McKay, DuBois, and Hurston On Art, Politics, Propaganda, and Culture During the Harlem Renaissance

Three of the largest writers of the literary and political movement known as The Harlem Renaissance comment in their writing implicitly and polemical works explicitly on the role of culture, art, politics, and propaganda. W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most famous writer on black intellectualism during The Harlem Renaissance, writes in his polemical works about the social position of black people in aspiration of and argument for equity. This equity, for Jamaican exile Claude McKay, is one of socio-political or tactile action. As affiliated with the international communist party, McKay sought international social change and progress through art and revolution. Du Bois, as a public intellectual, however, promotes a quieter revolution, one of thought. Whereas Du Bois is concerned with historicizing the displacement of black bodies from equity and presenting the black intellectual as an identity brought into equity, McKay, as an artist, is concerned with the visceral representation of black life and thereby an acceptance into equity of a more ordinary, Everyman blackness by the white left. Finally, Zora Neale Hurston’s words on propaganda combine McKay and Du Bois both by suggesting art itself, as machinery of vivid life, performs an action-based propaganda. This paper seeks to explicate these intellectuals’ work in order to understand their intersections, dissonances, and ultimately to problematize any normative notions of the constellations of thought that come out of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1922, Claude McKay gives a speech at the Comintern in which he says white communists in America must “emancipate [themselves]” from their preconceived notions of blackness (16). Slavery’s descendant, he says, is “wage slavery,” the stagnant socio-economic position of blacks in America (17). He argues the very laborer revolution of the Marxist fight is the same of the black man in America, encouraging therefore communists to recognize that any talk about critical revolution can only come to fruition in America through black Americans’ hardship and experience. McKay’s political views exist explicitly for historians. Perhaps his connection to the communist party has deleted him from the canon of American letters, his name only uttered in the classrooms of African-American fiction. The Jamaican exile’s anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles come through in his fictional character of Ray, who appears in his first and second novels, Home to Harlem and Banjo. In each of his novels, Ray represents the despair of the black intellectual given the horror and inequity for his social position. In Home to Harlem, in an opiate-induced dream sequence, Ray questions race altogether and talks through color’s social representation (Home to Harlem 151-155). The novel itself is aesthetically concerned with color in many ways, often pinpointing specific shades of black and brown to describe the characters’ diversity of color.

W.E.B. Du Bois writes Black Reconstruction thirteen years later and begins his book with an explication on the black worker. This chapter historicizes the social position of blacks in America, particularly focusing on the fomenting of racism in the wider American consciousness. The capitalist need for domination, Du Bois seems to argue, not only creates socio-political plight in post-Civil War America, it also creates the systemic oppression of blacks by whites by pitting working class whites against newly freed blacks. The economic system ‘disrupted’ by the emancipation of slavery is stabilized, Du Bois argues, by poor whites placing themselves above blacks in the economic hierarchy. Their systematic creation of this social, political, and economic stature reinforces what had been known as slavery. In other words, slavery had merely been transformed into socio-political hierarchy based on race in the economic structure of America after the Civil War. The exploitation of black bodies for the gain of white control of the market and wealth was done so by pitting poor whites against blacks. This process foments a hatred of the black race in America (Du Bois).

Where Du Bois and McKay agree, therefore, is that the social and political position of black Americans can be historicized and therefore changed. Their prognosis for this change is, however, different. While Du Bois would go on to attack McKay’s work as “dirt” and “filth,” filled with “drunkenness,” “fighting,” and “lascivious sexual promiscuity,” McKay would argue his work does so to show the vivid actuality of ordinary black life  (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). McKay, in other words, understands Du Bois arguments toward equity to be uppity and lacking in the viscerality of the ordinary black man. McKay has his characters Jake and Ray struggle side-by-side in Home to Harlem, Lee M. Jenkins argues, as a means to explain this quarrel between elitist black intellectualism and ordinary black life (Africa 743-745). McKay addresses his critics in “A Negro Writer to His Critics,” and suggests the difference between propaganda and art is that the task of propaganda is much clearer whereas art may present itself as ars artis gratia, art for art’s sake. The “lonely, homely things” of everyday life can be represented in art and is left out of his critics’ elitist polemical movement. Finally, in a letter to Du Bois himself, McKay goes as far as to says “No where in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics and therefore you are not competent or qualified to pass judgment upon any work of art” (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). Thus, prognosis for change for Du Bois’ art is to present art as elevated. For McKay, it is to present it as truth and therefore as ordinary. McKay and Du Bois therefore also disagree on the position of art in culture.

