Modern Literature: The Harlem Renaissance

English 4140/7140
The Harlem Renaissance
Section 1
Christopher Okonkwo

This course focuses on the 1920s “New Negro” movement or Harlem Renaissance, a moment of vibrant cultural and intellectual activity by African American and African Diaspora reformers, poets, novelists, playwrights, actors, painters, and musicians. The Harlem Renaissance, alongside the black experience that in part informed it, is crucial to our fullest understanding of not just (American) modernity per se, but also European and Anglo-American literary modernism. We will stress the works of some of the period’s most prominent thinkers and artists: W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, and Jean Toomer. Helping frame our exploration of the focal novels, however, are a number of critical expositions (albeit not in this order): one, Alain Locke’s, which announces and celebrates the presence of the “New Negro”; two, by Jesse Matz, who introduces us to the modern novel; three, Nathan Irvin Huggins’s, which judges the movement a “failure”; and four, a rebuttal by Houston A. Baker, Jr., who rejects Huggins’s conclusion and insists on the movement’s distinct modernness as well as its successes. No matter one’s views on the era, or how literary historians parse its contexts, debates, interracial exchanges, its accomplishments, legacy, and heyday—1920-1929, 1920-1935, or 1925-1960—what remains true is that the Harlem Renaissance, the first Black Arts movement, produced some of the most well-known black intellectual and creative figures to-date. Our goal, ultimately, is to gain a complex appreciation of this movement and its place, especially relative to the Jazz Age, to American modernist historiography, concerns and aesthetics.