Blackness and rural modernity in the 1920s




Elliott, Chiyuma

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The New Negro Movement (often called the Harlem Renaissance) made black creative production visible to an extent unprecedented in American History. Complex representations of African Americans started to infiltrate a popular culture previously dominated by stereotypes; people from all walks of life were confronted for the first time with art made by African Americans that asked them to think in new ways about the meaning of race in America.

The term Harlem Renaissance conjures up images of urban America, but the creative energies of many New Negro figures were actually focused elsewhere—on rural America. Urbanite Jean Toomer spent time teaching in an agricultural college in the rural South, and wrote award-winning poetry and prose about that experience. Langston Hughes wrote blues lyrics about the struggles of rural migrants in New York that highlighted the complex interconnections of rural and urban experience. And the pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux incorporated numerous fictionalized accounts of his own experiences as a homesteader in South Dakota into his race movies and novels.

New Negro writers asserted that their art shaped how people understood themselves and were understood by others. Accordingly, this project examines both literary representations, and how literary works related to the real lives and struggles of rural African Americans. My research combines archival, literary, and biographical materials to analyze the aesthetic choices of three New Negro authors (Hughes, Micheaux, and Toomer), and explain the interrelated literary and cultural contexts that shaped their depictions of African American rural life.

Houston Baker, in his influential 1987 book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, defined black modernism as an awareness of radical uncertainty in human life. My central contention is that one of the most radical uncertainties in interwar-period America was the changing rural landscape. I revisit the largely-forgotten (though large-scale) social movement to fight rural outmigration by modernizing rural life. And I argue that, rather than accepting the simple binary that took the urban to be modern and the rural backward, African Americans in the 1920s created and experienced complicated formulations of the rural and its connections to modern blackness.



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