African American Women's Short Stories in the Harlem Renaissance: Bridging a Tradition

By Musser, Judith | MELUS, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

African American Women's Short Stories in the Harlem Renaissance: Bridging a Tradition


Musser, Judith, MELUS


The two major magazines with the longest publication history and the largest readership in which African American women published their works during the Harlem Renaissance were The Crisis and Opportunity.(1) The key difference between these two was determined by the agenda of the organizations which supported each magazine. The Crisis, founded and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois from 1910 to 1935, was an organ of the NAACP. The goals of The Crisis were two-fold. Its first aim was to inform and educate both African American and white readerships on issues concerning social, economic, and racial justice for Negroes. Its second purpose was to publicize and encourage the growth of African American culture, both in art and education. Opportunity began its publication thirteen years after The Crisis. The epigraph for Opportunity is an edited version of Galatians 6:10--"As we have therefore opportunity let us do good unto all men ..."--and, as its title indicates, the magazine was more positive in its content than The Crisis. It reflected the National Urban League's doctrines of self-help and support. The magazine also differed from The Crisis because of its strong emphasis on supporting the arts. It published literary works in various genres, including poetry, sketches, short stories, plays and essays. Poetry submissions were the most frequent and regular of the literary examples with one to three poems appearing in each monthly edition. Short stories were the second most frequent genre represented. At least one short story appeared in every issue after its first eleven issues.

To one who reads the 135(2) stories published by African American women in The Crisis and Opportunity, it becomes immediately clear that the Harlem Renaissance was a period in which diversity flourished. But more importantly is the fact that women short story writers responded to the call to create literature that would ennoble the African American.(3) Their response, however, may not have been what the framers and leaders of the intelligentsia had wanted or expected. As a result, scholars have tended to ignore women who wrote short stories during the Harlem Renaissance and thus have misrepresented the era. By refocusing on these stories, we come to a broader perspective on the values this era represented. In addition, these women's short stories also provide a link in the long and rich tradition of African American women's writing.

Then and in succeeding years, their works were rarely anthologized and are scarcely studied by scholars of the Renaissance era.(4) In fact, scholarship which addresses the short stories written by either men or women during the Harlem Renaissance is surprisingly limited--there are only two books, and no articles, which focus solely on the short stories as a group. These books practically ignore the stories written by women. Margaret Perry's 1976 survey of all the literature written during the Harlem Renaissance discusses the works of twenty-three male writers and only eight female writers. Three-fourths of her chapter on short stories is devoted to the works of Rudolph Fisher, John Matheus, Cecil Blue, Arthur Huff Fauset and Claude McKay. The two women writers mentioned in this chapter (Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West) are included in order to demonstrate Perry's belief that, in the hands of women, the short story was immature and overly sentimental. Perry also suggests that Hurston should really not be included in the literary canon of the Harlem Renaissance because the bulk of her work appeared after the "true time of the Harlem Renaissance" a period that, according to Perry, "begins in 1919, reaches its peak in the years 1925 to 1928, and tapers off in 1932" (15).(5) Thus Perry excludes one of the most widely recognized woman writer of the period because all of her novels were written between 1934 and 1948. Likewise, she excludes most of the short fiction written by African American women which appeared in Opportunity after 1929.

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