Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From Rebirth To The Age of Social Responsibility

review by Darryl Wellington

If the generation of Black scribes who toiled and published – and struggled with the predetermined expectations of race-conscious audiences and editors, and still published-between 1934 and 1960 was "the indignant generation," what was the generation that preceded them? The sweeter generation? The art-for-arts-sake generation? Were they largely an unindignant generation? Of course not. The generation of Black writers and artists of the 1920s have a distinctive group name. They were not unaggrieved. Their period of flourishing artistic creativity became familiarly known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The primary engine behind the Harlem Renaissance was a savvy White patron, publicist and impresario, Carl Van Vechten. In the next decade, the major philanthropic power -"the most important grant-giving body to African American intellectuals in the 1930s and ·1940s - was the Rosenwald Fund, based in Chicago, whose institutional largesse supplanted Van Vechten's patronage. The names changed, but nothing else? Lawrence P. Jackson's exhaustive The Indignant Generations is a record of how much changed. A subtle and essential cultural shift underscores The Indignant Generation's generational marker. It may have been as simple, yet as complex as distinctive differences in emphasis. The writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance tended to stress the elevation of Black identity, and the achievement of a sense of self-esteem equal to White America. The movement, which believed itself to be thoroughly modern, in vogue and progressive, was not untouched by the headiness and decadence that characterized the roaring '20s - hence it was not without its penchant to romanticize ecstatic jazz, exotic Africa, decorative art and sexual liberation. To be Black, yet full of self-confidence and in tune with the bohemian ideals of the roaring '20s was to be liberated, wasn't it?

Evidently not, said the next generation, for whom the romance soured, or rather, the faith that America's entrenched racism could be resolved by high art and bohemian swagger faded. The stock market crash rocked all America. The Great Depression legitimized class politics. The Black writers and artists of the '30s and early'40s regrouped after the socio-economic shocks (which hit hardest minority groups at the bottom of the barrel) and what little assistance they could find was provided by the Works Progress Administration writers and artists programs, the Rosenwald Fund, a few Black scholarly and political journals (such as The Crisis) and (in ways that should not be underestimated) the Communist Party USA. Sometimes domineering and manipulative, the Communist Party USA still championed causes such as the Scottsboro boys, and throughout the '40s - Lawrence P. Jackson frequently notes - "the typical young Black writer was still faced with only Communist front groups or racial uplift magazines to publish their work." The aesthetic ideal of the Communists of the day was social realism, and while Black writers frequently clashed with rigid CPUSA expectations, they were forged by them. The novels they wrote and plays they produced were also forged by offense that in the modern world – because they believed themselves to be as prescient and progressive in their thinking as had the members of the Harlem Renaissance - segregation was still the law of the land. To contemplate the situation was to know that indignation had reached an apocalyptic boiling point. Out of social irritants, and an intellectual impasse was born the late great protest novel.

The cultural and artistic watershed was Richard Wright's unrelentingly bleak and realistic Native Son, so challenging in its time that the entire indignant generation is sometimes characterized as "the Richard Wright school." "To name the period after its star is yet a misnomer," Jackson explains, both because of the diversity of perspectives within the period, and because the reaction against Wright was just as powerful as his initial influence. By the late fifties, thanks to critical responses championed by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, protest writing was out. A bouillabaisse of new criticism, idealistic social integrationism and complex ambiguity was in. Then another sea change hit, called Black power. The militant '60s Black aesthetic surpassed the indignant generation by foreswearing any identification with middle-class America at all.

The social realism of the'40s came and went. But who were the writers and books that defined old-school social realism, hammering at the walls of segregation? Try The Street by Ann Petry, Youngblood by John Oliver Killens, Stranger and Alone by J. Saunders Redding, Last of the Conquerors by William Gardner Smith, to name a few. But good luck finding the books. The Indignant Generation is a study of a generation lost in history, whose accomplishments have often gone out of print. The sheer number of titles is astonishing; among them must be a few neglected masterpieces.

Lawrence P. Jackson – previously best known for his biography of Ralph Ellison - has done a masterful and comprehensive job of documenting and instigating a reconsideration of an angry generation who still believed that storytelling was a social responsibility. it's an idea that - reexamined in the era of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee- doesn't seem so old-fashioned at all. The works need to be reassessed in the light of day, not indignation.

- Darryl Loenzo Wellington lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has published his work in Dissent, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Christian Science Monitor.
This review appears in the Spring, 2011 issue of The Crisis, p.33

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