The Harlem Renaissance

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Harlem Renaissance Success

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1642

The literature of the Harlem Renaissance was produced by a generation of writers steeped in ideas illuminated most clearly by Howard University philosophy professor and intellectual Alain Locke. Locke first referred to the concept of the New Negro in an article in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, a special issue of the journal entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.

In one of the issue’s articles, which he expanded later that year into the introduction for his anthology of the best African-American writing, The New Negro: An Interpretation, Locke defines the New Negro as one who has thrown off the ageworn stereotypes of the subservient and docile black. For generations of white Americans, he notes, blacks have been “something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’ or ‘helped up,’ . . . harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden.” In place of the “Old Negro” comes the New Negro, “vibrant with a new psychology” reflecting that “a new spirit is awake in the masses.” Locke expected this new and talented group of African-American artists—many whose work appeared in Survey Graphic and later in his anthology—to recreate and improve the image of the race through their art, in hopes that blacks would finally become appreciated by white society.

This was a tall order for barely more than a handful of people. The economic and social conditions of most black Americans at the turn of the century and after World War I were somewhere between deplorable and less-than-adequate. Though their work could not undo hundreds of years of racism and second-class status, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance did succeed in giving a voice to a generation of black pioneers: blacks who followed a grand American tradition by leaving impoverished and difficult conditions for the promise of a better life. Their migratory route was within the United States, primarily from the rural south to the industrial north, and they created strong and vibrant cities and neighborhoods built on their dreams.

In fact, Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, argues that Locke’s anthology is similar to “the valued documents from which we grasp iconic images and pictorial myths of a colonial or frontier America.” Locke succeeded, according to Baker, in writing “our first national book, offering . . . the sounds, songs, images, and signs of a nation.”

Most American students can recite from memory the stories of immigrants leaving their homelands and coming to the United States in hopes of finding something more—whether the story is about the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution or others leaving a homeland inflamed with war or devastated by famine or poverty. Even after sailing across oceans, those immigrants participated in the nation’s strong tradition of internal migration to move to the western United States, the next state, or the next town when opportunity presented itself. But African Americans at the turn of the century were, for the most part, the children and grandchildren of a people forcibly brought to America rather than offered the opportunity to migrate. That opportunity has always been, in a sense, one of the defining characteristics of being American; as a people, we have always counted on being able to pick up and start over in another place. Only after the official end to slavery in the United States were African Americans able to participate in this very American activity.

The Great Migration, roughly from the 1890s through the first half of the twentieth century, saw literally millions of blacks...

(This entire section contains 1642 words.)

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moving from their southern homes to northern urban centers in search of decent jobs and a life free from fear. Between 1885 and 1905, there were more lynchings in the nation than there were legal executions. In many parts of the South, tenant farming and sharecropping— systems in which the farmers often found themselves in perpetual debt to the landowners— had depleted the soil’s fertility and kept the price of cotton low through the beginning of the twentieth century. Working at other jobs, after their crops had failed, left blacks frustrated at their low wages and limited opportunities. Black men’s voting rights were often denied through poll taxes and literacy tests. Like other Americans before them, blacks began a migration that changed the face of the nation. For example, New York City’s African- American population jumped 50 percent between 1910 and 1920.

Of course, the north was no paradise. Very often, blacks received low wages and were treated just as poorly as they had been back home. When World War I finished, and white soldiers returned to their northern cities wanting jobs, blacks were often the first employees fired.

The fact remained, however, that blacks in huge numbers had taken a step to redefine themselves by choosing where they would live and how they would live. They were at the same time participating in another great American tradition: that of re-envisioning oneself and one’s people through stories. Locke’s proclamation of the New Negro was a clear indication of this, and his publication of black poetry, fiction, and essays in his anthology was the literal retelling of those stories.

Nathan I. Huggins, writing in his book Harlem Renaissance, notes that white Americans have forever desired to cast themselves as new and improved, primarily to separate themselves from their Old World origins. This separation, of course, has always been paired with a corresponding desire to associate oneself with the Old World by taking pride in the cast-off ancestral country. The changes in black society at the beginning of the twentieth century and the development of the Harlem Renaissance, according to Huggins, afforded blacks a similar opportunity to take part in this “intense and national sport” by declaring that the New Negro had been born and was ready to acknowledge his ties to, and appreciation of, ancestral Africa.

The writers of this era were creating the literature of pioneers, people of a new land, and in doing so writers worked to develop the stories that would tell the rest of the world (and white America) what defined them, what made them proud, and what troubled them. Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage,” included in Locke’s special Survey Graphic issue, is a love song to ancestral Africa, for example, but tempered with a sense of regret and caution. He desires to be swept up in the continent’s heat and passion but realizes that as someone who is “civilized,” he must tell himself to “Quench my pride and cool my blood.” Zora Neale Hurston stays closer to home in her subject matter but still recalls the land of her forebears (the rural South, from where so many blacks had migrated) in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston follows Janie, a black woman living in rural Florida, and her lifelong search for fulfillment and identity as a woman.

Claude McKay, through his poems and his fictional characters, often wrote about the plight of African Americans in an angry and defiant fashion. Also included in the special Survey Graphic, McKay’s poem White Houses, challenges the racist attitudes and practices of whites against blacks. He opens the poem noticing that “your door is shut against my tightened face,” and he is “sharp as steel with discontent” in the next line. But by the end of the poem, McKay warns himself to avoid becoming involved in “the potent poison” of the white man’s hate. In his novel Home to Harlem, McKay casts two opposites as protagonists: Ray, who, like McKay, is a well-educated black but uncomfortable with Harlem’s festive atmosphere and struggling to fit into either white or black society; and Jake, a black man who leads an untroubled life filled with party-going. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Ray’s association with whites, specifically through his bourgeois education, has damaged his identity as a black man, and he flees the new world of Harlem for the Old World of Europe.

