In his historical consideration of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, essayist Thadious M. Davis does the reader a profound service by situating the phenomenon and its writers within a situational and socio-historical framework. Davis examines the lives and the work of several of the writers he deems as being both central and lesser figures in the Harlem Renaissance from a biographical and critical perspective, handling an impressive amount of material in a relatively concise fashion. At the same time, however, the “black for life” theory by Thadious M. Davis about the effects of the importation of distinct beliefs, values, and narrative strategies from the deep South to Harlem, where, he contends, they were fused by young, enthusiastic, and expressive writers into a new genre that was simultaneously distinctly black and distinctly Southern, is somewhat limited in that it fails to acknowledge and explore crucial complexities that characterized the lives of writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. In “Southern Standard-Bearers in the New Negro Renaissance," Davis is prone to making sweeping statements and generalizations that may confound our understanding of this important cultural period and the writers whose literary legacy remains a significant part of the American canon. It is only by returning to the work of some of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance themselves that the reader can begin to develop an argument against Davis’s contention that there is some universal, quintessential, and representative voice that speaks for all African Americans through the literature of this movement. The specific works that will be examined here are Langston Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea, and Richard Wright’s essay, “Blueprint for Negro Writing."
It is clear that Davis has both a profound passion for the Harlem Renaissance and a firm grasp on the important details of the movement, its writers, and the works they produced. He draws upon this knowledge to acquaint the reader with those writers who are both enduring figures in the canon, as well as more obscure writers who, in his estimation, nevertheless played a critical role in developing the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement that would make a permanent mark on American letters and culture. What unites all of these writers, Davis contends, was one part happenstance and one part biological destiny. African American writers gravitated to Harlem, New York because of the oppressive political, social, and economic conditions in the Deep South. Harlem became “a Mecca for black authors, because it offered at the time what the South could not: an intellectual and artistic community replete with opportunities for publishing and acquiring an audience." In Harlem, African Americans could feel greater solidarity, increased liberty for self-expression, and the possibility of creating community, all of which were considered virtually impossible in the South at that period in history. Of course, there is an assumption here that African Americans would feel a natural affinity for one another because of their shared race, as well as their shared experiences of oppression, which was also due to their race. While this assumption is not necessarily inaccurate, it is limiting, and it is characteristic of the problematic aspects of Davis’s essay. Although it is obvious that African American writers did, almost without exception, write about subjects and situations that were inextricably bound up in their own racial identity and personal experiences, a deeper examination of both the writers and their works reveals just how multi-faceted most of these authors were.
Davis is so effusive in his praise that he fails to consider his own theoretical construct critically. He praises Jean Toomer, for instance, as the quintessential voice of African Americans, as if there can be a quintessential voice for any community of people or any group of experiences. By examining Hughes’s and Wright’s work, we will see just how complex both men were, and furthermore, just how expansive their own perspectives of and ambitions for the literary enterprise were. Although both Hughes and Wright clearly wrote about experiences that were common to many African Americans, both writers wanted to shatter literary and social paradigms about what it meant to be an African American man, as well as what it meant to be an African American writer. Another similarly misleading aspect of Davis’s essay is the fact that in each of his portraits of the writers he includes, Davis seems to be grasping at biographical or anecdotal data that can support the theory that he wants to promulgate, namely, that the writers of the Harlem Renaissance are linked not just by the virtue of their race itself, but by some seminal moment in which they declared themselves “black for life." In effect, Davis seems to be suggesting that there were only two choices available to the African American writer: embrace one’s identity as an African American and write almost exclusively about African American themes, or embrace one’s identity as a writer, and choose to write about African American themes and other experiences and ideas.
Davis’s theory is certainly seductive enough, and on first glance, one can find adequate evidence to support it. It is true that the central geographical location of Harlem provided both a literal and psychological backdrop for a literary community building experiment, the likes of which had never been witnessed among African American authors in the United States, and which had not been witnessed among Caucasian writers since the transcendentalist movement. Davis’s theory recognizes that political, social, and economic conditions influenced the Mecca phenomenon as well. He argues that writers from the South “did not leave behind their Southern heritage, practices, and beliefs," and retained folk elements of their Southern experiences. Finally, it is clear that there was a direct and strong link between political activism and literary production. Indeed, the two were fused; many African American organizations and unions published newspapers in which space was dedicated for artistic expression. In these forums, new writers inspired one another and a fledgling artistic community was born. These spaces witnessed the launch of careers of some of the most renowned writers of the period that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, and the fact that they paid their contributors only served to foster interest. All in all, Davis writes, those writers who gained prominence during this time “believed in the power of art to alter negative images and racial stereotypes either by its instructive themes or by the fact of its creation by black authors."
It is that last statement that is particularly problematic. Despite the historical facts, an astute reader recognizes that even while African American subjects and experiences did form the crux of many literary works of the period, there were also obvious efforts, both conscious and assertive and unconscious, to break beyond the labels that were already becoming limiting and stifling. In other words, there were African American writers who clearly wanted to be known not just for their “instructive themes" or the fact that they themselves were black, but rather for their total identity, which was complex and multi-faceted. In the case of Langston Hughes, for instance, Davis acknowledges that Hughes was a “Southerner twice removed from the South," but he insists that Hughes’s work was most notable for its deep concern for all that was Southern and black. It is undeniable that some of Hughes’s best known and most widely anthologized pieces, especially his poems, including “A Dream Deferred" and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers," are overt and assertive articulates of experiences and emotions shared by many African Americans. As Hughes acknowledged in his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," “Without going outside his race… there is sufficient material to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work." Although Hughes is criticizing a young African American poet who says he wants to be known as a poet, not a Negro poet—a position which would seemingly support Davis’s theory rather than contest it— he ends the essay with a more nuanced message that the careful reader will decipher. Hughes urges his fellow writers to “express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." He asserts the writer’s right to offend black and white sensibilities alike. “We know we are beautiful," he writes, “And ugly too."