Searching for a new soul in Harlem

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2012-02-28 17:44Z by Steven

Searching for a new soul in Harlem

Gender News
The Clayman Institute for Gender Research
Stanford University

Annelise Heinz, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History
Stanford University

Allyson Hobbs on passing and racial ambiguity during the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem in the 1920s is known for its creative outpouring of art, music, and literature. A consciously political movement, the Harlem Renaissance was a cultural response to the dehumanizing limitations of Jim Crow, blackface minstrelsy, and economic disenfranchisement.

Early-20th-century America was organized along strict racial demarcations within a white supremacist world. Black authors like Alain Locke promoted a vision of the empowered “New Negro,” imbued with race pride. Ironically, during the same era that explicitly embraced a black identity, an extensive audience grew for literature focused on racial passing – stories about individuals of mixed-race heritage who passed as white.

For historian Allyson Hobbs, passing literature “functioned as a literary vehicle to critique racism and to draw attention to the absurdity of the American racial condition.” Yet, Hobbs also asserts that passing “opened a space for a fuller consideration of complex relationships within African American group identity.”

In this moment of celebrating African American culture, Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen, literary luminaries in the Harlem Renaissance, struggled with definitions of race. As individuals with mixed European and African ancestry, race structured the ways others saw them and shaped the choices available to them. Hobbs examines their personal and professional writings to argue for the diversity of mixed-race experiences and self-identities, which have largely been obscured or forgotten in the literature on passing…

Read the entire article here.

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