandmother disciplines the lively but mischievous girl and punishes her severely for merely whistling and playing with boys. After a white stranger, Helen, takes Isie to see a Gypsy dance performance, she is overwhelmed by the girl’s exuberance and recognizes the emptiness of her own life. In what could be construed as an altruistic gesture, Helen attempts to take the youngster from her home. However, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the evolution of the story that Helen wants to absorb the child’s energy only for her own delight. As one critic remarked, Helen’s strategy is reminiscent of the whites who flocked to popular Harlem nightspots to be entertained by “primitive” black musicians. “Drenched in Light” describes the...

(The entire section is 2560 words.)

Federal Writers’ Project

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) developed the Federal Writers’ Project as part of the New Deal struggle against the Great Depression. The project provided jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and research workers. Directed by Henry G. Alsberg, the program operated in all states and at one time employed sixty-six hundred men and women. In addition to producing guides for every state, the federal plan supported ethnic studies, folklore collections, and regional histories, producing ultimately more than one thousand publications and providing a means for such top African American writers as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison to come to public attention.

Richard Wright, short-story writer and novelist, classified as an American modernist, was deeply influenced by the famous Russian short-fiction writer Anton Chekhov. Wright ingeniously explores the concept of the internalized plot that closely examines the inner emotions of characters. He endures as one of the first African American writers to protest white prejudice and violence against blacks. Born in Midland, Ontario, Wright moved to Toronto to pursue his education and a career in business.

In Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) Bigger Thomas suffers at the hands of a rich white family. In Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (1945), which details his childhood and young manhood in the South, the voice of protest that was to influence many post-World War II writers can also be heard. The grandchild of slaves and abandoned early on by his father, Wright grew up in poverty. The Federal Writers’ Project provided him with the opportunity to write.

In 1937, he became Harlem editor of the communist publication The Daily Worker. His first short story, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” appeared in the anthology The New Caravan. “The Ethics of Living John Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch” was published in 1937’s American Stuff: An Anthology of Prose and Verse by Members of the Federal Writers’ Project. A year later, after his first book, Uncle...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

World War II

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Unlike many African American writers who focus on the South, Ann Petry focused upon black life in small-town New England. A pharmacist, Petry moved early on in life to New York, where she wrote for the Peoples’ Voice of Harlem before studying creative writing at Columbia University (1944-1946). During World War II, Petry’s stories began to appear in The Crisis. A novelist, who numbers among her best-selling highly acclaimed works The Street (1946), Petry first came to public notice through such short stories as “Like a Winding Street,” a complex, forceful narrative of a couple’s wartime struggle, and her heart-wrenching tale of domestic abuse “The Last Day of School,” which deals with a...

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Black Arts Movement

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Black Arts movement, also called the Black Aesthetic movement, represented a literary advancement among black Americans in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Based on the idea of black nationalism, the crusade sought to cultivate art forms that champion black separatism. Thus, the African American writer became activist. Using the black English vernacular, black writers discoursed on concerns of interracial tension and politics. Highly confrontational, many of these writers utilized African American history and culture to illustrate their apprehensions and anger. Brought about by such intellectual leaders as Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a trailblazing literary critic instrumental in recovering African...

(The entire section is 1453 words.)

Twentieth Century Women Writers

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Women have from the beginning played a primary role in the growth of African American short fiction. In fact, more works of fiction by black women were published between 1890 and 1910 than black men had published in the previous fifty years. With the exception of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s tale “The Two Offers,” no short story by an African American woman appeared in print before 1895, when, at last, voices so long stifled were heard. In the outpouring of proud stories that followed, African American women shared their experiences, smashed stereotypes, and recorded the untold story of African American life. African American literature has further blossomed with black American women at the forefront as writers. Besides...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Andrews, William, ed. Classic Fiction of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Includes a comprehensive collection of short stores by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, and many others.

Bone, Robert, Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Capricorn Books, 1975. Provides a background for the African American folktale, the Brer Rabbit Tales, and the local-color writers; devotes a chapter each to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Arna...

(The entire section is 483 words.)