The Study of African American Poetry 1900-1930
Begin with the possibility that the study of literary forms is one way of giving attention to specialized speech acts as texts and to how we might think about the roles texts play, beyond their being catalysts for personal aesthetic experiences, in culture(s). Whether study is an individual activity or a collective (collaborative) one, it is never totally free. We give attention to text and time, text in historical time. It is no denial of our voices to accept that our study of African American poetry between 1900 and 1930 is indebted to previous thinkers and the pathways to knowing they provided; in this Institute, we may ultimately conclude by August 3 that we are indebted to Lorenzo Thomas and many others, but most importantly to Thomas who is the presiding spirit for the emerging conversation. We shall modify his pathway and the pathways created by Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Sterling A. Brown, Eugene B. Redmond, Stephen E. Henderson and the growing body of poets and scholars who tell us how we might elect to think about modern and contemporary poetry. In all instances, texts, voices, and contexts associated with the first three decades of the twentieth century authorize, as Thomas urged, precautions.
Understanding of the narratives we call history, especially the narrative we label “literary history” is predicated on belief that the narratives are not misleading (until they are proved to be so); they are simply incomplete. The idea of incompleteness can be highlighted by some attention to the editing behind the representative anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922; expanded edition 1931) and the more interpretive anthology The New Negro (1925). Editing is a special art of selection, implicated with cultural and literary politics and with motives both well-known and rather unknowable. Anthologies are appetizers. Study from a distance increases the chances of having a full meal.
The work of James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke set terms for inspection in the study of expressive culture, of the poetry. The poet/critic Johnson contributed a foundation upon which the philosopher/scholar Locke built a mythology that invites critical surgery. The mythology I have in mind is explanatory of vexed engagement with the overworked phrase “double consciousness.” The levels of discourse given to us by Johnson and Locke are complementary.
Cognition of place in the United States as an experiment in democracy stands behind Johnson’s “Life Every Voice and Sing” (a song that still has affective values) and The Book of American Negro Poetry. Poetry has many locations and changes its address frequently. For Johnson, poetry was expressive proof or evidence needed to minimize forgetfulness, to maximize the memory of things tampered with in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Poetry addressed a problem of compromised inclusion of people of African descent in the body politic of the United States. The preoccupation with “race” in the United States sponsored the black/white binary, the them versus us stances which still have currency in the American republic and in its regard for literature.
It may be instructive to move backward in time from 1931 to 1921. In the 1931 preface, Johnson emphasized swift changes and his vision of a future for American poetry. In 1921, as he was compiling his anthology, and despite what we now think about radical changes in the Jazz Age and the migration of black folk from rural, agricultural areas to urban, industrial and commercial areas, uses of artificial dialect retarded desirable change. What was awry in the American literary mindscape needed changing. Poetry was put in the service of change. Even then language was a weapon. An assault on ignorance was necessary. In the 1931 preface, Johnson broadcast some key ideas that are foundational for our study. That preface updated and slightly revised what Johnson thought about poetry that was moving differently than it had in 1921. Although the sense of history that informed Johnson’s thinking was highly selective, it minimizes historical amnesia and gives weight to specificity. It bids us to not be ahistorical in dealing with black poetry from 1900 to 1930 and cooperative in being bamboozled by what is hidden in deep recesses of the code term “universal.”
Alain Locke’s “Foreword” and introductory essay “The New Negro” in The New Negro (1925) map territory that is distinct from Johnson’s, primarily because he was writing about culture not poetry.
His aim was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially –to register the transformations of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years.” Like Johnson, Locke was annoyed by the habits of the American mindscape; the benighted viewers needed to see “truest social portraiture” and to discover “artistic self-expression.” He believed that “so far as [the Negro] is culturally articulate,” one should “let the Negro speak for himself” by way of the poetry, fiction, drama, music, and critical essays in The New Negro. Contrasting the problematic Old Negro with the New Negro, who was vibrant with a new psychology, one that sought to minimize self-pity and to welcome “the new scientific rather than the old sentimental interest.” Smashing the idols of the American tribes was to be embraced. As far as poetry was concerned, Locke championed “the defiant ironic challenge of [Claude] McKay” and “the fervent and almost filial appeal and counsel of Weldon Johnson.” He quickly noted “between defiance and appeal, midway almost between cynicism and hope, the prevailing mind stands in the mood of [Johnson’s] To America, an attitude of sober query and stoical challenge:
How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking ‘neath the load we bear,
Our eyes fixed forward on a star,
Or gazing empty at despair?
