The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946

By James Edward Smethurst | Go to book overview

7
The Popular Front, World War II, and the Rise of Neomodernism in African-American Poetry of the 1940s

Despite the obvious differences between the "popular" neomodernism exemplified by the work of Hughes in the 1940s and the "high" neomodernism of which Brooks was the leading exponent, both neomodernist tendencies had in common an urban and largely northern landscape in which the ghetto, rather than the plantation or tenant farm, increasingly became the locus of authentic African-American culture. African-American communities in the North, notably Harlem and the South Side of Chicago, were seen not as either a "refuge" or as a place of alienation where the urculture of the rural immigrant is distorted or destroyed, but instead as "home" (as Amiri Baraka was to later title a collection of essays describing his intellectual journey to cultural nationalism mirroring his physical journey from the Lower East Side to Harlem). If life in the ghettos of the North and West was depicted as alienating, it was an alienation that was seen increasingly as typical of African-American life in the United States. 1

There were, of course, certain empirical pressures for such a redefinition of "home," the most important being that by the 1940s African Americans in the cities outnumbered those in the country for the first time in U.S. history. By the end of the decade, 62 percent of the African-American population was urbanized. 2 In the 1940s, changes in agricultural technology greatly reduced sharecropping. At the same time, the new demand for labor by the war industries and the relatively egalitarian policies of the CIO unions, particularly those led by the Communist Left, vastly increased the number and status of African-American industrial workers. 3

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