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Stacy I. Morgan. Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953.

Stacy I. Morgan. Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 19301953. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2004. 366 pp. $54.95 cloth/$24.95 paper.

Stacy I. Morgan's book Rethinking Social Realism could not have appeared at a better time. It is a reassessment, as the title suggests, and a reminder of the pertinence of culture and art in a people's struggle for social justice.

The book comes out at a time when a major American (and universal) ideal--respect for the humanity of others--is being severely challenged by the self-serving phenomena of intolerant nativism and rabid individualism. The first one is subsumed in a jingoistic war on terrorism, while the second is nurtured by an enervating domestic miasma of crass, and often vulgar, hip-hop consumerism. Their discourse is marked by a fervid, arrogant, and pros elytizing rhetoric; voicing dissent against these orthodoxies is anathema. Morgan's book is therefore a bracing reminder that it is good to reassess the past for society to be better for all of its members, especially the underprivileged.

Brilliantly set out in five key chapters and a conclusion that, in my view, is too brief (five pages out of over 300), Morgan's book takes the reader on a breathtaking journey into the works of diverse black artists, intellectuals, and writers who gave shape to a broad coalition and a loosely affiliated movement for social change. Social realism became the vanguard in the African American struggle for equality and racial justice in Depression-era America. It gave expression to black life and suffering in a society that, through willful amnesia, would rather forget about the plight of a significant portion of its members.

The author shows us that African American social realists of the 1930s self-defined and self-identified as a distinct, and a more politically conscious, black movement for social change, by distancing themselves from the Harlem Renaissance of a decade earlier. For example, social realists such as poet Margaret Walker and the prodigious Frank Marshall Davis, among others, regarded the renaissance as less ideologically pure and less committed to the black cause than to issues of art and aesthetics. That these artist-activists sought to define themselves apart from the Harlem Renaissance is simply an essential part of the human drama; and it is nothing new. This reinvent-the-wheel attitude is a conceit common to all great social and political movements. They feel the need to claim originality and difference vis-a-vis their forebears, perhaps to gain legitimacy. Indeed, the same tendency can be found in the diverse and regional strands of Marxism, the ideological exemplar for the social realists.

In chapter 4 of Rethinking Social Realism, Morgan deftly addresses this conceit by reiterating the influence and relevance of the Harlem Renaissance, even during the decades of Social Realism. The author makes it clear that the poetry of griots who included Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Sterling Brown crystallized the ideological project to recast "the identities of America's anonymous black masses away from the prevailing imagery of exoticism, romantic folkishness, and minstrel show buffoonery and toward a greater semblance of living, breathing, and proletarian human beings" (178). This ideology recalls the 1930's Negritude of Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor as a project to restore dignity and humanity to black peoples everywhere. Thus, Morgan astutely anticipates and preempts postcolonial scholars and Pan-Africanists who are certain to argue for the intellectual and cultural preeminence of the Harlem Renaissance and the inspiration it provided to other movements like Negritude in the global black struggle against colonization, economic exploitation, and racial discrimination. Furthermore, and in the same chapter, Morgan shows that Social Realism was liberal, leftist, proletariat, and Marxist in its ideological orientation, if not goals. It laid claim to broader, and a more inclusive, ideological outlook that transcended race or color lines--just like the Negritude inspired by the Harlem Renaissance.

The author skillfully blends 21 chronologically and historically pertinent illustrations of art (murals, drawings, paintings) with discussions of the literary production of the period, as well as the politics of key figures of social realism to generate a coherent and poignant narrative of pre-civil rights 20th-century black America in particular, and by extension, of working-class America. Art and literature give voice to the voiceless. In a segregated Jim Crow society where the majority of Social Realism's white artists, cultural purveyors, and intellectuals were for the most part morally complicit in the status quo, Morgan reminds us of the moral and ideological commitment and fervor of the black poets, artists, and intellectuals of Social Realism. Thus, the battle lines were clearly drawn.

As Morgan points out in chapter 3, the black activist-artists perceived their literary and artistic creations in moral terms and expressed their choices of themes and subjects in like manner: "Through much ... of their art from the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, African American social realists clearly opted to engage the social struggles they saw going on around them. Put simply, social realist artists struggled to redeem themselves from the seeming perils of ivory tower isolation and an exclusively upper-class system of patronage by forging work that was both about and for poor and working-class people" (107).

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Morgan's book lies in incontrovertibly reminding readers that, for the past several decades, American liberal and leftist political ethos have always been better allies for the African American cause than the conservative and right-wing ideologies of rugged individualism and unbridled free market capitalism. Marshaling material ranging from politics, sociology, art, and literature, the author has been able to clearly demonstrate that African American social realists' ideological project was inspired, and energized, in part by the leftist and liberal politics of the era. Morgan connects this effect to the burgeoning internationalist Marxist-socialist movement of the times and its intellectual influence on African American Social Realists. In a passage that is tellingly applicable even to today's realities, the author states: "By moving such phenomena as poverty and joblessness, racial violence, and legal injustices firmly into the scope of appropriate subject material, and by reconfiguring the notion of an artist's relationship to his or her audience, social realism gave rise to new ideologies regarding the kind of cultural work that visual art and literature could (and should) perform" (5).

Written in a clear, easy-to-follow style, the book is well researched, as is evident in the copious explicatory notes, at the end of the book, for each chapter. These are also accompanied by a sizeable bibliography that invites and suggests further work on this period of African American cultural and intellectual life. However, the conclusion to the book is too short and, thus, inadequate. This is a complaint, not a criticism. Morgan's focus could have been broadened by discussing the impact of African American social realism on Africa and the Black Diaspora, simply because black America provided the inspiration and leadership in the global black struggle for social, economic, and political rights during the period in question. Indeed subsequent successful decolonization of Africa can be traced, in no small measure, to black America's pioneering fight for social justice, whether through Social Realism or its precursor, the Harlem Renaissance.

Stacy Morgan has convincingly shown that black social realists of the era were collectively and effectively the racial memory (griots) through their paintings, poems, essays, and activism. His book is a veritable act of re-memorization; and it is germaneto the conversation about directions that 21St-century America is headed.

'BioDun J. Ogundayo

University of Pittsburgh, Bradford
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Author:Ogundayo, BioDun J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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