A question remains, however, if one looks upon these writers as the voices of migrants and pioneers. Pioneers are usually pictured as a hopeful lot; indeed, much of Locke’s language in describing the New Negro in the Survey Graphic special issue is optimistic: he uses words such as “genius,” “vibrant,” and “metamorphosis,” and comments that these young writers “have all swung above the horizon.” But Daylanne K. English raises a good point in her Critical Inquiry, when she argues that “Renaissance writers were, in fact, preoccupied by the possibility and the picturing of various modern, and only sometimes racially specific, wastelands.” Indeed, looking at the work of McKay and others, the energetic and optimistic pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance may have realized that, despite Locke’s belief that art would mend racial fences, some tough times lay ahead. Their words, according to English, seem to testify to “a clear and widespread sense of urgency, even of anxiety and despair.” This combination of hope and anxiety about the future, in fact, is apparent in Langston Hughes’s “The Dream Keeper”:

Bring me all of your dreams You dreamers. Bring me all of your Heart melodies. That I may wrap them In a blue cloud-cloth Away from the too rough fingers Of the world.

Indeed, the voice sounded by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance offered a sense of both hopefulness and caution to those who would listen. Black writers would continue to work and produce fine results— Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in the 1940s and 1950s, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker in the century’s latter years—but Locke’s hope that the best and the brightest of the black pioneers could wash away the sins of a nation never came about.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on the Harlem Renaissance, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Major Novels

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9054

There were no novels by Harlem Renaissance writers of major importance in general American literature during the 1920s. All of the black writers were in the massive shadow of literary luminaries such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis. There were novels of major and minor importance, however, among black writers; every principal writer produced at least one novel during the years 1924–1932. The release of artistic expression gathered momentum beginning in 1924 when The Crisis and Opportunity announced creative writing contests and Jessie Fauset and Walter White published their first novels. In 1927, for instance, the black literary output was an unchecked flow of poetry and prose that wound in and around periodicals and publishing houses on the eastern literary scene. Rudolph Fisher had six short stories which appeared throughout the year, Cullen edited a collection of poetry by Negroes, Caroling Dusk, and two of his own books of poetry, Copper Sun and The Ballad of the Brown Girl appeared. Hughes’s second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew, gave the black press an outlet for denouncing a movement that could not now be stopped. On the other hand, the publication of James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones drew praise from the critics even though he anticipated a chorus of rebuke from them because he consciously avoided dialect. One may safely assert that in the year 1927 dialect was declared dead. (One important exception, of course, was the work of Sterling Brown.)

The prevailing notion of the fiction of the Harlem Renaissance writers during the 1920s was that it exaggerated the more offensive qualities of low-life in the black ghetto—drink, sex, gambling, violence, and exotic behavior. The truth is that the literature spanning the period of the Harlem Renaissance, roughly from 1923 through 1932, focused on every aspect of black life. The portrayal of low-life was part of the trend toward freeing readers from seeing the black person as a problem; it was also an attempt to portray blackness with a candor that the newer writers felt had been lacking in the literature of the past. In fiction, several angles of black life were explored in order to emphasize the harsh injustice of prejudice, the basic human worth of the black race, the bourgeois life of blacks, the irrepressible spontaneity and vitality of the race, and the search for a common heritage, so that, in the words of Countee Cullen, blacks would not have to sing:

What is last year’s snow to me, Last year’s anything? The tree Budding yearly must forget How its past arose or set—

. . .

One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me?

The overall controlling symbol of blackness formed the basis for the major themes explored in the fiction and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance writers. In various plot modes and poetic outpourings, the themes of passing, miscegenation, the “tragic mulatto,” the Negro’s struggle for selfassertion, violence (mostly white), forms of prejudice (white against black, black against black), and the vitality of the Negro were recurrent in the works of these young writers. Some of the works were in the form of propaganda; some offerings bordered on or succumbed to the cult of exoticism; still other works presented a realistic portrayal of Negro life. The novel, of course, was the perfect vehicle for exploring all of the concerns which the Negro writer wished to portray and explicate.

The mediocre novels written by Negroes (e.g., Herman Dreer, Mary Etta Spencer) who preceded the Harlem Renaissance novelists were not immediately replaced by examples of high art. After all, the oral tradition was still the most potent influence on the black artist. The unique need felt by some to propagandize through fiction also hindered other writers from recognizing and employing the better tools of fiction. The body of Harlem Renaissance novels, therefore, is unevenly chiseled, but the primary aim of all Negro novelists, regardless of their style or thematic preoccupation, was to act as truthful interpreters of the black race for the reading public. No longer would there be the fiction of distortion, created by writers who lacked knowledge of the black world or who actually believed in the existing black stereotypes. The Negro novelist of the past, Chesnutt and Dunbar included, had sometimes succumbed to the same easy habits of the white writers in portraying the Negro in caricature. A conscious attempt was made during the 1920s and early 1930s to rid readers of the idea that the black character was a little less than human or so pious and patient in the face of oppression that he achieved an otherworldly sanctification that strained credibility. The one character that the Harlem Renaissance writers seemed unable (or, perhaps, unwilling) to purge from their postbellum literary heritage was the “tragic mulatto.” Of course, it can be argued, without straining too greatly, that this type was a real part of the everyday world the Negro writer of the 1920s knew.

To grasp the intent of the various writers and to understand how they attempted to articulate their concerns through artistic expression, individual novels must be examined. The working out of themes and the crystallization of black life and culture were abundant in the novels of the following writers: Rudolph Fisher, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, whose works will be discussed in this chapter. The novels of Wallace Thurman, Jessie Fauset, Walter White, W. E. B. DuBois, Arna Bontemps, and George Schuyler will be discussed in the next chapter.

Rudolph Fisher was a literary craftsman who understood and practiced such arts of fiction as control over plot, characterization, tone, and language, and who had a natural poise in exposition. Fisher was as at ease writing novels as he was writing short stories, although the short stories are of greater artistic quality. Fisher is one of those writers about whom one would like to speculate, “If only he had lived longer”; even so, his accomplishments by 1934 (he died in December of that year) were far from negligible. His first novel, The Walls of Jericho, for instance, contains one of the most amusing yet cynical scenes (the Merritt- Cramp conversation) in modern literature. He was the first black writer to have a creditable and absorbing mystery published in America (The Conjure- man Dies). As a stylist, Fisher had no peer among the nonexperimental Harlem Renaissance writers. This skill, however, led to his most notable weakness—a clever adroitness that makes his satire somewhat strained in some instances, and, related to this, a feather-light style that sometimes blurs his dramatic impact.

