The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance


The period between 1880 and 1918, at the end of which Jim Crow was firmly established and the Great Migration of African Americans was well under way, was not the nadir for black culture, James Smethurst reveals, but instead a time of profound response from African American intellectuals. The African American Roots of Modernism explores how the Jim Crow system triggered significant artistic and intellectual responses from African American writers, deeply marking the beginnings of literary modernism and, ultimately, notions of American modernity.
In identifying the Jim Crow period with the coming of modernity, Smethurst upsets the customary assessment of the Harlem Renaissance as the first nationally significant black arts movement, showing how artists reacted to Jim Crow with migration narratives, poetry about the black experience, black performance of popular culture forms, and more. Smethurst introduces a whole cast of characters, including understudied figures such as William Stanley Braithwaite and Fenton Johnson, and more familiar authors such as Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and James Weldon Johnson. By considering the legacy of writers and artists active between the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, Smethurst illuminates their influence on the black and white U.S. modernists who followed.


“There are great questions in my mind regarding
the forms of poetry,” continued Mr. Dunbar. “Do you think
it is possible now to invent a new form? Have the old ones
completely exhausted the possible supply?”
— “Interview with Paul Laurence Dunbar,”
in Paul Laurence Dunbar, In His Own Voice

Where shall we look for standard English, but to the words of
a standard man? The word which is best said came nearest to
not being spoken at all, for it is cousin to a deed which the speaker
could have better done. Nay, almost it must have taken the place
of a deed by some urgent necessity, even by some misfortune, so
that the truest writer will be some captive knight, after all.
— Henry David Thoreau,
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that
not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus
to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it had
also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
—Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

There is still a general feeling that something happened in the expressive art of the United States in the early twentieth century that was different from what went before, something that we might call modernism, something that responded to U. S. modernity, often disparagingly. Following in the footsteps of such able critics and cultural historians as Michael North, Aldon Nielsen, Lorenzo Thomas, Ann Douglas, Laura Doyle, Dickson Bruce, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Geoffrey Jacques, I am concerned here with the development of a modern African American literature and the interconnected impact of African American literary artists and intellectuals on the understanding . . .

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