Continued from the Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Part 5 Angela Kinamore Interview with Aberjhani and Sandra L. West first published in African Voices Magazine spring 2005:
Kinamore: Was this book written for a specific audience?
Aberjhani: This book was written for a world audience because the Harlem Renaissance was an international event. Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes’ visits to Paris helped generate the Negritude Movement--which is still very much alive--made famous by the Nardal sisters, Aime’ Cesaire, and the late Leopold Senghor among others. Claude McKay wrote a history of African America for publication in Russia.
The great Paul Robeson lived and worked a number of years in England. And England and Paris were of course major venues for black performance artists like Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Eubie Blake, and Noble Sissle, as well as for black athletes and artists. Garvey’s Negro World newspaper was published in several languages and distributed throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the African continent.
West: This book was written for a general audience, in terms of who will be able to read it. It is a scholarly work , well done, but it is not just for scholars. I think the encyclopedia is capable of holding the interest of young people of middle and high school age, in addition to adult readers. Even though it is a reference book, it is extremely readable. I have a teacher friend, Don, former journalist with the Nigerian Times, who tells me that he reads the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance every night, thirty minutes a night. Such dedication to learning!
Kinamore: What do you think of the Black literary renaissance that’s emerging and what trends in black literary expression do you expect to see in the next 20 years?
Aberjhani: I think the current renaissance is not a renaissance at all but an evolutionary leap forward in the greater development of American and African-American culture. Whereas Black literature in the past has been largely marginalized, even within the black community, it is now becoming a central and permanent element of American culture, so that we are no longer likely to experience gaps of decades between the publications of quality works by Black authors. The foundation laid by the Harlem Renaissance and then secured by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s is what made the boom [at the turn of the 21st century], if you will, possible.
As far as the next 20 years go, I would expect to see the further development of different categories of Black literature. At present, a dominant form of Black literary expression seems to be the relationship novel with the urban street novel also growing in popularity. My guess is that the next two decades will see novels by black artists experimenting with serious historical scenarios, political issues, spiritual dilemmas, philosophical questions, and science fiction themes.
West: The black reading renaissance is official. Nonfiction books and novels have been written about the reading extravaganza that has been blazing across the black community for decades. Also, there is so much work coming out of the African American community that publishers are courting writers. There are anthologies documenting our “new” poetry, not unlike the many important anthologies born during the Harlem Renaissance era. There is a steady flow of hip-hop drama such as A Hustler’s Wife, that has been on the Essence magazine best seller list since August 2003, stories not terribly unlike Home to Harlem written by Claude McKay.
There is more nonfiction, possibly, during the twenty-first century. Our heritage, our arts, our letters are being documented. Our historians and intellectuals are producing more: anthologies of black literature, trilogies about the state of love in the Black community – bell hooks, Cornel West, Dr. Skip Gates and company–– for which we will always be grateful. There is so much new black literature – and it has been coming strong since the 1970s and especially strong since the 1990s.
NEXT, FINAL PART 7: The Renaissance and Contemporary Issues
© 27 January 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
In the current era, a highly-publicized disproportionate threat to African Americans due to unnatural causes––specifically, violence inflicted upon unarmed African-American men and women by armed policemen–– has been acknowledged by the Black Lives Matter Movement, the United Nations, and numerous social justice organizations around the world. A similar threat in 1919 existed in the form of lynching, essentially the practice of murder by hanging, then often castrating, and often burning African-American men.
Barely 10 years old at the time, the NAACP stood as almost the sole voice of protest against the socially-accepted and legally-tolerated practice. The simple reason is because in 1919 Jim Crow laws were exactly that: laws which openly supported an apartheid government and society in America. Whereas the more overt apartheid legislation has been repealed, in 2015 there is much talk of a “New Jim Crow.”
That Blacks and Whites have made tremendous advances in securing social and political equality for all Americans is something most reasonable thinkers would not deny. The conditions as they existed in 1919 were the kinds that challenge poets of any race to prove the significance of their craft. In the case of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay (1889 – 1948) they prompted him to pen his classic poem “If We Must Die”:
If We Must Die: Poem by Claude McKay
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
--(from Harlem Shadows, Harcourt Brace, 1922)
Poetry has often proven an effective instrument for amplifying the voices of those who believe they have been targeted for unfair social and political discrimination; or, worse, tagged for a campaign of potential genocide. Where McKay’s powerful lines are concerned, the author noted the following in his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home:
“Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted… It was during those days that the sonnet, ‘If We Must Die,’ exploded out of me…”
Encouraged by the support of friends, editors, and publishers, the Jamaican-born McKay considered “If We Must Die” both a critical and a political triumph. The distinct rhyming scheme and compact 14 lines of the poem make it easily identifiable as a sonnet. Yet it is a very different kind of sonnet from those with which a reader might associate poets such as Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rainer Maria Rilke.