Zora Neale Hurston did not write much if any literary criticism, yet her anthropological work and fiction does represent blackness in the public and private sphere, particularly black femininity. Hurston “dissolved the opposition between art and propaganda” that McKay drew explicitly in “A Negro Writer to His Critics” and which Du Bois drew implicitly in his criticism of Home to Harlem (Litz 178). African-American dialect and speakers have the ability to create “vivid and actual” stories such that they become propaganda by becoming action (ibid. 178). Hurston’s formulation of social action “raised criticism to the highest level, until it was in a sense synonymous with the verbal culture of the race” (ibid. 178). In other words, while Du Bois finds McKay’s vivid dialect and representation of ordinary blackness too filthy to bring about change in the social position of blacks, and while McKay grants art its own place as the platform for a debate on representation and politics, Hurston’s formulation combines them. She combines the dialect and representation of the ordinary man from McKay’s and her own work with the desire for socio-political equity that she, McKay, and Du Bois all share.

Works Cited

  • Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, edited by Noelle Morrissette, and Richard M. Juang, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nu/detail.action?docID=305238.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: an Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Harcourt, 1935.
  • Litz, A. Walton, and George Alexander Kennedy. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. vol. 7, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • McKay, Claude. Letter from Claude McKay to W. E. B. Du Bois, June 18, 1928. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
  • —. “Report on the Negro Question: Speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Nov. 1922.” International Press Correspondence, v. 3, Jan. 5 1923, pp. 16-17.
  • —. Home to Harlem. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928. Northeastern UP, 1987.

“‘The woman as she was made’: Narrative Representation of Black Females in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction”

Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated as one of the most important writers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement. Perhaps the most important female black writer of the early twentieth century, she perfected the depiction of the southern black middle-class, the proletarians on whose backs the elites of the Harlem Renaissance would gain success. Ever critical of her part in this, she described the duty of literature to “hold up the mirror to nature” (Jones 68). This meant, for Hurston, “to render a more accurate and sophisticated depiction of African-American life and culture” (ibid. 69). A master of using dialect in her fiction as well, her writing therefore problematizes normative notions of ‘sophistication,’ particularly due to its primary focus on the depiction uneducated black females. As Sharon L. Jones notes in Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, “Hurston has been misread as a writer who failed to address the social, political, and economic issues of her time…Hurston criticizes injustice in a subtler way through her handling of the domestic arena” (ibid. 88). This essay, adjacent to Jones’ work on protest in Hurston’s work, discusses the representation of the black female experience in Hurston’s short and long fiction with emphasis placed on the representation of the working black woman and her struggles both within a fixed social economy and a fluid social economy.

According to Jones, Hurston’s stories “Spunk” and “Sweat” “reveal Hurston’s deft incorporation of folklore, dialect, and power relations within heterosexual relationships” and contain characters that “anticipate protagonists in her novels” (Jones 81). In “Spunk,” the titular character is an intimidating man with larger-than-life personality that allows the protagonist Lena “who desires adventure and excitement as a relief from her humdrum existence” when they develop a relationship with one another. However, this comes at a cost: her husband’s life. If “the moral of the story is that consequences arise for one’s actions, at least for the male characters…[while] Lena lives on, possibly to perpetuate the cycle of men sacrificing their lives for her,” as Jones’ says it is, then the function of the black female character is as object in a “cycle of men” (ibid. 82-83). The story’s emphasis on the “abuse and misuse of power” results in the same consequence: Spunk and Lena’s husband dead, leaving her free to find more meaningful love (ibid. 82). The moral here may be something else still: men must be sacrificed for female autonomy. What remains true is the depiction of Lena as an ordinary woman within the domestic sphere. She must rely on a man for survival, which even the townspeople note after Spunk’s death. Yet, might this depiction jeopardize any true autonomy? While this may remain implicit, with “Spunk” Hurston is questioning whether a black woman can truly realize autonomy. This is to say that while Lena never explicitly desires autonomy from men or even necessarily separation from her husband, as proven by her guilt when he is killed by Spunk, Lena functions to shed light on the question of black female autonomy itself in that she is an article of speculation for the townspeople, quite literally a piece in a fated narrative. The need of the townspeople to consume her story or to speculate on its trajectory questions Lena’s own autonomy in choosing her destiny on her own.

