Mama Day

By Gloria Naylor

Vintage Books 1993  312 pages

Naylor was born in New York City in 1950. She is the author of The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Cafe among other works. Pay special attention to the ever-changing narrator; people take turns telling this story. A tip: once you figure out who is speaking, jot their name at the top of the section. 

Sapphira Wade, a true conjure woman, who in 1823, “smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story…”. Had seven sons. “…ain’t Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that seventh boy” (3).

[Legends of the original matriarch: a slave.]

“…18 & 23 at all–was really 81 & 32, which just so happened to be the lines of longitude and latitude marking off where Willow Springs sits on the map. And we were just so damned dumb that we turned the whole thing around” (8).

“Cocoa is like her very own, Mama Day tells him, since she never had no children” (9).

[Section one opens with a chapter about Cocoa.] She is in New York City. [The narrator is the office man, George, telling about his childhood.] 

“It only takes time for a man to grow older, but how many of them grow up” (27)?

[George Andrews and Ophelia (Cocoa) meet at a job interview.] Cocoa tells George that after her cousin and family were lost that she is the only grandchild left. The Linden Hills Christmas fire had claimed cousin Willa, her husband and her son.

[In this chapter we are joined by a third narrator: Great Aunt Miranda, or Mama Day. She describes when Peace died.] “She will see Peace breathing too, at the bottom of the open well, long after her daddy carves the box and they wrap her in white flannel” (36).

“But coming on down to them, it was just her, Abigail, and Peace. And out of them just another three girls, and out of them, two. Three generations of nothing but girls, and only one left alive in this last generation to keep the Days going–the child of Grace” (39).

[A theme emerges of things falling apart.]

“Dr. Buzzard’s pickup truck is missing both fenders and the wheels wobble inward on loose axles; there are so many dents along its side, it’s hard to tell that it was blue at one time. He’s sitting alone behind the wheel, but he’s wearing his beyond-the-bridge clothes…” (46).

“‘Buzzard, I oughta kill you.’ Abigail hugs her granddaughter. ‘My heart almost stopped’” (47).

“Home. It’s being new and old all rolled into one. Measuring your new against old friends, old ways, old places. Knowing that as long as the old survives, you can keep changing as much as you want without the nightmare of waking up to a total stranger” (49).

“‘No, you didn’t have to, but it speaks right well of you that you did. You the only one Abigail’s got left now, with Hope’s child gone’” (50).

[Cocoa loves coming home. She catches up on gossip and Momma Day mixes her up some herbal remedies. For this next scene we have to wonder if George is just a dick:]

“I worked especially late that night, never allowing myself to think about the rationale for any of this. There wasn’t any. I hadn’t done you a favor. I hadn’t felt sorry for a black woman out there up against it looking for a job. I hadn’t thought you the best person for the position. I hadn’t thought at all, not even two weeks later when I sent the roses” (56).

“Well, so much for you, buddy, and your call-me-George. Now, I’m managing the accounts of the man you’re working for. Life goes ‘round, doesn’t it” (57)?

[Mama Day hates to be wrong and doesn’t believe in cuddling. Between grandma and aunt, Cocoa describes the perfect mother.]

“I couldn’t imagine how an evening alone with you and that twelfth rose could be anything but a total downer. I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me” (58).

“It was like when a kid labors over a package–the wrapping paper is poorly glued, the ribbon is half tied–and all of his attention is directed toward that space between the hands that offer and the hands poised to receive. It’s the gesture that holds the heart of the child” (59).

[Wow. That one brings a tear.]

[George and Cocoa’s first date goes horribly, but he asks her out again anyway.]

[The following reminds me of me:]

“‘More than one way to skin a cat. We wouldn’t have to be trying to figure all this out if you’d let her call more often.’

“‘Daddy always said no news is good news. My heart would be pounding every time that phone rang, so I’d rather have her write, if nothing important’s happening.’ Abigail continues her letter” (67).

“‘I guess you qualify as a widow, even though you murdered your first husband.’

“‘Ruby did no such thing.’

“‘She did.’

“The man drowned, Miranda.’

“‘You would, too, if someone hit you in the head with a two-by-four and pushed you off your boat. She told him she was gonna kill him if he kept messing with that little loose gal of Reema’s” (69).

“Miranda kinda blooms when the evening air hits her skin. She stands for a moment watching what the last of the sunlight does to the sky down by The Sound. They say every blessing hides a curse, and every curse a blessing. And with all of the aggravation belonging to a slow fall, it’ll give you a sunset to stop your breath, no matter how long you been on the island. It seems like God reached way down into his box of paints, found the purest reds, the deepest purples, and a dab of midnight blue, then just kinda trailed His fingers along the curve of the horizon and let ‘em all bleed down. And when them streaks of color hit the hush-a-by green of the marsh grass with the blue of The Sound behind ‘em, you ain’t never had to set foot in a church to know you looking at a living prayer” (78).

[This next quote reminds me of my father]

“A bramble scratches her on the face, and a few feet on she trips over a creeper from a sweet bay. No point in cussing, she hears her daddy’s voice. Little Mama, these woods been here before you and me, so why should they get out your way–learn to move around ‘em” (78). [Yes, this is why I keep Kleenex on my desk. Shut up.]

“Daddy, you said live on, didn’t you? Just live on” (88).

[Mama Day never had children, but she has delivered everyone else’s. Frances and Ruby fight over Junior Lee.]

“‘A man don’t leave you unless he wants to go, Frances. And if he’s made up his mind to go, there ain’t nothing you, me, or anybody else can do about that’” (90).

“‘I raised me some decent, Christian children.’

“‘Miracles do happen,’ Miranda says, turning her back. She walks off before Pearl has the chance to take another deep breath; she can keep talking half an hour on just three lungfuls” (94).

Abigail and Miranda are talking when in Miranda’s mind she thinks “She’s thinking of the child she gave to Mother. But I begged her not to do it. She couldn’t put her own guilt to rest by naming her first baby Peace. Peace was gone, I told her. And now Peace is gone again. She only lost one of her babies to Mother, I lost them all. She’s got much less to forgive than me” (95).

Cocoa thinks “I had seen Mama Day do a lot of things out at the other place, and when I told the kids at school they called me a liar” (97).

[Cocoa seems confused by platonic friendship. She learns that George has a girlfriend. George tells Cocoa they are going to renew their commitment (at the same time George and Cocoa are falling in love).]

[The fake world of dating is discussed from a man’s point of view on pages 104-5]

[George and Cocoa seal the deal.]

[The “other place” is mentioned again when Mama Day tells Abigail she should start storing her gifts there.]

[Remembrances of Dad, below:]

“And Miranda says that her daddy, John-Paul, said that in his time Candle Walk was different still. Said people kinda worshipped his grandmother, a slave woman who took her freedom in 1823. Left behind seven sons and a dead master as she walked down the main road, candle held high to light her way to the east bluff over the ocean. Folks in John-Paul’s time would line the main road with candles, food, and slivers of ginger to help her spirit along…And even the youngsters who’ve begun complaining about having no Christmas instead of this ‘old 18 & 23 night’ don’t upset Miranda. It’ll take generations, she says, for Willow Springs to stop doing it at all” (111).

[A friend brings Mama Day a rocking chair that she says is destined for the “other place.” Maranda’s dad and his six brothers are buried on their own land. Her grandfather and his six brothers are there. Peace, Grace, Hope and Peace again. They never found Maranda’s mother’s body.]

[Speaking of the “other place”:]

“Where do folks get things in their head? It’s an old house with a big garden, that’s all. Me and Abigail and Peace was born there. My daddy and his brothers as well. And it’s where my mama sat, rocking herself to death. Folks can get the craziest things in their head. But then again there was the other place, where she was gonna bring Bernice in the spring. Will she see just an old house with a big garden” (118)?

[A bit about ghosts:]

“She tries to listen under the wind. The sound of a long wool skirt passing. Then the tread of heavy leather boots, heading straight for the main road, heading on toward the east bluff over the ocean. It couldn’t be Mother, she died in The Sound. Miranda’s head feels like it’s gonna burst. The candles, food, and slivers of ginger, lining the main road. A long wool skirt passing. Heavy leather boots. And the humming–humming of some lost and ancient song. Quiet tears start rolling down Miranda’s face. Oh, precious Jesus, the light wasn’t for her–it was for him. The tombstone out by Chevy’s Pass. How long did he search for her? Up and down this path. What had daddy said his daddy said about Candle Walk? She was trying too hard, she couldn’t remember. But she’d bring out the rocking chair. Maybe move back here herself after spring. Lord knows, she’d be back in that garden enough come then. And summer, it’d be real pleasant. Listen to the wind from The Sound. Maybe it would come to her. Yes–it just might come to her. Up and down this path, somehow, a man dies from a broken heart” (118).

