The Harlem and Irish Renaissances: Language, Identity, and Representation

The Harlem and Irish Renaissances: Language, Identity, and Representation

The Harlem and Irish Renaissances: Language, Identity, and Representation

The Harlem and Irish Renaissances: Language, Identity, and Representation


Drawing fascinating comparisons between two literary movements for social justice, Tracy Mishkin explores the link between the Irish Renaissance that began in the 1880s and the African-American movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Starting with evidence that Ireland's Abbey Theatre tours of the United States before World War I influenced such African-Americans as Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson, Mishkin offers the first full-scale discussion of the historical similarities and differences of the two movements. Both rose from the ashes of history -- from people suffering years of oppression during which their native languages were lost or stolen -- to confront issues of language and identity; and both had to combat negative mainstream representation of their people, all the while debating how to create their own literature. Included throughout is the work of women who participated in both movements but who often have been marginalized in their histories.

Going beyond national boundaries, Mishkin takes the study of interracial literary influence across the Atlantic and establishes important parallels between the Harlem and Irish Renaisances.


When in liner notes to a recent CD the contemporary African-American folk-rock singer Laura Love describes her music as "Afro-Celt," or when in an interview the Irish singer Bono cites blues and gospel music among the primary influences on the sound of his rock band U2, they engage in crosscultural constructions that have existed for at least two centuries between those two groups. Explored by Tracy Mishkin in this splendid new study, such connections or "crossings" belong to a new wave of scholarship in the 1990s, which blurs the lines of race and ethnicity that scholarship of the previous two decades tended to keep distinct. The new work takes its cue from theoretical contributions by Homi Bhabha, Cornel West, Werner Sollors, and Henry Louis Gates, among others. It includes recent studies like Susan Gubar Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture and Linda Browder Ethnic Performance and American Identities, along with recent collections like Elaine Ginsberg's Passing and the Fictions of Identity and Mishkin own Literary Influence and African-American Writers. Far from heralding a return to a less complicated past, the new scholarship instead strives to recomplicate crucial issues in the production of both literature and identity that have a particular pertinence not only to literary study but to some of the most crucial and contested social debates of our day.

Whether welcoming, anxious, or somewhere in between, the new studies suggest in various ways that much art is socially liminal, created often at the intersection of two or more different cultures. Models of purity and separatism of ethnic identity seem less satisfactory than those based on cultural interaction. Yet it would be easy but misleading to compile a list of, say, great African-American writers of the past century . . .

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