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The African American Roots of Modernism

The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

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  • Book Info
    The African American Roots of Modernism
    Book Description:

    The period between 1880 and 1918, at the end of which Jim Crow was firmly established and the Great Migration of African Americans was well under way, was not the nadir for black culture, James Smethurst reveals, but instead a time of profound response from African American intellectuals.The African American Roots of Modernismexplores how the Jim Crow system triggered significant artistic and intellectual responses from African American writers, deeply marking the beginnings of literary modernism and, ultimately, notions of American modernity.In identifying the Jim Crow period with the coming of modernity, Smethurst upsets the customary assessment of the Harlem Renaissance as the first nationally significant black arts movement, showing how artists reacted to Jim Crow with migration narratives, poetry about the black experience, black performance of popular culture forms, and more. Smethurst introduces a whole cast of characters, including understudied figures such as William Stanley Braithwaite and Fenton Johnson, and more familiar authors such as Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and James Weldon Johnson. By considering the legacy of writers and artists active between the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, Smethurst illuminates their influence on the black and white U.S. modernists who followed.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0310-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. introduction New Forms and Captive Knights in the Age of Jim Crow and Mechanical Reproduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    There is still a general feeling that something happened in the expressive art of the United States in the early twentieth century that was different from what went before, something that we might call modernism, something that responded to U.S. modernity, often disparagingly. Following in the footsteps of such able critics and cultural historians as Michael North, Aldon Nielsen, Lorenzo Thomas, Ann Douglas, Laura Doyle, Dickson Bruce, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Geoffrey Jacques, I am concerned here with the development of a modern African American literature and the interconnected impact of African American literary artists and intellectuals on the understanding...

  5. chapter one Dueling Banjos African American Dualism and Strategies for Black Representation at the Turn of the Century
    (pp. 27-65)

    Paul Gilroy has powerfully claimed that the notion of double consciousness in which the black subject “ever feels his twoness” was used by W. E. B. Du Bois to figure a diasporic and sometimes transatlantic black modernity expressing the ambivalent location of people of African descent simultaneously within and beyond what is known as “the West” (Gilroy, 111–45). Certainly, Du Bois’s articulation of dualism, largely drawing on the language of William James and early U.S. psychology, has remained a powerful trope available to a wide range of artists and intellectuals both inside and outside the United States down to...

  6. chapter two Remembering “Those Noble Sons of Ham”
    (pp. 66-95)

    Following French social historian Pierre Nora, Richard Terdiman has argued that a particular mark of modernity in Europe—and, ultimately, a central concern of modernism—is the “memory crisis” arising from people’s sense of “the insecurity of their culture’s involvement with its past, the perturbation of the link to their own inheritance” after the revolutionary period of 1789–1815 (3–4). If this sense of the insecurity or instability of cultural memory, if, again, “all that is solid melts into air,” is a central topos of modernity and modernism, then some of the earliest literary engagements with the “memory crisis”s...

  7. chapter three The Black City The Early Jim Crow Migration Narrative and the New Territory of Race
    (pp. 96-122)

    What happened when black became a place, not perhaps yet a country, as Amiri Baraka coined it, and no longer a cluster of cabins on the edge of the plantation, but an urban neighborhood, a seeming city that one could reach by foot, private car, taxi, subway, train, or streetcar? As noted before, one of the chief features structuring the growth of the modern, post-Reconstruction city in the United States, a feature that would grow more obvious as the twentieth century wore on, was the racial segregation of urban space on a new scale and the growth of the black...

  8. chapter four Somebody Else’s Civilization African American Writers, Bohemia, and the New Poetry
    (pp. 123-154)

    In the United States, as elsewhere, the rise of artistic modernism and the emergence of indigenous bohemias in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were closely linked, though not twinned phenomena. I use the plural rather than speak of bohemia in the singular because, nearly from the beginning, bohemia in the United States was characterized by racially and ethnically distinct, though significantly overlapping, communities, whether one is speaking of “black bohemia,” the largely white bohemia in such communities as New York’s Greenwich Village and Chicago’s Towertown, or the avant garde artistic subcultures of immigrant communities, such as the circles...

  9. chapter five A Familiar and Warm Relationship Race, Sexual Freedom, and U.S. Literary Modernism
    (pp. 155-187)

    One of the problems in discussing an “American” modernism or avant-garde before the 1920s is the confusion about whether one is talking about art and artistic circles within the United States or whether one includes such expatriates as Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. While it certainly makes sense to include the expatriates, doing so without some attention to their geographic location has given rise to distorted notions about modernism and U.S. bohemia, creating a vision of modernism centered in the United States that is far more apolitical (or even politically conservative), racist, anti-Semitic, masculinist (and...

  10. conclusion “Our Beautiful White ...”
    (pp. 188-216)

    By 1919 the symbolic meaning of the East-West and the North-South axes in the United States had changed dramatically. Thousands of black and white U.S. troops had fought on European soil for the first time in World War I. Despite Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination for European peoples, U.S. imperialism, an issue that had been the source of so much political debate at the turn of the century, was largely a dead letter so far as mainstream U.S. politics was concerned. Not only had the United States maintained control of all the territories (the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico) it...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 217-230)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-246)
  13. Index
    (pp. 247-252)