In an ongoing attempt to remain an integral part of the scholarly and cultural conversations that literature can evoke, throughout my career thus far, I have published articles in several multi-authored reference works and edited collections provided below. Each chapter examines a vital text (or series of texts) in U.S. literature and/or African-American literature that has been vital to documenting the changing social, political, and racial landscape of the larger society. For the table of contents for each volume, click on the book cover; the file will open in a separate window.
The Gender Mountain: The Architecture of Male/Female Roles and Relationships in Hurston's Short Fiction
Critical Insights: Zora Neale Hurston (Salem, 2013)
Though the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was primarily a cultural revival throughout the United States, the conversation of race that emerged in literature and art was not the only conversation. The issue of the gender mountain and the motivations behind male-female actions was a much more present concern in Zora Neale Hurston’s works. Through short stories such as “Drenched in Light” and “Spunk,” Hurston foregrounds the issue of gender, engaging in a much deeper discussion of the changing roles of women in American life—a conversation too often masked in the Harlem Renaissance narrative of race. In essence, her goal, then, was to bring greater attention to the subject of gender, challenging the traditional norms of female domesticity prevalent in American society as well as the objectification of women in male-authored texts.
In essence, as she declares in her autobiographical work, Dust Tracks on a Road, though “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem” during the Negro Renaissance, “I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or woman do such-and-so” (151). These fundamental interests in examining the architecture of male-female relationships and the rationale behind their actions is equally important as the ongoing conversation of race at the time. Therefore, gaining deeper insights into the discussion that Hurston promotes is integral to better understanding the American mosaic and the different approaches to self-identification common in the United States. This book chapter examines selected short fiction of Zora Neale Hurston in an effort to trace the architecture of male-female roles/relationships that Hurston attempts to explore through what she terms her "spy- glass of anthropology."
The Colored American Revisited:
The Role of the Black Press in the Abolition Movement
Defining Documents in American History: Manifest Destiny & the New Nation (Salem, 2013)
One of the most significant weekly African-American newspaper publications of the 1800s, The Colored American, though short lived, sought to educate and unify the free black communities in the northern United States. Through articles such as “Why We Should Have a Paper,” its chief owner and editor, Charles Bennett Ray, tried to highlight the “prejudice more wicked and fatal than even slavery itself” and to emphasize the roles a free black press should serve in challenging the overall oppression of colored peoples. After all, as Thomas Jefferson once declared, the free press was essential to the spread of democracy and to the preservation of its individual liberties, which The Colored American sought to ensure.
In essence, The Colored American offered a necessary alternative to the antebellum newspapers and fiction of the American South, works such as John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn, or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion noted for their reproach (at times) of the Negro race and the pro-slavery platform that they often advanced. To present the truth of chattel slavery and to demand abolition of this brutal tradition, The Colored American aimed at elevating the oppressed Black community in addition to calling attention to the urgency of social and political change in the handling of the American slave. This chapter examines The Colored American newspaper for its socio-political commentary and attempts to draw connections between the newspaper and similar influential works such as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave that transformed the racial landscape in the United States by drawing back the veil of ignorance regarding slavery that so heavily clouded the eyes of many American people at the time.
Unspeakable Things Spoken: Re-Evaluating the Slave Narrative as a Response to Antebellum Anti-Abolition Politicking
Critical Insights: The Slave Narrative (Salem, 2014)
Integral in the overall establishment of the plantation tradition in American literature and culture, the 1832 novel entitled Swallow Barn, or A Sojourn in the Old Dominion, presented in part a defense of slavery and helped to perpetuate the stereotype of the contented Negro. Here, John Pendleton Kennedy writes that “no tribe of people have ever passed from barbarism to civilization whose middle stage of progress has been more secure from harm, more genial to their character . . . than the negroes of Swallow Barn” (262). These words, however, presented a grossly inaccurate portrait of slavery and the racial climate throughout the United States, essentially masking the ills of slavery behind the burgeoning fallacy that slavery was beneficial to the slave.
The rise and spread of the slave narrative later in American history, then, proved vital in efforts to transform the nation's perception of slavery, breaking through the veil of ignorance established earlier in the pro-slavery novels and literature of the time. Non-fiction works such as the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl worked alongside novels such as William Wells Brown’s most controversial work, Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, published in 1853 abroad. In conjunction, these works present a clear socio-cultural critique of the American institution of slavery, providing an alternative portrait of America at the time—one laden with all the scars of the rusted chains and stinging whips.