[Cocoa:]

“George, I was frightened. Can you understand that? Things were going so well between us that I dreaded the day when it would be over. Grown women aren’t supposed to believe in Prince Charmings and happily-ever-afters. Real life isn’t about that–so bring on the clouds. And each day that it was exhilarating and wonderful; each time you’d call unexpectedly just to say, I was thinking about you; each little funny card in the mail or moment in a restaurant when you’d reach over for no reason and squeeze my hand–each of those times, George, I’d feel this underlying panic: when will it end? And it was worse when we were in bed. You’d take me in your arms with such a hunger and tenderness, demanding only that I be pleased, that I’d feel a melting away of places in my body I hadn’t realized were frozen voids. Your touch was slowly making new and alive openings within me and I would lie there warm and weak, listening to you sleep, thinking, What will I do when he’s not here? How will I handle all this space he’s creating without him to fill it?

“And you–you would be so cheerful the mornings after you slept over. Running down to the deli to get us fresh rolls and orange juice. Circling some announcement in the paper for a show we could catch that weekend. Never understanding that it was three whole days until the weekend and my seeing you again. Three days was time enough to settle into what my girlfriends were saying: ‘He sounds too good to be true.’ I’d look around that empty apartment and yes, it had to be that–untrue. You were only part of some vision, or at best a temporary visitor in my life. Too good to be true. Too good to last” (119).

George discusses how easy it is to make a woman think he cares for her. Come over when she calls. Send random Hallmark cards. Cocoa discusses real sharing; personal things she has shared that meant a lot. George gives Cocoa a speech on the difference between being a son of a whore and a son of a bitch. He was the son of a whore who abandoned him and was found washed near a pier near Bailey’s Cafe (131).

“Small places live on small talk, but sometimes the happenings can be too lean for everybody to get enough fat out of it to chew over” (132).

“Trunks and boxes from the other place gave up enough for twenty quilts: corduroy from her uncles, broadcloth from her great-uncles” (137).

Mama Day performs a hoodoo ritual on Bernice so she will become pregnant. “But she wasn’t changing the natural course of nothing, she couldn’t if she tried. Just using what’s there. And couldn’t be nothing wrong in helping Bernice to believe that there’s something more than there is. It’s an old house with a big garden, and it done seen its share of pain. And I’m just an old woman who’ll be waiting in a rocking chair…” [like her mother] (139).

“There’s a lesson in gratitude floating around here somewhere, but it looks like it’s gonna be a while before it settles” (149).

Mama Day refuses to let Cocoa go out and party with her male friends.

There is a wonderful soliloquy on the passing of time on page 158. Four years later, George and Cocoa are still married.

“When you raise a god instead of a child, you’re bound to be serving him for the rest of your days” (162).

“A sow takes better care of her young. And don’t be sitting there whining about a no-good daddy–if he ain’t never here, it means he ain’t stopped you from cleaning this house. And he ain’t the cause of you stuffing this child with white bread and sugar lard to keep him quiet while you’re watching them soap operas. That’s right, cry, you oughta cry. And while you at it, use them tears to water the truck garden you’re gonna start growing with a dollar’s worth of seeds and a little work. Chickens will eat anything you won’t eat–even their own mess–and give you eggs for breakfast to boot. God don’t like ugly” (193-4).

Mama Day and George make a fishing date.

“I know I ain’t giving her credit. Maranda laughs. She done mellowed plenty since this marriage. Soft around the edges without getting too soft at the center. You fear that sometimes for women, that they would just fold up and melt away. She’d seen it happen so much in her time, too much for her to head on into it without thinking. Yes, that one time when she was way, way young. But after that, looking at all the beating, the badgering, the shriveling away from a lack of true touching was enough to give her pause. Not that she mighta hooked up with one of those. And not that any man–even if he tried–coulda ever soaked up the best in her. But who needed to wake up each morning cussing the day just to be sure you still had your voice? A woman shouldn’t have to fight her man to be what she was; he should be fighting that battle for her. It weren’t so in her time, though, and from what these young women tell her, it’s rare to find it now. So a lot of ‘em is waking up like me, except they’re waking up young and alone” (203).

Here’s a bit of brilliance:

“But you wouldn’t have believed me because they never said a word as they sat at that kitchen table chatting away with you retching in the background. But I knew them: idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and you had come home reeking with his brew. There was a soul in that bathroom to be saved with hard work. They were going to demand practically every minute of your day while you would think you were volunteering your butt off. When she puts her mind to it, no one can beat a southern woman at manipulating a man. And these women had been around long enough to take it to the level of art.

“They were much too skilled to honey, sweetheart, or sugar you into anything. On the contrary, you would be told to run off, to rest, to leave them alone with their work. But context would be their masterstroke and versatility their finishing touch. So Grandma starts out talking about her age. This will probably be the last year she’d fool with that garden. Her appetite is hardly what it used to be–why worry about growing beans? More there than she’ll ever use and even too many to give away. A long, long sigh. She’ll just go on up to the store and buy a few old frozen packages of something. She’s a lot better off than them other old people she reads about in the newspapers having to eat cat food. You see, then she totally drops that subject. Goes on to something else, and finally with another long, long sigh, she says that since these beans are already growing, she’ll go through the last hurrah and get out there and tie them up. To grab at her back when she stands up would be a bit too much, so she just shuffles slowly toward the rear porch. And, of course, you volunteer. That’s gentle pity. 

“Mama Day jumps in by the afternoon and uses fierce pride. She waits until she spies you on the porch before dragging that heavy rag rug out to the clothesline. She lets it rail along the ground, stopping several times to hoist it up in her arms. That gives you the time to get across the road with an offer of help that’s flatly and emphatically refused as she struggles unsuccessfully–much too unsuccessfully–to swing it over the line. You get begrudging thanks for insisting that you do it and finally several pointers on the most effective way to beat out the dust. But she’ll keep you supplied with lemonade for your dry throat–at least she ain’t too old and decrepit to squeeze a few lemons. They exchange tactics on the second day and by the third, none are needed. You’ve been allowed to overhear the quiet whispers about how marvelous you are, to witness glimpses of melting awe at the strength of your back, your arms. Yeah, they could lie back now, your ego would take over.

“I guess if I’d really taken those lessons to heart, we could have gotten along better. They had you under their heels and you were purring. But I found treating a grown man like a five-year-old a little nauseating. If they had just come out and said, We want you to help around the house, you would have. As a matter of fact, you would have done it for the remainder of your vacation and not have resented it. That was more my style: Hey, look, keep your tail here and help me. But like I said, they were artists. And they wove the illusion that you were doing more than helping, you were in charge. You wanted to do all those chores. You even thought of things to be done that hadn’t crossed their minds. The fact that you weren’t in charge had absolutely nothing to do with the results: Grandma’s roof got painted, the garden got weeded, Mama Day’s rugs were spotless. And you were too tired to go anywhere. If you only knew, I thought, watching you laughing and talking with them on the porch at night. Grandma shelling boiled peanuts for you, Mama Day rubbing liniment into your sore shoulders. And maybe you did know, but it was what you believed that counted” (216-7).

In the woods Cocoa hears the whispers of ghosts that George can’t hear. They say she is going to break his heart. We learn some more history of the other place. 224-5

“Well, the Scriptures do say it: man was the last thing the Lord made.”

“He shoulda quit while He was ahead.”

“Just letting things crumble apart, ‘cause everybody wants to be right in a world where they ain’t no right or wrong to be found. My side. He don’t listen to my side. She don’t listen to my side. Just like that chicken coop, everything got four sides: his side, her side, an outside, and an inside. All of it is the truth. But that takes a lot of work and young folks ain’t about working heard no more. When getting at the truth starts to hurt, it’s easier to turn away” (230).

Junior Lee puts the moves on Cocoa and Ruby sees him.

“Miranda shakes her head and takes a final look around her garden before she turns her face to the sky. Gray. The color you’d get from blending a bridal dress and a funeral veil” (243).

Little Caesar dies. The poison Ruby plants in Cocoa has begun to take effect.

“There’ll be no redemption for that. She ain’t gotta worry about going on to hell. Hell was right now. Daddy always said that folks misread the Bible. Couldn’t be no punishment worse than having to live here on ear, he said” (261).