Hurston’s 1926 story “Sweat” on the other hand takes up a more explicit representation of the working class black woman. Delia, the story’s protagonist, is a washwoman and principal breadwinner for her family. Jones, in quoting Angela Davis, notes that “African American women performed the majority of domestic work in their own homes as well as the homes of white bourgeois women” (Jones 83). Delia’s work and “sweat remains unappreciated by the ones she labors for–her husband and the whites in her community” (ibid. 83-84). She endures abuse at the hands of her employers and most at the hands of her husband. This depiction of Delia is a fixed one: triple oppression. The classism, racism, and sexism Delia endures is a part of the expansion of the black female representation that Hurston desires, the so-called “more accurate and sophisticated” portrayal (ibid. 69).

Hurston’s most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts a more fluid social economy through which a black female may operate. The protagonist Janie goes through three marriages, the first because her Nanny wants to ensure a better economic stance than she had as a former slave, the second because of the Spunk-like swagger and illusory freedom offered by Jody, and the third because of true love. The socio-economic fluidity of each of these is captured by Jones’ essay when she says “Hurston represents the contrast between the folk and bourgeois aesthetics through Janie’s account” (ibid. 90). Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, offers a better economic position than older generations in her family, namely that of Nanny, who is a former slave. Jody, in becoming the mayor, allows Janie to become the bourgeois of the town, untouchable by the ordinary townspeople. With her third marriage to Tea Cake, she returns to folk status. The novel is understood from the beginning, as a framed story, as the story of progression “from object to subject” for Janie (McGowan 86). This liberation can only be realized because of this social mobility. The project of black female autonomy that exists in questions for “Sweat” and “Spunk” has come into its realization. For her recapitulation of the story, Jane is telling the story of “the woman as she was made” by herself. The novel begins with Janie’s entrance into the town she left after Jody’s death wearing folk garments, different from those worn during her time as the bourgeois wife of the mayor. The townspeople use this to speak about her descent in social standing. However, at this moment when the townspeople are defaming the woman they once were required to look up to, she tells her best friend Phoeby Watson the story of her life, a story she tells herself and therefore owns. This performance of storytelling is read by Carla Kaplan as a revelation of her sexuality, the novel ending with an orgasm and peace (Kaplan 99). Nonetheless, the depiction of her social mobility allows this to take place.

In the domesticity of black female characters of Hurston’s writing, she questions the autonomous ability of these women. She questions whether lack of ownership over one’s own narrative can deflate one’s own autonomy or socio-political mobility. Further, in portraying holistically the sexuality, dialect, and maturation of different black female characters, Hurston accomplishes a more sophisticated representation of African American life and culture.

Works Cited

  • Jones, Sharon L. “‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’: Social Protest in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.” Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 67-116.
  • Kaplan, Carla. “‘That Oldest Human Longing’ The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 99-122.
  • McGowan, Todd. “Liberation and Domination: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the evolution of capitalism.” The Feminine ‘No!’ : Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 85-100.

On the Through-line of Violence from Slavery to Present

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Charles Chesnutt, who only receives an education because of the Freedman’s Bureau, writes in the Reconstruction Era America, fables of dispossession. The exploitation of blacks in America, we learn from these stories, does not end with slavery. His two characters John and Annie are created, I argue, as critiques of the Northern white capitalists come down to the South to take advantage of the economic destruction that was caused by the war. Slavery transforms into sharecropping whereby the economically wealthy class remains on top while the poor freed blacks are damned to tell their stories for amusement, joy, or if they’re lucky, publication. In Chesnutt’s case, publication only exists as playing into the stereotype of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as we see from the cover of the original edition of The Conjure Woman) or the minstrel shows that came out of these fables of dispossession. The stories Chesnutt presents are stories of witness, witness to the disenfranchisement of blacks by the white capitalists. Instead of the slave master, the white capitalists of the north move in an notice the land is “neglected” as John says in one of the stories. What John notices as neglect is actually Julius’ owning the land. What John calls neglect is no white person owning the land and it is what gives John permission to recolonize the land for his own gain. Julius receives a job out of it as ‘consolation.’ It is in this way that slavery becomes expropriation to make sure blacks stay at the bottom rung of the economic strata.