This chapter employs Sterling Brown’s 1933 seminal work, “Negro Characters as Seen by White Authors” as its main analytical framework in order to examine how the novels and autobiographical works of the aforementioned Black writers represent a clear intellectual endeavor not only aimed at challenging the institution of slavery but the stereotypes (the contented Negro, the comic Negro, the Brute Negro, etc.) upon which its very survival essentially hinged.
Soul on Ice and the Rise of Minority Literature
Baby Boomers and Popular Culture: An Inquiry into America's Most Powerful Generation (Praeger, 2014)
In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Black community at large felt the stinging whip of a different kind of lash in the form of police brutality, inequities in judicial treatment across racial lines, as well as limited and menial job opportunities: an assortment of new social and political realities that defined the Black experience in the land of purported freedom and opportunity. Stories of this pervasive mistreatment of Blacks, reported not only in the speeches and photographs of this volatile time, were soon cemented in the growing body of minority literature—a collection of novels as well as memoirs, autobiographies, poetry collections, and plays that were all written to help preserve a historical record of the difficult lives that African Americans faced. Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 collection of autobiographical and politically-charged essays entitled Soul on Ice is one such text, aimed at responding to the ever-present racial tension that developed with the death of the separate-but-equal age. “This controversy,” he claims, “awakened me to my position in America and I began to form a concept of what it meant to be black in white America” (17). Considered a pivotal work of African-American literature, Soul on Ice emerges amidst the African-American struggle for legitimization, equality, and civil rights, offering a necessary glimpse into this time of socio-cultural change throughout the United States when the physical and psychological reality of the Black experience alike is in constant flux. This chapter examines the role of Soul on Ice in the rise of minority literature through its demand for increased recognition of the humanity of the African-American people while also contributing to the reconstruction of the image of the Black community.
edited by Brian Cogan
and Thom Gencarelli
"It Had Grown into a Machine": Transience of Identity and a Search for a Room of One's Own in Quicksand and Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral
Critical Insights: Mid-20th Century Women Writers (Salem, 2014)
In her 1929 extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, based upon a series of lectures she delivered the previous year at Newnham College and Girton College in England, Virginia Woolf declares that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4). These words, cemented in feminist criticism and the global literary imagination, probe the marginally documented struggle of women to pursue a literary career, their efforts too often hindered by financial dependence and social conventions that cast women not as writers but in traditional (and arguably outmoded) domestic roles. The result is generation after generation of women “who never wrote a word” and unfortunately died with their voices buried inside them (113). For Woolf, the freedom for women to create is then predicated upon this all-important search for a room of their own—a perpetual struggle that has played itself out in part in literature, particularly in minority women’s literature, where the dual role as woman and as Other traditionally led to a multiplicity of silences.
This notion is perhaps most evident in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance—a time of artistic and cultural revival for the African-American community in the early to mid-1900s, the same time Woolf is writing. For the women these novels depict, then, struggles with racial indeterminacy (or passing) and the consistent fight against limited racial roles create a fluid sense of identity characteristic of women in search off that all-important room of their own. As Carol Allen asserts in Black Women Intellectuals, such works reflect a shift in “black women’s cultural production . . . from an overarching nineteenth-century preoccupation with domesticity to regional concerns . . . that was not neat, irreversible, or even discrete”—a direct parallel to the shifting perceptions of women advanced in Woolf’s critical and creative works (4). Therefore, by examining novels such as Quicksand and Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral through the comparable lens of A Room of One’s Own, we can better trace the development of these ideas transatlantically and across culture and time in order to expand Woolf’s vital notions of a room of one’s own to reflect the multiplicity of struggles of women worldwide.
edited by Kathryn S. Artuso
"A Canticle of My Reaction": Soci0-Cultural Criticism
in Claude McKay's A Long Way from Home
Critical Insights: American Creative Non-Fiction (Grey House/Salem, 2015)
Though primarily perceived as a cultural and creative revival for black artists throughout the United States, the Harlem Renaissance was in fact a period of intellectual exploration and not solely for noted thinkers like Alain LeRoy Locke or William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance alike used their creative works as an alternative strategy for their intellectual pursuits, their poems and novels serving as the platform for a clear social and cultural critique. This, too, holds true for the autobiographical works of the era—works such as Claude McKay’s 1937 A Long Way from Home. Exploring themes of negritude and challenging the institutionalized racism prevalent across the United States, this work speaks “against [America’s] mighty throbbing force, its grand energy and power and bigness, its bitterness,” thus “rais[ing his] voice” in what McKay aptly describes as “a canticle of [his] reaction” (4).
