Friday, October 16, 2009

Harlem Renaissance: Recommended Reading

In my recent lecture on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance I presented an outline of the particular aesthetic and style of several representative works of this genre. Doing my research for the talk, I discovered two very interesting books that challenged my view of the scope and meaning of the Harlem Renaissance. These two books showed how the Harlem Renaissance was an American phenomenon that reflected life of African Americans as part of the larger movements of thought in American life at that time.

In his new book, "The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White," George Hutchinson explores the connection between artistic modernism in America and the various racial movements of self-expression that flourished in the new cultural environment of modernism. Hutchinson places the Harlem Renaissance in the context of the larger movements of American intellectual life demonstrating that the Harlem Renaissance was a very American cultural current even as it looked back to Africa. The author traces the intellectual genealogy of the major Harlem Renaissance back to the founders of modern thought in different fields such as the Anthropology of the primitive in the work of Boas, the philosophy of experience in John Dewey, and the social thought of the American Pragmatists. He demonstrates through his argument that the Harlem Renaissance was a reflection on African American identity set within a larger cultural landscape of a diverse America.

Another study that illuminates the Harlem Renaissance is "Voices from the Harlem Renaissance" by Nathan Huggins. This book is an anthology of the best poetry, fiction, essays of the Harlem Renaissance. The best feature of this collection is how the authors and artists of the Renaissance comment on their own purposes and motivations in composing their work. For example, Langston Hughes in his essay “The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain” examines what role the African- American writer and artists should take with regard to his own history and his obligation to contribute to the life of his people. The topics covered in this book include: “negro racialism”, the “Afro-American past”, “art or propaganda”, and “reflections on the Harlem Renaissance for a new day.” This book gives one the full scope of the work of the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance through giving a rapid tour of the different forms of expression.

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