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). 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.
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