There’s a Harlem Renaissance Resurgence Happening Today
We’re revisiting classic titles from this legendary time in Black literary history—and discovering new ones
The Harlem Renaissance is not the only period when we’ve heard from prolific Black writers (there was also the Black Arts Movement of the mid-sixties to seventies, as well as the ongoing contributions to the Diaspora internationally), but it’s certainly one of the most pivotal. From the 1920s to the mid-1930s (give or take), Black artists centered in Harlem, New York produced an enduring library of Black experiences and critiques of society. And it seems that this year, the publishing world aims to remind readers about the work and the energy of this prolific period, through republication as well as rejuvenation of spaces.
In honor of Black History Month, Penguin Classics has reissued several Harlem Renaissance titles with new covers and introductions, including The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois on the 150th anniversary of his birth (Restless Books Classics series also published Du Bois’ seminary tome with illustrations last year); Langston Hughes’ debut novel Not Without Laughter; Nella Larsen’s Passing; Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry…; and George S. Schuyler’s Black No More. This year we’ll also be treated to the unveiling of books that hadn’t gotten their chance in Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth (also from Penguin Classics) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” from Amistad.
The new introductions to these titles mention the circumstances under which these works were created, and highlight the authors’ audacity in capturing a truth not yet seen in the literary world. Novels by Hughes, Larsen, Schuyler, McKay, and Thurman were open about issues of intraracial strife, communism, colorism, socioeconomic status, and the stakes of upward mobility. (Many of these writers were already known for exploring these topics in their commentary and poetry.) The pervasive issues of skin color, or really the reaction and perceptions of our hues, is never lost in these pages. Black No More is noted as one of the first Black speculative novels, its own Metamorphosis, in the main character of Max Disher jumping at the chance to shed his Black skin for white. Passing remains one of the most referenced novels depicting the lengths someone would go to gain wealth and perceived comfort by passing in the white world. Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry… also dissects issues of colorism, but reflects on them from inside the Black community, where dark skin can be seen as a liability. Each author’s mode of storytelling speaks to the problematic constructs of dominant powers and the psychology as well as politics this inflicts on everyone, those at war with the methodology as well as with themselves. These stories have never lost relevance or potency. Even today, when these stories are almost 100 years old, we need them; they allow us to reflect on how these societal pressures influenced those who now influence us.
The reissued nonfiction speaks to the personal losses felt by the subjects and authors of not only lost lives but lost dignities. Even though Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, Du Bois remains a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance (he was also a co-founder of the NAACP). Souls of Black Folk, with a new introduction by National Book Award winner Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, declares the double consciousness of Black folks — wanting to be seen but also wanting to be accepted. Du Bois interrogates the projected bestiality of Black folks via the white consciousness at a time when slavery was not exactly a far off memory.
“The African slave trade is the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence,” writes Zora Neale Hurston. In Barracoon readers will be introduced to the oral history of Cudjoe Lewis (neé Kossula), who at the time Hurston met with him in 1927 was the last living African to remember being part of the African slave trade. At the time publishers didn’t want to take this book on unless Hurston removed the dialect in Cudjoe’s natural voice. She refused. Barracoon would not see the light of day for almost 90 years until Amistad Books’ editorial director Tracy Sherrod — HarperCollins has been a long-time publisher of Hurston’s — with Dr. Deborah G. Plant felt a responsibility to bring Hurston’s long shelved work into the world as she intended.
In the “Affica soil,” Cudjoe speaks of pretty girls in the marketplace with gold bracelets from wrist to elbow. He talks about growing with the rainy season, the sayings of his kin, and an established justice system in his community. The life he lead was not so different from any we could imagine to this day, yet the violent nature of being wrenched from it hits him, and us, hard. A raid in the middle of the night, orchestrated by his captors and other Africans in Dahomey who made money off of the slave trade partnership with white men, would take Cudjoe and others from the only place they ever knew. To bring this story to light is a necessity to further document our history, America’s history.
Claude McKay’s novel Amiable with Big Teeth isn’t so much an opus as an open commentary. Deemed “melodramatic” by his publisher and vehemently rejected, McKay’s manuscript would be put to a literary death only to be found in 2009 in the Samuel Roth archives by the researchers who would write the introduction. Big Teeth paints Black intelligentsia as radical saviors during the barely referenced Italo-Ethiopian war. In a book that is political and speaks out against dictatorship, McKay creates a cast of characters based on true figures, as well as a method of seeing an end to a dominant force that affected Black people at the time. The toppling of a dictatorship can mirror much of what we see today. In this case the heroes don’t wield swords but intelligence, words, and strategy to destroy dangerous forces.
I’m a big believer in needing to know where we’ve been to see where we’re going. To be an artist at all means familiarity with the classics and the contributions of those who came before us. In the introduction to Not Without Laughter, National Book Award finalist Angela Flournoy spoke about how we still need the work of Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers to showcase a range of Black communities, rather than shoehorning them into a one-size-fits-all designation. “I don’t think that the only time we should write about poor Black people is when we’re kind of moralizing them in some kind way or we’re trying to make a case for them to someone else of a different class or different race rather than exploring their lives with all the complexity they possess,” she says. Hughes, especially in Not Without Laughter, is clearly working under these same beliefs of exploration. Yet Langston Hughes’ and others’ work never ignored the issues Black people faced and continue to face, particularly racism during segregation, Flournoy notes: “[It] doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t rear its head or that he doesn’t have an ax to grind. But it means that the clear task of all that is to make [his characters] fully human than to make a case for them to somebody else.”
The work of Hurston, Hughes, McKay, and other Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Dorothy West, Countee Cullen, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Alain Locke, and Angelina Weld Grimké encapsulate a time when Black thought ran rampant not only in books but in plays, poetry, visual/performance arts, speeches, and much reporting through Black-run periodicals like the Amsterdam News, The Chicago Defender, and The Crisis. They represent not so much the elite but the proactive, those who sought to bust through closed doors and open the floodgates of how Blackness isn’t solitary, nor is it about comforting or kowtowing to whiteness.
The timing of publishing McKay and Hurston’s previously unseen books may not have been planned to align with our current political turmoil; these works had been discovered years prior. Yet it’s evident a need was seen to provide a home to work that hadn’t been allowed to exist for the masses along with the insistence to recirculate material that showcases Black identity in all its iterations. Perhaps the reissue of these books can be considered a new mini-Renaissance, in the sense of a rebirth — not only of the well-known titles like Passing or The Souls of Black Folk, but also of stories like Barracoon that never saw the light of day, or the work of those we lost too soon like Wallace Thurman who died at the age of 32 of tuberculosis. For many of us these titles may already be staples on our personal syllabi. But the reinvestment of these pages to bring these stories to a contemporary audience (two introductions mention parallels of these books with Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé) shows an understanding that our classics, our American classics, hold relevance in all times not just in our history but in our exploration of the future.