This unit is designed to provide the student with a working knowledge of black literature by using two eras of black history which produced some of the best protest literature of the black people of America. The two eras are the Harlem Renaissance or Black Renaissance of the 1920’s, and the black Revolutionary period of the 1960’s.
The theme for the unit comes from a poem written by one of the Renaissance poets, Countee Cullen; the title of the poem is “Yet Do I Marvel.” This poem speaks to the paradox of the Black artist, to have a message and talent, but to also be confined and obligated to address himself to the plight of the black man in America.
By comparing and contrasting the two eras the student will gain an increased awareness of American history in general, and black history, in particular, the black history of these two eras. Students will also gain a historical perspective about black life, a sense of time and sequence of events in history, and the ability to compare and/or contrast events in history, finding some causal relationships. It is hoped that this course will be able to improve racial relationships by offering information and insight about black motivation and lifestyle.
This unit will be desgined for a heterogenous group of high school students, who will be at different grade levels, but able to read and write with some degree of clarity. However, the unit may also be used for students who are basic skills students. If the unit is used for the student who needs to work on his reading and writing skills, the materials in the unit can be modified for these students.
The course will be eight weeks long. The classes will be held for three hours a day, five days a week. Most of the sessions will consist of a lecture, a writing section, and a group discussion or group interaction section. Students will do some role play, do specific classroom writing assignments, observe time lines, read black literature from the Harlem Renaissance and from the Protest era, read various history selections, and make a slide film presentation. The slide show will be a group project and is something that can be worked on during the third hour of class; preparation, research, and actual hands-on kinds of experiences should happen then. During this third hour, students will also work on using the poetry and themes they have read, and the historical background applicable to the time period.
A study of the historical background will begin the unit. Events which relate to American history will be examined and subsequent reactions to these events in the black community will be addressed. The causal relationships between the two Protest eras will be observed.
The movement called the Black Renaissance or Harlem Renaissance was part of a growing interest of white literary circles in the social and economic plight of the black American. This era begins after World War I, the war which according to President Wilson, would make the world “safe for democracy.” Black Americans fought in the war believing that when it was over, their lives would be different, that they would become part of the mainstream of American life. Of course, this did not happen. Before and during the war, many blacks migrated to the north, where blacks found employment in northern industries. Once the war was over, blacks met with resistance to remain in the labor force by labor unions and other white workers because of high unemployment present at that time. This black migration to northern urban areas provided a foundation for the Harlem Renaissance, the era of cultural growth for black Americans. This migration created a large black population where there was some economic and political strength, and inculcated a sense of racial pride, self-reliance, racial cooperation and self-help.
The 1920’s was an age of social upheaval in America. The “war to end all wars” was over and for the most part Americans wanted to forget it. Prohibition was the law, and selling or making liquor was illegal. Americans were looking for a good time, and fun and frolic was the name of the game. The twenties was a time of frenzies and crazes, dance marathons, gold fish eating contests, fast cars, the radio, people gambling on the stock market and making it rich. But not everyone did so well. The twenties was also a time of government scandal; the Teapot Dome oil scandal resulted in government officials going to jail for their participation in fraudulent oil deals. There was a fear growing in the country that the Communists might take over the government. Many people became confused and began to call anyone they did not like or with different ideas a Communist. The “Red Scare” brought out the prejudices that existed in this country against immigrants and members of minority groups.
There were many race riots during this time period; the worst was in Chicago in 1919. This riot lasted for six days and left thirty-eight people dead (fifteen whites and twenty-three blacks), and left five hundred and thirty-seven people injured. Black homes were burned down, children were ripped from the arms of their mothers and thrown into flames, and many blacks were maimed or viciously murdered. Like Chicago, there were riots in Knoxville, Tennessee, Omaha, Nebraska, Elaine, Arkansas and in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During this time, there was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, not only in the southern states but in the north as well. With the resurgence of the Klan there was also an increase in the number of lynchings of black people. As a result of the tenor of the times, which included the migration of blacks to the north, the race riots, the rebirth of the KKK, black unemployment, racial tensions growing in the country, a group of artists located predominantly in Harlem spoke out. The artists reflected the mood of the “New Negro,” defiant, bitter and impatient. Fighting back came with the ability to articulate the feelings of the black man.
The black artist like his white contemporaries, saw the injustices happening to black people around him and used his art form to deliver the protest message to the American people. In many cases relaying this message was not intentional but rather an expression of feelings. The Renaissance artists attempted to express what the masses of the black race were feeling. Some of the poets tried to escape race in their poems, but race is always implied in their writings. The motivation of the artist comes directly from an understanding that the black artist reflects his own frame of reference which is the black experience.
The Harlem Renaissance literature begins with the poem “If We Must Die...” by Claude McKay. This poem was a direct retaliation to the plight of the black man, with particular regard to the Chicago race riots of 1919. The poem would seemingly advocate violent actions; however, it is more than just advocating violence, it is stressing that if death is inevitable, because of the situations surrounding blacks, then death must occur in a proud and honorable fashion.
