LAWRENCE — In the conventional account of African American literary history, the 1930s are eclipsed, 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 indelibly marked by the Great Depression takes a closer look and finds significant transitions between one era and another occasioned by such disparate forces as the New Deal and the American Communist Party.
“Afro-American Literature in Transition, 1930-1940” is the 10e volume in a planned series of 17 from Cambridge University Press. Ayesha Hardison, an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas, co-edited the collection of essays with her Vassar College counterpart, Eve Dunbar. The 12 contributors include John Edgar Tidwell, Professor Emeritus of English at KU, whose chapter is titled “Racial Representation and Performance of 1930s African-American Literary History.”
Hardison said the assignment to focus on the 1930s “felt like an intellectual challenge and a learning opportunity. It was not just an invitation to shine a light on some understudied writers, but also a chance to collaborate with scholars who have conducted 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 look critically at such figures as the novelist Arna Bontemps (“Black Thunder”), journalist Roi Ottley (“New World A-Coming”) and a group of female short filmmakers, including Dorothy West, Marita Bonner and Octavia B. Wynbush. The collection also covers ethnography, poetry, journals and magazines of the period.
Faced with the racist absence of major publishing opportunities, Hardison said, some 1930s writers, like Hurston and Wright, clung to Works Progress Administration programs like the Federal Writers’ Project. They wrote everything they could be paid for, including state guides, though they weren’t always credited for their contributions. Others have documented the experience of economic deprivation in the form of drama. Art by a WPA artist illustrates Hardison and Dunbar’s introduction to the book, and one chapter references photography by James Van Der Zee.
Another important alternative current of thought – Communism – was also explored by black writers in the 1930s, including Kansas-born Frank Marshall Davis, who would later become an acquaintance and influence on future President Barack Obama.
“The Communist Party was another kind of professionalization opportunity for various writers,” Hardison said. “Not only for someone like Richard Wright, whose party affiliation was well known, but also for other writers who 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 reflect on economic and working conditions, to think of the working class, to include them as characters, and to center social commentary in their work. Such a politics and such aesthetics helped shape the genre of protest novels emerging in the 1940s.
Additionally, Hardison said, communist thought inspired an “internationalist” orientation within a segment of the black intelligentsia, linking the struggle for African-American human rights to liberation movements around the world. So, she says, the social critiques of the 1930s not only presage the 1940s, but also the Black Arts and Black Power movements of the 1960s.
Hardison said the new book offers additional insights, including insight into the value of literature and the humanities, more broadly, to society.
“Despite writers’ limited publishing and funding opportunities in the 1930s, they worked in a variety of genres to document the African American experience. They saw their creative work as important to racial representation, social politics, the development of education and the greater good,” Hardison said.
Image: Writer Dorothy West was interviewed and photographed in 1981 as part of a black women’s oral history project organized by Radcliffe College’s Schlesinger Library. Credit: Judith Sedwick