Lightning hits Ruby’s house twice and it explodes after Mama Day had turned some hoodoo on her.

“And if you’re worried about us, you can stop. We’re going to be fine because I believe in myself.”

“That’s where folks start, boy–not where they finish up. Yes, I said boy. ‘Cause a man would have grown enough to know that really believing in himself means that he ain’t gotta be afraid to admit there’s some things he just can’t do alone.”

Read the book to find out all the twists and turns!

Gwendolyn Brooks

1917-2000

[Study Notes]

Brooks wanted to write poems that called to all black people. Poems to teach, entertain and illuminate. She used elegant spare rhythms. Through activism, she showed her passionate commitment to making her work available to black people everywhere believing poetry was not the sole province of the privileged, educated few.
Born in Kansas and moved to Chicago where she spent most of her life. Published her first poem at thirteen in American Child magazine. Graduated from high school and was a regular contributor to the weekly variety column of the Chicago Defender. Attended Wilson Junior College and joined Chicago’s NAACP Youth Council. Got married.
Brooks had a child and met a pivotal teacher.
Won the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943. Approached by Emily Morison of Knopf for a book of poems. A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. Followed by Annie Allen (1949), winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize. Maud Martha (1953); and The Bean Eaters (1960). Brooks’s poetry of this period is solidly based in the stuff of everyday life.
1967 was the year of the Second Black Writers’ conference at Nashville’s Fisk University. Brooks was exposed to cultural activists and artists who would fashion the outline of a new black cultural nationalism. Much of Brooks’s subsequent activity was inspired by her experience at Fisk, including the creative writing class that she conducted with some of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers, a teenage gang. In 1968, she published In the Mecca, with its brilliant closing pieces: the “sermons” on the Warpland.
Brooks’s poetry has several distinctive traits: a stunning juxtaposition of disparate objects and words, masterful control of rhyme and meters, sophisticated use of formal and thematic irony, translation of public events into memorable poetic detail. A poet’s primary concern–to hammer out a portrait of and for African Americans–remained unaltered.
Fiction Maud Martha: a female subject’s ruminations before, during, and after World War II. One of the few works by a black woman writer written between the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights era. Not marked by the ideological debates or ugliness of racism, classism, and sexism. Narrates the most difficult, or unspeakable, of human failings–those that occur on the level of intimacy. Generous, sensitive, and tough.

“the mother” relates the inner thoughts of a woman who has experienced abortion.

“The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock”: Federal intervention was necessary to implement school desegregation in Little Rock. The poem opens with a picture of domestic life in the suburbs. People going to church and performing their after-church rituals. Little Rock at Christmas, in summer, outdoor concerts, romance. The expected norms. Phone calls, polite manners. I got to Little Rock to find the news of school desegregation…but it’s so normal here. Then: the spitting, the throwing of rocks, garbage, and fruit. Girls and boys alike were engaged in this behavior. One of the little brown boys was bleeding. So did Christ.

“We Real Cool”: Running with the bad crowd at the pool hall. Drop out, stay out late, sing, drink, dance and die.

Realism, Naturalism, Modernism

1940-1960

[Study Notes]

Literary historians arbitrarily carve out the decades between 1940 to 1960 as “realism, naturalism and modernism” as an extraordinarily fertile moment in the development of African American writing. This era produced a rich and complex collection of writings and many diverse pieces for literary and cultural magazines although standard literary histories tend to obscure those writers.
The era produced serious novels, detective stories, pulp (or escapist) fiction, popular novels. There was also a confrontation of modern existence: atomic explosions, fascism, social revolution, the crumbling of colonialism, the death throwes of Jim Crow.
Authors and critics often engaged in bitter disagreements over the form and functions of African American expression, over the obligations of black writers to their reading publics, and even over how such publics were to be identified. The situation was no better overseas.
Realism refers broadly to a faithful representation of material “reality. Naturalism is a franker, harsher treatment of the power of the social environment cum jungle on individual psychology. Modernism is a break with the familiar functions of language and conventions of form.

War, Migration, Desegregation, and Social Revolution
We use World War II as the outer boundary of this period, during the second wave of the Great Migration. Many African Americans headed for economic opportunity in the major war industries or went abroad to fight. Truman created the Commission on Civil Rights in 1947. In 1954 there was Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education which desegregated public schools. In 1955 Alabama saw the Bus Boycott which began the “nonviolent protest movement.”
African American literary production from the 1940s to the 1960s is emphatically northern, urban, and set mainly in the black American culture capitals: Chicago, Boston, and Harlem. White youth copied the zoot suit vogue, along with many elements of bop, or hip talk. This language of hip, or the “new poetry of the proletariat” introduced a distinctly black urban idiom into the American language. Urban sensibility pervades the literature with the signs, sights, and sounds of the city. Setting the tone was Richard Wright’s 1940 publishing sensation Native Son.

Urban Realism
At least in strictly literary terms, Wright’s novel christened the 1940s decade. A book of the Month Club selection, Native Son made Wright the first African American writer to receive both critical acclaim and commercial success simultaneously. After him, other black writers began to be noticed.
Wright is credited with having set the stage for these successes and creating publishing opportunities for many black writers.
Native Son greatly transformed American culture and African American letters of the post-World War II era. Wright, along with Alain Locke and others, set a tone that black writers should no longer care for or serve their white audience. Their work should be focused on true self-expression for their own people about their own issues.
Wright used ingredients from Marxism, social protest, urban and secular ideas. Native Son shaped a radically new agenda and established for African American writing a new center of gravity, one that documented the gritty realities of urban living for black Americans filtered through the lenses of urban sociology and the conventions of naturalism.
Wright began investigating the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, especially its theories about juvenile delinquency and the urban environment. What forces and powers were at play in the social environment? He used his character of Bigger Thomas to show how the environment affects the mind, body, and spirit and this technique was seen as a form of social protest.
Social protest writing did not begin with Wright; it was there in the fugitive slave narrative, the abolitionist orator, poets, essays, pamphlets, letters, and in the novels of racial uplift. With the emergence of Richard Wright, black art and social protest were one and the same. Protest not only blended optimally with the aesthetics of naturalism and the reportorial practices of journalism and urban sociology but worked organically with a range of cultural activity–including grassroots organizing–underpinning a self-styled radical literary and intellectual movement.
Other writers have been associated with the Wright style. William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, Chester Himes’s The Lonely Crusade and If He Hollers Let Him Go, Ann Petry’s The Street.

Ellison and Black Modernist Fiction
There was a burgeoning vision of integration as a social ideal that called for minimizing emphatically racial subject matter with an “integrationist” temper. There was a call for “non-Negro” or nonracial subject matter, especially in the novel. Black characters and black urban setting seemed no longer central. For most critics, though, the turn from urban realism had less to do with integrationist ideals than with the exhaustion of the mode itself.
It took the success of Invisible Man to further liberate those African American writers already chafing under the narrative straitjacket of realism and naturalism and thus breaking free of the pressures to protest injustice. Invisible Man had an experimental attitude and a commitment to social responsibility. It was the novel as artistic form and not primarily concerned with injustice, but with art.
Modernism was being explored before Ellison. There was much debate over his work.
Centering the plots of African American literary history, from 1940 to 1960, on the Wright-Baldwin-Ellison controversy and the paradigm of protest writing has resulted in a brotherhood narrative, which marginalizes women. Women writers were largely ignored.

Poetry
The poetry published between 1940 and 1960 challenges the debates about social protest. There were stanzaic forms and word collages, folk ballads, etc.
A confluence of poetic forms. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “folksy narrative” and conventions of Italian and English sonnet forms. Realism and naturalism. Global realities of war and the spreading shadow of fascism.
Extensive experimentation. The lyric, ballad, and sonnet.
Brooks’s studied attention to form and technical craftsmanship links her with melvin Tolson and Robert Hayden. The three are frequently grouped together as highly technical poets in the tradition of modern experimentalists.
Paragraphs on Melvin B. Tolson, WWII poetry and movement into the Black Arts Movement.

Drama
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun began the longest run on Broadway of any drama written by a black American up to that time, but throughout the 1930s and 1940s, blacks had demonstrated a talent for drama as theatergoers and ensuring sizable financial returns. The establishment of the American Negro Theater (ANT) in 1940 was a milestone in African American theater history.
A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics Award and anticipated many of the defining concerns of a soon-to-be black arts movement, which exploded in the 1960s. It took on a pan-Africanist, anticolonialist agenda.
In 1957 writers and intellectuals sought to establish the intricate connections between anti-colonialism and the movements for black civil rights for social and economic justice.

