The advent of urban realism
Despite the enormous outpouring of creativity during the 1920s, the vogue of black writing, black art, and black culture waned markedly in the early 1930s as the Great Depression took hold in the United States. African American pundits in the 1930s and ’40s tended to depreciate the achievements of the New Negroes, calling instead for a more politically engaged, socially critical realism in literature.
The chief proponent of this position was Richard Wright, whose fiction, autobiography, and social commentary dominated African American literature from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. A migrant from Mississippi with barely a ninth-grade education, Wright set the tone for the post-New Negro era with Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a collection of novellas set in the Jim Crow South that evidenced Wright’s strong affinity with Marxism and the influence of American Naturalist writers such as Theodore Dreiser. In 1940 Wright’s monumental novelNative Son appeared, winning thunderous critical acclaim as well as unprecedented financial success. Charting the violent life and death of a Chicago ghetto youth, Native Son revived the protest tradition of 19th-century African American literature while eschewing its moralizing, sentimentality, and political conservatism. Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (1945) also revisited a 19th-century tradition, the slave narrative, to chronicle his quest, as much intellectual as physical, from an oppressive South to anticipated freedom in Chicago. After the critical and popular success of Black Boy in the mid-1940s, Wright moved to Paris, where he continued to publish fiction and travel books, though none matched the achievement of his work in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the stamp Wright placed on African American prose remained evident in the work of novelists such as William Attaway, Chester Himes, and Ann Petry, which has often been interpreted as belonging to “the Wright school” of social realism. Petry’s The Street (1946) adopted Wright’s pitiless assessment of the power of environment in the lives of black urban dwellers, but, unlike Wright, whose female characters generally exemplify demoralization and passivity, Petry created a female protagonist who fights back.
The Chicago Defender, one of the premier African American newspapers of the 20th century, portrayed the Windy City as a cultural and economic mecca for black migrants fleeing the South during the Great Depression. Wright, who moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Chicago in 1927, found in the South Side of Chicago a lively community of young African American writers, among them poet Margaret Walker, playwright Theodore Ward, poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis, and novelist and children’s book authorArna Bontemps. Chicago-based Abbott’s Monthly (1930–33), established by the Defender’s editor, Robert Abbott, published the work of Wright and Himes for the first time, while New Challenge (1937), coedited by novelist Dorothy West and Wright, helped the fledgling Chicago black literary renaissance expound its purpose. In the 1940s Negro Digest and Negro Story, also literary products of Chicago’s South Side, provided outlets for fiction writers, poets, and essayists. Encouraged by the Chicago and New York units of the Federal Theater Project, African American drama advanced during the Depression, led by Abram Hill, founder of the American Negro Theater in Harlem; Hughes, whose play Mulatto (produced 1935) reached Broadway with a searching examination of miscegenation; and Ward, whose Big White Fog (produced 1938) was the most widely viewed African American drama of the period.
During the 1930s and ’40s Hughes and Sterling A. Brown kept the folk spirit alive in African American poetry. An admirer of Hughes, Margaret Walker dedicated For My People (1942), the title poem of which remains one of the most popular texts for recitation and performance in African American literature, to the same black American rank and file whom Hughes and Brown celebrated. By the early 1940s three figures, Melvin B. Tolson, Robert Hayden, and Chicagoan Gwendolyn Brooks, were showing how the vernacular tradition could be adapted to modernist experimentation. The variety of expressiveness and formal innovation in African American poetry of the 1940s is reflected in Tolson’s densely allusive Rendezvous with America (1942), Hayden’s meditative history poems such as “Middle Passage” (1945) and “Frederick Douglass” (1947), and Brooks’s tribute to the vitality and rigours of black urban life in A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Annie Allen (1949). The 1940s was also a decade of creative experimentation in autobiography, led by Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn (1940), a self-styled “essay toward an autobiography of a race concept”; Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), an early venture in “autoethnography,” the writing of self via the characterization of a culture (in this case, the rural Southern black culture of Hurston’s roots); J. Saunders Redding’s No Day of Triumph (1942), the story of an alienated Northern professional’s quest for redemptive immersion in Southern black working-class communities; and Wright’s Black Boy.
