New Negro Novels: Fiction of Harlem Renaissance Writers
The Harlem Renaissance had started long before December 1925, when the New York publishing house of Boni and Liveright published the The New Negro: An Interpretation anthology. A huge party had been organized in March 1924, bringing together black writers and white supporters, publishers and critics in the Civic Club. The festivity had been occasioned by the publication of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s first novel and had resulted in the release of a March 1925 issue of the periodical magazine Survey Graphic under the title Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro. But it was the 1925 book edition with numerous literary and political contributions, compiled by the famous Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954) and illustrated by the painter Aaron Douglas (1899- 1979), that gave a boost to the talented novelists of the Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem had evolved into a buzzing centre of Afro-American culture and art at the beginning of the 20th century. Racism, segregation and discrimination in the agricultural South of the United States had driven hundred thousands of Afro-Americans into the industrial cities of the North. Additionally, the First World War had led to a tremendous labour shortage that could only be balanced by intense migration, education and employment of black farm workers. Just like other American cities at the time, New York saw the development of an urban district with a predominantly black population. Located in the northern part of Manhattan, Harlem had almost two hundred thousand inhabitants in 1925 and covered an area of more than two square miles. This busy quarter not only supplied the entire infrastructure of modern city life but also provided the human capital and institutional resources of the New Negro Movement.
Middle-class intellectuals in Harlem were the major proponents of the New Negro Movement. The leaders of such well-known organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) und der National Urban League demanded the recognition of Afro-Americans and their accomplishments and advocated equal treatment and non-discrimination in the United States. As editors of the The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races and Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life magazines, the philosopher William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) and the social scientist Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893-1956) campaigned for more self-esteem, more self-confidence and more self-determination among blacks. They often linked their political commitment with artistic concerns to substitute the false stereotypes of Afro-Americans used by whites with positive self-images in society. Their support was focused at young ambitious fiction writers even though jazz musicians, blues singers and musical dancers had more success at the time.
Novels of prominent NAACP members mark the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) was born into an affluent and educated family of ministers in Philadelphia. After she studied at Cornell University and the University of Philadelphia, she taught Latin and French at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. Later she moved to New York, where she was working as the literary editor of The Crisis between 1919 and 1926. Published in 1924, There is Confusion is a novel of manners that traces the development of three young blacks against the backdrop of the ethnic discrimination in early 20th-century New York and Philadelphia. The prejudices of the white majority are the reason why Joanna Marshall, daughter of a wealthy businessman, misses a career in singing and dancing, and her poor childhood friends, Peter Bye and Maggie Ellersley, fail in their personal and professional schemes of life. The social criticism expressed in the novel is mitigated by the sentimental twists and turns of the plot.
Even the executive secretary and later long-time president of the NAACP made his contribution to novel writing. Walter Francis White (1893-1955) grew up in an influential Congregationalist family in Atlanta. Following his studies at Atlanta University he joined the Standard Life Insurance Company, one of the first companies founded and run by Afro-Americans in Atlanta. His fight against lynching in the South eventually led him to New York. In The Fire in the Flint of 1924 he dealt with the shocking effects of racist violence and oppression in the American South. The plot of his protest novel focuses on the young black doctor Kenneth Harper. After completing his medical studies in the North and returning from military action in the First World War he moves back to Georgia to open a doctor’s office in his backward home town of Center City. But he comes into conflict with white land owners as soon as he supports the black farm tenants in establishing a cooperative. Their struggle has a fatal ending when he is summoned to an emergency at night and falls into the hands of the Klu Klux Klan.
Among the most promising Harlem Renaissance authors was Claude McKay (1899-1948). The Jamaican-born writer was a short-term student of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State College. His move to New York brought him into contact not only with black labourers but also with leftist radicals. He was working as associate editor of the political magazine The Liberator before he left the United States for the Soviet Union. He had spent several years in Europe and Africa when his proletarian Home to Harlem was published in 1928. This urban novel recounts the zesty adventures of Jake Brown in a sympathetic tone. After he deserts the U.S. Army in Europe, he drifts back to Harlem where he struggle through life by doing odd jobs or living on his lovers. The episodic text is a skilful combination of scenes, figures and dialogues as commonly found in the day-to-day life of the black underclass. Although McKay’s innovative novel was the one and only commercial success of a black writer at the time, it was dismissed by most leaders of the New Negro Movement as too sensational.
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- Mag. Bernhard Wenzl (Author), 2016, New Negro Novels. Fiction of Harlem Renaissance Writers, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/314307