The Walls of Jericho (1928) is a study in black realistic fiction, for Fisher follows closely the dictum of Henry James in giving his novel an “air of reality” (as opposed to representing life) through his concern with mimesis rather than theme and form. (This is stated merely for contrast, not in terms of exclusion; Fisher was certainly concerned, as a stylist, with form, and as a man caught up in the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, he was not oblivious to the importance of theme and motif.) An early commentator on the Harlem Renaissance wrote about Fisher:

[His] realism does not go searching after exotic places, but walks the streets of Harlem with its lowly. His interest dwells upon transplanted southern country folk who, having reached the city, have not yet had bound upon their natures the aes triplex of city sophistication. They are simple, funloving folk, sometimes religious, more usually superstitious, leaning ardently toward the good but not too zealously to be sometimes led astray by bewildering temptations.

There is a plot and subplot in The Walls of Jericho, where all strata of Negro society in New York City are represented—the uneducated lower classes (but not the poverty-stricken), the gamblers, the middle class, and the so-called upper class. The hero, Ralph Merrit, a lawyer by profession, can be counted among the few in this last category. He is, A scene on the streets of East Harlem in the words of the common Negro, a “dickty,” and he receives little support or sympathy at the opening of the book where it is revealed that he has bought a house in a white neighborhood just bordering on Harlem. Despite this move, the extremely pale (but kinky-haired) Merrit has none of the pretentions often present in Negroes of his class, even though it is assumed that he does by the characters Fisher presents in contrast to him—Shine (Joshua Jones), and Jinx and Bubber (Fisher’s black Damon and Pythias). As a matter of fact, Merrit’s reason for moving into the white neighborhood is not obvious. As he explains:

All of you know where I stand on things racial—I’m downright rabid. And even though . . . I’d enjoy this house, if they let me alone, purely as an individual, just the same I’m entering it as a Negro. I hate fays. Always have. Always will. Chief joy in life is making them uncomfortable. And if this doesn’t do it— I’ll quit the bar.

Side by side with the story of Merrit is the romance between Shine and the Negro maid, Linda. She works for Miss Cramp, a bigoted neighbor of Merrit, who sees herself as an enlightened benefactor of the downtrodden and misguided. Miss Cramp takes on causes the way sticky tape picks up lint, and her interest is as short-lived as lintcovered adhesive is useful. Her arrogant notions of racial superiority are mitigated only by her evident obtuseness and sheer ignorance. Such a restricted, narrow mind is beyond repair, as her name implies: she stands as a symbol of the blind, bigoted dogooder who clutters the world with unproductive activities and confused motives. She is also unfortunately a victim of Fisher’s penchant for caricature; the light touch he applies to Miss Cramp lessens the magnitude of what she really symbolizes. Still, it is possible that her name will become as meaningful to the literate reader as the name Babbitt, thereby enriching the descriptive language of America.

The work companions, Shine, Jinx, and Bubber, provide the book with comic characters and also furnish the reader with an insight into staple personalities in black society—persons who are (or, perhaps, were) rarely seen outside of Harlem (at least, in their true character) and therefore remain a mystery to the white world. To citizens of Harlem, the prototypes of Jinx and Bubber were in evidence daily. They add as much to an air of reality as do the places described in the various scenes. Both men conform analogically to the black joker hero and, in a more tenuous fashion, to the trickster hero.

Thematically, Fisher was concerned with the idea of black unity and the discovery of self. He uses the Bible story of Joshua to reinforce his concern for the black man’s search for his true nature that will permit him to disengage himself from the deceptions of the past. Every man is Joshua, facing a seemingly impenetrable wall:

No man knows himself till he comes to an impasse; to some strange set of conditions that reveals to him his ignorance of the workings of his spirit; to some disrupting impact that shatters the wall of self-illusion. This, I believe, is the greatest spiritual battle of a man’s life, the battle with his own idea of himself.

It is such knowledge that draws divergent segments of the black population—the Ralph Merrits and the Joshua Joneses—into a unity that can do battle with the white enemy inside the walls of Jericho.

Fisher’s second book, The Conjure-man Dies (1932), is the first black detective novel published in the United States. The book was an important addition to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance because it exhibited again Fisher’s abiding interest in his race and the formulation of ties with the African homeland. Fisher believed that Harlem was a natural setting for the mystery novel:

Darkness and mystery go together, don’t they? The children of the night—and I say this in all seriousness— are children of mystery. The very setting is mystery—outsiders know nothing of Harlem life as it really is . . . what goes on behind the scenes and beneath the dark skins of Harlem folk—fiction has not found much of that yet. And much of it is perfectly in tune with the best of mystery tradition— variety, color, mysticism, superstition, malice and violence.

The semicomic Jinx and Bubber appear in this book also. They liven the action and the conversation, contributing some touches of comic relief to the peculiar, mysterious atmosphere. They were Fisher’s favorite characters, “who,” as he said, “having shared several adventures with me before, have become very real to me.”

Fisher was also fascinated by the technique of constructing a mystery novel—the mingling of fact and fiction, and the opportunity to commence what was to have become, had Fisher lived, a corpus of detective novels known as the Dart-Archer series. In discussing The Conjure-man Dies, Fisher stated: “An archer, of course, is a bowman, one who shoots an arrow. Dart is another word for arrow. Dr. Archer and Detective Dart, therefore, stand in the relationship of a bowman and his arrow; the vision of the former gives direction and aim to the action of the latter.” The book also gave Fisher a grand chance not only to vivify Harlem as a place of clubs and cabarets but to portray it as the home of the ordinary black folk who supply most of its color and movement.

When Claude McKay died in 1948, it was noted that “it was a request of Mr. McKay that his funeral service be held in Harlem, where he spent so much of his active life.” McKay spent the years between 1922 and 1934 out of the United States, but the memory of Harlem and all that it meant to him, both symbolically and sensually, never faded from his mind, even when he had lost some of his younger fervor for its haunts.

