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This put up on the guide that impressed the Harlem Renaissance was first revealed in In Studying Coloration, our weekly e-newsletter specializing in literature by and about folks of coloration. Join it right here!
I moved round fairly a bit throughout my time as an undergrad pupil in NYC. It was a part of college coverage that we modified dorm rooms yearly, which was irritating however let me expertise completely different neighborhoods in Manhattan. My favourite neighborhood I lived in, although, was really the one I moved to after I had stopped residing within the dorms, in my final yr at college. I lived within the 140s in Harlem, just some blocks away from a small bridge that linked to the South Bronx.
What shocked me about residing in Harlem was how much like the South it was. Bodily, it was very completely different after all, however interacting with the folks carried a pleasing familiarity with it, one which I hadn’t realized I’d been lacking residing in different neighborhoods in decrease Manhattan. This is sensible as a lot of Harlem was populated by the Nice Migration, when thousands and thousands of Black Individuals journeyed from the South seeking jobs and alternative.
This migration was largely liable for what would change into referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time period between the mid 1910s to the Nineteen Thirties, by some accounts, that noticed a terrific explosion of Black tradition centered in Harlem.
I like the Harlem Renaissance. For all the apparent issues it did for Black tradition, like giving it its personal stage, but in addition for the way it contained The Black Expertise. Black literature, artwork, music, and philosophy have been explored and in dialog with one another. Differing viewpoints on ideologies have been expressed and there was a thriving queer scene that had what we now know as drag balls— Langston Hughes referred to as them “Spectacles in Coloration” and described them as a “ball the place males gown as ladies and girls gown as males,” the place, awards got to probably the most lavishly dressed.
Along with Langston Hughes, many different authors of basic Black literature have been energetic throughout this time, like W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, and Marcus Garvey. However there was one creator specifically who many credit score as having written the guide that ushered within the Harlem Renaissance, particularly because it associated to literature, and that was Jean Toomer.
Toomer’s Cane was written in 1923 to some essential acclaim, however wasn’t broadly learn. This may need been as a result of it didn’t fairly have the stereotypical portrayal of Black those that many white audiences wished to see, nor did it drown itself within the respectability that many Black audiences wished. As a substitute, it confirmed southern Black folks as full folks. Nuanced and complicated. The experimental construction of Cane lent itself to this sense of complexity, with its combination of prose within the type of vignettes and poetry.
The triptych begins within the rural Black South, the place it explores the vulnerability of Black ladies and men, with an emphasis on sexuality and self-actualization, or a scarcity thereof. The harmful nature of racial hatred is proven, as is self-destruction. Males fill emotional voids with intercourse, alcohol, and a want for materials items, and girls are “ripened too quickly.”
The second a part of the novel sees the transfer from the warm-blooded, sensual South to the North. With the transfer, what Black folks acquire in alternative they lose in spirituality and connection to their previous. The conformity deemed mandatory for metropolis residing additional robs them of confidence. The ultimate part of the guide is a few Black schoolteacher within the South, who recounts his earlier life in New York as a distant reminiscence. The construction is much like a play’s, with its titular character Kabnis struggling along with his racial id.
I consider Toomer himself once I consider this character. Toomer was born right into a multi-generationally blended household of light-skinned folks in D.C. and will transfer out and in of Black and white circles, typically figuring out as white and different occasions as Black. After which there have been occasions when he recognized as neither, and mentioned he was a part of a brand new, really American race. As soon as his work Cane got here to be recognized as a Negro masterpiece, he retreated considerably from writing, resenting the label. He didn’t need his work, and by extension himself, to be seen as inherently Black.
Usually, I bristle on the observe of some lighter-skinned and blended folks donning their Black hats when it fits them, solely to distance themselves at different occasions from Blackness. However studying a bit extra about Toomer’s ideas on race has made me a bit extra sympathetic. I can begin to see how he felt that racial labels have been means too restrictive and dangerous for the person. Having preconceived narratives projected onto folks by society and themselves makes folks into these easy, monolithic ideas, which takes away the complexity that being human brings with it. Amongst different issues, this stifles creativity, the very last thing a author needs.
Nonetheless, I can’t assist however marvel if Toomer hadn’t reacted so strongly to being labeled “Negro” and his subsequent withdrawal from writing if he wouldn’t have produced extra works as influential as Cane. Alice Walker mentioned of the guide, “It has been reverberating in me to an astonishing diploma. I adore it passionately, couldn’t presumably exist with out it.” Its influence is plain.