McKay's Literary Distinction
What sets McKay’s poem apart from other well-known sonnets is its unrepentant call to militant action. By contrast, the sonnets of Cullen or Shakespeare generally focus on philosophical musings or romantic passion. By fusing his lines with unyielding outrage, McKay’s appropriation of the sonnet form became itself a revolutionary act.
After its original publication in the July 1919 edition of the Liberator magazine, “If We Must Die” was published in political advocate Cyril Briggs’ (1888-1966) Crusader magazine, labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s Messenger magazine, and dozens more along with a string of anthologies throughout the “roaring twenties.” In 1922, it became part of the poet’s Harlem Shadows collection, one of the first volumes to signal the growing momentum of the Harlem Renaissance.
The poem exploded through the American psyche at a time when African-American leaders were grappling with the same question with which they are wrestling nearly a century later. They do so as Black boys and men are killed under highly questionable circumstances virtually every week, and imprisoned daily for minor provocations that are more often ignored when the transgressors happen to be White boys and men.
© Juneteenth 2015
PLEASE ALSO SEE:
Red Summer: Text and Meaning in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” part 1
Fighting Back: Text and Meaning in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” part 3
The celebration of major historic milestones is a favorite pastime in pretty much every culture. This year, 2011, in the United States, many are commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. That means four years from now, numerous festivities will take place to observe the same anniversary for Jubilee Day, or the liberation of America’s slaves.
In addition, countries around the world are currently honoring the first United Nations-declared International Year for People of African Descent.
Flip the calendar forward by almost a decade and we find ourselves approaching another major milestone: the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. The past couple of years have already seen celebrations of the centennials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. Both organizations during the Harlem Renaissance played key roles–– as advocates for racial equality and as publishers of influential magazines that featured prize-winning works by now major authors like Dorothy West, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Exactly When did the Harlem Renaissance Start?
Marking the centennial of the NAACP and the National Urban League was relatively easy because records indicate clearly enough when they started. The actual beginning and ending of the Harlem Renaissance itself is not so well defined, though most scholars will say it lasted from 1920 to 1940.
One of the great leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson, noted in his book Black Manhattan, that the 1922 publication of Claude McKay’s book, Harlem Shadows, represented a major history-altering event. In Johnson’s words, “Claude McKay’s poetry was one of the great forces in bringing about what is often called the ‘Negro literary renaissance.’”
But celebrated author Langston Hughes thought the history-making Broadway musical Shuffle Along kicked the Renaissance into high gear in 1921. As he put it, Shuffle Along “gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan, which reached its peak just before the crash of 1929…” Still others will say it started with the end of World War I in 1918, or with the Great Migration of African Americans into industrial areas of the U.S. North and Midwest during the 1910s.
Enter “The New Black”
NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar co-wrote On the Shoulders of Giants, the recent acclaimed documentary on the Harlem Rens basketball team. From his highly-regarded perspective, the Harlem Renaissance never truly ended at all but simply changed names, at one point becoming the Civil Rights Movement, and at another the Black Arts Movement.
In these ultra-techno days of 2011, some authors such as Diann Blakely ––taking her cue from the title of Evie Shockley’s newest poetry collection–– have adopted the term The New Black to describe the current wave of African-American author-poets who have won substantial recognition for their literary labors. A number of authors listed in this group are in fact well-established literary veterans. Blakely, a White southerner who has sought to honor the positive influence of Blacks in her life, described the cultural significance of the years 2010 and 2011 as follows:
“…A perfect microcosm of a great third flowering of African-American poetry in less than a century because of the great number of distinguished titles published, plus the awards and honors conferred upon African-American poets.”
Blakely’s list of “New Black” poets was recently published on the Best American Poetry Series website. One should note that her assessment is a well-honed one informed by her own status as an award-winning author of three volumes of poetry, as a former editor for Antioch Review, and a nominating editor for the highly-acclaimed Pushcart Prize Series.
Continues with: The Approaching 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Part 2
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.