Mercy, Mercy Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties

By James C. Hall | Go to book overview

PREFACE

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the
way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up
at a moment of danger…

WALTER BENJAMIN

In the 1960s a diverse group of African-American artists and intellectuals forcefully asserted their vision of the limitations and restrictions of contemporary American life. Their concerns grew out of not only the fervor of the civil rights revolution, but also a sense that American culture was sterile, secular, and disturbingly immune to the tragic lessons of history. In response, these artists—sometimes individually, sometimes collectively—reflected openly about the effects of this modern America on their sense of self and community. This book explores the character of this antimodern sentiment and, further, its viability as an interpretive historical paradigm for understanding the shape and development of African-American culture in the “Second Black Renaissance.”

This project is different from attempts at retelling the story of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. While comprehensive institutional histories are necessary to our gaining a better understanding of African-American culture and the 1960s, it seems unlikely that there can ever be a satisfactory retelling that is as capacious as, say, David Levering Lewis's When Harlem Was in Vogue. The Second Black Renaissance—if that is the proper designation for the outpouring of African-American creativity in the 1960s—was an incredibly diffuse phenomenon both geographically and ideologically and may at bottom be fundamentally inchoate. On the other hand, certain folkloric conceptions as to the meaning of black creativity in the 1960s do seem to have become authoritative. Too often I hear students (and colleagues) confidently reflect either nostalgically or with a certain scorn about the character of African-American culture in the 1960s. This version of the 1960s—oft repeated in certain diagnoses of all that is supposedly wrong with American culture in the 1990s—too often lacks depth and distinction.

A reading of 1960s African-American cultural history through the lens of “antimodernism” (not anti-literary modernism, but, rather, a protest against

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