Hurston’s female character Janie represents the triple exploitation of poor black women in the rural south of the early 20th century. Janie, in an attempt to find her ‘self,’ looks from husband to husband until she finally realizes in retelling her story to Phoebe that the self can only exist after such devastation within one’s own story. Even when she is with Jody, Janie talks about taking her self and putting replacing it with furniture. Or setting her self on a shelf inside herself. This dissociation of the self is, in my argument, Hurston’s attempt to represent what Marx calls our alienation from the self. What capitalism renders is people who have social relations with things and economic relations with people. After Jody opens up a story is when their relationship begins to deteriorate in the novel. At every marriage, it is the financial dependence or the financial insecurity that Janie has that ultimately, I argue, forces further divorce from herself. This is Hurston’s representation of the triple oppression of a poor black woman in the rural south.

What Walt calls Faulkner’s only reflective moment is at the end of Go Down, Moses with the character of Gavin Stevens. There is no reconciliation for the ultimate destruction and complete violation that is slavery. That seems to be the true tragedy of Faulkner’s novel. No matter what Stevens decides to do, obituary or not, money or not, funeral or not, there is no amount of present reparation that can create penance for slavery. This is to say that the economic structure of today is predicated on the economy created by the system of slavery, which means there is only one economic structure that has ever existed in America — capitalist slavery. It is only transformed from chattel slavery to another form of economic immobility.

The biggest moment in Brooks’ poetry that stands out is at the end of “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad of Emmett Till” when the complete horror that is the grief of Emmett Till’s mother just empties out onto a landscape, as if such horror can only be understood as being outside of oneself. It makes me emotional even to type this, because one can only imagine that the biggest tragedy is something that divorces oneself from even being able to look into its direction, the only option being to turn away and look out into a landscape. Emmett Till, the boy beaten for allegedly catcalling at a girl–something she has since admitted never happened–had been beaten so bad, almost beyond recognition. His mother wanted him to have an open casket, to show the world that the horrific violence committed against blacks in America had not stopped at slavery. For every progression, there is a steady response of retaliatory violence.

This transforms into the hoodie on the cover of Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. What the hoodie represents is a complete identification, or rather a stripping of individual identity, emptying out onto a landscape of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, and ultimately violence. This violence, in 2017, is protested but not condemned in court as unjust. Michael Slager received a plea deal just this week. He will not have to receive a lifetime prison sentence for shooting Michael Scott at a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina. What may seem as isolated incidents from slavery until now is actually one throughline of violence. The subjection of black people to violence in America has only transformed in nature and name. It is still violence. Literature presents an opportunity to imagine a world that could be better, to call a world that is unjust what it is. Until true democracy is realized, the representation of violence will persist. What Rankine did is considered a political act. It is, therefore, a political act to represent reality. That is what is at stake in the “alternative fact” America.

Gwendolyn Brooks and Form

“Our selection” refers to chosen passages from A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945.

In our selection, the first named ballad is “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie” but several of the other poems have balladic rhyme or structure. The ballad can be used to express love, like with the one about Mabbie, but it can also be used to intensely describe a character and invoke emotion (like with Blues ballads). Nonetheless, I’m really curious as to how Brooks uses the ballad to problematize these notions of the form and unsettle or give commentary to other social issues within the form.

As to this second point, I’m really interested–and perhaps this is a question more than an observation–in what the form affords the content: how does the form impact Brooks’ taking up of interracial love or white supremacy/preference for whiter complexion in “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” about Willie Boone’s choosing a white “lynx” over Mabbie’s chocolate complexion? How does the form of the ballad help to emphasize the differences drawn out between Sadie and Maud in the poem of the same name?

How does the balladic structure almost make tragic the story of De Witt Williams in “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery”? Is it just the imagery in “The Last Quatrain of The Ballad of Emmett Till” that makes it so aptly tragic (here I’m thinking specifically of “tint of pulled taffy” “she is sorry” and “chaos in windy grays”) or is it this imagery in combination with the balladic form which makes the repetition of that rhyme (taffy, coffee, sorry, prairie) almost a recircling of grief?

As a poet, I’m always thinking about why one may use form–what possibilities does form open up? It is a common misconception, in my belief, that forms somehow create rigidity (a lot of times people call forms “rigid”). On the one hand, the structure provides an outline. On the other–and this is more interesting to me–there is a historical use of the form and the affordances/the affect of the form’s structure. For example, with the ballad structure, one must ask “What effect does the repetition of the rhyme create?” With the song, “How does the performative nature of this form relate to 1) its overall content and 2) its lyrical imagery?”

At every word, the poet makes a decision. I’m curious what we can discover together about Brooks’ decisions.