In 1949 the young New York essayist James Baldwin, a protégé of Wright, published “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” a criticism of protest fiction from Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin to Native Son. Baldwin’s charge that the protest novel was prone to categorize humanity rather than reflect its full “beauty, dread, and power” heralded a shift in the 1950s away from Wright’s brand of realism. The most enduring African American novel of the 1950s, Invisible Man (1952), by another Wright protégé, Ralph Ellison, answered Baldwin’s call for “a new act of creation,” a new kind of black hero, and a new way of picturing that hero’s participation in post-Depression, post-World War II American reality. The protagonist of Ellison’s novel is an unnamed black everyman who makes the traditional journey in African American literature from the South to the North, where he goes in search of conventional success and ends up, through a series of ironic revelations, discovering himself. The Invisible Man has been called a modern Odysseus and a 20th-century Candide, in tribute to Ellison’s ability to invest in his central character a universality that bespeaks its author’s wide reading in Western myth and European, British, and American literature. But foremost the Invisible Man is a black American engaged, willy-nilly, in an often painful process of education. Part Douglass, part Washington, and part Du Bois, he struggles with the dominant “isms,” from Freudianism to Marxism, of the first half of the 20th century to decide what black intellectual leadership can and should be in the second half of the century. Encountering a volatile American reality that defies every political or philosophical attempt to define and control it, the Invisible Man comes to realize that his African American folk and cultural heritage, embodied in a series of black antagonists and enigmatic mentors, represents some of the most valuable wisdom he needs in order to discover his role and responsibilities in modern America. Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, reflecting the enormously positive critical reception the novel enjoyed. Ellison never published another novel during his lifetime, but his essays, reviews, and interviews, published as Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), acknowledged his unwavering commitment to a pluralistic ideal of art that knows no allegiance to any school or program.
In 1953 Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, testified anew to the sophisticated formal experimentation and piercing examination of African American consciousness of which the writers coming of age in the 1950s were capable. The story of religious conversion experienced by 14-year-old John Grimes of Harlem, Go Tell It on the Mountain places in creative tension its hero’s spiritual awakening and his determination to gain his independence from his oppressive stepfather. The result is a novel of unprecedented honesty in its revelation of generational and gender conflicts between its central characters, who constitute an African American family haunted by self-hatred, guilt, the psychological scars of racism, unsanctioned sexual desire, and a hunger for deliverance. Two years after Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin collected his essays in Notes of a Native Son, a mix of autobiography and political commentary on race in America that identified Baldwin as the new conscience of the nation on racial matters. Subsequent volumes of essays, Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963), underlined Baldwin’s fame as the most incisive and passionate essayist ever produced by black America. His novels of the 1950s and ’60s—particularly Giovanni’s Room (1956), the first African American novel to treat homosexuality openly, and Another Country (1962), a best-seller that examined bisexuality, interracial sex, and the many prejudices that enforced hierarchies of difference in American society—confirmed Baldwin’s leadership among those black American writers at mid century who wanted to move fiction toward a renewed search for personal meaning and redemption while challenging the white American consensus that viewed triumph in World War II as a vindication of the American way on the racial home front.
African American theatre
During the decade following World War II, professional African American dramatists—such as William Blackwell Branch, author of In Splendid Error (produced 1954); Alice Childress, creator of the Obie Award-winning Trouble in Mind (produced 1955); and Loften Mitchell, best known for A Land Beyond the River (produced 1957)—found greater access to the white American theatre than any previous generation of black playwrights had known. Baldwin began a dramatic career in 1955 with The Amen Corner, which focuses on a female preacher in a Harlem storefront church. Hughes continued his stage presence with his musical comedySimply Heavenly in 1957.
But no one in African American theatre could have predicted the huge critical and popular success that came to Chicagoan Lorraine Hansberry after her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in March 1959. A searching portrayal of an African American family confronting the problems of upward mobility and integration, A Raisin in the Sun introduced not only the most brilliant playwright yet produced by black America but also an extraordinarily talented cast of African (or Bahamian, in the case of Sidney Poitier) American actors, including Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Lou Gossett, Jr., and the play’s director, Lloyd Richards, the first black director of a Broadway show in more than 50 years. Hansberry’s play was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959; she was the first African American writer to win this prestigious award. Hansberry completed another play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (produced 1964), and several screenplays, including the film version of A Raisin in the Sun (1961), before her death at age 34.
The literature of civil rights
Declaring that “all art is ultimately social,” Hansberry was one of several African American writers—most prominently Baldwin and Alice Walker—to take an active part in the civil rights movement and to be energized, imaginatively and socially, by the freedom struggles of the late 1950s and the ’60s. The murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager visiting Mississippi in 1955, led Gwendolyn Brooks to compose “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” signaling her gravitation toward a more explicitly socially critical verse as featured in her volume The Bean Eaters (1960). Poets Margaret Esse Danner and Naomi Long Madgett began their careers publishing similar work in the 1950s.
