Women of the Harlem Renaissance, by Cheryl A. Wall, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University, is a welcome addition to the scholarship on women of this period. Excellently researched, this book focuses on the lives of three women writers — Jessie Redmon Faucet, Nella Larson, and Zora Neale Hurston. Together, they epitomized the voice, tone, style and vision of Black women writers in New York City during the 1920s and early ’30s — the period of the Harlem Renaissance.
Zora Neale Hurston’s use of dialect, as reflected in Black folk-culture, made her work unpopular, just as Claude McKay’s depictions of everyday life among the working class in Harlem and Langston Hughes’ interjection of jazz or blues themes in poetry, were literary expressions looked down on by northern Black patrons of the “New Negro” art.
In her essay, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” Hurston says, “But I AM NOT tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes …. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow gave them a low down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it …. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
Mother of the Renaissance
Hurston, of the three, was atypical in her thinking. Most of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were Northern born and wrote in the stylized forms of the day.
Some of the Renaissance writers had never met the “tragic Negro” they sought through their writings to transcend. When Faucet went to Fisk University to teach, she told W.E.B. Du Bois that she was looking forward to seeing how the other part of the race lived. Hurston is, perhaps, one of the only writers that had the experience of being raised in a Black rural town. Her memories of Black southern life in Eatonville, FL, added a dimension to her work that was unparalleled. Recognition of the value of Hurston’s work came posthumously. She was the first woman to be included in the canon of Harlem Renaissance writing. Hurston stood at the door welcoming her sister authors and artists into the society that ignored them when they were alive and soon forgot them once they were dead.
Faucet, raised in Philadelphia, and the first Black woman to matriculate at Cornell University, could be called the mother of the Harlem Renaissance. Brought on board The Crisis, the NAACP house organ, by its managing editor, Dr. Du Bois, Faucet assisted him in selecting the works of many of the great young Harlem writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Mary Effie Lee and Jean Toomer for publication. Not only was Faucet an excellent editor and journalist, she freely shared her expertise and literary contacts with unexposed writers. The prolific, multi-lingual Faucet published several books. Her second novel, Plum Bun, is considered one of her best.
In the chapter on Faucet, Walls re-creates the climate that produced, then sustained, the Harlem Renaissance. As a central figure in this period, not only for her advancement of the works of fellow artists, but because she published so extensively, Faucet gets short-changed in Wall’s account of her work. I would have liked to have seen an excerpt from Faucet’s writing while at The Crisis. All of Wall’s paraphrasing made me hungry for authentic text. Two-thirds into the chapter — a bit late for me — I finally met the writer in her own words.
Laying the Foundation
In the chapters dealing with Larsen and Hurston, Wall energizes her text and continues at an entertaining pace. She discusses Larsen’s two novels, Quicksand and Passing, and Hurston’s Mules and Men. The author sets up a continuous dialogue with her readers, pulling us into criticisms, discussions and comparisons of the three writers and their work as we move with her through the final pages of the book.
The Harlem Renaissance was a time that “made as well as gave birth to writers,” Larsen says, “Editors … seem eager to give us the opportunity to show ourselves to the world as we appear to each other … not as we formerly appeared in magazine literature, as a strange race of [B]lack-face comedians engaged in putting on a perpetual minstrel show. …(E)ven if the fad for our writing passes… as it is bound to do…. we will in the meantime have laid the foundation for our permanent contribution to American culture.”
Wall meticulously recreates the place and the people that made up Harlem of the ’20s and ’30s. The reader gets the sense that Harlem, at that time, was a creative wonderland for the Black artist, both male and female. These “New Negroes” were cosmopolitan, Upper-middle class, college educated, with eager white patrons ready to sponsor and cash in on their unique artistic expression. It was not a perfect time, but it wasn’t a bad time to be a Black artist.
Women of the Harlem Renaissance gives anyone interested in this great era of African-American literature an introduction to three women who epitomize the Black women writers of this time. Wall’s references include innumerable works, past and present, that touch upon the race and gender issues that confronted the New Negro women as they sought to establish their voices and their identity as writers.
Illicit images of the Black woman as seductress, wild jungle woman and native savage, coupled with the Anglo-American views of women in general, placed a vise on the necks of their literary expression. Wall’s contribution to the scholarship on these women, and the Harlem Renaissance period as a whole, is laudable. The text is easy to read. In 256 pages, the author admirably condenses what could have been a much longer book.
Faucet, Larsen, and Hurston are three very different women. Of the three, Hurston ventured to use her love of the Black folk-tradition as a basis for her stories and research. Preempting later anthropologists, Hurston gave voice to the traditions and histories the Harlemites were trying to rise above. Hers is a well-placed concluding chapter to the book.
It seems that no matter what historic period is under consideration, the life of a Black woman is a complex existence. Far too often, it is misunderstood and underappreciated. it is through books like Women of the Harlem Renaissance, that the stories and contributions of the over looked female artist is allowed to shine for the world.
Wanda Sabir is a graduate student in the writing program at the University of San Francisco.
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