Harlem Renaissance

African American Literature

Langston Hughes (1902-67, photograph)

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-)
background: born in Chicago
first African-American to receive Pulitzer Prize in poetry ('49)
style: incorporated idioms of jazz and street slang from Chicago streets
focuses on African-American women
"We Real Cool" (themes)

Richard Wright (1908-60)
background: He had very little education as he was shuffled around various family members' homes and cities. When he was 17, he ran away from home (Natchez, MS), and first landed in Memphis (Bone 7), living in an orphanage (Kinnamon 32).
Hearing about the outrage that whites expressed about the writings of H. L. Mencken, he wanted to read Mencken for himself. Since he couldn't check books out of the public library, he forged a note from a white man saying "Will you please let this nigger boy have some books..."
Mencken opened the doors to mocking authority
moved onto Chicago (1927-37), where he eventually work on the Federal Writers Project
joined the Communist Party (1932) and worked on its publications
provided him his literary apprenticeship
he wrote some novellas on the encouragement of fellow Black Communists, which won first prize in competition of WPA authors (published under the title Uncle Tom's Children)
moved to NYC (1937-47)
expatriate in Paris (Kinnamon 31-32)
became friends with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
his acquaintance with existentialism ("man's terrible independence, existential agony, and social isolation") evident in his novel The Outsider
Addresses first-hand experience of the inhumanity of whites against blacks in his work; grew up in the south in the first generations after slavery (Bone 6-7)
"Ethics of Living Jim Crow" (essay, '37)
semi autobiographical, refers to "Jim Crow" laws
several passages republished in the novel Black Boy
"underscores white intimidation. It also describes some of the method through which white ascendency is maintained" (Brignano 12)
his influence
television programming

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68)
By the '50s, African-Americans began a systematic movement to achieve the equality promised in the Constitution
1954: school segregation banned
1955: non-violent Negro revolt began
King followed Gandhi's model
assassinated in Memphis, '68
civil rights
went to Birmingham to lead a non-violent march. The use of clubs, dogs, and fire hoses against non-violent marches illustrated the degree of violence and racism in the South (Miller 160). The demonstrators accepted jail sentences willingly as jail became a metaphor for their daily lives (Miller 160).
"Letter from the Birmingham Jail"
parallels St. Paul's letter to congregation during the early days of Christianity
includes the non-violent process developed by Gandhi
the letter was addressed to those white clergy who had criticized him for his methods and also published in several sources: Christian Century, Liberation, Christianity and Crisis, The Progressive, Ebony, New York Post, San Francisco Chronicle
served to convince blacks and whites alike of the value and power of nonviolent protest (Calloway 35)
direct action, in King's mind, provided the tension that paved the way to negotiation when negotiation was not forthcoming (Calloway 42)
non-violent tension was applied from Socrates, who believed that tension in the mind of students was necessary to shake off the bondage of myths and half-truths (Calloway 42)
audio clip from "I Have a Dream" (warning: it takes a while to download!)

Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-)
born in OK city of parents who left TN to seek the freedom of life in the Western states (O'Meally 7).
father was an avid reader who named his son after Emerson
he was raised to see all possibilities of the world within his reach
worked for the WPA during the Depression, writing about African-Americans in NYC and collecting folk/fairy tales (Busby 13)
awarded Medal of Freedom in '69
Invisible Man
Theme: freedom through self-consciousness. "The more conscious a person is of his personal, cultural, and natural history, the freer he becomes" (O'Meally 1). Ellison reacted naturalist tendencies of literature wherein people struggle against and lose the battle against environment, social forces, etc. which they could never have overcome. Influenced by Richard Wright and others, he focuses on the man or woman "who, by force of character and will, manage to endure" (O'Meally 1).
Style: shift from social realism to surrealism. His language expresses "the mad and variegated world as seen by his self-aware characters" in which he experiments "with symbolic forms generally unused by the writer of hard-fact realism.... Invisible Man...employ[s] modernist techniques--surrealism, multiple perspectives, stream of consciousness--to reveal a world tempestuous and out of focus"(O'Meally 1-2). Incorporates folklore, but not as a breezy fictional device, as Ellison believes that "folk art accounts...for the black American's self-awareness and endurance" (O'Meally 2).
On literature and politics. During the early part of his career, Ellison used his craft to address social problems with stinging, radical essays. By the end of the '40s, however, he came to the conclusion that "lasting art transcended political argumentation." This attitude was not well-received by many of his peers, who expected him to write the "party line" (O'Meally 2-3).
Ellison has said that being at the bottom of the social ladder has provided a paradoxical freedom for African-Americans, providing them the opportunity to experiment with new styles of expression, resulting in the fact that those art forms which are uniquely American stem from African-American artists (O'Meally 4).
compare with Sartre
Influences. A protege of Richard Wright, he guided and influenced such authors as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (O'Meally 5).
Sources: it is encyclopedic, as it draws from Greek classical writers (Sophocles, Homer) to 19th- and 20th-century minds (Dostoevsky, Bergson, Freud, Jung, Cliot, Joyce, Wright) as well as spirituals, blues, minstrel jokes and personal experiences (O'Meally 78).
Transforms folklore: "who killed cock robin" becomes "they picked poor robin clean" and "three blind mice" appears in a political speech. Also references to Brier Rabbit stories. (O'Meally 78-79)
Images. Ellison: "the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility to visibility. He leaves the South and goes North; this, as you will notice in reading Negro folktales, is always the road to freedom--the movement upward. You have the same thing again when he leaves his underground cave for the open" (qted O'Meally 80).
paradoxes (O'Meally 80)
playing off the blackness=evil; whiteness=good
The Invisible Man finds his enlightenment as he finds his blackness
his movement upward is a plunge into a dark manhole
influence of blues
novel begins and ends with references to Louis Armstrong's blues
smacks of improvisation, flexibility: "Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where times stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music" (qted O'Meally 85)

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