McKay was damned as a novelist by DuBois and others (even James Weldon Johnson did not like Home to Harlem) who felt that McKay exploited the theme of Negro primitivism and leaned too heavily on the effects of exotic descriptions of lowlife. The formless aspect of his narratives was also disconcerting. This was so even though he included, for example, a subtitle, “A story without a plot,” on the title page of the novel Banjo. The formlessness, therefore, was clearly intentional.

One of McKay’s assets was his unambivalent attitude toward race: he was a black man and he was proud of it. He wasn’t interested in assimilation, although he had a forceful streak of the European aesthete in him which he neither exalted nor damned. He once wrote: “Whatever may be the criticism implied in my writing of Western civilization I do not regard myself as a stranger but as a child of it, even though I may have become so by the comparatively recent process of grafting. I am as conscious of my new-world birthright as of my African origin, being aware of the one and its significance in my development as much as I feel the other emotionally.” This dualistic sentiment did not mean that he was not conscious of the problem his color presented. One must not forget McKay’s own admission that “my main psychological problem . . . was the problem of color. Color-consciousness was the fundamental of my restlessness.” McKay was satisfied with his own understanding of himself and his dual heritage; what saddened and often exasperated him was the lack of understanding he found among whites who could not envision how a man as civilized as McKay could refuse to accept the European, Anglo-Saxon value system. This dualism, a problem not to be solved by a simple statement incorporating the idea that the black race had a respectable past, one different from whites but equal to it in terms of the values that were transmitted from one generation to the next, was simply one more result of the white man’s refusal to legitimize black experience. As McKay saw it, then, the problem really wasn’t his alone; the white person had to share the responsibility for placing McKay, and others like him, in two worlds. And when one exists in two worlds, one can hardly be completely loyal to either of them. McKay understood this, but many of his critics, he surmised, did not.

A spiritual and intellectual cleavage existed as well between McKay and the black bourgeois writers of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay was keenly aware of the inner struggles of the younger black writers. Thus, he portrays his concern about every aspect of blackness, the black soul, and the “new Negro” through Ray, who becomes his spokesman in both of his vagabond novels. These same concerns are also a part of his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937).

When Home to Harlem appeared in 1928, McKay was accused of being too greatly influenced by Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven. McKay defended himself against this unsubstantiated charge when his book first appeared; later, in his autobiography, he explained:

Many persons imagine that I wrote Home to Harlem because Carl Van Vechten wrote Nigger Heaven. But the pattern of the book was written under the title of “Home to Harlem ” in 1925. When Max Eastman read it he said, “It is worth a thousand dollars.” Under the same title it was entered in the story contest of the Negro magazine Opportunity. But it did not excite the judges. Nigger Heaven was published in the fall of 1926. I never saw the book until the late spring of 1927, when my agent . . . sent me a copy. And by that time I had nearly completed Home to Harlem.

This explanation ought to be accepted not only because it seems convincing but also because both novels are each so different that the question of Van Vechten’s influence becomes academic.

Home to Harlem is a vagabond novel, full of color, noise, and vitality, rounded out by a touch of intellectualism and social criticism. The story is loosely structured around the search by Jake, the primary character, for the “tantalizing brown” whom he enjoys on his first night in that home of homes for the black man, Harlem. Jake is home from the war—the white man’s war—an AWOL with a taste for English-made suits, an uncomplicated sensualist who lives each day to its fullest. He is the archetypal primitive who will never succumb to the restraints of Puritan American civilization. At the end of the novel, he finds his girl (who, by the way, left him the $50 during that first joyful night) and discovers her name which, quite appropriately, is Felice (“Joy”). While the movement from beginning to end is episodic and disjointed, the novel is successful in: (1) its portrayal of life in Harlem’s cabarets, rent parties, pool rooms, and other dives of the more lowly; (2) its exposure of the mentality and weaknesses of bourgeois life; (3) its exploration of the problems of the Negro intellectual (i.e., a person overly cultivated in norms alien to his origins and, therefore, an unhappy disaffected individual); and (4) its examination of the nature and place of sex in the black world.

It is an antithetical world which McKay paints, a world rendered in disjointed sentences, slang, and elliptical Negro phrases that ring with authenticity. There may be a little exaggeration, but McKay’s contrast of a world within a world requires some overstatement. The antithesis is also internal, for his aim in presenting characters like Ray and Jake is not to juxtapose opposing elements of society but, more important, to give two sides of the contradictory nature of man: sensual man vs. sensible man.

This kind of probing is an important element in McKay’s novel Banjo (1929). Ray is also a key character in this book, and Jake is replaced by his counterpart, the Banjo of the title. The book is peopled with men and women who inhabit the fringes of “respectable” society. They live around the waterfront in Marseilles where their existence is a combination of the grim, the grimy, and the happygo- lucky. The most important segments of the book deal with Ray’s tirades against the black American for his aping of whites and discursive conversations that explain McKay’s sentiments about the Harlem Renaissance. Here, for instance, is Ray talking to a Martiniquan student:

‘In the modern race of life we’re merely beginners. If this renaissance we’re talking about is going to be more than a sporadic and scabby thing, we’ll have to get down to our racial roots to create it.’

‘I believe in a racial renaissance,’ said the student, ‘but not in going back to savagery.’

‘Getting down to our native roots and building up from our own people,’ said Ray, ‘is not savagery. It is culture.’

‘I can’t see that,’ said the student.

‘You are like many Negro intellectuals who are bellyaching about race,’ said Ray. ‘What’s wrong with you all is your education. You get a white man’s education and learn to despise your own people. . .

‘You’re a lost crowd, you educated Negroes, and you will find yourself in the roots of your own people.’

From such episodes, something can be learned about McKay as Ray’s attitudes waver from bitterness to tenderness to moral confusion. At the book’s end Ray retains some of his ambivalence, although he makes a positive choice to remain, at least for a time, in the sensual world. His decision, then, is made with an air of one who is still experimenting with notions of how to live one’s life.

