In our April seminar, we discussed Smethurst’s book, The African American Roots of Modernism, which examines the development of African American literature and its connection to modernity with a unique focus on 1890-1919, a period marked by the rise of Jim Crow and the Great Migration (1-2). Smethurst argues that Jim Crow deeply marked modernism for both white and black writers, though white writers were reluctant to acknowledge influence of black writers, in contrast to music where even country artists talk about black mentors.
Jean discussed the development of modernism; Smethurst uses the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s to Ford’s assembly line in 1914 as the markers of the movement. Jean’s chapter raised questions related to citizenship, federal authority, and labor, all of which continue today. The chapter also discusses what Smethurst terms “waves of Jim Crow” to connect rising anti-Black sentiment with the modernist movement (the first wave starting in the 1890s with Dunbar, DuBois, Chesnutt, and BTW as products of reconstruction; the second wave occurs in the first two decades of the 1900s with a shift to NYC and Chicago). Ivie’s chapter discussed the notion of dualism in differing strategies for Black representation in the period. The DuBois/Washington debates are one example of this. Ellison’s Invisible Man is used throughout this chapter and would be a good resource for our course in the fall to discuss these issues. Dr. Cooper and Kristi discussed Chapter 2, dealing with the memory crisis resulting from society forgetting the contributions of Black soldiers during the civil war. A common trope related to the role of poetry was discussed, along with feelings of what was and what should be. Modernists continued to argue that duty in war/service should equal citizenship with full political rights. In chapter 3, Sharon discussed the growth of an African American bohemia, comparing it with the ventriloquist’s mask, with the ’dummy’ saying what the comic could not. Chapter 3 looked at the impact of the Great Migration and the growth of the Black urban identity, what Smethurst calls the “urban territory of blackness.” Apryl discussed chapter 4, with the emphasis on the Harlem Renaissance, also connecting to the idea of bohemia. Paul Lawrence Dunbar was used as the example in that chapter. Chapter 5 looks at the role of sexuality in African American thought, along with its impact on the modernist movement. Smethurst’s conclusion explores a remapping of East-West and North-South axis with US global involvement. He connects the increase in racism and “nativist anxieties” associated with migration, both with Eastern European immigrants and Black laborers from the South.
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