Prophets of a New Day
Malcolm X, the “fire prophet,” and one of the writers who would force social revolution “by any means necessary.” Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), whose signature poem, “Black Art, from his volume Black Magic Poetry, set much of the pace, form, and violent tone of the “new” black literature of the 1960s. Baraka’s had a desire for “killing poems” and “words as weapons” for art in the service of a struggle for human liberation.
The 1940s to 1960s brought forth the first full crop of African American writers. The writers of this period were bolder, more militant. Black readers in particular were summoned to confront new literary realities.

Langston Hughes

1902-1967

[Study notes]

Hughes helped define the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote its finest first person account.
He was born in Joplin, Missouri, but moved around. Hughes came from a distinguished family, but his parents separated not long after his birth and he grew up lonely and near poverty in Lawrence, Kansas.
In Sept. 1921, aided by his father, he arrived in New York ostensibly to attend Columbia, but he really just wanted to see Harlem. The previous June, he had published one of his greatest poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in the Crisis, where his talent was immediately spotted by its brilliant literary editor, Jessie Fauset. Hughes lasted only one year at Columbia. He traveled, worked, and wrote poetry. By 1924, his poetry showed the powerful influence of the blues and jazz. In fact, his poem “The Weary Blues” helped launch his career when it won first prize in the poetry section of the 1925 literary contest organized by Opportunity magazine. Aided enthusiastically by Carl Van Vechten, who remained a friend all of Hughes’s life, he won a book contract from Knopf and published The Weary Blues, his first collection of verse, in 1926.
The style of Hughes endeared his work to a wide range of African Americans. His near-worship of black music as the major form of art within the race, was his adaptation of traditional poetic forms first to jazz, then to the blues, sometimes used dialect and radically different from that of earlier writers. His landmark poem “The Weary Blues” was the first by any poet to make use of the basic blues form.
Even more radical experimentation with the blues form led to his next collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). He was fearless in his evocation of elements of lower-class black culture, including its sometimes raw eroticism, never efore treated in serious poetry. Many critics did not appreciate Hughes’s eroticism.
He stuck to his guns in defense of the freedom of the black writer. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” quickly became a manifesto for many of the younger writers who also wished to assert their right to explore and explicit allegedly degraded aspects of black life.
He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929. Charlotte Osgood Mason became his controlling, eccentric patron who later abandoned him.
Hughes’s politics took a sharp left and he published verse and essays in New Masses, a journal controlled by the Communist Party. He even visited the Soviet Union.
There was never a year when Hughes did not produce art in keeping with his sense of himself as a thoroughly professional writer. In 1934, he published his first collection of short stores, The Ways of White Folks. He was involved in theater and wrote a drama of miscegenation and the South called Mulatto (1935), which became the longest running play by an African American on Broadway until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in the ‘60’s.
In 1940 he produced his autobiographical portrait of the renaissance, The Big Sea. 1942: poetry collection Shakespeare in Harlem. For another project he created one of his most beloved characters, Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, a Harlem everyman. In 1947, as lyricist for the Broadway musical Street Scene, Hughes earned enough money to purchase a house in his beloved Harlem, where he lived for the rest of his life.
1951: book of verse, Montage of a Dream Deferred. He kept up his schedule of prodigious output with versatility and skill. He loved being called the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

Mother to Son [my interpretation]
Son, my life has not been easy. My life has been like a set of stairs with nails and splinters and torn up wood, but I keep climbing. Sometimes there was no light in this long tunnel. Now you can’t give up when the road gets hard. Don’t fall. Keep climbing like me.

The Weary Blues [my interpretation]
Black folks were playing a slow tune the other night in the low light. I heard the Weary Blues. That black man could make the piano moan. The blues were pouring out from this black man’s soul. He sang of being alone, yet still deciding to be happy. The second verse turns and says he can’t be satisfied, so much so that he wished he’d die. He sang far into the night. Once the stars and moon faded, he could sleep like a man who had poured out his troubles.

Harlem [my interpretation using his key words]
When you have to wait on a dream to come true, what happens to it in the interim? Does it dry up? Fester? Stink? Crust? Sag? “Or does it explode?”

Example of a reading response paper:

Tiffany Akin
Dr. V. Mitchell
English 7468
31 Aug. 2011

I have a couple of bones to pick with Langston Hughes. While reading his piece entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” I either tend to disagree with some of his statements or find ways to argue with others. Hughes bases his piece on something he heard Countee Cullen say about his own work: “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet.” There is a possibility that Hughes understands the statement to have a different meaning and only twists it to explore his thoughts along another line. The essay is based on Hughes interpreting Cullen’s meaning as “I don’t want to be a black poet, I’d rather be considered on scale with the white poets.” Granted, I was not in the room, but I believe Cullen’s statement could very well be misinterpreted or could otherwise have a different focus than Hughes examines. I take Cullen’s statement to mean: “I wish people would just view and appreciate my art without having to know my color.” How frustrating would it be to be an artist and have people ask, “So, is he/she white or black?” You want the audience to focus on your production, not your race. Basically, you are displacing the importance of the self and placing art on center stage; to consistently discuss the art in terms of the artist’s race takes away from the creation itself. To believe that Cullen wished for an audience to judge his work only on its merit is very different from Hughes’s view that Cullen was striving to perform as a white artist.
Hughes says that “[w]ithout going outside his race… there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work” (41). Yes, agreed, but have you ever tried to tell an artist how to create? Have you ever tried to describe to an artist the boundary lines of his expression? “Yes, I want you to be an artistic self explosion… but do it like this.” It does not work. I ask why paint these boundaries? What if his visions for expression are universal? Of nature? Mechanical? Numerical? What if he does want to express in ways that are stereotypically “white”? Why not? It is the work of the individual artist to make himself a volcano of unique construction and to be true only to his inner vision; I do not believe this type of invention is bound by color. Should all black artists paint black people? Should all black singers sing “black” music? Should all black photographers capture only black life images? No; too limiting! No matter how much observers like Hughes would like to rally the troops in support of black artists doing black art, this vision is much too narrow and would kill much artistic expression if these rules were enforced.
Hughes is making quite a few other points but the one other I would like to debate is the idea of upward mobility. It is a fact that by way of the American media and Eurocentric Zeitgeist that we are all programmed, brainwashed, to think a certain way and believe certain things. As Hughes explains that “…the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtue” (40). I make the connection to American white girls growing up on T.V. and fashion magazines believing that to be tall, skinny and blonde are the ultimate goals. Woe to the girl who is short, chunky and brunette, for she is ridiculed and looked down upon by her more popular and good-looking peers. Hughes says that the American love for all that is white compels some African Americans to become “Nordicized Negro intelligentsia” (42), which is a pretty cool term, but within the realm of economics, is upward mobility a drive exclusively white? When Hughes states that the more cultured African American family spends more time “aping… things white” (41) he follows the observation with the line, “The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician” (41). I disagree with Hughes implying that upward mobility comes with some disdain. The phrases he uses gives one the impression that African Americans should not seek to better themselves, drive toward more education and jump upward into a wealthier income bracket. I do not care what color you are or in what country you are raised, everyone wants their life to improve and become more comfortable over time. Just because another race is doing it does not mean you do not have a right to do it too. If I have a problem, even a lifelong problem with say, Philippinos, and I notice that they are excellent in calculus, I am not going to shun or stunt my drive to learn calculus because I do not admire the Philippino; it makes no sense. You hear the same argument taking place in the realm of underground rock bands. Many of their fans want the band to stay unknown so that they can keep the music all to themselves. If the band gains some sort of notoriety the fans will say they “sold out.” Guess what? The guys in the band want to eat decent food, live in a house and have enough money to raise a family, just like everyone else. I do not view it as selling out; I view it as striving for a decent living with decent living conditions which is an innate human desire not bound by color.

Zora Neale Hurston

1891-1960

One of the greatest writers of the century. Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) are beyond question two of the finest achievements in African American literature. She liked to keep the specifics of her life a mystery and she was rather eccentric. Born in Eatonville, Florida, the first black township to be incorporated in the U.S. Being so, there was no racism and people felt free to express themselves. Her father was mayor and helped make the laws.

Her father was constantly cheating on her mother and Hurston’s mother died when Zora was thirteen. Hurston never got along with her stepmother so she took to the road where she helped an actress in a traveling theatrical troupe. Earned high school degree then took sporadic classes at Howard. She came to know some movers and shakers in the literary world who encouraged her to submit work. Migrated to New York.

