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Some artists, such as Aaron Douglas, captured the feeling of Africa in their work because they wanted to show their ancestry through art. Others, like Archibald J. Motley Jr., obtained their inspiration from the surroundings in which they lived in; where jazz was at the forefront and African-Americans were just trying to get by day-to-day like any other Anglo-American. Additionally, some Black American artists felt more comfortable in Europe than they did in America. These artists tended to paint landscapes of different European countries. Most of the latter, however, were ostracized for this because many black politicians felt they should represent more of their African culture in their work (Campbell 1994, Powell and Bailey).
Whatever the case, most African-American artists during this period of time had a similarity that tied them together. Black art was often very colorful and vivacious; having an almost rhythmic feel to it. This was appropriate because African-American culture was filled with a tremendous zeal for life and an excitement. Alongside paintings of black culture, the movement also focused on a freedom from captivity, and the passion for life so apparent in black culture (Ibid).
It is difficult, at times, to make a strong gender separation regarding contributions of artists during the Harlem Renaissance. A poem might be written by a man, interpreted as a song by a woman, or visa-versa. A novel might be written by a woman, but brought to the stage or oration by a woman. The importance of gender is circumspect -- Black Women were allowed a semblance of artistic expression that might have been new to the community, but was occurring in other areas at the same time; women were extolling their independence in politics, art, science, and even in the workforce. In fact, one of the most famous women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, formulated much of her personal philosophy and characterizations not just from the individual people of the era, but from her skirmishes and aesthetic debates between herself, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright (Story 1985, 25-31).
Writers present the perspective of their particular community and social order. Readers of literature are enabled to see into different lives, different communities, and different worlds. Black women writers take the reader into the world of women and the world of the African-American alike, especially important in a world where black women suffer dual discrimination and numerous indignities because of their status, while these writers show that these women have personalities and thoughts and lives that link them to all of humanity even as they also exhibit certain cultural differences that make them unique. Along with the other artists presented in this essay, three African-American women stand out as seminal examples of dynamic fiction during the Harlem Renaissance: Zora Neal Hurston, Jessie Fauset, and Dorothy West (Jones 2002).
Zora Neale Hurston emerged as part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and was influenced by Langston Hughes. She represented a feminist-African-American mix, though her own personality quirks kept her from developing as fully as she might have. Her works, though, provide readers with a view of the beginnings of both feminism and a different view of African-American culture in the twentieth century. Hurston languished in obscurity for decades, in part because much of the literary world does indeed ignore women and blacks and the works they produce. However, as feminist literary criticism continues to diversify in terms of its aims and methods, one of the best ways of understanding the implications of this expanding discourse is to revisit a work firmly installed in the canon of feminist masterpieces and analyze the benefits and limitations of the feminist critique as applied to that work. Zora Neale Hurston's famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) has a curious history that points up, in several ways, how a multiplicity of critiques is required to do it justice (Boyd 2004).
Despite her fame and success, Hurston languished in obscurity in the last decades of her life and her literary productions -- once quite popular -- were completely disregarded. Following the resurrection of her works by Alice Walker around 1975, scholars began to investigate the struggle for literary dominance that had taken place between a number of black male writers, advocates of social or critical realism in fiction, and Hurston's "mythic realism" with its "lyrical black idiom" (Gates 200).
The resurgence of interest in this seminal work resulted in a situation where "within the critical establishment, scholars of every stripe have found in Hurston texts for all seasons" and the diversity of feminist approaches meant a diversity of approaches to Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Hurston's novel, aside from being the object of such analyses, is also the home and the source of several types of sophisticated critique devised by the author. In many ways the diversity of approaches employed by the writer herself not only antedate but also prefigure the diversity of approaches in feminist literary criticism today. There are also conflicts between certain aspects of Hurston's own analyses that similarly prefigure the internal conflicts that characterize today's feminist criticism. A reconsideration of the use of feminist analysis in the study of the novel and of Hurston's own critique provides illuminating commentary on the present state of feminist literary criticism (Gates, Goodman, Hutchinson).
Dorothy West was born in 1907 and died in 1998, having seen so many changes in African-American culture in her 91 years she commented that none of her colleagues from the 1920s would ever believe the way the world had changed. She is probably best known for her novel, The Living Is Easy, about the life of an upper class black family. In 1926, West tied for second place in a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity, a journal published by the National Urban League with her short story, "The Typewriter." Ironically, her co-winner was none other than Zora Neale Hurston (Shockley 1989).
West's principal contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was the publishing of the magazine Challenge, founded for $40 in 1934. She also continued with the magazine's successor, New Challenge. These publications remain important to the movement in that they were the first literary works to focus on realistic portrayals of African-Americans in real, non-stereotypical, situations. Writers like Richard Wright, Margaret Walker and Ralph Ellison first wrote in West's magazine.
Unfortunately, both magazines lacked the financing and advertising dollars to continue, but West worked for President Franklin Roosevelt's "Works Progress Administration Federal Writer's Project" until the mid-1940s, writing a number of short stories for the New York Daily News. Her novel, The Living is Easy, was published in 1948, to critical kudos, but lack of popular support until 1982, when a feminist press brought it back into print, giving new attention to West as an important part of the Harlem Renaissance and an integral figure in the synergism of many African-American writers of the period. As a result of the attention her book received, she finished a second novel, The Wedding, featured by Oprah Winfrey into a television miniseries and brining even more attention to West's importance as both a feminist, an organizer of equal rights issues, and an extremely talented writer who used emotional confluence to move her audiences into an alternate realm of thinking about injustice and race (Jones 2002).
Jessie Redmon Fauset was exceptional for her time, graduating from the Philadelphia High School for girls as the only black student, and then receiving her degree from Cornell University in 1905, and the first black woman to graduate Phi Beta Kappa. She was a literary editor under W.E.B. DuBois, and eventually 57 or her 77 works appeared in the NAACP journal "The Crisis." She wrote four novels, worked as a schoolteacher, and died in 1961 (Beaulieu 2006).
Langston Hughes called Fauset one of the "midwives" of the Harlem Revolution; her work tends to focus on the romanticized view of the middle-class African-American lifestyle and its rigid morality. Her works are complex, but still had a popular audience. Unlike Hurston and West, Fauset preferred to slowly take her readership through the movement of cultural accepting, both White to Black and Black to White. She believed that it would be through the integration of ideas and structure of commonality that true equality would arise. Her contribution was more of a support to the other members of the Harlem Renaissance and to provide an alternative approach to the subject of race, racial equality, and the African-American experience. She was perhaps far ahead of her time, for after the 1930 she married, and lived out her remaining years in a more domestic atmosphere. With the rebirth of studies on the Harlem Renaissance, however, Fauset was rediscovered as being one of the most emotionally balanced of the Black Women writers of the time, and one who foretold many of the same philosophies that would come to characterize the Civil Rights Movement itself -- namely,…[continue]
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