McKay’s last novel, Banana Bottom (1933), is not within the basic time or thematic scope of this book and will not be discussed. In one critic’s view it “is the first classic of West Indian prose.” The West Indian tone and mood prevail in McKay’s collection of short stories, too, although the Harlem stories have greater artistic strength. Gingertown (1932) contains twelve examples of McKay’s short fiction. The Harlem tales, in particular, give an intimate and vivid portrait of Renaissance Harlem. For example, “Brownskin Blues,” a story of another Mary Lou (Thurman’s), is about a woman whose black skin leads to tragedy. “Mattie and Her Sweetman” portrays the life of an older woman who is supporting a young man. In both of these stories, crude as they are, McKay exhibits control over his characterizations and the setting. “High Ball” is another of his successful tales, in terms of theme and characterization; the protagonist, Nation, is sympathetically and realistically portrayed (see Chapter 7 for further discussion of this story). In this story McKay explores a virulent form of race prejudice and expresses one aspect of the black man’s struggle for self-assertion. Curiously, the West Indian tales are the weakest in the book, but they are written with such a lyrical nostalgia that the stories have a unique, seductive quality.

McKay’s importance in the Harlem Renaissance is undisputed, even though he was physically absent from the United States during its height. His almost obsessive concern with the nature of contradiction in the black man’s character compelled him to write fiction and poetry which embrace many of the earmarks of Harlem Renaissance literature.

McKay, like Cullen, was unable to fulfill his potential, although the body of McKay’s work is not unimpressive. What seems to be lacking in his work is a certain breadth which he might have displayed if he had continued in the direction in which he started when he wrote Banana Bottom. In it he seems to have turned to another level of expression, the orthodox novel, but he ceased producing significant artistic literature at this point in his life. Stephen H. Bronz assesses McKay in this perceptive summation of his role in the Harlem Renaissance:

Because McKay was not fully a member of any one group, and because of his radical education and outspoken personality, he set the outer limits of the Harlem Renaissance. No other important Negro writer in the ‘twenties protested so fiercely and single- mindedly against prejudice as did McKay in his sonnets of 1919. And no other important Renaissance figure disregarded possible effects on the Negro public image so fearlessly as did McKay in his prose fiction. From his Jamaican days to his strange conversion to Catholicism, McKay forever spoke his mind, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes clumsily, but always forthrightly. In so doing he did much to make the Harlem Renaissance more than a polite attempt to show whites that Negroes, too, could be cultured.

Robert Bone places Nella Larsen, along with Jessie Fauset, W. E. B. DuBois, and Walter White, in the class of “The Rear Guard,” that is, “novelists [who] still wished to orient Negro art toward white opinion. They wished to apprise educated whites of the existence of respectable Negroes, and to call their attention—now politely, now indignantly— to facts of racial injustice.

Nella Larsen was a descendant of two widely different racial and cultural backgrounds: her father was a West Indian Negro and her mother was Danish. Larsen’s own origins and the subsequent unfulfilled life she led as the wife of an adulterer (whom she finally divorced) provided her with the material for her life’s work. Certainly she followed the admonition to young writers to “write what you know about” in her first novel, Quicksand. The theme of the tragic mulatto is merged with what Bone describes as the basic metaphor of the novel which is “contained in its title [and] supported throughout by concrete images of suffocation, asphyxiation, and claustrophobia.” The story of Helga Crane, daughter of a black man and a Danish woman whom he deserted, is obviously patterned on Larsen’s early life. Supported by a sympathetic uncle after her mother’s death, Helga grows up with all the bourgeois inclinations of the black middle class. Deep within her, however, is a desire to repudiate the ethic of the bourgeoisie. “The woman as bitch,” resting latent within Helga, causes her final doom as she settles into the “quicksand” of a mediocre domesticity. The downward, symbolically circular path to this suffocating pit (her marriage and the South) moves via a series of sharply etched episodes that reveal Larsen’s skill at characterization. She shows that she is well aware of the “craft of fiction”; there is vividness, truth (especially in her revelations of a woman’s inner life), and an ability to create scenes of encounters among people even though she fails to be entirely convincing in her ending. However, even Percy Lubbock, in The Craft of Fiction, notes that an author may lack some part of the craft and still succeed.

Clearly, the plot is subordinate to the characterizations. Helga Crane moves from the stultifying atmosphere of a southern Negro college to New York, via a brief stay in Chicago where she is scorned by her sympathetic white uncle’s new wife. Thus, rejected with finality by the American branch of her family, Helga settles in Harlem where she finds temporary contentment. Helga’s life is a series of only evanescent fulfillments, for she is plagued with a restlessness that has deeper causes than Miss Larsen bothers to penetrate. It is in Harlem that Helga cultivates and develops her “black” soul. Her embracing of this blackness is emotionally incomplete at this juncture, however. At the beginning of her life in Harlem she reflects:

Everything was there [in Harlem], vice and goodness, sadness and gayety, ignorance and wisdom, ugliness and beauty, poverty and richness. And it seemed to her that somehow of goodness, gayety, wisdom, and beauty always there was a little more than of vice, sadness, ignorance, and ugliness. It was only riches that did not quite transcend poverty. ‘But,’ said Helga Crane, ‘what of that? Money isn’t everything. It isn’t even the half of everything. And here we have so much else—and by ourselves. It’s only outside of Harlem among those others that money really counts for everything.’

This passage foreshadows a reverse in Helga’s attitude; for when she moves from the black world into the white one of her rich relatives in Denmark she momentarily relinquishes the moral superiority of her black universe:

She liked it, this new life. For a time it blotted from her mind all else. . . To Helga Crane it was the realization of a dream that she had dreamed persistently ever since she was old enough to remember such vague things as day-dreams and longings. Always she had wanted, not money, but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things.

Helga Crane, a nervous and somewhat complex character, is one of the more interesting creations found in the Harlem Renaissance novels. For one thing, she is one female of the bourgeois who displays a desire to be sexually fulfilled. In her decision to reject the physical and social comforts of the white (or, as Harlem Renaissance writers termed it, Nordic) world for the warmth and vitality of the black one, Helga fits the Renaissance’s persistent pattern. By fitting into this mold and accepting her blackness, Helga begins to understand what motivated her father’s desertion:

For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, who so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all Negro environments.

At this point Helga finds release from false values and commences the backward journey into her true black self. She selects religion to carry her back into the bosom of blackness. The portrait of Helga from this point to the end becomes blurred and confusing. After her “conversion,” she turns to Pleasant Green, a greasy, sweaty, mediocre preacher; despite the Oedipal implication of the search for a father, this major move is unconvincing. One explanation for the confused motivation near the end of the book may be that she tired of writing in the midst of describing Helga’s Copenhagen experiences. Suddenly, it seems, Helga gives up living and accepts an existence that will limp along in a wearisome, depressing manner.

