James Smethurst. The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance.
James Smethurst's The African American Roots of Modernism is an impressively thorough and provocative account of the impact of African American literature on modernism in the United States. While previous scholarship has addressed the importance of African American culture, and especially language and music, on the development of modernism, this book emphasizes the influence of African American writers on the understanding of modernity in the U. S. Smethurst identifies "the African American roots of modernism" with the establishment of the Jim Crow system of segregation, beginning with the "separate but equal" system of the South and continuing with the segregation of urban space throughout the U. S. African American artists and intellectuals who wrote between Reconstruction and the New Negro Renaissance not only conceptualized the "sort of fragmented subjectivity and urban alienation that became a hallmark of modernism in the United States," they also were "among the very first to imagine, represent, and promote a U. S. artistic bohemia linked to an 'American' new literature" that was distinctively interracial (215).
Although not as comprehensive as Smethurst's magnificent The Black Arts Movement (2005), The African American Roots of Modernism is perhaps more likely to transform perceptions of African American literary history. The chapters of this book are organized thematically, but they also follow a chronological trajectory of two "waves" of African American writers. The first group includes Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pauline Hopkins, Charles Chesnutt, and Booker T. Washington, who grew up after emancipation but became active as writers as Jim Crow superseded the ideals of Reconstruction in the 1890s. The second features James Weldon Johnson, Fenton Johnson, and William Stanley Braithwaite, whose early literary careers coincide with the extension of Jim Crow segregation in northern cities in the 1900s and 1910s.
The first chapter of The African American Roots of Modernism examines constructions of African American dualism that responded to the intensification of Jim Crow segregation by the turn of the century. This chapter incisively explains how concepts of dualism articulated in Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Washington's Up from Slavery, James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Chesnutt's conjure stories, and the poetry of Dunbar and Fenton Johnson not only respond specifically to the political and cultural questions of the Jim Crow U. S., but also have a lasting resonance in U. S. modernism. While Du Bois's concepts of "double consciousness" and "the veil" are the best-known figures for African American dualism, Smethurst emphasizes the dialogue about black subjectivity and culture in which they emerged, the dialogue compelled by the Jim Crow "dual status" of African Americans as "citizens and subcitizens" (63). He furthermore argues for the greater literary influence of Dunbar's concept of "the mask," which is comparable to the veil but is more assertive in showing "the act of concealment and its coerced motivation, underpinning militant and historically pointed social criticism" (34).
Dunbar's influence as a poet and novelist is paramount throughout The African American Roots of Modernism. His underappreciated importance is also evident in the second chapter, which documents how the trope of the black Civil War soldier evolved as a figure of "black modernity in which African American citizenship would be a key constituent of the new reconstructed nation" (19). With the development of the Jim Crow system, the figure of the black Civil War veteran becomes one of betrayal, of regret, of melancholy, or of "an existential validation of African American humanity adrift in the fogs of an American political limbo" (20), a figure comparable to subsequent African American literary portrayals of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam War veterans.
The next two chapters address the literary and cultural implications of the Jim Crow system in urban centers, especially Northern cities such as Chicago and New York. The chapter on the early migration narrative emphasizes how the "centrality of migration in black literature was significantly the result of a reconfiguration of the territory of race in the modern city of the Jim Crow era" (99). Earlier African American migration narratives, beginning with the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, sought genuine citizenship and a corresponding group elevation in the journey north, even if self-fulfillment was eventually identified with the "homeland" of the South in narratives such as Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy and Washington's Up from Slavery. With the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation and African American disenfranchisement, however, migration narratives such as Hopkins's Contending Forces, Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods, Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and subsequent Harlem Renaissance novels are defined by "failure, leading to permanent movement, or yo-yoing generally, between North and South, without any genuine resolution" (112). Like Dunbar's poetry, these migration narratives anticipate the alienation and fragmentation associated with modernism, with protagonists who are similarly defined by an "agonized, if sometimes delusional and unreliable, self-consciousness" (122).