Unlike the poems, novels, short stories, and essays for which McKay is most known, this autobiographical work serves a different function. An example of American creative non-fiction, this work necessarily engages a tradition that probes “the entire span of humanistic inquiry about what it means to be human, how the individual is shaped by society, . . . what shapes the imagination, what talents are valued and what misunderstood”—a spectrum of ideas that Jill Ker Conway, in When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography, contends is only found in the genre of creative non-fiction today (17). Through his words, we witness the real-life experiences of Black men at home and abroad and the conflicts that shape their daily existence.
This chapter ultimately seeks to explore the socio-cultural criticism offered in A Long Way from Home by Claude McKay as well as the elements of creative non-fiction prose (as defined by authors such as Phillip Lopate) that are essential in the development of the African-American non-fiction tradition as demonstrated by this vital work.
edited by Jay Ellis
Toward a Theory of Art as Propaganda: Re-Evaluating the Political Engagement in the Novels of the Harlem Renaissance Era
Critical Insights: Harlem Renaissance (Grey House/Salem, 2015)
In his 1926 seminal essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” William Edward Burghardt Du Bois—one of several key authors, also including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, to examine the fundamental goals of African-American art and the portrayal of the Black community—argues that the essential component of a Black art is propaganda. This conception, in part, offered a direct response to the racial tension and discrimination of the time while also reaffirming the vital characteristics of the New Negro the progenitors of the Harlem Renaissance promised to usher in. In one of his more lasting ideological declarations, Du Bois thus offers the following consideration for his fellow artists : “Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?” (258). With the weight of such questions on Du Bois’s mind, a 1926 issue of the Crisis sought to interrogate how the Negro ultimately should be portrayed in black art, asserting, “Most writers have said naturally that any portrayal of any kind of Negro was permissible so long as the work was pleasing and the artist sincere. But . . . the net result to American literature to date is to picture twelve million Americans as prostitutes, thieves and fools” (“The Negro 190)—a glaring misrepresentation of a diverse and powerful black people still trapped largely under the stereotypes of the plantation myth.
Because of this glaring misrepresentation of black characters in fiction (and later in film), Du Bois sought the birth of a new movement in black art—art that could now “begin this great work of the creation of beauty” (259) while correcting the pitfalls of American propaganda since “confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent” in the era’s conversations of the post-slavery national identity and the shifting conceptions of race. Du Bois, however, was not alone in this creative and intellectual endeavor. In response to the Crisis survey, for instance, Walter White challenged the era’s overwhelming interest in “the lower or lowest classes” (“The Negro” 193) and instead placed his emphasis on the lives of middle and upper class figures. In contrast, in his widely anthologized essay, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” George Schuyler questioned the ability of any black art (outside of Africa) to accurately reflect the racial experience of the diaspora, let alone the ideology that defined the spirit of the day. This chapter asserts that both authors, engaging this conversation about how the Negro should be portrayed in art, are vital to considering the political novels of the Harlem Renaissance era, their works offering necessary critiques not just of American society at large but also of the black community in an attempt to define and redefine this notion of the New Negro so vital to the twentieth century.
edited by Christopher Varlack
Writing Across the Color Line: Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven and the Insatiable Hunger for Literature of Black American Life
Critical Insights: Harlem Renaissance (Grey House/Salem, 2015)
In her 1925 essay, “The Gift of Laughter,” Jessie Redmon Fauset acknowledges that in the early to mid-twentieth century, heavily characterized by its Jim Crow culture and the blackface minstrel tradition, “there is an unwritten law in America that though white may imitate black, black, even when superlatively capable, must never imitate white. In other words, grease-paint may be used to darken but never to lighten” (517). Published in the anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation, edited by Alain Locke, these words speak to a pervasive racial hierarchy that had infiltrated even into the depths of the American cultural imagination, inevitably shaping not only the direction of American and African-American art but also the dominant image preserved of black life—caricatures of Zip Coon and Sambo that received wild acclaim both at home and abroad. At the same time, these words reveal a startling dynamic made all the more important with the publication of two of the era’s most significant yet still grossly under-examined texts: the 1926 novel Nigger Heaven by white author and “undisputed downtown authority on uptown night life” (Huggins 100), Carl Van Vechten, and its counterpart, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1948 Seraph on the Suwanee.
