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Good Trouble: How Protest and Rebelliousness Have Shaped the Twenty First Century

9 November 2020

Chyna N. Crawford, Elizabeth City State University

Content warning: racial slurs; police brutality

America is a country founded on independence, democracy and political rights. A form of free speech – the right to protest – is the first freedom underscored in the Constitution and has endured for two centuries since ratification. Protests have been widely criticised throughout the history of our country, despite this constitutional right. People have continued to take to the streets time after time, holding up signs, flags and fists. Thousands of demonstrators have faced numerous challenges over the years. Over frigid winters and warm summers, tear gas and water bombs, in search of a certain shared goal: equality. Modernism, like the American spirit, has evolved out of a very rebellious temperament and stance regarding social and political issues.

Many modernists talk about the geneses of this school of thought, but voices are often silenced because of both race and gender.[1] At first glance, the straight-out differentiation between the Harlem Renaissance and American Modernism appears to be innocuous and, for scholars of American Literature, the division is implicit. The division between the two movements, valid or not, emerges in light of the fact that American scholarly history sees Modernism as generally a European development contemporaneous with, however separate from, the Harlem Renaissance2. Gosselin (Cleveland State University) notes that American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance both tackle essential Modernist thoughts such as alienation, primitivism, and experimental form, however, the canon of American literature keeps on recording black writers of the period as “Harlem Renaissance” essayists instead of Black Modernist or just American Modernist.[2] Simply put, American Modernism is Black modernism. The Harlem Renaissance and the black and African American experience as central to American modernism. Many would say the Harlem Renaissance is the only real American modernism. African American protest poetry, from 1917 to 1968, encompasses the traditional modernist time period. As the political, social, and psychological status of African Americans shifted over the century, the authors provide a rich area of reference from which to track shifts in the voice of black dissent.

Within writings of the Harlem Renaissance, there are a lot of connections to social justice and protest. Poets like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay have poems and essays that touch on some of the social justice issues, which continue to plague the US. Hughes wrote in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, ‘We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter’.[3] Protests are the oldest form of addressing inequality and often instigate societal change and bolsters America’s foundations of democracy. The first significant act of defiance and protest by American was The Boston Tea Party. Since then Americans have utilised protest and rebellion countless times to address perceived injustices. James Weldon Johnson, famed writer and author of the Negro National Anthem, called for a protest march through the heart of New York City’s business district in response to the East St. Louis riots, and police treatment of blacks during riots in New York City, 1917.[4] This call, and calls from many others, ushered in what would become one of the first civil rights protests in American history, aptly called the Negro Silent Protest Parade.

In To the White Fiends, McKay issues a vitriolic rebuke to white oppressors and bigots, is among McKay’s most popular poems from this time. ‘Think you I am not fiend and savage too? | Think you I could not arm me with a gun |And shoot down ten of you for every one | Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?’[5] Protests in the 20th century were heavily based on the idea that people needed direct change in society, and that they were protesting a specific conflict.This is noted in more o’ McKay’s published poetry, especially the emboldening If We Must Die, which armored blacks regarding their rights and threatened revenge for racism and violence.  McKay says, ‘Like men, we will face a murderous, cowardly pack, | Pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back!’[6]

Cullen’s works and literary calls for protest are much more subdued than that of other Harlem Renaissance poets, such as McKay and Hughes.  Cullen offers a powerful criticism of American bigotry in one of his poems, ‘Incident’. This poem exclaims with indignation when he remembers his inaudible reaction to being labeled ‘nigger’ on a Baltimore bus:

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out 
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”[7]

The Jim Crow system substantially influenced artistic and intellectual responses from African American writers, profoundly noting the foundations of literary modernism and, ultimately, concepts of American modernity. Early protests are situated in response to the calls for collapse of old Jim Crow. Some authors omitted an insistent outcry, as Langston Hughes wrote:

That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.[8]

Within the realm of protest in America white people have been part of the Black freedom struggle since the days of underground railroad. Progress on civil rights has long depended on Black leadership, and tensions between other ethnic groups isn’t a new phenomenon. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, Black leaders were often leery of white supporters, questioning their commitment and their willingness to be led. White supporters often do not know where or how to aid in the protest movements. One clear method utilised by many modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, was the acknowledgement of the issues. Although, they had very little in the way of political investment in the social issue of Lynching, they questioned the practice while invoking anxieties about their own identities as poets.[9]  Welsh, notes in an unpublished dissertation that, modernist authors speak about lynching as a cultural criticism and provide alternative tactics to its traumatising force.

