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Jim Crow and the Birth of Modernism

9 November 2020

Adam McKee, Elizabeth City State University

James Smethurst, The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)

            James Smethurst’s argument in The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (2011) establishes the African American experience in Jim Crow as essential to the birth of what might be called an American modernist experience. Modernism as a field has often dealt with issues of racism, sexism, and anti-semitism. However, now in the midst of a sort of reckoning in America about our racist history, institutions, and ideologies, arguments like Smethurst’s seek to explode the concept of American modernism and the cultural institutions behind its development. This essay is a reassessment of Smethurst’s work in light of the particular moment in American literary studies and how the book has been received over the last decade. In place of the Armory Show and contact with the European avant-garde as precursors and initiators of modernist themes and tropes, Smethurst finds the experience of African Americans in the Jim Crow Era a central marker in the birth of American modernism. Early in the text Smethurst writes that “a crucial objective of this book is to suggest how African American literature first raised many of the concerns, stances, and tropes associated with U.S. modernism” (3). The text sets out, on a near granular level, to document the development of authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Fenton Johnson and many others “not to prove that black literature at the turn of the century is worth reading because it is “modernist”…but to rethink the relationship of black literature during the early Jim Crow era, North and South, to a broad sense of “American” artistic modernity as well to the development of significant “American” artistic avant gardes or countercultures anchored territorially or geographically” (25). In his detailed analysis, Smethurst thoroughly documents how writers of the “Nadir” worked to develop concepts central to modernism. In “nadir,” Smethurst adopts the term originated by Rayford Logan to refer to the lowest point for African Americans in the United States in his work The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (1954).[1] In the current racial climate in the United States, Smethurst’s claim that “In general, white authors in the United States have long been reluctant to acknowledge being influenced by black writers” (3) warrants further review as black writers have long been devalued or neglected as literary forefathers in American writing, which Smethurst notes is not the same for fields such as American music.

            Smethurst’s text contains chapters outlining the rise of Jim Crow, the trope of the black Civil War veteran, the rise of a “new poetry” in Dunbar and the development of artistic bohemia in the United States, the migration narrative, and the relationship in African American literature feminism, sexuality, and modernity. Following Houston Baker’s formative argument in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) that there was a distinct black modernism in the early twentieth century separate from “Anglo-American” modernism,[2] Smethurst claims that “many of those “Anglos,” at least from the United States, owed much more to black Nadir literature than they would allow” (26). Darryl Dickson-Carr’s review of Smethurst’s book states that the text (along with works by Sonnet Retman and W. Fitzhugh Brundage) “posits African-American literary and cultural developments as vital organs within the modern nation’s reluctant body, rather than mere appendages”.[3] Of these three texts, Dickson-Carr argues that they “make the most salient case that American modernity depends upon distilling, packaging, and marketing blackness”.[4] Smethurst concludes his text by walking the reader through a number of canonical modernists and the implications of his work on their texts including Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

            Smethurst’s text was initially well-received as Dickson-Carr’s three work, review essay indicates. Mark Whalan, reviewing the work for the Journal of American Studies, writes that Smethurst’s “claim for writers such as James Weldon Johnson, Pauline Hopkins, Fenton Johnson, and, above all, Paul Lawrence Dunbar is that their literary responses to the psychological, spatial, and sexual dynamics of the Nadir were amongst the first examples of what would become the preoccupations of American modernism” (505) and that one of the central theses of the book is “that it was writers of the Nadir, not the rather more overexposed authors of the Harlem Renaissance, who initiated these insights–insights that would inform the entire American literary culture”.[5] John Lowney’s review in the African American Review called the text “an impressively thorough and provocative account of the impact of African American literature on modernism in the United States”.[6] Comparing the work to Smethurst’s The Black Arts Movement (2005)[7], Lowney notes that “The African American Roots of Modernism is perhaps more likely to transform perceptions of African American literary history”.[8] Smethurst’s work not only situates black voices as primary contributors to the birth of American modernism, it also alters the timeline of the birth to coincide with responses to the Jim Crow Era.

            While it is difficult to completely calculate a text’s individual influence on the field, especially in less than a decade, Smethurst’s text has been mentioned in some vitally important discussions of modernism and African American literature. The work is mentioned in both Cheryl A. Wall’s The Harlem Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2016)[9] and Linda Wagner-Martin’s The Routledge Introduction to American Modernism (2016)[10] with Wall’s text listing Smethurst under “Further Reading.” Additionally, the text has also been cited in Adrienne Brown’s fascinating study The Black Skyscraper (2017)[11] and K. Merinda Simmons and James A. Crank’s recent work Race and New Modernisms (2019).[12] The text also appears in Jess Waggoner’s “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience: Afro-Modernist Critiques of Eugenics and Medical Segregation” (2017) in Modernism/Modernity.[13] Smethurst’s text continues to build a reputation in the field as a trailblazing work that challenges previously conceived notions of modernism’s timeline and origins.

            The African American Roots of Modernism (2011) is an important text to revisit in light of the current zeitgeist in American society. At a time when racial injustice and institutional racism are being challenged, albeit with significant work still remaining, the time to reassess not just who is in the canon but also how influences and ideologies are downplayed or ignored is now. Smethurst’s text is one important piece of this work in modernist studies. His text reassessed American modernism’s origins and establishes the argument that “African American writers of the extended Nadir from the onset of Jim Crow to the beginning of the New Negro Renaissance were in many respects our first modernists-or, at the very least, did much to shape the field in which domestic U.S. modernism would grow” (215). Smethurst’s text and its central argument are more crucial to the moment in modernist studies than they have been at any other point in the last decade.

[1] Logan, Rayford, The Negro in American Life and Thought, The Nadir 1877-1901 (New York: The Dial Press Inc., 1954).

[2] Baker, Houston, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[3] Dickson-Carr, Darryl ‘African Americans and the Making of Modernity.’ American Literary History, vol. 25, num. 3, 2013, p. 673

[4] Dickson-Carr, p. 682

[5] Whalan, Mark. ‘James Smethurst. The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance.’ Journal of American Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, 2012, pp. 505-506.

[6] Lowney, John. ‘James Smethurst. The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance.’ African American Review, vol. 45, no. 1-2, 2012, p. 258.

[7] Smethurst, James, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[8] Lowney, p. 259

[9] Wall, Cheryl, The Harlem Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[10] Wagner-Martin, Linda, The Routledge Introduction to American Modernism (London: Routledge, 2016)

[11] Brown, Adrienne, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). 

[12] Simmons, K. Merinda and James Crank, Race and New Modernism (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

[13] Waggoner, Jess. ‘”My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience”: Afro-Modernist Critiques of Eugenics and Medical Segregation.’ Modernism/modernity, vol. 24 no. 3, 2017.

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