The reader is left with an inkling that Larsen decided to make Helga forget that part of her past that made her fight for the things she wanted. The author, in an attempt to rescue herself artistically from the book’s weak ending, inserts a scene which may provide a clue to what she intended. Helga requests a reading of Anatole France’s “The Procurator of Judea.” Just as Pilate let himself forget the momentous event of his condemnation of Christ, so Helga, it appears, in requesting to hear this ironic tale, seems to be telling the reader that she is simply going to forget the past. Larsen’s skillful use of this device, however, does not compensate for the unsatisfactory religious motivation Helga is given for becoming Mrs. Pleasant Green in the first place.

Nella Larsen’s second novel, Passing (1929), is written in that hasty, seminonchalant style that put her a notch above some of her black peers of this period in terms of simple narrative technique. Therefore, even though the narrative moves smoothly in Passing, the story itself is inconsequential. The ending is melodramatic and, again (surely a Larsen weakness), unconvincing. One is not sure whether Larsen intends the reader to view Clare Kendry’s death as suicide (intentional? accidental?) or murder (intentional? accidental?). It is entirely possible that she wanted this confusion to persist forever in the reader’s mind, but this certainly does not give the book any artistic complexity that might intrigue the imagination.

One important feature of Larsen’s work that is clearly evident here, as it is in Quicksand, is her awareness of female sexuality. The latent desire for sexual fulfillment that Helga satisfies with her marriage to the gross preacher is akin to Clare’s attraction to her friend’s husband. In both cases, the black man either symbolizes or brings sexual gratification, thereby reinforcing the Renaissance view that it is the black, and not the white, race that is fertile, vital, full-bodied, and rich in humaneness.

Miss Larsen never fulfilled the promise of her early successes, and she disappeared from the literary scene after an unpleasant exposure and accusation concerning plagiarism.

A date, or time itself, perhaps, is meaningless within itself; that added element, amplification, is needed to give significance to a date. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a case in point: this single novel by James Weldon Johnson was published under a pseudonym in 1912. Its inclusion in a study of the Harlem Renaissance, however, is relevant because of its plot and treatment of racial prejudice in a mode that parallels other novels of this period. Moreover, its reissue in 1927 demonstrates that Johnson’s contemporaries also saw the novel as akin to the Harlem Renaissance literature. This book forcefully upholds the notion that Johnson can be promoted as being a precursor of the Harlem Renaissance. The 1927 edition contained an introduction by Johnson’s good friend, Carl Van Vechten.

Despite its deceptive title, this book remains one of the most accomplished pieces of lengthy fiction written by a Negro during the first four decades of the twentieth century. It is a dispassionate picture of what it was like to grow up nearly white in the racist society of the early part of this century. The prejudice against blacks was blatantly illogical and so rampant that no excuses were needed. The protagonist of Johnson’s novel, knowing the truth of “label a mulatto white and the world’s view of him adopts the label,” finally succumbs to the advantages of uncomplicated day-to-day living as a “passer.” Even so, at the novel’s end, he states: “I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The melancholy of Johnson’s protagonist, as well as his cowardice, are not romantic poses. In this novel Johnson implants a psychological motif which appears again and again in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, namely, the belief that the Negro who abandons his people also forsakes a richness that cannot be replaced by the superficial freedom which passing into the white world accords. This motif appeared, for example, in nearly all of the works of Jessie Fauset, Walter White, Claude McKay, and Nella Larsen and was certainly implied in Rudolph Fisher’s work and in Countee Cullen’s one novel.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a mingling of realism and irony. The realism is of the simplest kind: Johnson portrays in rich, convincing detail several strata of Negro life in the South and the East. The irony is perhaps unintentional: the whole narrative is, first, one of understatement and, second, one in which the hero’s life changes direction radically after one episode—the loss of money for college—which the author intimates as being the “irony of fate.” Irony operates rather successfully, too, when we realize that the hero’s decision to pass, after his seemingly objective review of both sides, fails to give him the happiness he had expected. Dispassionate objectivity may lead to nowhere, the author seems to say.

Briefly, the novel follows the life of an unnamed light-skinned protagonist who, upon leaving the South at an early, undisclosed age, is reared in genteel, middle-class comfort in Connecticut. He does not discover the fact or meaning of being a Negro until he is ten, when an embarrassing classroom situation forces this fact upon his sensitive nature. Even then, his life is relatively calm, and he successfully completes his adolescence, aloof from most of his classmates but not entirely isolated. The hero, musically talented, proceeds southward to enter Atlanta University. His money is stolen during his first day there; but rather than explain his unhappy circumstances to the university administrators, he gives up college life and commences his life of wandering and his search for self. The conflict that wars within begins to emerge at this point: he wishes to become the best sort of Negro, to present to the world the Negro’s musical heritage, and, the easier wish to satisfy, to gratify himself as just another man in the world, to enjoy the normal, even routine joys experienced by the middle- or upper-middle-class white American. As the title of the book suggests, the “hero” finally chooses the last goal. The story follows his wanderings from work in a cigar factory, to piano playing in a club, to travels in Europe with his rich employer, and to the United States again where he collects Negro folk songs. But he now abandons his race, not simply for love of a white woman but also because of the contradictions of his nature. On the one hand, as he says, “I have been only a privileged spectator of their [Negroes] inner life,” and on the other, “I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people.”

As evidenced by the society Johnson describes as well as the duality of the protagonist’s nature, the novel can be said to be within that tradition of duality dominant in American fiction. The tradition is clear in the protagonist’s inner contradictions and the struggles of good and evil within him, demonstrated in his circumstances, his actions, and, most dramatically, his inner turmoil which makes him realize that he has sold his birthright “for a mess of pottage.” This intermingling of black and white taints the hero’s moral character much as his physical being was tainted in the belief of American society that such an offspring, the product of racial intermingling, was a corrupted version of the human species. Through the act of passing, the protagonist assumes the role of one who has failed once again to demonstrate personal integrity. There is a continual relinquishing of values portrayed through the actions of the protagonist; for instance, the acquiescence to the easier way out of a dilemma (not going to college), or his lack of shame when confronted with a lapse in his moral character (the chasing and tormenting of a black boy from his school). And, of course, his “passing” is his greatest act of moral cowardice.

