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.