Criminal Justice scholar, Michelle Alexander’s (Union Theological Seminary) The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has set an academic framework and ushered in movements such as #BLM and #SayHerName. In her novel, which highlights how the US Justice System operates against black people, was published in 2010. This book includes data about people of color concerning prison rates, the war on drugs, mandatory minimums, three-strike rules, differences in punishment between powder cocaine users vs. crack cocaine users, and so many other issues with the criminal justice system as it related to minority people of colour. Alexander critiques the civil rights community and suggests that as a new movement toward social inequality in America, we need to hold an active dialogue on incarceration.[10] The issues of racial profiling, police brutality, voting restrictions, and mass imprisonment of African Americans and other people of colour in the United States have been dubbed the ‘New Jim Crow’ by Alexander. These policies, and the enforcement by Police agencies has caused moral outrage. This outrage is evidenced by protest which both exemplify and defy the traditional modernist studies movement, through public protest, criticism, and social justice. With the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, people all over the world have spoken up about the injustices the black community face.

Over the last ten years, the increased attention to national rallies and protest against police killings have been called un-American.[11] However, Protest movements themselves also have remarkable parallels to those that existed years ago. The current protest movement is situated in a similar call to the protest movements of the 1950’s and 60’s. The Black Lives Matter protests, in its message of countering social injustices, such as oppression and aggression, is reminiscent of the both the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement. Specifically, the killings of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people has incited another cohort of organisers to take their protests public. This sense of rebellion has always been used to defend freedoms from oppressors and authority. In fact, protest is undeniably American. This country was founded upon the ideals that oppressed and suppressed people should and can revolt. Therefore, it is quite unique, that Racism is so American that when you protest it, people think you are protesting America.

The Harlem Renaissance and modernist poetry is epigrammatic and formidable. Modernist protest poetry is often didactic, offering instruction in order to convert readers into social activism (think of Hughes, urging ‘let us hurry, comrades’). The ideas and ideals of modernists authors sufficiently command and rally people in the public domain, from the civil rights and women’s liberation campaigns to #BlackLivesMatter, and lightweight enough to claim coverage on social media. In the face of political and media rhetoric intended to obscure or deceive,  expressing truth to power appears to be a vital function of the modernist poet (again, think of Hughes’s line: ‘I look at my own body | With eyes no longer blind’).Technology has now revolutionised the methods of organising protests and bringing movements to all corners of the country and other countries. Modernist thought, and its connection to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement can continue to gain momentum through the sharing of videos of police brutality across multiple social media platforms.

Although protest and rebellion are common, protest opponents note that democratic assembly has always been used as an inefficient and unsuccessful means to address social injustices. Dissenting voices have also become common in movements and allege that protests are disruptive societal disturbances. As, such, protest can lead to violence or potential jail time, but it can also lead to positive changes to ensure safer and happier futures. As John Lewis remarked atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 1, 2020: ‘Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.’ Embracing social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName are are integral to our future, and to the future of modernist studies.


[1] James Smethurst, The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press Books, 2011); Sieglinde Lemke, Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Emily Elvoid, ‘Ignoring the Harlem Renaissance: The Failure of Modernist Scholarship’ (unpublished master’s thesis, John Carroll University, 2020).

[2] Adrienne Johnson Gosselin, ‘Beyond the Harlem Renaissance: The case for black modernist writers,’ Modern Language Studies (1996), pp. 37-45.

[3] Langston Hughes, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain in 1926’, The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Volume 9 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), pp. 31-36.

[4]  James Weldon Johnson, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.

[5]   Claude McKay, ‘To the White Fiends’, The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), p. 73.

[6]  Claude McKay, ‘If We Must Die’, Complete Poems: Claude McKay (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000), pp 177-78.

[7] Countee Cullen, ‘Incident’, On these I stand: An anthology of the best poems of Countee Cullen (London: Harpercollins, 1947), p.

[8] Hughes Langston, ‘I look at the world’, Poetry Foundation.

[9] M. L. Welch, ‘Tortured Shadows: Representations of Lynching in Modernist US Poetry.’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 2007).

[10] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2020).

[11] US President Donald Trump since taking office in 2017 has repeatedly branded anti-racism protesters in the country as ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-american’. He offered a promise to increase military presence in many Democrat-run cities where citizens protested the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN.

Colin Kaepernick began sending a message about police brutality and social injustice by refusing to stand for the national anthem before the National Football League (NFL)  games in 2016. His protest resulted in his being blackballed from playing professional football in the US. The league also then prohibited all NFL players from actively protesting during games, until 2020.

Image: Left; Hulton Archive; Between 200,000 and 500,000 demonstrators march down Constitution Avenue during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. Right; Protesters gather in Harlem to protest the recent death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in New York City; David ‘Dee’ Delgado.

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