Hurston then became one of the brightest young talents in Harlem. Her writings caught the attention of people who helped her publish and attend Barnard College.

While a student at Barnard, one of her papers was passed on to Franz Boas, a leading anthropologist, who encouraged her to take graduate courses at Columbia. She was granted money to follow her interests down south. 

She produced Mules and Men, generally regarded as the first collection of African American folklore to be compiled and published by an African American. The work opened to mixed reviews. She joined the Works Progress Administration in 1935 and then wrote Tell My Horse (1938). In the second book, she focused less on folktales and more on comparisons between American and Caribbean blacks, much to the dismay of audiences. 

During her research in the Caribbean, she completed her second novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her first novel was Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and was well received. The book was loosely based upon the antics of her father. Their Eyes Were Watching God celebrates one individual’s triumph over the limitations imposed on her mainly by sexism and poverty. The story explores how romance can blind women to the necessity of seeking emotional and intellectual independence as individuals in a complex world.

During the 1930s Hurston worked intermittently on musical productions. In 1939 she began working as a drama instructor at the North Caroline College for Negroes at Durham. It was during this time she produced her third book, Moses, Man of the Mountain. People couldn’t tell if she were re-telling a biblical tale, or making fun of it.

Her novel Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) was an experiment in which Hurston took on the role of a white woman. She didn’t like the rule that black people couldn’t write about white people.

In 1942 Hurston kept up controversy with her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. She had to take out some material regarding the hypocrisy and racism of whites before it was published. The book won the Anisfield-Wold award for its contribution to the amelioration of race relations. The critics felt Hurston wore rose-colored glasses when discussing the black woman’s role in America. She was being asked to write for many periodicals, but her views were often contradictory.

Even though there was lack of evidence, Hurston was arrested in 1948 for lewd acts with a minor. She was humiliated. For the last twelve years of her life, she never rebounded from this incident. She died poor and her grave went unmarked until the 1970s. Even though critics didn’t know what to make of her at the time, Hurston is still gaining an audience today.

Sweat  [short story. Combination Standard English and vernacular]

Delia Jones is a washerwoman. Most of the time she doesn’t know where her husband, Sykes, may be…usually with another woman. Sykes plays a prank on his wife by throwing his riding-whip over her shoulder knowing she will think it is a snake. He laughs when she is scared. He disparages the washing Delia brings home. He focuses on the wash being the clothes of white people rather than the money the washing brings in which they desperately need. He is unwilling to work hard enough for the both of them. Delia reminds him that it is her sweat that keeps them going. Sykes goes off with his other woman.

“She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating.”

“Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.” Delia believed that someday, Sykes would get his comeuppance.

The town gossips know everything. They say Delia used to be a looker, but she’s been beat down for so long that it shows. Clarke spoke for the first time. “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ‘em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ‘em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws ‘em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de way.” 

Sykes goes around with his mistress. He makes sure Delia sees him buying his lover whatever she wants at the store. Sykes is even paying Bertha’s rent. Bertha will go to Delia’s house to ask if Sykes is around.

To amp up the abuse, Sykes captures a rattlesnake and keeps it in a box by the kitchen door. Delia and Sykes have gotten to the point where they can’t stand each other. 

One night Delia finds the snake in her laundry. 

[reader’s note: The entire story is setting up for a tragedy. I kept being worried that Sykes and Bertha were going to gang up on Delia, steal her house and bury her in the back yard or something. You gotta read the end! I was cheering and clapping. Just desserts for an evil man!]

The Gilded Six-Bits

[Question: Is there a chinaberry tree in every Hurston story?]

The story opens with a very house-proud description of a black couple’s yard and house. Everything, including Missie May, the woman, is scrubbed to a fine finish. It is a joyful Saturday ritual in which her husband, Joe, throws silver dollars in the open doorway before he hides and she chases him. Joe fills his pockets with fun things for his wife to find: candy, gum, soap, handkerchiefs. They have dinner and Joe says he wants to take Missie May to the new ice cream shop. They discuss Otis D. Slemmons who is a “fancy” man who opened the shop. Joe feels he doesn’t compare to a businessman like that. Slemmons has been telling people how much money and women he has. Joe wants to show off his woman to Slemmons. The ice cream shop owner compliments Joe’s wife.

Joe works the night shift and comes home every morning. They’ve only been married a year, but Joe is ready for children. He arrives home to find Missie May in bed with Slemmons! In the fight to get Slemmons out the door, Joe ends up with Slemmons’s gold watch. Joe, overwhelmed with feelings, put the money in his pocket without thinking and goes to bed.

Joe doesn’t throw her out but loses his fire. They don’t play, joke or touch. He keeps the gold piece he took off Slemmons in his pocket. It works like a void between the couple.

After months, they finally make love and Joe goes to work. Missie May finds the gold piece beneath her pillow. As Missie studied the gold, she found it was not true; it was a gilded half dollar. That is why Slemmons never allowed anyone to touch his “gold.” Did Joe leave the fake money there for her to find just like Slemmons had?

Missie May is pregnant. Joe is losing his health, but they are still making a go of it. They have a baby boy. Joe’s mother tells him the baby looks just like him.

Now the couple knows that Slemmons was a fake all along. They work hard, but take the misstep in their stride. Joe takes the fake money one day to the candy store where he hasn’t been in a long time. He shows the candy man the fake money and tells him of the loser he beat up to end up with it. He spends the (proper amount) of money all on candy kisses for his wife and baby. When he gets home he begins tossing silver dollars into the front room. 

Summary notes and possible class assignments on

“What White Publishers Won’t Print” by Z. N. Hurston

  • Whites lack of interest in internal lives/emotions of non-white peoples blocks understanding and increases fear
  • Lack of lit about the higher emotions of love life and upper class Negroes and the minorities in general
  • Publishers and producers only put forward those products that will make them money. Shy away from romantic life of Negroes and Jews
  • Public lack of interest–why?
  • Answer lies in THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF UNNATURAL HISTORY: built on folk belief
  1. All non-whites are simple stereotypes
  2. There are no internal workings
  3. Dedicated to the convenient “typical”
  • The public willingly accepts the untypical in Nordics, but feels cheated if the untypical is portrayed in others
  • Urgent to realize minorities do think–and about more than race. Internally like everyone else
  • Difference = bad. As long as the majority believes non-whites do not feel as they do they will continue the pattern of faulty thinking
  • We must believe we have something in common.
  • Evidence of high/complicated emotion ruled out which leads to lack of interest in romance without racial strife
  • “Reversion to type”: no matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under pressure and we revert to type–to the bush, the jungle
  • Necessary to know how the average behaves and lives
  • Literature and art should mirror nature

Possible teaching ideas for this work:

  • Thinking back on books you have been assigned so far, which cultural voices have you not heard?
  • Think about authors from other cultures. Choose a culture you know little about. Research authors that are well-known within that culture. Write a bio on this author which includes a picture and a list of their works.
  • Think about your own society: family, school, work. Who are the people you see frequently but do not know? Write an essay on what you may think of this person with the knowledge that you do not know them personally. We’ll follow by a question/answer session within class on what we think vs. what we know with classmates.
  • What is an issue that you have explored within yourself that you have never/rarely seen discussed through media?

