Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Langston Hughes: American Poet

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was one of the most beloved and celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his many contributions, Hughes helped to "define the spirit of the age" by underscoring the connections among multiple expressive forms--namely poetry's kinship to jazz--of the era. As our text explains, Hughes's autobiography, The Big Sea offers a rare, first-hand account of the scenes, sights, and happenings of one of the most important eras in African American literary--and cultural--history (Gates et al. 1289). Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes hailed from an illustrious family line: as Gates points out, Hughes was the grandson of a prominent Kansas politician; and his brother, John Mercer Langston, was, among other things, "founding dean of the law school" at Howard. Despite his auspicious family tree, Langston grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, in virtual poverty.

In the years that followed, Hughes worked a number of odd jobs that included delivery boy, produce farmer, busboy, and crewman on a merchant steamer--a job that enabled him to visit much of Europe and Africa. Throughout all of his various posts, Hughes continued to polish his poetry, and in 1921, published his first, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," in The Crisis. Later, his jazz-inspired poem, "The Weary Blues," won first prize in Opportunity magazine's literary contest. Hughes looked to a number of poetic sources as inspiration, from Carl Sandburg and Claude McKay, to James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois. Mostly, Hughes discovered his creative influence to be the radical and experimental forms of jazz and blues.

As you read Hughes' poems, keep in mind some of the major themes the poet engaged. These include: Poems that expressed the diversity of African American experiences The role of art in everyday life and experience Artistic expression as African American 'salvation' The mission of the black artist at the beginning of the 20th century* Black urban folk wisdom *Keep these things in mind when reading his essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"--the essay that Hughes wrote in response to George Schuyler's "Negro Art Hoakum." How does Hughes define the African American poet, his work, and his purpose? What, according to Hughes, is the duty of the 'young Negro artist'?


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Charles W. Chesnutt: Cross-Section of Traditions

*image from

Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932) was born in Cleveland, Ohio to freed persons of color, Anna Maria Samson and Andrew Chesnutt, a grocer and businessman. By the time he was nine, Chesnutt's family moved him to Fayateville, North Carolina, where the young boy was confronted with the racial divisions and worsening economy of the South. As he grew older into his teens, he became the vice-superintendent of the normal (teachers') school at Fayateville. He married his wife, Susan Perry in 1878 and moved North to escape the poverty and racism he encountered in Fayateville. With a law degree in hand, Chesnutt supported his family by working as a court stenographer while harboring ambitions of becoming a writer.

His first short story to be published, "The Goophered Grapevine" was published in the national magazine The Atlantic Monthly in 1887, and in 1899, this and several other short stories appeared in a collection, The Conjure Woman. Concurrent with the time in which Chesnutt was most productive, the nation was witnessing the turmoil of the post-Reconstruction era. The turn of the 20th century saw numerous social and political movements that helped to shape the character of the literature of its time. The first World War gave rise to a growing sense of global nationalism, while locally, racial tension intensified with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan--a violent terrorist organization stirred to action with the arrival of D.W. Griffith's notorious propaganda film, Birth of a Nation.

This film, which was based on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, propagated racial stereotyping as part of its violent and nationalistic agenda. The familiar hoods, which were worn as much to obscure the wearer's identity as to frighten and intimidate its victims were borne out of the assumptions among whites of African American 'superstition.'

Meanwhile, many of Chesnutt's white contemporaries, such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris wrote elegiac narratives that romanticized the plantation society of the Old South. This genre of popular literature, sardonically referred to as "Moonlight and Magnolias," often cast the social hierarchy of paternalist slavery as the "ideal society," while configuring the white male as a heroic figure, the Ole Miss as a long-suffering pillar of female virtue, and the house servants as beloved family retainers, devoted to the care and comfort of their white masters. Writers like Page, et al., popularized images of the benevolent servants whom he referred to as "Old Time Negros," and promulgated the idea that their otherwise 'savage' natures had been softened by the civilizing force of plantation slavery.

*An illustration from Mars Chan and Other Stories by Thomas Nelson Page. From the website

The rise of the so-called "New Negro"--an assertive black intellectual, was frequently recast as a rapacious predator of white woman's virtue in the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page, particularly, and most notably in The Clansman.

Doubtless, Chesnutt's short stories, such as "The Goophered Grapevine" suggests a sardonic critique of the racist stereotypes propagated by writers like Page. Joel Chandler Harris, who popularized such stories as "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story," that featured a kindly elder slave called "Uncle Remus," advocated such stereotyping in his own right.

