In Celebration of Literary Cultural migrations and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Part 2 of 2)
For this reader and author, any study of literature generated by mid-1900s French commitment or existentialism would mean a lot less without a major nod to the romantic partnership between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre that breathed life into its goals and principles. Nor would it mean very much without appreciation for the French jazzman and novelist Boris Vian’s great enthusiasm for the African-American experience as filtered through an existential perspective and expressed in both his music and his writings.
Likewise, Gertrude Stein’s and Ernest Hemingway’s Lost Generation might have remained exactly that—lost—were it not for their expatriate bohemian adventures in Europe and Latin America. The daring, the artistry, the intellectual challenges and, ultimately, the achievements all rolled for me into one big ball of fascination that dazzled my desires and encouraged my efforts.
In some movements, I noticed, writers and artists and musicians were very much aware of themselves as the makers of a very special moment and made their contributions to it with a sense of responsibility and selective aesthetics. Other movements seemed to emerge naturally, just as a rainbow might after a summer storm, without apparent conscious or planned intent. The latter type intrigues me the most because it makes me wonder—what movements are forming at this moment as we make our way through the second decade of the 21st century? It’s an interesting question to consider because this is a time when there exist numerous literary communities dedicated to the act of writing and to the idea of authorship itself but not necessarily to works committed to a given purpose. And no, that is not automatically a bad thing.
The Law of Literary Attraction
The Harlem Renaissance attracted me as an author and as an individual because its amazing creative energies were unleashed at such an exceptional time in American history. For the United States in general, it occurred between two world wars that tested the potential strength and limitations of democracy. For African Americans in particular, it was a time of quasi-freedom, only decades after slavery had officially ended in the country and during a period when neoslavery--the illegal imprisonment and forced labor of free individuals—remained a somewhat common practice.
Every time a black writer penned an article, essay, poem, novel, or play with the intent to publish, he or she committed a revolutionary act that at once strengthened the ideal of American democracy and advanced the causes of black liberation. Therefore, it required more than just inspiration for Nella Larsen to write a novel such as Passing (1929) or for Claude McKay to write and publish the poem “If We Must Die” (1919). It required a great deal of courage as well. Words thought too inflammatory or too subversively provocative could cost a writer his or her life, no matter how bohemian-chic such writers may have been considered, just as such words continue to imperil the lives of some global community writers in 2010.
Co-authoring Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance allowed me to travel back in time and participate in the first Harlem Renaissance—to excitedly live a bit of the courageousness, the thrill, and the genius involved-- then return again to the present and participate in what has been called the second.
The honor has never been about staking claim to a useless badge of elitism. It has always been about making a meaningful contribution to something that may not be as glamorous as a Hollywood red carpet premier, or as trendy as the hottest new cell phone, but which nevertheless has often brought value, substance, and beauty into many lives too accustomed to nothing but pain. Just as that value and substance and beauty have helped individuals navigate the stormier periods of their lives, so have literary movements helped humanity make its way from one challenging era to the next, all the while empowering visions and storing up treasures.
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.