Claude McKay

1889-1948

Study Notes

“If We Must Die” appeared in the July 1919 issue of the Liberator magazine. The poem, published after a series of race riots in cities across the country, was embraced widely as a call to resist injustice. McKay became one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance, producing work that evinced both race and class consciousness. The poems below are pieces from Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1953).
Often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, he probably did more than anyone else to shape the trends that would later define that literary movement. Frequently explosive condemnations of bigotry and oppression were written invariably and ironically in traditional poetic forms as the sonnet, McKay’s favorite. His work appealed to traditional poetry readers as well as the new wave. McKay understood the power of race-conscious verse. His forms were traditional but his ideas were new.
McKay was born into the peasant class in Jamaica. McKay’s father instilled in his children a suspicion of white people because his own father had been enslaved. McKay’s childhood also embedded profound respect for community and a skeptical attitude toward religion.
McKay’s mentor, Walter Jekyll, helped him publish two books of dialect poetry: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. McKay was the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, which came with a substantial cash award.
His most enduring literary ties were with white publications.
In 1919 McKay found much success in England with I.A. Richards, one of the foremost English literary critics of the century writing that McKay’s work was among “the best work that the present generation is producing.”
McKay returned to the U.S. and in 1922 published his most important collection of poetry, Harlem Shadows, virtually inaugurating the Harlem Renaissance. According to McKay, the book grew out of his urge to place the militant “If We Must Die,” his most famous poem, “inside of a book.” The racial violence that racked America in the summer of 1919 had inspired the sonnet, which later served as one of the unofficial rallying cries of the Allied Forces in WW II, particularly after it was recited by Winston Churchill in a speech against the Nazis. This poem proved to many that a black author had the authority to speak on black issues.
In the early 1920s, McKay gained popularity in Moscow where he traveled and spoke. He lived several years in France where he produced his first novel, Home to Harlem in 1928. The author continued to travel.
Home to Harlem was the first novel by a black writer to become a best-seller. People wanted to know about the nightlife and low life of Harlem. It is a tour of Harlem.
The next book, Banjo, continues the story of Ray and is one of the most extraordinary novels of the era, both for its cynical analysis of the impact of the grand forces of modernity (above all commerce and colonialism) on individual black lives, and for its almost documentary depiction of interactions among a wide range of characters of African descent from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. Banjo may also have had the greatest international reach of any novel associated with the renaissance. Translated into French in 1931, it was the single book with the most significant impact on the generation of Caribbean and African students that would later come to be known as the Negritude generation.
McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom (1933) is often regarded as his finest achievement in fiction.
In 1934 McKay returned to Harlem. He floundered, then joined the New York branch of the Federal Writers’ Project. By 1937 he had completed his autobiography, A Long Way from Home. The last book he was able to publish in his lifetime was a study of black life in New York, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), which remains an important historical document, with well-wrought portraits of aspects of Harlem life in the 1930s (including the “numbers” racket and the religious leader Father Divine). McKay became a Catholic and taught at their Youth Organization.
McKay did not concern himself with what others thought his work should be. He worked for social change and believed that in order to tell the truth and make great art, some feelings are going to get hurt.

If We Must Die
This poem was written following the “Red Summer” of 1919 when antiblack riots broke out in several cities. McKay never said the poem referred to black and white people specifically. The rhyming scheme is A, B, A, B. In my own words:
If we must die, let it not be like penned-in hogs surrounded by barking, mocking dogs.
We need a noble way to die so our deaths mean something. If we die with dignity, even our killers will have to respect us. Even though we are outnumbered, we must take the fight to them. They may deal a thousand blows, but we will have one deathblow. Nothing lies before us but the grave, but we face it like men and we will fight all the way.

Enslaved
The author can’t think of his people without negative emotions. Much of the wording is negative and sad such as long-suffering, weary, despised, oppressed, enslaved, lynched, and disinherited. The author seeks revenge by an otherworldly force. In my own words:
When I think of all the suffering of my people I become sick with hate. I want an avenging angel to come down and utterly smite the white race. Let it be turned to smoke or disappear so that we may take off the yoke.

Outcast
Poem translated into my own words:
My spirit longs for where my ancestors came from. If I went there I would speak repressed thoughts, sing jungle songs. I long to return to peaceful darkness, but this world says I owe it something. I try to oblige. My life spark has darkened. I walk like a lonely ghost apart from others. I was not born in my native land. In this white land, I am out of step.

Harlem Renaissance


1919-1940

Study Notes

The 1920s was a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts for black Americans called the Harlem Renaissance. Much of that creativity found its focus in the activities of African Americans living in New York City, particularly in the district of Harlem.
These years marked an especially brilliant moment in the history of blacks in America. Publications by African Americans became unprecedented in variety and scope. Poetry, fiction, drama, essays, music, dance, painting, and sculpture. There was a new sense of confidence and purpose; a sense of achievement.
Expressed in various ways, the creativity of black Americans undoubtedly came from a common source–the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance began to spread outward.
Serving in the armed forces contributed to a sense of worldliness. Exposure to new technologies and ideas. While Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy, black people began asking why America was not safe for them. World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 proved that major change was possible, even in the face of a powerful autocracy and entrenched injustice.
Black writers and intellectuals were now being exposed to international ideas such as socialism and race consciousness. There were debates as to whether one should use direct political action or use the arts for social advancement. Should they work on African problems and develop Africa’s resources?
From its inception, the cultural flowering of the Renaissance was characterized by attempts to “reach out.” There was a Negritude movement among the generation of French Caribbean and African students who arrived in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Renaissance was an international phenomenon due to the prominence of Caribbean writers.
Blacks began to be published by the white establishment.

Migration North
Segregation and poverty continued after emancipation. Migration to the North increasingly seemed an absolute necessity for blacks seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
New York City had better housing and WWI needed workers.
Harlem and New York quickly became the headquarters of many of the most important African American cultural and political national organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. Newspapers and magazines played a pivotal role in setting the Renaissance in motion. The 1920s saw the pinnacle of periodical circulation. The Northern papers actively promoted the gospel of migration. Major black political organizations used paper media to spread their ideas. A smaller number of publications were associated with the black radical movements in the city. Though each publication had its own focus, each was dedicated to political progress and social uplift for black Americans and to the development of literary and artistic traditions of which the typical readers might be proud. These periodicals had a profound effect on black writings during this period, not only in subject matter but in form. It is a major reason for the preponderance of one-act plays and short stories.

The New Writers
The first glimmerings of the new day in literature probably came not with the work of a black writer but with that of a white–Three Plays for a Negro Theater, by Ridgely Torrence. James Weldon Johnson called the premiere of these plays in 1917, “the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre.” Overturning the tradition of depicting blacks in stereotypical minstrel forms, Torrence’s plays featured black actors representing complex human emotions and yearnings; in this sense, they anticipated not only plays of the 1920s about blacks such as The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1925) by the celebrated dramatist Eugene O’Neill but also the work of African American playwrights, poets, and fiction writers breaking with traditions that diminished and often insulted black humanity. Another landmark came in 1919, a year marked by several national antiblack riots, with the publication of the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay’s militant sonnet “If We Must Die.” Although the poem never alludes to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance against racism and racist violence unheard in black literature in many years. Then, in 1921, the musical revue Shuffle Along, written and performed by blacks, brought to the stage novel styles of song, dance, and comedy that captivated blacks and whites alike and underscored the emergence of a new generation of black artistry.
Blues and jazz blew up within the music industry. In the literature of the Renaissance, black music and dance became flash points in larger debates about “primitivism” and propaganda.
In 1922 came James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of verse, the Book of American Negro Poetry. Johnson preferred authors who spoke well while also using their own voice. Above all, Johnson set the manipulation of language and other patterns of signification, not the overt assertion of political ideals, as the heart of the African American poetic enterprise. In the preface, Johnson pointed out things created uniquely by African Americans: spirituals, folk tales, the cake walk, and ragtime.
Like most white poets of the age, most black poets were enthralled by traditional forms of verse as established by the major British and American Romantic poets and their admirers. Modernist verse that resembles the work of Pound, for example, would not appear until much later, and then on a highly restricted scale. Unrivaled optimism emphasizing the power of endurance and survival, of love and laughter, as the only efficacious response to the painful circumstances surrounding their lives.
The New Negro (1925) edited by Alain Locke. Merging racial awareness with a desire for literary and artistic excellence, the text exuded a sense of confidence in the black world emerging from generations of repression in the U.S. Fused ethnic pride or nationalism with a desire for a fresh achievement and independence in art, culture, and politics.

Patrons and Friends
There have been questions regarding the impact of white patronage on black arts during the Harlem Renaissance. The movement did need funding. Many saw nothing but benefits in an association between blacks and whites. The two best known white patrons of the Renaissance were Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason. Vechten would have interracial parties. Other entities could be patrons such as grant-awarding philanthropies, publishers, and editors.

Emerging Conflicts
Many within the Harlem Renaissance knew they were out of touch with the rest of the blacks in America. There was also a generational gap characterized by the same issues as all generation gaps.
Most working within the movement saw the Renaissance as freedom and each expressed ideas of freedom in their own way. Some were political (with older artists falling more in this category) while others were anti-political. Sexuality was another way to express freedom although sexual exploits weren’t written about or displayed any more than the general modes of the day.

Drama, Poetry, Fiction
In the theater, a combination of song, dance and humor was popular. Willis Richardson’s best-known play is The Chip Woman’s Fortune (1923), the first serious play by an African American to be staged on Broadway.
In 1926 Du Bois established the Krigwa Little Theatre movement with four basic principles. The plays of a real Negro theatre must be 1) about us; 2) by us; 3) the theatre itself should be for us and 4) near us. Drama was almost certainly one of the weakest areas of achievement in the Harlem Renaissance although there were many great actors and entertainers.
Around 1928 there was a shift away from poetry to fiction.