Like Johnson, Locke argued for fuller recognition of the Negro’s contributions to American culture and the “releasing of the talented group from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression.” More than Johnson, Locke was concerned about “a spiritual Coming of Age,” marked by a new aesthetic and a new psychology of life. The elaboration of what Locke meant is to be found in his essay “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” which is strategically placed after Cullen’s poem “Heritage.” “…what the Negro artist of to-day has most to gain from the arts of the forefathers is perhaps not cultural inspiration or technical innovations, but the lesson of a classic background, the lesson of discipline, of style, of technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery. A more highly stylized art does not exist than the African. If after absorbing the new content of American life and experience, and after assimilating new patterns of art, the original artistic endowment can be sufficiently augmented to express itself with equal power in more complex patterns and substance, then the Negro may well become what some have predicted, the artist of American life.” Our study, in part, should confirm or disconfirm whether black poetry from 1900 to 1930 was able to manifest Locke’s vision. Did the poets absorb the classical African discipline?
We can profit from Robert Hayden’s observation in the preface for the 1970 Atheneum edition of The New Negro that the Harlem Renaissance “ was more aesthetic and philosophical –more metaphysical …than political, “ although whatever happened to creative expression from 1900 to 1930 can not be divorced from a very long history of nationalism cultural and political. We can gain even more from how this point is embedded in Harold Cruse’s stinging critique in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), in Eugene Redmond’s ideas about the mission of black poetry in Drumvoices (1976), and in two books by Houston A. Baker, Jr. ---Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) and Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic (1988) along with Mark A. Sanders’s Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling a. Brown (1999) and Joanne Gabbin’s Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1985).
The study of African American poetry 1900 to 1930 invites us to undertake any number of approaches and projects, all of them grounded in reading the texts (the poems) according to the received procedures of close reading and in placing the texts in contexts, apply the close reading procedures equally to various contexts and the then contemporary commentaries. One small exercise might be reading Johnson’s poem “The White Witch” in tandem with Jean Toomer’s poem “Portrait in Georgia” (which is printed almost as a preface to the segment of Cane entitled “Blood-Burning Moon”) and reading both of them in the sunlight of what we know about the lynching of black males in the South. Johnson achieves by urbane indirection in ballad stanzas what Toomer achieves with up-in-your-face modern imagism:
The White Witch
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
“Portrait in Georgia”
Hair ---braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath –the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame.
The only problem with such an exercise is that it has already been done well by Cristina Stanciu. Nevertheless, it can be redone and can produce different results. Another exercise is to study a year’s issue of The Crisis (or another magazine) during the 1920s, to identify how the poem placed on a page, and to speculate on how the poem’s discourse fits or doesn’t fit with all the discourses in the single issue. I have used this exercise with undergraduates in a Harlem Renaissance course, and the results have been instructive both about poetry and the readers of poetry.
Following the example forged by Lorenzo Thomas of discovering and researching the questions that existed outside the box of exhausting repetition of what a stuffy academic world wants us to say, our conversation and study of African American poetry can move from Platonic caves into the light of what is actually there to be seen.
“The Sinister Figure”: James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” (1922)
and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)
and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)
And down within those laughing eyes,
And underneath the soft caress
Of hand and voice and purring sighs,
The shadow of the panther lurks.
The spirit of the vampire lies. (lines 25-30)
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet. (Johnson, “The White Witch,” lines 49-54)
like streams of stars,
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
mists of tears
condensing on the face below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms. (Toomer, “Face”)
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – fagots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame. (Toomer, “Portrait in Georgia”)
burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male
and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial
difference the poem linguistically defies. (233-34) (Hutchinson’s emphasis)
Johnson’s poem also appeared in 1922, the “Waste Land” year.
1934. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2001.
on the Body. The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture. New York: Oxford UP,
(March 1979): 187-214.
American Review 32.2 (Summer 1998): 181-98.
35 (Summer 1993): 226-50.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP,