Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

The criticism on the Harlem Renaissance movement tends to focus on its impact on black literature and on the African-American community. In fact, many critics, while acknowledging that the current energy in black literature and music does have its foundations at least partly in the Harlem Renaissance, hold that the movement came up short in terms of staying power. Andrea Stuart, writing in New Statesman, questions whether the Harlem Renaissance has had any lasting impact on the lives of ordinary black Americans. “The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance remains a profoundly romantic one for the black bourgeoisie,” Stuart comments. But, “on the streets, where the great majority of black culture is made, its echoes are only faintly heard,” she claims.

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Amritjit Singh notes in his book The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers that the artists involved in the Harlem Renaissance failed to develop a “black American school of literature” for a variety of reasons. The most critical reason, he argues, is that the artists themselves “reflect the spirit of the times in their refusal to join causes or movements” and were interested less in the societal problems of blacks than in their own individual problems. Margaret Perry, in her book The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary, generally agrees with this concept, noting that the writers of this period “failed to use their blackness to fullness and with total honesty in order to create that unique genre of American literature one called black or Afro- American.”

While acknowledging the shortcomings of the Harlem Renaissance as noted by numerous current critics as well as by the era’s participants, George E. Kent believes that the movement has still provided American literature with some very “fundamental” accomplishments. He argues in Black World that “the short story in the hands of [Jean] Toomer, Eric Waldron, and Langston Hughes became a much more flexible form,” and that, while no Harlem Renaissance author created a truly new form of the novel, these writers did provide stories that “occasionally stopped just short of greatness.” Kent also praises the playwrighting of the period, though it received little Broadway exposure.

Other readers of the period’s literature have noted its influences. Kenneth R. Janken addresses the deep affection black intelligentsia had for French culture during the early part of the twentieth century and how this both contributed to the movement and prevented them from seeing the limitations of the French social model. He comments in The Historian that, while the Harlem Renaissance certainly was indebted to French intellectuals for much of its philosophy about racial equality and recognition of an African diaspora, it viewed the position of blacks in French society through rose-colored glasses. Harlem Renaissance writers “could not thoroughly critique the French colonial system . . . that continued to exploit the majority of Africans,” Janken notes.

Many critics have depicted the Harlem Renaissance as a period of great hope and optimism, but Daylanne K. English disagrees. In Critical Inquiry, he argues that, upon closer examination, the opposite is true. “The Renaissance writers were, in fact, preoccupied by the possibility and the picturing of various modern, and only sometimes racially specific, wastelands,” notes the author.

Nathan Huggins, in his well-respected 1971 book Harlem Renaissance, questions the exclusiveness of the movement to the nation’s black population and posits that black and white Americans “have been so long and so intimately a part of one another’s experience that, will it or not, they cannot be understood independently.” He argues that the creation of Harlem “as a place of exotic culture” was as essential to whites as it was to blacks. Locke’s declaration of the New Negro reflected America’s continuing fascination with remaking oneself and was, in truth, “a public relations promotion,” Huggins asserts. African Americans had to be presented in a better light, in a way the majority of whites could accept and blacks themselves could internalize. “Even the best of the poems of the Harlem Renaissance carried the burden of selfconsciousness of oppression and black limitation,” he notes.

Aderemi Bamikunle also examines how whites affected the work of Harlem Renaissance writers. He asserts that the white connection with black writing has a long history, going back to the mid- 1800s, when white abolitionists found and published black authors who would write “according to a particular genre,” specifically, the slave narrative. Bamikunle points to the comments many black writers made during the Harlem Renaissance about the struggle to appeal to both a black and a white audience. “For blacks who felt a strong obligation towards the black race there was bound to be conflict between that obligation and the constraints of writing within a white culture,” he argues.

The Harlem Renaissance was not an exclusively male event, and some critics have chosen to highlight black women’s roles in the achievements of the period. While Cheryl Wall, writing in Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York, admits that no female black writer working during the 1920s and 1930s came close to the talent and skill exhibited by many of the era’s leading male writers, she adds that black women “were doubly oppressed, as blacks and as women, and they were highly aware of the degrading stereotypes commonly applied to them.” For this reason, she believes, black women poets often wrote more restrained poetry and prose than their male counterparts.

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