While both novels endeavored to “start Harlem thinking” (“Novel About Harlem” 2), inherently interrogating that very notion that Fauset gave voice to years before, the former received widespread criticism for the issues it raised regarding representation and cross-racial voicing. Because of this, through Nigger Heaven, Van Vechten’s “name became synonymous with white exploitation of black culture” and the cult of primitivism—“an association [that] still holds today—that is, when he is remembered in connection with the Harlem Renaissance at all” (Bernard, Introduction xv). This, however, is too simplistic of a critique. Unlike other works by white authors that attempted to feed the insatiable hunger for Black American life by solely depicting the hyper-sexualization of Harlem or foregrounding that jazz and cabaret culture that heavily attracted droves of whites, in Nigger Heaven, Van Vechten offers a more expansive scope, peering into the plight of the Black intellectual and offering insight into the ways in which such cross-racial voicing may, in fact, have been used to deepen inter-racial cultural understanding. This chapter will therefore explore this thread of Van Vechten's work and what we can learn from Harlem Renaissance texts that cross the ever-present color line.
edited by Christopher Varlack
"Crooning [the] Lullabies [of] Ghosts": Reclamation and Witness as Socio-Political Protest in the Short Fiction of Alice Walker
Critical Insights: Civil Rights Literature, Past and Present (Grey House/Salem, 2017)
In her novels and short fiction, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker often catalogues the untold stories of Black men and women once silent or silenced. For instance, in her essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Walker notes that the same heroic women who guided the black community through centuries of discrimination and cultural oppression still “dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion—and saw visions no one could understand” (421). Far from silent, despite living in a society that discouraged not only their education but also the free exercise of their voices in public space, these women were at the frontier of a burgeoning artistic and cultural tradition: Black women breaking their forced silence in seemingly unconventional ways as simplistic as tending a garden, writing a poem, or making a patchwork quilt. These same women, according to Walker, had “wandered or sat about the countryside crooning lullabies to ghosts, and drawing the mother of Christ in charcoal on courthouse walls” (421), just a small inkling of the individualized talents that Black women across the United States learned as vital forms of self-expression aimed at preserving their stories and combating their cultural erasure.
Throughout her short fiction and autobiographical works, Alice Walker has thus engaged in a lifelong quest to find her mother’s and grandmother’s neglected “gardens,” tracing the rich histories of artistic and creative expression pursued by Black women in a discriminatory society virtually unwilling to ever truly “acknowledge them, except as ‘the mule[s] of the world’” (“In Search” 421). Her works attempt to bear forth that necessary obligation central within African-American literature—an obligation to share the stories once untold, to speak for those rendered voiceless, and to search for the voice buried deep inside—just a faint whisper of that late night croon, that bedtime lullaby to ancient and familial ghosts. This chapter examines those stories in which Walker actively sought to reclaim the tales of Black men and women that would otherwise be stifled within them, suggesting that these works are in fact a valuable form of social and political protest, asserting the value of Black lives and, in particular, the value of Black women as orators, activists, and the keepers of tales. Through her work, after all, we can see the ways in which Black women historically “fight on for freedom of all people” (Walker, “Staying” 880) all while refusing to ask permission to speak.
