Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940-1960
“Realism” is defined as the “faithful reproduction” of reality while naturalism refers to the “franker, harsher treatment of that reality”. Modernism signifies “a break with purely representational aesthetics, with the familiar functions of language and conventions of form”. Before this time period, mainly during the 1930s, many black writers focused on the rural South still imprisoned by Jim Crow and racist violence. Now authors took a different approach with their writing, and it was clearly very northern and urban. Cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York served as settings for much of this new writing. Many literary historians and critics give credit to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) with setting the tone of this period. They assert that Wright’s book changed American culture and African American writing. Wright himself was critical of the African American writing of the past, especially the Harlem Renaissance. He believed that some black writers were more concerned with acceptance and doing what white America wanted them to do instead of social protest. Even though much of the writing of this time was proletarian in nature and sought to raise social consciousness, many writers who grew up and lived during the Depression had an “integrationist” attitude and started writing on nonracial subjects. Zora Neale Hurston’s final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), was labeled as “non-Negro” because its characters are white and its setting is rural. Others, like James Baldwin, wrote essays attacking the protest form of writing.
Art Class, ca. 1939-1940, by William H. Johnson. Born April 20, 1940 in Woodside, St. Mary, Jamaica.
Zora Neale Hurston
The Black Arts Era, 1960-1975
The Black Arts Movement spawned writers who encouraged social revolution, even by violent means. There are perhaps no better examples of this violent tone in black literature than these lines from Amiri Baraka’s signature poem, “Black Art” (1969): “We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot” (ll. 19-20).The Black Arts Movement set the tone for a new era in the lives of many African Americans. The main aim for African American writers was to write literature that topped blackness. Writers turned their pens into swords to portray the injustices against the African American race and called for African Americans to unite as a strong force against white supremacy. During the Black Arts Movement, writers recuperated the dialect of the black community. Welcoming Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who, like their artistic ancestors, wrote using black lingo and developed themes of spiritual and political liberation. The leading voices of the Black Arts Movement were interested in building a black audience, not in pandering to a white audience. They found support in the growing of new publishing companies and journals that focused on the black experience. Established publishing companies began pulling from their records out-of-print works by African American authors (1844-1845). The Black Arts Movement also was strengthened by the arrival of black studies in American universities. There were now university-trained scholars reading, interpreting, and teaching works by African American artists. The Black Arts movement proved to be provocative starting point for a new way of