The development of an increasingly black-identified poetry in the 1960s, written deliberately to inspire black pride and to inflame black revolution, is epitomized in the evolution of LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka. Based in New York’s East Village, Jones became known first as a Beat poet whose collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) consisted largely of apolitical critiques of 1950s conventionality and materialism. By 1968, however, Jones had renamed himself Amiri Baraka and resettled in Harlem, where he became the fiery literary voice of a new black self-consciousness and social consciousness declaiming its freedom in original, sometimes shocking verse previewed in Baraka’s The Dead Lecturer (1964, first published under the name of LeRoi Jones). In the same year, Baraka’s play Dutchman, which climaxes in the death of an incipient black revolutionary poet at the hands of a white woman on a subway, won the 1964 Obie Award for the best off-Broadway production of the year. Dutchman’s polarized audience, including particularly whites offended by the murderous and manipulative female lead in the play, foreshadowed the effect that most African American writers who sought to emulate Baraka had when the Black Arts movement, which Baraka advocated, came into full flower in the late 1960s.
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
By James Baldwin
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $26.95
Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare
Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist ("this England" indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all — should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak — I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.
Again, in the way that some Jews bitterly and mistakenly resent Shylock, I was dubious about Othello (what did he see in Desdemona?) and bitter about Caliban. His great vast gallery of people, whose reality was as contradictory as it was unanswerable, unspeakably oppressed me. I was resenting, of course, the assault on my simplicity; and, in another way, I was a victim of that loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare. But I feared him, too, feared him because, in his hands, the English language became the mightiest of instruments. No one would ever write that way again. No one would ever be able to match, much less surpass, him.
Well, I was young and missed the point entirely, was unable to go behind the words and, as it were, the diction, to what the poet was saying. I still remember my shock when I ﬁnally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar's blood. Cassius says:
Stoop then, and wash. — How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
What I suddenly heard, for the ﬁrst time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before — I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal — and contemporary: that "lofty scene," in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State over¬thrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single- mindedness. And this single- mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man — to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.
And the terrible thing about this play, for me — it is not necessarily my favorite play, whatever that means, but it is the play which I ﬁrst, so to speak, discovered — is the tension it relentlessly sustains between individual ambition, self- conscious, deluded, idealistic, or corrupt, and the blind, mindless passion which drives the individual no less than it drives the mob. "I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet...I am not Cinna the conspirator" — that cry rings in my ears. And the mob's response: "Tear him for his bad verses!" And yet — though one howled with Cinna and felt his terrible rise, at the hands of his countrymen, to death, it was impossible to hate the mob. Or, worse than impossible, useless; for here we were, at once howl¬ing and being torn to pieces, the only receptacles of evil and the only receptacles of nobility to be found in all the universe. But the play does not even suggest that we have the perception to know evil from good or that such a distinction can ever be clear: "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones . . ."
Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world — once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is — some of the self- protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away. It is probably of some significance, though we cannot pursue it here, that my ﬁrst real apprehension of Shakespeare came when I was living in France, and thinking and speaking in French. The necessity of mastering a foreign language forced me into a new relationship to my own. (It was also in France, therefore, that I began to read the Bible again.)
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reﬂected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could ﬁnd the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
In support of this possibility, I had two mighty witnesses: my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place; and Shakespeare, who was the last bawdy writer in the English language. What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience. The structure of the French language told me something of the French experience, and also something of the French expectations — which were certainly not the American expectations, since the French daily and hourly said things which the Americans could not say at all. (Not even in French.) Similarly, the language with which I had grown up had certainly not been the King's English. An immense experience had forged this language; it had been (and remains) one of the tools of a people's survival, and it revealed expectations which no white American could easily entertain. The authority of this language was in its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me, and it was also the authority of Shakespeare.
Again, I was listening very hard to jazz and hoping, one day, to translate it into language, and Shakespeare's bawdiness became very important to me, since bawdiness was one of the elements of jazz and revealed a tremendous, loving, and realistic respect for the body, and that ineffable force which the body contains, which Americans have mostly lost, which I had experienced only among Negroes, and of which I had then been taught to be ashamed.
My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a ﬂower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen ﬁngers to thaw.
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transﬁguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to ﬁnd him there.
Excerpted from The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin Copyright 2010 by The Estate of James Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.