There is a quality of the bildungsroman in Johnson’s work, although the forays into black propaganda and the hero’s remaining air of perennial questioning of his chosen path in life weaken the impression that Johnson perceived the book on this level. Indeed, in his autobiography he is curiously reticent about discussing his book in a literary sense and seems more concerned with emphasizing that The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was fiction rather than the story of his life.

Although the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were not oblivious to the influence of the black man’s religion in shaping his character, they rarely used religious settings for their novels. The prominent exception, Countee Cullen, is not surprising, inasmuch as he was the adopted son of a minister. Cullen’s single novel, One Way to Heaven, was published during the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance (1932), but it bears the marks of a Renaissance novel. It is, in Cullen’s words, a “two toned picture” which explores the lives of the upper and lower strata of Negro life in Harlem during the 1920s.

Cullen wrote to his good friend, Harold Jackman, and talked of Flaubert: “I would give years of my life to learn to write like that [re Madame Bovary] . . . I suppose Flaubert devoted his entire life to mastering words and studying human emotions. Art such as his takes a lifetime to develop.” Cullen, though never a Flaubert, achieved a polish in language and an emotional depth in One Way to Heaven that clearly can be traced to his admiration of the great masters. It is one of the better novels of the Harlem Renaissance period.

The novel’s two stories are frequently interwoven, but it is still primarily a novel with two different stories, one in contrast with the other because two different realms of Harlem life are explored. Indeed, some readers may consider this narrative mode the major weakness of the novel. To be fair to Cullen, between the significance of the title and the focusing upon Sam Lucas at the beginning and the ending, it seems that the Sam-Mattie love story is the primary one.

The opening scene is laid in a church where an evangelist is speaking during a “watch meeting” night. Sam Lucas, a one-armed con man, enters with the intention of performing his faked act of conversion. It is the eve of a new year, with the evangelist out to catch wayward souls and Sam Lucas out to get the most out of his highly practiced art. He strides to the altar and presents his razor and cards as symbols of his conversion. A young lady in the audience, moved by his action, submits to the “spirit” and is truly converted. Thus, their relationship starts on a compromised basis because of his deceit and her subsequent naïveté in believing that religion, which has brought them together, will shape their future life together. They marry, although Sam encounters difficulties unknown to him before in the wooing and winning of Mattie. This is evident in the following scene, which also serves to illustrate the sacred and profane aspects that form a leitmotif in the novel:

They walked along in a silence which was mainly fear of themselves, fear of the fierce desires at the roots of their beings. . . Sam had forgotten the services of the church as soon and as lightly as he had stepped across its threshold out into the sharp January sun. All that he was concerned with now was the woman at his side. . . He wished he knew how to tackle her; for he felt that she was like some new and strange being, unlike the other women he had known. Those others had been like himself, creatures of action and not of speech. . . He knew when a flippant word meant ‘Leave me be.’ But this girl . . . She seemed near at hand, as close as if they were linked together by a strip of flesh, yet inaccessible, as if getting religion and joining church had suddenly grown walls about her and shut her away from the world. Her eyes smiled at him, but their message was . . . ‘Speak to me’ and ‘Tell me things.’ The palm of his hand was moist with panic.

After marrying, Sam has a hard time keeping up the deception about his new-found religion. He cheats on Mattie, moves out to be with his woman, but returns to Mattie in the end when he is suffering from pneumonia. Just before he dies, he pretends to believe again and Mattie is happy. Cullen suggests that Sam’s last act of deception secures his salvation because it is sacrificial.

Mattie is employed as a maid for the Harlem socialite Constancia Brandon, a witty, pretentious, and extravagant woman who mocks as she is mocked. The sycophants who hang about her salon are much more savagely portrayed because they are unaware of the fragility and senselessness of the putative Negro “society.” Constancia is well aware of the cracks in the Negro psyche, but she possesses, in addition to intelligence (she is a Radcliffe graduate), common sense and a love for those Negro strengths and unique qualities that enrich life. (The truth or falsity of this premise is not the point, either in this novel or in any of the others that promote the idea of black vitality.) At one point, Constancia states:

I often think the Negro is God Almighty’s one mistake, but as I look about me at white people, I am forced to say so are we all. It isn’t being colored that annoys me. I could go white if I wanted to, but I am too much of a hedonist; I enjoy life too much, and enjoyment isn’t across the line. Money is there, and privilege, and the sort of power which comes with numbers; but as for enjoyment, they don’t know what it is.

As viewed through Constancia, then, blacks are implied to be basically superior to whites in terms of warmth, compassion, humaneness, and ability to enjoy life despite social restrictions and persecution. It is obvious, also, that Cullen admired his Constancia: she outshines Mattie and Sam so outrageously that the reader is left wishing that Cullen had written two books instead of one.

The desire to portray all strata of Harlem social classes weakens the book because the characterizations never achieve full dimensions. The failure to present Harlem in depth is a pity, for one is struck by Cullen’s facility with language in his descriptive or narrative passages. His dialogue is natural, too, even though it seems forced in some of the scenes with Constancia. On a deeper level, Cullen demonstrates an awareness of the uses of symbol and metaphor, and he displays a feeling for the sort of literary complexity absent in some of the other Harlem Renaissance novels.

The symbols of the razor and cards, pervasive throughout the book, are manifestations of the evil that Sam professes to have abandoned. The salvation theme is also developed through the symbols of cards and razor and concurrently through the use of dark and light imagery and colors. For instance, red has the dual symbolism of salvation and sin (e.g., the “blood of the Lamb” and red lips). In the case of the red kimona that Sam offers Mattie, the color reflects the shame Mattie shares in joining with Sam, the overt sinner. White functions in the traditional mode to symbolize purity, but black is employed to epitomize beauty instead of dark deeds and foul acts.

