New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse

By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula | Go to book overview

Introduction

Harlem is a place—a city really—where almost anything any
person could think of to say goes on,… it must escape any
blank generalization simply because it is alive, and changing
each second with each breath any of its citizens take.

—“City of Harlem,” LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka]

THE EVOLUTION OF THE GEOGRAPHIC AND HISTORICAL HARLEM mirrors a kind of parallel unfolding in the literary criticism and theory of the renaissance associated with the Harlem name. Just as Harlem has developed from the seventeenth century Dutch Haarlem to the politically and economically favored locale of a former president and middle-class blacks and whites during the twenty-first century, so has the literary discourse changed over time from New Criticism to a plethora of discourses shaped by intersections of race, class, and gender; identity and sexuality; and theories of empire, rhetoric, and pedagogy.1 While its aim is to focus primarily on selected literary criticism rather than on the other arts of the Harlem Renaissance, this collection of essays offers what we believe is a nuanced response to the changes in the way literature is read: the discourse in these essays exemplifies a recasting of the past though a current critical lens. The volume’s title reflects the layered perspectives we offer. Race is an overarching perspective here, intersecting with analyses of gender, sexuality, class, and nationality. While race is used to implant its importance for Harlem Renaissance writers, it is also presented to interrogate interracial bigotry, color consciousness, and elitism. Diana Fuss constructs multiple positions of essentialism, suggesting that its variability or discursiveness allows for a pluralization of the word. Similarly, recognizing the debates over essentialism by such theorists as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Houston Baker, and Henry Louis Gates, these new literary voices nevertheless invoke multiple “race cards”—biological, psychological, pedagogical, sociological—as critical tools to interrogate Harlem Renaissance writers, who used race as a self

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