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Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, designates a period during the 1920s in which African-American literature flourished among a group of writers concentrated in Harlem, New York City. Harlem Renaissance writers launched African-American literature into a new era, focusing on the experiences of black life and culture with an attitude of racial pride and selfdetermination for the African-American community. Two important magazines, the Crisis and Opportunity, were important promoters of the Harlem Renaissance, publishing the works of many young writers who pioneered the movement. The Harlem Renaissance also influenced artists and musicians exploring similar styles and themes. Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was one of the most important poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. His influential novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), also garnered critical attention. Hughes is referred to many times in Blues for an Alabama Sky. The fictional characters of Cleage’s play are members of Hughes’s social circle, attending parties in his honor and associating with other significant figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Depression Era
Blues for an Alabama Sky is set in 1930, a year after the 1929 stock market crash that brought on the depression. The Harlem Renaissance petered out when the depression of the 1930s affected the financial status of many African-American writers and artists. Throughout the play, Angel makes a number of comments describing the economic conditions of the depression in Harlem. She has trouble finding a new job because, as she says, ‘‘the Depression has killed all the nightlife in Harlem.’’ She goes on to explain, ‘‘There aren’t any jobs doing anything, especially singing for your supper. Whole families sitting on the sidewalk with their stuff set out beside them. No place to sleep. No place to wash.’’ Angel later adds, ‘‘I’ve never seen things this bad all over. Nobody’s working and nobody’s got prospects.’’ Cleage thus demonstrates the effects of the depression on the African-American community in Harlem, particularly on the struggling writers, performers, and artists whose ambitions were thwarted by the economic difficulties brought on by the depression.
The Reverend Powell and the Abyssinian Church
Throughout the play, Cleage makes reference to several important political leaders in the African- American community, such as Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey. The fictional characters in this play are acquainted with the historically real Reverend Powell, a popular pastor of the Abyssinian Church in Harlem. In the play, Delia successfully convinces Reverend Powell to support the opening of a family planning clinic. Historically, Powell worked as an elected public official, holding offices from the 1940s through the 1960s. In 1941, he was the first African American to be elected to the New York City Council. In 1945, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, to which he was reelected for eleven terms. Powell was active in working for the passage of some fifty separate liberal legislative acts and bills to support civil rights, end segregation, and promote education and fair labor practices. He retired from politics in 1971 and died a year later.
The Black Arts Movement
In her introduction to Blues for an Alabama Sky, Cleage refers to herself as ‘‘a child of the Black Arts Movement.’’ During the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Arts Movement, also referred to as the Black Aesthetic Movement, emerged, embodying values derived from black nationalism and promoting politically and socially significant works of literature, often written in Black English vernacular. Important writers of the Black Arts Movement include Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones), Eldridge Cleaver, and Ntozake Shange. Cleage began writing in the 1960s and 1970s, during the era of the Black Arts Movement, but her work did not emerge to gain national success until the 1980s and 1990s. Blues for an Alabama Sky thus shows the strong influence of the Black Arts Movement, with its focus on issues facing the African-American community, both in response to racist oppression imposed from outside the community and in response to internal divisions within the community.
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Setting: Harlem, New York
Blues for an Alabama Sky is set in Harlem, New York City, during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. This setting is important to Cleage’s fictional story, which takes place in a real historical and geographic context. In order to appreciate the significance of this setting, it is helpful to have an understanding of the significance of Harlem to African-American history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, the Harlem district of New York City came to be identified by its high concentration of African- American residents. African Americans began to occupy apartments in Harlem beginning in the 1890s. Lenox Avenue, in particular, became known as the African-American residential area of Harlem, and 125th Street was known as the ‘‘Main Stem’’ of Harlem’s commercial district. In Blues for an Alabama Sky, Cleage refers to specific streets in Harlem that are historically significant, a stylistic choice that works to firmly locate her play in a specific historical and cultural context. Her description of the ‘‘Time and Place’’ in which the play is set mentions that Margaret Sanger was in the process of opening a family planning clinic on 126th Street. Guy mentions that the apartment Angel had been living in, paid for by her former gangster boyfriend, was on Lenox Avenue. As the play opens, Guy and Leland are helping a drunken Angel stumble down 125th Street in the middle of the night. At one point, Guy tells Angel that, in order to be successful, she needs to look beyond her small, limited world of Harlem, asserting, ‘‘For prospects, you gotta look past 125th Street.’’ Angel later states that she does not want to end up ‘‘a broke old woman, begging up and down 125th Street.’’ Toward the end of the play, a remark by Guy captures the sense that Harlem had once promised to be a bastion of African- American culture but became a disappointment to many, as the community suffered from the economic hardships of the depression era. He comments, ‘‘Harlem was supposed to be a place where Negroes could come together and really walk about, and for a red-hot minute, we did.’’ Cleage thus utilizes a specific historical setting in which to capture the mood of an era through fictional characters.
Cleage’s play can be categorized as historical fiction because of the stylistic choice of integrating real historical figures into a narrative focused on fictional characters. Cleage successfully and convincingly integrates the historical with the fictional, creating characters who are acquainted with such important historical figures as Adam Clayton Powell, the activist and political leader; Margaret Sanger, the pioneer in family planning; Josephine Baker, the famous nightclub performer; and Langston Hughes, the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405
American Theatre, Interview, Vol. 13, No. 6, July–August 1996.
Cleage, Pearl, Blues for an Alabama Sky, in Flyin’ West and Other Plays, Theatre Communications Group, 1999, pp. 87–186.
Effinger, Marta J., ‘‘Pearl Cleage,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 53–58.
Giles, Freda Scott, ‘‘The Motion of Herstory: Three Plays by Pearl Cleage,’’ in African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997, p. 709.
———, Review of Bourbon at the Border, in African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997, p. 725.
Gilliam, Annette, ‘‘Romance, AIDS Explored in Pearl Cleage’s New Novel,’’ in Washington Informer, Vol. 34, February 4, 1998, p. 16.
Weiss, Hedy, ‘‘Blues for an Alabama Sky,’’ in Chicago Sun Times, March 17, 1998, p. 30.
Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot
, Ballantine, 1993. Deals with the Devil is a collection of forty essays by Cleage on issues facing African Americans, covering such figures as Malcolm X, Clarence Thomas, and Arsenio Hall, as well as the films Driving Miss Daisy and Daughters of the Dust.
———, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day—: A Novel, Avon Books, 1997. Cleage’s first novel concerns an African-American woman who is HIV-positive and who falls in love with the man of her dreams.
Fabre, Genevieve, and Michel Feith, eds., Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance, Indiana University Press, 2000. Fabre and Feith offer a collection of essays on the continuing influence of the Harlem Renaissance on American culture.
Floyd, Samuel A., Jr., ed., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays, Greenwood Press, 1990. Floyd provides a collection of essays on African- American music of the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea: An Autobiography, A. A. Knopf, 1940. The Big Sea is an autobiography by Langston Hughes, one of the most important poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
Rodgers, Marie E., The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Reference Guide for Student Research, Libraries United, 1998. This is a reference bibliography with brief synopses of publications about the Harlem Renaissance. It is designed as an aid for students wishing to learn more about the Harlem Renaissance.
Spencer, Jon Michael, The New Negroes and Their Music: The Success of the Harlem Renaissance, University of Tennessee Press, 1997. Spencer offers an historical account of the musical developments of the Harlem Renaissance.
Watson, Steven, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African- American Culture, 1920–1930, Pantheon Books, 1995. Watson provides a history of the Harlem Renaissance in terms of its influence on African-American culture.