The Great Depression and the Decline of the Harlem Renaissance
By 1937 the Renaissance was over. It had depended on a special prosperity in the publishing industry, the theater, and the art world. The crash of Wall Street. The Great Depression. Unemployment and the rise of crime damaged the image and the reality of Harlem as an artistic and cultural paradise. Harlem Riot of 1935.
The art of the Harlem Renaissance represents a prodigious achievement for a people hardly more than a half-century removed from slavery and enmeshed in the chains of dehumanizing segregation. The Harlem Renaissance can be understood as a conversation (and at times, a debate) among African American artists and intellectuals about the very meaning of modernity from a black perspective.
In this period, black American artists laid the foundations for the representation of their people in the modern world, with a complexity and a self-knowledge that have proven durable. The Renaissance created a body of art on which future writers and musicians and artists might build and in which the masses of blacks could see their own faces and features accurately and lovingly reflected.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

1872-1906

Best known for his lively and often genial verse in a literary version of African American speech. He could “feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) was the poet’s best selling book. Dunbar is frequently represented as a cautionary example of a black artist co-opted by white media hype which only postponed the bitter realization resonant in his most poignant line: “I know why the caged bird sings.”
Wrote from a regional point of view; folksy, nostalgic celebration of rural life and homey values. Adapted stereotypes towards more socially redemptive roles. Although his was a peculiar literary dialect and not linguistically accurate, it lent an air of apparent authenticity to the stories he told of enslaved individuals who were quaint and amusing, but also loving and courageous. Promoted a myth of benign southern race relations. Wearing the mask let Dunbar “mouth with myriad subtleties” truths that whites refused to confront face to face.
Dunbar’s parents were former Kentucky slaves who gave the writer much valuable material. Born in Ohio. The only black student in his high school but was high achieving and voted senior class president.
In 1893 Dunbar took out a loan to subsidize the printing of his first book, Oak and Ivy, a collection of fifty-six poems. It was popular due to the range of matter and mood and the level of maturity. Dunbar used a double-voiced strategy by switching back and forth between black dialect and Standard English. He tried to find ways to enlighten his readers without alienating them.
His most famous volumes of poetry were Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Reading tours enhanced Dunbar’s popularity. Earned a clerkship in the U.S. Library of Congress. Four books of short stories and four novels. Many stories spoke frankly about racial injustice in the South while others employed fairly stereotyped images of African Americans and drew little upon authentic A. A. culture. But his final book, The Sport of the Gods (1903), is important for addressing a major question for black Amerca at the turn of the century–the advantages and disadvantages of migration from the rural South to the urban North. The concerns behind this grim foray into urban realism also impelled Dunbar to publish “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages” in the New York Times in 1903, a sardonic attack on the myopic indifference of American patriotism to the race riots, lynchings, peonage, and disfranchisement of blacks in the South. By this time, however, Dunbar’s steadily worsening health, brought on by heavy drinking and tuberculosis, together with his harried finances, allowed him little time or energy to undertake serious new departure in his writing.

An Ante-Bellum Sermon [poem in the vernacular in my own words]
We have gathered to comfort each other.
The Lord sent Moses to talk to the Pharaoh. Tell him to let the people go.
The Pharaoh better listen or I’ll beat his ass
No matter your battles, the Lord will come to help you
The Lord is strong when he dons his armour, but I’m talking about the old days
The Lord loved Israel, but that did not lessen the amount of love he has to give
I judge these people in the bible by their acts
The Pharaoh believed in slavery, but every mother’s son is free
So-called Christians who accept slavery are not reading their bibles correctly
Since the beginning of time, the Lord has said his self-same free should belong
to every man
Our modern-day Moses is coming; I can hear his feet.
Don’t start bragging or getting too big for your britches
When we become free we will praise Jesus.
For now, let us pray.

We Wear the Mask [poem in Standard English put into my own words]
To the public, we wear a mask that hides all our true thoughts and emotions. We lie and smile.
The world doesn’t need to know every little thing about us.
We smile, but inside we are crying.
We sing, but our road is long.
Let the world think what it will. “We wear the mask!”

Sympathy [poem in Standard English in my own words]
I know what a caged bird feels when spring is emerging.
I know why a bird will harm himself and bleed trying to escape his cage.
When the beat-up bird sings it is not for joy; it is a prayer to heaven to let it be free.

Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance 1865-1919

“The Bonds of Peace”
The Civil War had not been fought over abolition, but it had broken slavery’s bonds. African American troops convinced many that Africa’s descendants would give their lives to ensure the survival of the U. S. The first Union soldiers to occupy the captured Confederate capital were from the all-African American 25th Army Corps. One of the first citizens to reclaim Virginia was a former slave.
The Civil War was very complicated, involving the following issues and more: could a country based on equality endure? Power issues between federal and state governments, our economy, immigration, religion, culture, science. Blacks, Europeans, Native Americans.
We hung together, but now could we live up to the Constitution while incorporating new ideas and opportunity? The societal role of the freed slaves was yet to be determined, along with the roles of all women and non-white males.
Gender roles and rights took on a new urgency. The war had forced women to become more independent and they wanted to expand their roles. Women began organizing ways to help people and improve society. They began writing and speaking and making connections between themselves and other marginalized groups. They began to become more accepting of those who were different than themselves.
Even though some were speaking of a coming together, others recognized that the agriculture of the South and the mercantile-based North would involve individualism and imperialistic expansion.
The war did not dismantle the plantation system; it just morphed into sharecropping and tenant farming. First transcontinental railroad, 1869. Three more to follow with the addition of canals. Cities began to form. There was a pressing westward. Between 1860 and 1900 immigration from Europe exploded.
There was a mixing of cultures which did not enhance the lives of Native Americans or where they lived.

A Decade of Reconstruction
Generally seen as between 1865 and 1877, but actually began earlier. The building of refugee centers, hospitals, schools, and other social services. The Reconstruction Act struck down many restrictive codes targeting African Americans. Established the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1870) to protect the rights and lives of blacks in the South. Many joined to set up schools, establish cooperatives and train people in citizenship. Some of the schools later became colleges.
The most significant pieces of Reconstruction legislation were three constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth (1868) provided equal protection to African Americans under the law, and the Fifteenth (1870) granted suffrage to black men. The constitutional amendments were neither uniformly enforced nor even recognized in all parts of the country. Once the troops moved out, vigilante and white supremacist terrorist organizations embarked on a campaign of brutal suppression.

Separate as the Fingers
Within two or three years after Reconstruction, random violence and systematic oppression were supported by Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation in virtually every area of life. The turn of the century saw lynchings and race riots.
Northerners had moved on to issues of suffrage, temperance and pacifism. People argued over issues of equal rights. More and more of the vanguard grew old and died. New generations came up who were not born in slavery; conditions had changed, so the fight had to change.
Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute took a half-step, vocational approach. Become prepared for the privileges to come.
In 1883 the Supreme Court threw out the Civil Rights Act in favor of Jim Crow laws. Black men could not vote and everything became segregated by law.

Lifting as We Climb
The decades just before and after the start of the 20th century was, for African Americans, the Decades of Disappointment. There began the “great migration” from the South to the North. The “talented tenth” or the fortunate few attended colleges, founded theater groups, traveled abroad, edited and published periodicals, and established educations, civic, and political organizations they believed would, in fact, ensure upward mobility. African Americans participated effectively in groups such as the Populist Party, the Knights of Labor, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Wealth and power were still far from evenly distributed, yet there were an increasing number of reform movements. Black people were mostly interested in their physical and economic security. The Washington vs. Du Bois debate is mentioned here. [Explore this topic further. It is one of the great debates in African American literature.]
Literacy increased along with the black middle class and even a small but wealthy social elite grew in number and influence. A. A. institutions prospered. Churches, academic education, day-care centers, employment bureaus, housing projects and orphanages. Discrimination in education and in job opportunities increased. Lynchings.
More freedom in the urban North, yet even there they were subject to intimidation and exploitation. When men left for World War I, America needed workers and put people of color to work.

