Spoofing the Modern: Satire in the Harlem Renaissance

Spoofing the Modern: Satire in the Harlem Renaissance

Spoofing the Modern: Satire in the Harlem Renaissance

Spoofing the Modern: Satire in the Harlem Renaissance

Synopsis

Spoofing the Modern is the first book devoted solely to studying the role satire played in the movement known as the "New Negro," or Harlem, Renaissance from 1919 to 1940. As the first era in which African American writers and artists enjoyed frequent access to and publicity from major New York-based presses, the Harlem Renaissance helped the talents, concerns, and criticisms of African Americans to reach a wider audience in the 1920s and 1930s. These writers and artists joined a growing chorus of modernity that frequently resonated in the caustic timbre of biting satire and parody.
The Harlem Renaissance was simultaneously the first major African American literary movement of the twentieth century and the first major blooming of satire by African Americans. Such authors as folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, poet Langston Hughes, journalist George S. Schuyler, writer-editor-poet Wallace Thurman, physician Rudolph Fisher, and artist Richard Bruce Nugent found satire an attractive means to criticize not only American racism, but also the trials of American culture careening toward modernity. Frequently, they directed their satiric barbs toward each other, lampooning the painful processes through which African American artists struggled with modernity, often defined by fads and superficial understandings of culture.
Dickson-Carr argues that these satirists provided the Harlem Renaissance with much of its most incisive cultural criticism. The book opens by analyzing the historical, political, and cultural circumstances that allowed for the "New Negro" in general and African American satire in particular to flourish in the 1920s. Each subsequent chapter then introduces the major satirists within the larger movement by placing each author's career in a broader cultural context, including those authors who shared similar views. Spoofing the Modern concludes with an overview that demonstrates how Harlem Renaissance authors influenced later cultural and literary movements.

Excerpt

African America of the “New Negro” Renaissance era—from the 1910s through the 1930s—and Harlem in particular were ready for satire. the period’s circumstances primed black communities for the sharp wit and wry comfort of the satirist’s perspective like no other in their collective history to date. the horrors of chattel slavery in the United States required the enslaved to use humor and indirection to cope with the unspeakable. Those who gained their freedom had a greater degree of license, however slight, to express their thoughts, often with the aid of abolitionists and through that movement’s lens. Activists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, David Walker, and Sojourner Truth relied upon parody, irony, and sarcasm to construct their narratives, essays, pamphlets, and addresses against slavery and in favor of women’s rights. the myriad of triumphs and setbacks African Americans alternately enjoyed and endured from the beginning of Reconstruction, though, might not have seemed the best material for satire. Between the steady development of black disfranchisement; neo-slavery in the forms of peonage, chain gangs, sharecropping, and tenant farming; and the terrorism of lynching through bloodthirsty mobs and such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and the Regulators, it seemed that African Americans had scant sources for satire. Whether they did or not, they certainly lacked a critical mass of authors that could have developed the genre.

This is not to say that American writers, broadly speaking, did not attempt satire involving African American characters; quite the contrary. Mark Twain’s greatest works—Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson most prominently among them—challenged the nation’s smugness with regard to its opinion of its black denizens, albeit by drawing upon common stereotypes about and images of African Americans that became popular in postbellum America. African Americans figured prominently in the editorial cartoons of Thomas Nast and in Ambrose Bierce’s essays, articles, and stories, but often as the objects of ridicule, or as devices allowing the creator to satirize one of the major political parties. While the nation’s . . .

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