The Modernist Review #25: Black Lives Matter and Modernist Studies

9 November 2020

It cannot be acknowledged enough that modernist studies has been slow to respond to urgent calls for reform within white-dominated higher education: to decolonise, to diversify, to include. White modernism has a troubling history of racism. Students, activists and educators have been calling for a reckoning with that history – for decolonisation, diversification and inclusion in the academy – for decades. We recognise the institutional racism embedded within academia that we, the editors of the Modernist Review, have benefitted from, and that more needs to be done in the name of Black liberation in academia. In this issue on Black modernist studies, our contributors have explored the work of Black writers, artists, thinkers and scholars in the making of modernism, as well as how modernism resonates with racial injustices in our contemporary moment.     

2020 has seen a global sense of urgency in the fight against racial injustice. We cannot say loud enough or often enough that Black Lives Matter; the events of the US Presidential election have demonstrated the consequences for our world’s leaders who refuse to say it, too. Racial inequality was the top issue (second only to the economy) for 21% of voters in the election won by President-Elect Joe Biden. Now, the words of Harlem Renaissance writer and activist Langston Hughes ring out just as importantly as they always have:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –
Who made America

We must remember through the words of Hughes the work that is left to do – not just in the US, but across the globe. From Hughes’s poem in 1936 to Ijeoma Oluo’s words in 2018: ‘If you live in this system of white supremacy, you are either fighting the system or you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice, it is not something you can just opt out of’. This struggle is global. The world’s attention may have been drawn by America lately, but that should not detract from the vital anti-racist work that needs to be done both in the UK and around the world. A return to ‘normal’ will not be enough. 

Justin Smiths article speaks to the revolutionary and utopian potential of Black American modernism. He asks what African American modernist writers can teach modern readers about political potential. He argues that ‘modernism actually signals new ways for African American writers to represent the highest of their political aspirations: Black utopia’. Smith’s urgent call for modernist scholars ‘to consider the politics that lay at the intersection of modernism and Blackness’ is more timely than ever. Bret Johnson‘s piece ‘Prizes and Prejudice: Institutional Support for Windrush Modernists‘ looks closely at the intersection between modernism, Blackness and the tradition of literary prizes; Johnson highlights both the support and institutional failures of prize culture for Caribbean modernists.

Laura Ryan takes Hughes’s poem quoted above, ‘Let America be America Again,’ as the focus of her article on the Harlem Renaissance in the age of Black Lives Matter, in which she urges us, ‘if we are to take anything substantial from this poem’, to ‘attend more carefully to its meanings and contexts, to its lesser-quoted sections, to the aspects that might trouble our sensibilities today.’ Ryan was inspired by CBS featuring the poem in a news report on demonstrations and memorials for George Floyd. Chyna N. Crawford takes demonstrations as her central theme, asking how protest and rebelliousness shaped the twenty-first century. When marching through the streets in 2020, we owe much to Harlem Renaissance writings, where, she says, ‘there are a lot of connections to social justice and protest.’ In their poetry, writers such as Langston Hughes offer ‘instruction in order to convert readers into social activism’.

Timeliness is key to Adam McKee’s reassessment of James Smethurst’s important work, The African American Roots of Modernism. Reviewing ‘how the book has been received over the last decade’, McKee reminds us that ‘[t]he time to reassess not just who is in the canon but also how influences and ideologies are downplayed or ignored is now.’ Aija Oksman looks at abolition feminism, and the ways that many significant figures’s work has been downplayed, ignored or forgotten in the first part of a new series for TMR. Oksman highlights the work and life of Sojourner Truth – whose early activism paved the way for abolition feminism – and looks at how Truth’s influence has been misremembered, misquoted and deliberately misrepresented. 

Courtney Mullis traces Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘mastery of form’, looking at how Their Eyes Were Watching God actively alters and remakes literary tradition. Through the art of ‘Signifyin’’ and subversion of canonicity (down with Dickens!), Mullis outlines how Hurston’s writing creates space for Black modernist experience and expression. In her article on queer archival tactics, Molly C Farrell explores some of those concrete ways in which the canon is formed and other influences are ignored – how it is that we come to tell ‘the stories we tell’. By looking at Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives and Shola von Reinhold’s LOTE, Farrell examines ‘the suppressions, blanks and erasures of existing archival practice’, created under a ‘colonial economy, slavery and its afterlife’. Christopher Wellsreview of Gemma Romain’s biography of Patrick Nelson – a biography that in itself undoes some of these suppressions and erasures – shines light on ‘a much-needed addition to know history of queer Black identities’. In looking at Romain’s own archival practice, Wells concludes that ‘this biography of Nelson reminds us that those lives that matter should be captured authentically’. Queer Black identity is also the focus for Dylan Rowen’s article on Richard Bruce Nugent, ‘the only outwardly queer writer of the Harlem Renaissance’. Focusing on the experimental short story, ‘Smoke, Lilies and Jade’, Rowen sets out what he defines as a ‘queer fusion of cruising as a reading practice’.

Finally, in this issue of TMR, we are excited and honoured to present something of a first: a diary-cum-exhibition of brand new paintings, by artist Kabe Wilson. Digitally exhibiting ten paintings of Brighton for the first time, Wilson gives us a ‘diaristic account of his attempt to engage with Bloomsbury modernism over the lockdown period and against the backdrop of the global Black Lives Matter protests.’ Both moving and uplifting, his accounts find brilliant and unexpected encounters with the Bloomsbury group. ‘I found out Vanessa Bell painted Newhaven Lighthouse – it’s at Charleston. Will try to see it when things are back to normal. “Would they go to the Lighthouse tomorrow? No, not tomorrow, she said, but soon, she promised him; the next fine day.”’

Now a few days into England’s second lockdown period, we, too, sometimes feel a bit like James Ramsay. Would they have an in-person conference or networking event tomorrow? No, not tomorrow, but soon, and in the meantime, it has been wonderful to see some of you at our newly styled ‘A Zoom of One’s Own’ (#ModZoom), with people joining in from all over the world. If you have joined us, we would love to hear your anonymous feedback on this form, to help us make Wednesday afternoons even better and more productive for you. Although it also will be online this year, we can’t wait to see everyone at New Work in Modernist Studies next month, too. Congratulations to everyone who got accepted. The programme is looking incredible, and we’re delighted that we can be joined by PhD students from around the world this year. 

Speaking of online events, TMR has just started a new series of online event reflections, so that we can hear from organisers who faced the challenge of pivoting a range of events from online to in-person this year. The series was kicked off by the organisers of Entangled Modernities and the Countervoices team behind the Pandemic, Crisis and Modern Studies Twitter conference. If you have an online event that you would like to reflect on or review, we’d love to hear from you at tmr@bams.ac.uk. As always, we have an ongoing call for papers, so if you have any other article, book review or creative piece that you’d like to write for us, our virtual inbox-office-doors are always open.

We hope that this issue has been an invitation to you to ask yourself how Black Lives Matter informs your modernist research, reading, and teaching. Order books by Black writers; cite Black scholars; add Black writers to your curriculum; and if your bibliography, department, class or cohort is majority white – ask why. Signing off with yet another socially-distant wave, we look forward to seeing you on our screens soon, and just maybe, ‘the next fine day’, in person. In the meantime, we can work for things to change. 

Best wishes,

Polly Hember, Josh Phillips, Bryony Armstrong, Cécile Varry


Image credit: Aaron Douglas, ‘From Slavery through Reconstruction’, 1934

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