Like the razor, Sam, too, is an instrument: he is an instrument of salvation. Heaven has sent Sam to Mattie and she reclaims him for this divine abode. Sam is an instrument of salvation because his final act is presented ultimately as an act of sacrifice rather than of pure chicanery. Without Sam’s ruse Mattie would be doomed; she would be barred from the salvation she earnestly seeks.

If there is a single metaphor for Cullen’s book it lies in the title: one way to get into heaven is through a type of personal salvation that results from well-meaning deception. Mattie is fooled by the pretense, the “trickster” act of Sam, but Sam, in a roundabout, theological sense, is possibly saved as well. He pretends to hear music and to see bright lights in order to convince Mattie that he has had a vision. Before he dies, “he could feel Mattie’s hand tremble on his forehead. Aunt Mandy stood transfixed and mute. He knew that for them he was forever saved.” Thus, with careful attention to the details of Sam’s vision, Cullen brings to an orderly conclusion the chaos of troubled souls. The fact that Cullen begins and concludes his work with the lives of Sam and Mattie is evidence that they were meant to be the primary focus of Cullen’s story. Therefore, Cullen should have concentrated on it. The novel would have been strengthened by greater attention to these confused, common folk, especially since it is their story that supplies the novel with its thematic title.

It was another poet, the most enduring and well-known survivor of the Harlem Renaissance, who wrote perhaps the most appealing and least controversial novel during the waning of the Renaissance. It was during his student days (in his mid-twenties, however) at Lincoln University that Langston Hughes started writing his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). Although the book was favorably reviewed, Hughes later expressed disappointment with his character portrayals. Here he was perhaps not the best judge, for his characterizations are one of the strengths of this frankly nostalgic novel. Despite weaknesses in the structure and an obvious simplicity in Hughes’s interpretation of the lives he describes, the book was warmly applauded by some reviewers whose opinions are worth quoting:

It is written with understanding, tolerance and beauty, it lays special claim to the attention of those who love life and its mirroring in fiction.

It is significant because even where it fails, it fails beautifully, and where it succeeds—namely, in its intimate characterizations and in its local color and charm—it succeeds where almost all others have failed.

Its strength lies in this simplicity, in its author’s unflinching honesty, and in his ability to make the reader feel very deeply the problems of his characters.

Even Martha Gruening, in her article berating the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, gives tribute to Hughes:

[It] is not only uniquely moving and lovely among Negro novels but among books written about America. It is affirmative in a sense in which no other book by an American Negro is, for it is the story of a Negro happily identified with his own group, who because of his identification tells what is essentially, despite the handicaps of poverty and prejudice, the story of a happy childhood.

Hughes explains what he was attempting to do in Not Without Laughter in his autobiography:

I wanted to write about a typical Negro family in the Middle West, about people like those I had known in Kansas. But I thought I had been a typical Negro boy. . . We [his family] were poor—but different. For purposes of the novel, however, I created around myself what seemed to me a family more typical of Negro life in Kansas than my own had been.

Reality through nostalgia was a primary concern, then; and to treat the novel as one with a complex theme and motive is to do the book an injustice.

The story centers on the life of Sandy as he grows up in a small town in Kansas (Stanton). His mother, Annjee, is married to a no-account, goodlooking mulatto named Jimboy. Annjee’s mother, Aunt Hager, a version of the mammy prototype, says of him: “Who ever heard of a nigger named Jimboy, anyhow? Next place, I ain’t never seen a yaller dude yet that meant a dark woman no good— an’ Annjee is dark!”

Sandy has two aunts, Tempy and Harriett. Tempy has risen in the world and has all the shallow veneer of the “nouveau bourgeois.” In reality, she is unsure of herself, although she makes it clear how she is to be treated and, in receiving this phony respect, remains isolated from her warm-hearted, unpretentious family. Tempy and others in her “class” know how tenuous their role is, for they “were all people of standing in the darker world— doctors, school-teachers, a dentist, a lawyer, a hairdresser. . . One’s family as a topic of conversation, however, was not popular in high circles, for too many of Stanton’s dark society folks had sprung from humble family trees and low black bottoms.”

Sandy’s other aunt, Harriett, epitomizes the uninhibited, sensuous, generous woman—the sort of person, as Hughes says, who never “soiled” her mind by too much thinking. She hates the stultifying atmosphere of her home because Aunt Hager is obsessed by religion and its sometime byproduct, sin. Harriett displays toward her mother an impatience that erupts in venomous verbal spats. At one point she tells Aunt Hager:

I don’t want to be respectable if I have to be stuck up and dicty like Tempy is. . . She’s colored and I’m colored and I haven’t seen her since before Easter. . . It’s not being black that matters with her, though, it’s being poor, and that’s what we are, you and me and Annjee, working for white folks and washing clothes and going in back doors, and taking tips and insults. I’m tired of it, mama, I want to have a good time once in a while.

Later, she shouts this shocking statement to her mother: “Your old Jesus is white, I guess, that’s why! He’s white and stiff and don’t like niggers!”

In the end it is Harriett (by this time a night club singer) who intercedes in Sandy’s behalf to aid him in the first steps towards achieving both his and Aunt Hager’s dream of completing his schooling. Sandy’s mother is not enthusiastic about education for the boy; work that pays enough to keep one alive is all that she considers necessary. But Harriett, even though rejecting Aunt Hager’s way of life for herself, reminds Annjee, “Why, Aunt Hager’d turn over in her grave if she heard you talking so calmly about Sandy leaving school—the way she wanted to make something out of this kid.”

The fictional canvas is rich in characterization and in its portrayal of a racial milieu little known at that time in our social history. The style of Hughes’s prose is unrestrained and casual, tinged at times with an air of nostalgia and naïveté. The book is weakened by its episodic structure and by its incomplete, faltering characterization of the protagonist, Sandy. The novel sometimes seems to be more a novel about Aunt Hager, for she overwhelms the imagination and is presented in full dimension. Still, Hughes dissected “the ways of black folk” with a skill that he, and others, underestimated. In choosing the mode of the realistic novel, in fusing it with the ambiance of the black folk tradition, Hughes wrote a book that is as charming as it is honest.

Source: Margaret Perry, “The Major Novels,” in Silence to the Drums: A Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, Greenwood Press, 1976, pp. 61–88.


Critical Overview