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.
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.
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.
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.