Writing Things Right
The years between the Civil War and World War I saw A. A. authors record the world in parallel to, intersecting with, and diverging from the methods of other American writers. The most popular literature in the U.S. taught and affirmed social mores. Yet increasingly the artist’s obligation to instruct was accompanied by the desire that it be done both pleasingly and also in a manner that showed off the writer’s familiarity with the literary canon. Thus 19th-century American literature tried not merely to delight and instruct but also to highlight intellectual achievement and aesthetic sophistication. African American writing was primarily a means of instructing themselves and others and of correcting the historical record. Disparagement of their intellectual and creative capacities. Exoticization and marginalization of A. A. culture and aspirations.
Thus A. A. literature in the mid-nineteenth and early 20th centuries was used to confirm and to manifest creativity and genius while also documenting and shaping social, political, and spiritual aspirations and conditions.

Activist Autobiographies
Slave narratives had been critical to the abolitionist effort. In the Reconstruction period, African Americans relied heavily on personal testimony. Generally using their slave past as prelude, warning, and resource, postbellum slave narrators recast the sin and suffering of slavery as trials and tribulations from which they and fellow former slaves, like other survivors of the Civil War or any past trauma, emerged wiser and stronger.
During Reconstruction especially, narrators concentrated on the lessons learned from slavery and the progress made after emancipation that would entitle African Americans to full participation in the building and maintaining of a new and improved version of the “City upon a Hill.”
Biographies, memoirs, life stories ranged in focus. There were stories about religious leaders, community activists, domestic servants, explorers and travelers. They presented their experiences in overcoming adversity as models for the present and as blueprints for a better future. “Progress report autobiographies” became a subgenre. Stories of those who had endured trials but experienced triumph. These autobiographical texts served also to instruct other blacks that they could and should buy into the American Dream.

Literacy as Liberation
Black writers aimed to inspire students; they wanted more A. A. writers! They needed accurate and relevant texts. Need for books that adequately expressed the history, position, and aspirations of African Americans. A. A. authored books showed white Americans how blacks had contributed to the rebuilding of America and instructed the new generation regarding how to have a more satisfying future. As the century advanced the projects became more grand and diverse. All these texts hoped to enlighten and inspire.

Publishing for the People
Even though these works were created by African Americans, they were meant for all to read. Black writers followed major literary trends. Some black character types and situations were re-written to portray African Americans more positively or accurately.
Black authors often had trouble finding publishers. Sometimes a writer’s connections helped them get published, or they wrote about a focused topic promoted by a certain printer or outlet. Sometimes a black author’s work could be promoted as part of a series shared by white writers as well. The African American press promoted many black authors while being ignored by literary scholars.

The African American Press
A diverse group of black individuals and institutions who wanted to promote black authors to black audiences and wanted to promote uplifting, positive and forward-thinking messages. There was advertising and contests. By 1896 more than 150 newspapers and magazines had been founded. Most were poorly funded, local and short-lived. Others merged with larger papers and had a significant impact on national and international perspectives. The art was political and quality was more important than quantity.
The African American press included publications by special-interest groups such as churches, labor unions, sororities, and fraternities. The motto was “lifting as we climb.” Those who were leading turned back to lend a hand to those coming up behind them.
The period between 1890 and 1910 was known as “the women’s era.” Women used fiction, essays, autobiographies and investigative reporting to voice their perspectives and record their activities.
The A. A. press was created by and strongly dependent on A. A. church leaders. A press could provide a church with disciplines, hymnals and records as well as educational materials for church literacy programs. This led to bookstores, distribution systems and literary magazines. Examples are the AME Book Concern and the National Baptist Publishing Company. Songs, poems, autobiographies, histories, fiction championing abolition, temperance, suffrage, education and economic development.

Frances E. W. Harper 1825-1911

Study notes

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the most prolific and popular African American writers prior to the twentieth century. Born to free parents in Baltimore. Harper received an uncommonly thorough education at her uncle’s school, where she showed promise in writing and elocution, a strong interest in radical politics and religion, and a special sense of responsibility and devotion to lofty ideals. Hired as the first female teacher at the Union Seminary. Here frequent encounters with fugitive slaves and her own refugee status (the result of a Maryland law that made it a crime, punishable by enslavement, for a free black person to enter the state) moved her toward more direct political involvement. Around 1853 she quit teaching and moved to Philadelphia to devote herself to the antislavery movement.
The 1853 publication of Eliza Harris, one of the many responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s vastly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought Harper national attention. She worked hard and did well. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects includes several of the works for which Harper is most famous today, poems that are generally agreed to have ushered in the tradition of African American protest poetry. She wrote on the need to end slavery and the importance of Christian living, equal rights, and racial pride. As the repressive measures against blacks, especially slaves, increased, Harper’s writings became increasingly militant. It is also likely that she violated the Fugitive Slave Law herself by accompanying runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Development as “true men and true women” was a high priority. Harper emphasizes the importance of personal faith and self-discipline.
To support her family, the widowed mother returned to the lecture circuit, where she attracted large and receptive audiences. American Equal Rights Association. Equal rights advocacy was complicated by the racism of her feminist colleagues and the sexism of some of her black brothers. “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” she repeatedly admonished.
“Between the white people and the colored there is a community of interests,” she asserted,” and the sooner they find it out, the better it will be for both parties.” Emancipation had opened a new era, a time for blacks, particularly black women, to “consecrate their lives to the work of upbuilding the race.”
In 1872 Harper published Sketches of Southern Life, a significant marker in African American literature as well as in Harper’s carer. Unlike the slave narratives and much of Harper’s antebellum writings, Sketches treats slavery as a literary construct. The heart of this volume is a series of six poems, narrated by Aunt Chloe, that form at once the autobiography of a former slave and an oral history of slavery and Reconstruction. Aunt Chloe may well prove to be Harper’s most important contribution to American letters. Although she is sixty years old, Aunt Chloe learns to read, takes an active interest in politics (though she cannot vote), and does what she can to ensure that the men “voted clean.” She helps build schools and churches for the community, and she works to buy herself a cabin, which she enlarges to accommodate her children after they are reunited.
In 1896, Harper took part in founding the National Association of Colored Women, for which she served as vice president and as a consultant for several years.

Vashti (Poem 1857)

A king is hanging with his crew. He wants Queen Vashti to come to him so he can show off her beauty.
Vashti said she was Persia’s queen. She ain’t got no time to be shown off to no rusty men. Queens don’t do that sort of thing. I must be a role model for the women of my country.
The message is brought to the king. His advisors make sure he knows that if Vashti can scorn him, then what will all the other women of the land do? The advisers say to take her crown!
Vashti was like, whatever dude. You can have my crown. “And left the palace of the King, Proud of her spotless name–A woman who could bend to grief, But would not bow to shame.”

[from Wikipedia]
King Ahaseurus’s command for the appearance of Queen Vashti is interpreted by several midrashic sources as an order to appear unclothed for the attendees of the king’s banquet. Though it was common in the culture for dancers to entertain the king’s guests, the Persian custom that “the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze” suggests that this command was highly inappropriate.
Vashti’s refusal to obey the summons of her drunken husband has been admired as heroic in many feminist interpretations of the Book of Esther. Early feminists admired Vashti’s principle and courage. Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation…by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Some more recent feminist interpreters of the Book of Esther compare Vashti’s character and actions favorably to those of her successor, Esther, who is traditionally viewed as the heroine of the Purim story. Michelle Landsberg, a Canadian Jewish feminist, writes: “Saving the Jewish people was important, but at the same time [Esther’s] whole submissive, secretive way of being was the absolute archetype of 1950s womanhood. It repelled me. I thought, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with Vashti? She had dignity. She had self-respect. She said: ‘I’m not going to dance for you and your pals.'”

Bury Me in a Free Land [poem 1864]
Bury me anywhere BUT where men are slaves. I wouldn’t be able to rest with them rambling around above me. The chains would wake me; the cries of the mothers would keep me up. The whip…the taking of babies…the baying of hunting dogs. Young innocents sold into prostitution. I don’t need a tombstone or anything to catch the eye. I will only be able to rest if I am buried in a free state.

Learning to Read [poem 1872]
The Rebels hated it when the Yankees came down and set up a school. Our masters had always kept us away from books and knowledge; they didn’t want us getting too smart. This made us want books more and we would sneak and try to learn on the sly. My Uncle Caldwell used to hide a book underneath his hat. The Yankees and all us trying to learn just kept on, even though the whites didn’t want us to be in school. I wanted to learn to read my bible. They said my learning was too late, but I was sixty so how much longer could I wait? I got myself some glasses, learned to read, then got my own little cabin so I could be my own queen.