While the chapters on African American dualisms and migration narratives are distinguished by their insightful reconsideration of mostly well known African American literary texts, the chapter on African American writers, bohemia, and the new poetry stands out for its detailed social and intellectual history of interracial bohemian urban districts such as Chicago's Towertown and New York's Greenwich Village. This chapter also makes a compelling case for the importance of Dunbar, Fenton Johnson, and Braithwaite as shapers of U. S. modernism. As Smethurst notes, there has been minimal study of the impact of Dunbar and the next generation of black writers on modern poetry, even though there was the expectation among "nascent black nationalists and radical black democrats (and some white critics) that the path toward full cultural and political citizenship for black Americans involved African American poetry becoming truly 'modern'" (22). At the same time, modern poetry (by white writers) was inspired by African American culture, and "the participation of black artists and intellectuals in new bohemian circles.., became a hallmark of a countercultural break with the mainstream" (22). This dialectical relationship would become more pronounced with the New Negro Renaissance, as many African American writers also saw themselves contributing more generally to an American cultural renaissance.
An important aspect of bohemian life in the U. S. was, of course, the challenge to normative understandings of gender and sexuality. The penultimate chapter on race, sexual freedom, and American literary modernism underscores the importance of African American women's participation in bohemian and modernist contexts, as it examines how the struggle for sexual freedom played an important role in defining bohemia and the avant-garde in the U. S. At the same time, the intensification of Jim Crow segregation coincided with a comparable approach to the boundaries of heterosexuality and homosexuality, as George Chauncey, Kevin Mumford, and Siobhan Somerville have explained. Smethurst discusses how African American writers such as Hopkins, Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson were among the earliest writers in the U. S. to question heteronormativity, whether implicitly or explicitly, as the association of transgressive interracial relationships with queerness and homosexuality became a definitive feature of bohemian life, most noticeably in the Harlem Renaissance, but also in modernist texts such as Gertrude Stein's Melanctha.
The African American Roots of Modernism concludes by suggesting more fully how African American writers between Reconstruction and the New Negro Renaissance influenced interwar modernism in the U. S. This impact was formally and thematically evident in modernist texts by black and white writers, as scholars such as Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Michael North, Michael Rogin, and Geoffrey Jacques have emphasized, but a preoccupation with racial identity was also a prevalent feature of American modernism. If the earlier dualism of black writers was adapted for modernist explorations of identity, these explorations were often motivated by racial anxiety about the whiteness of U. S. culture even while "ventriloquizing or impersonating black voices and bodies ... as a way of asserting an 'American' vanguard identity" (190). A more noticeable racial anxiety is evident in modernist "migration narratives" such as William Faulkner's A Light in August and E Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The conclusion also discusses the interaction of migration plots with the interracial space of bohemia in New Negro Renaissance narratives such as Jean Toomer's Cane, Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, Nelia Larsen's Quicksand, Rudolph Fisher's The Walls of Jericho, Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring, and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem and Banjo. While these narratives variously feature the "transgressive interracial and queer, if not gay, sexual pairings" associated with bohemia, these interracial bohemian sites are eventually depicted as "ultimately failing the black artist/intellectual" (201). The plots of these novels furthermore draw from early migration narratives, in which the protagonist is "doomed to the perpetual motion or sort of death in life" (201). This conclusion presents outstanding readings especially of representations of bohemia by Toomer and McKay. If Smethurst's claims seem overly qualified at times in earlier chapters, in deference to previous scholarship, there is no question in the conclusion about the implications of his research for rethinking U. S. and especially African American modernism. This thoroughly researched and inventive study successfully redefines the "African American roots of modernism." In doing so, it should provoke additional new scholarship on this crucial period of American and African American literary, intellectual, and cultural history.
Reviewed by John Lowney, St. John's University
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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