edited by Christopher Varlack
Towards a Trans-Atlantic Approach: Tracing the Modernist Psychodrama and Wasteland Critique in the Poetry of the Political Imagination
Writing the Harlem Renaissance: Revisiting the Vision (Lexington, 2017)
Seeking to excavate the African-American voice too long buried behind the stereotypical depictions of the minstrel past, authors such as Langston Hughes began a critical process of "unmasking" and unsilencing—highlighting the history of pain experienced by the Black community in the United States. Similarly, an ocean away, written works such as Robert Walser’s “Response to a Request” or Samuel Beckett’s “Breath” would seem to define and embrace an essentially modernist critique, challenging the psycho-social trend of self-illusionment through which much of European society, in its attempt to maintain bourgeois ideals, refuses to acknowledge the “disillusioned, harsh, and stark picture of the world" (Esslin, Absurd Drama). Though parallel in their social and cultural endeavors, for far too long these artistic waves have been separated in literary discourse and criticism. In Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, Baker’s critical argument suffers, as he acknowledges, from “leaving Continental modernism out of account" (xvi). Contemporary criticism cannot further enable this pivotal mistake. By examining the intersections in the intellectual projects of both European modernism and the Harlem Renaissance tradition, we can better understand the ideological principles at work trans-atlantically in spite of traditional borders that have hindered comparative review. Through such comparative analysis, we can also gain a deeper insight into how these works strive to unmask, responding to a sense of disillusionment and isolation, by presenting an alternative portrait of European and American societies—one that anticipates and later acknowledges the void of values present in the pre-war, post-war, and post-slavery worlds, while also liberating audiences from the ignorance and complacency that initially created this concern.
To purchase this volume, please visit https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739196816/Writing-the-Harlem-Renaissance-Revisiting-the-Vision.
edited by Emily Allen Williams
"Never...Let Color Interfere":
The Insurgent Black Intellectual Writing of Jessie Redmon Fauset
Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History (Praeger, 2017)
From 1919 to 1926, Jessie Redmon Fauset, once an undervalued figure like many women in the body of criticism regarding the Harlem Renaissance, served as literary editor of the Crisis magazine at the height of the era’s creative outpouring. Originally titled, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, it sought to promote a platform of socio-political reform and racial equality in an American society largely dictated by white privilege and racialized norms. Its editors, then, openly “challenged the equation of American culture with white American culture" (Hutchinson 146) while promoting works of younger Black artists and thinkers who would forever shape the African-American literary tradition at large. During Fauset’s tenure as literary editor, the Crisis arguably reached its greatest artistic success, helping to promote the works of the era’s rising literary lights, from Langston Hughes to Claude McKay—figures who would ignite a new wave of inquiry into what constitutes Black art, deviating from the New Negro envisioned by the W.E.B. Du Boises and Alain Lockes before them to create instead a new New Negro unashamed of his dark-skinned self (Hughes 95). In ushering in this new dawn, Fauset fulfilled the role, as Hughes appropriately described in his 1940 memoir, as the literary midwife of the era. Her work helped challenge the romanticized image of the Black community far too long cemented in the American cultural imagination—one of happy darkies and contented slaves—and replaced it instead with images of a powerful and active Black community, celebrating itself while at the precipice of much needed socio-cultural change.
Despite her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and the movement toward racial uplift championed by thinkers like Du Bois, Fauset remained for a time in relative obscurity like other key black women writers of the era—figures such as Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston whose works have since cemented their places in the canon of African-American and American literature at large. As Cheryl A. Wall notes, while “Jessie Fauset became one of the most prolific writers of the Renaissance, male or female,” after the period of cultural rebirth that supposedly concluded with the March riots and the economic downturn of the Great Depression, “[s]he is now among the least respected" (36) and her role as an intellectual is too often ignored. Gary Totten reinforces this claim in African American Travel Narratives from Abroad. Here he acknowledges that “Fauset has been characterized as a member of the Harlem Renaissance’s ‘rear guard’ of conventional, ‘imitative’ writers who avoided innovative form and content in order to court white critical approval" (77). Though flawed, these views are important in revealing the longstanding misperceptions that have kept Fauset an overlooked figure. Because the works of Black women writers were once seen as merely imitative and not innovative, they remained isolated from the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Only later, after resurgent interest in the era and concerted efforts to reclaim the lesser known works of the time was Fauset granted renewed status as an intellectual and leader herself. This chapter therefore aims to explore the insurgent Black intellectual writing that Fauset produced herself in There is Confusion, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, and Comedy: American Style as we work to trace her role in the Harlem Renaissance beyond that all-important role as literary midwife.
To purchase this volume, please visit https://www.abc-clio.com/Praeger/product.aspx?pc=A4678C.