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Harlem Renaissance modernism: migration and folk discourse

Harlem Renaissance modernism: migration and folk discourse

Baillie, Justine ORCID: 0000-0002-0056-9155 (2020) Harlem Renaissance modernism: migration and folk discourse. In: The Wanderings of Modernism, 11 Jan 2020, Universite Sorbonne, Maison de la recherche (rue Serpente). (Unpublished)

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To counteract constructions of race in the minstrel tradition and in segregationist Jim Crow legislation, Harlem Renaissance leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, sought to construct the ‘New Negro’ as modern urbanite whilst wishing to preserve the cultural particularisms of a folk past. By the 1920s, migration to the urban North had begun to disrupt the African-American rural culture of the South and necessitated the creation of new forms of expression that could still be designated as folk culture. Alain Locke, in ‘The New Negro’ (1925), seized upon the ‘transformed and transforming psychology’ of the ‘migrating peasant’ as the source of authentic racial expression that should lead and inform both artist and critic in a project towards cultural self-determination. Locke’s focus on the centrality of folk expression for black creativity led him to align Harlem, as a diasporic cultural capital, with nationalist struggles for self-determination in Europe after the First World War: ‘Harlem has the same rôle to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia’.

To privilege tradition involved Harlem Renaissance modernists in complex, sometimes fraught, relationships with a discourse of the folk. Claude McKay, Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset sought to negotiate the psychological, political and aesthetic problems encountered in establishing a literary movement in the context of valorisations of the folk.

This paper examines the relationship between folk discourse, modernism and nationalism through a consideration of key works by Harlem Remaissance writers. I argue that to delineate new urban identities, Harlem wirters were compelled to engage with the contours of Anglo-European primitive modernism as well as African-American folk discourse. In doing so Harlem wiriters established a unique form of modernism for the expression of racial identity in the context of migration from Southern states to the North and, after the First World War, to Europe.

Item Type: Conference or Conference Paper (Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: modernism, Harlem Renaissance, folk discourse, Claude McKay, Gertrude Stein
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > School of Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS)
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Last Modified: 20 Apr 2021 21:22

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