LAWRENCE – In the conventional telling of African American literary history, the 1930s are overshadowed, at best, by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the social realism/protest novels of the 1940s.
But a new volume on the decade marked indelibly by the Great Depression takes a closer look and finds important transitions between one era and the other occasioned by such disparate forces as the New Deal and the Communist Party USA.
“African American Literature in Transition, 1930-1940” is the 10th volume in a planned series of 17 from Cambridge University Press. Ayesha Hardison, University of Kansas associate professor of English, co-edited the collection of essays with her Vassar College counterpart, Eve Dunbar. The 12 contributors include John Edgar Tidwell, KU professor emeritus of English, whose chapter is titled “Racial Representation and the Performance of 1930s African American Literary History.”
Hardison said the assignment to concentrate on the 1930s “felt like an intellectual challenge and a learning opportunity. It was not only an invitation to highlight some understudied writers, but also a chance to collaborate with scholars who have been conducting interesting research on them.”
While not ignoring Depression-era writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright — who remain well-known today — the authors of the new volume critically consider such figures as novelist Arna Bontemps (“Black Thunder”), journalist Roi Ottley (“New World A-Coming”) and a group of female short-fiction writers including Dorothy West, Marita Bonner and Octavia B. Wynbush. The collection also discusses the period’s ethnography, poetry, journals and magazines.
Faced with the racist absence of major publishing opportunities, Hardison said, some writers of the 1930s, like Hurston and Wright, latched on to Works Progress Administration programs like the Federal Writers’ Project. They wrote anything they could get paid for, including state guidebooks, though they were not always credited for their contributions. Others documented the experience of economic privation in the form of theater. Art from a WPA artist illustrates Hardison and Dunbar’s introduction to the book, and one chapter references James Van Der Zee’s photography.
Another important, alternative stream of thought – communism – was also explored by Black writers in the 1930s, including Kansas-born Frank Marshall Davis, who would later become an acquaintance of and influence on the future President Barack Obama.
“The Communist Party was another kind of professionalizing opportunity for various writers,” Hardison said. “Not only for someone like Richard Wright, whose party affiliation was well known, but also other writers that emerged later in the African American literary tradition like Ralph Ellison, whose association with the party is not as widely known. The party compelled writers to think about economic and labor conditions, to think about the working class, to include them as characters and to center social commentary in their work. Such politics and aesthetics help shape the kind of protest novels emerging in the 1940s.”
Moreover, Hardison said, communist thought informed an “internationalist” orientation among a segment of the Black intelligentsia, linking the African American human-rights struggle with liberation movements around the globe. In this way, she said, the social critiques of the ’30s presage not just the 1940s, but also the Black Arts and Black Power movements of the 1960s.
Hardison said the new book offers additional perspectives, including insight on the value of literature and the humanities, more broadly, to society.
“Despite the limited publishing and financial opportunities for writers during the 1930s, they worked in various genres to document the experience of African Americans. They saw their creative work as important to racial representation, social politics, educational development and the greater good,” Hardison said.
Image: Writer Dorothy West was interviewed and photographed in 1981 as part of a Black Women Oral History Project organized by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. Credit: Judith Sedwick