Countee Cullen is a lyric poet. The two lines in sonnet form in which he speaks of the paradoxes of life expresses his faith that God can solve and answer all of the mysteries of life, shows the irony, bitterness, and pathos of a tragedy. Cullen felt that good poetry is a lofty thought expressed beautifully and romantically. However, some of the best poetry of Cullen comes from his race consciousness. Other Cullen poems which still echo the racial consciousness theme are part of his second book of poems
(1927), and his poetic narrative,
The Black Christ
Langston Hughes, one of the most popular Renaissance writers, also reflected on the outcast or paradoxical role of the black American. In his poem, “I Too Sing America,” Hughes is addressing the black audience and a white audience and says that he also is beautiful and has a song to sing. He tells blacks to grow and cherish their beauty, and that eventually their beauty will be recognized. It is a Cinderella discovery, that when “company comes” blacks will be noticed and appreciated. This is the paradoxical and uncomfortable situation of not being accepted by white society.
In some of his poetry Hughes uses subjects that might be considered unpoetic and then implies race in them. An example of such a poem is “Brass Spittoons.” In this poem he tells of a black porter who has the task of cleaning brass spittoons, an unlikely topic for a poem but nonetheless bringing the message of race to his audience at the very end of the poem. Hughes was able to show in this poem as well as in his other works a talent for combining wit and satire and anger in such a way as not to offend anyone, but still to make his message clear and understood.
Hughes, McKay, and Cullen were only some of the writers of this era who expressed their feelings on the moment in black history and on the American way of life. The Harlem Renaissance was an important event in black literature, and perhaps if the writers did not address themselves the way they did and on the topics that they chose, we would not have the powerful writers of the sixties with their free expression of thought.
Some of the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance who should be mentioned are Rudolph Fisher, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, and James Weldon Johnson. They should, certainly, be a part of any comprehensive study of black literature of the 1920’s.
Not unlike the era of the 1920’s, the era of the 1960’s began on a hopeful note and ended in a bitter and disillusioned way for Americans, white as well as black. There was unrest in the cities, distrust of the government and of business. The undeclared war in Vietnam which the United States became involved in spawned the Peace Movement in which young people expressed their outrage over the country’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Among these young people were young black people who saw the Vietnamese war as wrong, and as a tactic of genocide for young black males. The 1960’s was an age of youth. The country had a young new president early in the decade with bright new hopes and aspirations. Black Americans clearly saw themselves becoming part of the country by way of the promise of a “new generation.” The sixties was a time where equal rights for all citizens was the unifying theme. This search for equal rights took place in schools, in employment, in the judicial system, the armed forces, and all public places. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stated that public places could not be segregated, and it authorized the Attorney General to bring law suits against segregated schools, forbade employers to discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex, and blocked the use of literacy tests to keep blacks and others from voting. The revolutionary period of the sixties was centered around civil rights, Supreme court decisions, school desegregation, and voting rights. There developed early in the sixties a protest movement to assure the rights of all people. Peaceful resistance was the method used which included sit-ins, pray-ins, and mass demonstrations. The aim of this resistance was to solve the “negro problem” through legislation.
Early resistance was supported by the young, including many young whites as well as blacks. The war in Vietnam, urban unrest, and other problems caused young whites to question the goals of society. Colleges became the centers for political activity.
A group who expressed much of the anger and disillusionment with America were the Black Muslims of the Nation of Islam. The Muslims produced a very influential leader, Malcolm X. Malcolm pushed the idea of black nationalism and denounced non-violence and integration into white society. His ideas and speech were so radical that liberal whites were glad to listen to integrationism and to participate as a solution to the black problem.
Malcolm appealed to many urban blacks because the poor blacks in the north could relate to the speeches and experiences of Malcolm. People were impatient for justice and for these reasons Malcolm made sense. It seemed that much of the improvements which came about in the sixties for the black American were mere token efforts and that something more immediate needed to be done.
The first riot of the 1960’s occured in Los Angeles, California in 1965 in a black neighborhood called Watts. The riot left thirty-five people dead and millions of dollars in property damage. There were more than seventy disturbances in different areas of the United States between 1965 and 1967. The climax came in Newark, New Jersey in July of 1967. Newark’s riot left twenty-six blacks dead and a large part of Newark burned-out. There were reports after the riots to determine the reasons for the urban unrest. The findings of the Kerner Commission were that there were still areas of severe poverty and unemployment, which in some areas ran as high as 52%. The report stated that “Our Nation is headed towards two societies, one black and one white—separate and unequal.”
The protest movement was a two sided phenomena; it was ushered in non-violently with sit-ins and freedom marches and went out in a much more forceful manner. However, this era left us with some of the best protest literature. There developed out of the sixties a group of artists whose concern was the illumination, production, savoring, and support of black culture and the black experience, while also being revolutionary and political. This cultural resurgence was African, Asian, as well as American black culture. There was an exhiliration about being black, and that having a black identity was something to be proud of and protected and that this fact of blackness did not need to be explained to, explained by, or necessarily understood by whites. The very idea of blacks dealing with the black experience and giving their lives
perspectives was an important part of the sixties. Telling it like it is, was the way the black artist worked. This was illustrated in
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Soul on Ice
One of the artists of this era is Imamu Imiri Baraka (Leroi Jones). The literary career of Baraka has been as controversial as some of his work. Baraka feels that the job of the black artist is to be a missionary of blackness, and to bring African and Asian culture to the black American.
The defiance and arrogance of the sixties allowed a writer like Nikki Giovanni to write “Nikki Rosa,” a poem about her childhood and
, her autobiography, “My Poem,” and “Knoxville, Tennessee.” These writings are essentially her experiences and that is what is important: the fact that the experiences are hers, they are black experiences, they are personal and they are universal.