By focusing more analytically on questions of race construction and hierarchy in the U.S., Chesnutt's fiction critiqued white assumptions concerning blacks in the Reconstruction South. Uncle Julius McAdoo, for instance, presents a rival to Harris' Uncle Remus as the devoted servant bound to the plantation and the master's legacy.

Though similar in style and to some extent in content to Page's fiction, Chesnutt's short stories view life and race in the South through the lens of both white and black characters in the postbellum era. "The Goophered Grapevine" ('goopher,' another word for 'conjure'), engages the questions concerning heritage, tradition, and legacy. This short story in particular, responds to assumptions that blacks in the South had no heritage--and what heritage they had if any--was based primarily on folk superstition. 

As we read and discuss Chesnutt's short story, how does Uncle Julius McAdoo represent a figure that combats the popular racist stereotypes of the time? Does he?

Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance (1865-1919)

The Reconstruction 'decade' as it was called, lasted from approximately 1865 until 1877: the 'official' end of this period was marked by the removal of Union troops from the South. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 created the Freedman's Bureau, which opened schools and set up cooperatives to help newly freed African Americans make a successful adjustment to freedom and citizenship This era saw the rise of the first Historically Black Colleges such as Fisk, Howard, Talladega, Tuskegee, Morehouse, Atlanta, and Hampton (544).

Three important laws were passed in the early years of Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment made slavery illegal; the Fourteenth Amendment extended the government's protection to African Americans; the Fifteenth Amendment extended the vote to black men. The latter, as our text points out, caused a rift among progressive organizers, particularly feminists. Government preferred to give the vote to black men only (and usually only those who owned property), which eroded the support for equality for blacks formerly extended by the suffrage movement (545). While many laws were created to enfranchise blacks, this period in history saw the re-emergence of slavery in a different guise: while many black southerners fled their homes during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, those who stayed behind were still working in de facto servitude for their former owners. The sharecropping system ensured this return of effective slavery, and Jim Crow laws made racial segregation the law of the land. 

Meanwhile, the formerly progressive organizations that supported abolition were divided on the issue of full enfranchisement of free African Americans, and "the antislavery societies, by and large, had been segregated" (544). As the social reformers of the time turned their focus from equal rights to other social issues (such as prohibition and suffrage for women), the nation also turned its attention from the issues of the war and reconstruction to pacifism and nostalgia. Writers such as Thomas Nelson Page, a native Virginian, became popular for writing romantic elegies about the "Old South." In collections such as Marse Chan and Other Stories, the author painted scenes of happy slaves in the fields tilling cotton, while the Master and his family enjoyed the prosperity of the day. This era of "Moonlight and Magnolias" prized a wistful glance at a mythology of the South as a 'perfect civilization.' Other writers such as journalist Joel Chandler Harris, presented his own renderings of black dialect and folk tale in his collections on Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.

Thomas Nelson Page (google images)
Joel Chandler Harris (Google images)

Concurrent with this reverie was a more sinister and venomous movement on the horizon. Page's nostalgic writings alternated with political essays in which he denounced the rise of the "New Negro": a term he coined to describe a generation of freed blacks who rightly demanded rights on par with those of other Americans. However, the term as used among black intellectuals referred to the rising generation of self-made, autonomous blacks who had achieved success in multiple professions, despite the agitation of the white power structure in place. Violence toward blacks was on the rise as whites felt threatened by the integration of former bondsmen into society, and lynchings occurred on a record basis in the years following Reconstruction. As a response, the black community had a spokeswoman: Ida B. Wells Barnett, a diminutive former schoolteacher turned journalist, exposed the radical ironies and cruelties surrounding racial violence in the South in her publication, A Red Record

Wells moved to the North to stay with her friend Frances E.W. Harper when her Memphis office was vandalized following the publication of Red Record. However, the impact of her publication and the bravery she exemplified are of considerable historical significance. 

What is important to keep in mind concerning these years was that this was a time of radical social, political, and economic change. The nation was becoming more mobile, more industrialized, and the physical landscape of the nation was changing. In the major cities of the U.S., such as Harlem, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, African Americans were developing new ways of self-expression. Along with these new modes of expression, blacks were exploring ways to define their collective experience while asserting their individual personalities and voices. Intellects such as W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke, and educators like Booker T. Washington, were discovering differing--often contradictory--ways in which African Americans could establish themselves in the literary and academic worlds while battling discrimination and prejudice.