Langston Hughes’s ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ by Griffin Shiel

lhughesLangston Hughes was one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Remembered primarily as a pioneer of jazz poetry, Hughes also wrote several plays, novels, short stories and essays. In 1926 Hughes wrote ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, an essay which offered a strong critique of the upper and middle class blacks and their contribution to Harlem Renaissance art whilst praising that of the lower working class blacks. Hughes sees a fundamental difference between these distinct class groups; the ‘low folk’ embrace their heritage whereas the ‘“high-class” Negro’ rejects it in favour of white standards of aesthetic.

The central argument of his essay is coloured by class-based antagonisms. Upper and middle class blacks have distanced themselves from their African heritage because of their upbringing and thus have an appreciation of white culture over black culture. Hughes recounts two anecdotes to demonstrate this. The first, a conversation with a young, middleclass, African-American poet who told Hughes ”I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet.”2, which Hughes analyses as a desire to be white. In the other incident, Hughes talks of ‘a prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia’ who paid to see a white musician but would not do the same to see a black woman sing which demonstrates class based elitism with racial implications. From these isolated experiences, Hughes makes critical inferences about middle and upper class black Americans and how they view their own race. Laurie F. Leach, a biographer of Hughes, analyses Hughes critique of black elites as such; ‘Hughes argued that the black middle class is the source of this desire to be white and accepted by whites. In middle-class homes, the children are taught to hold themselves superior to those of their race with less education, money and social status.’ In Leach’s view, Hughes saw race and class as inextricable from one another; the way in which one saw themselves in economic terms defined the extent to which they chose to assimilate themselves into white society.

Hughes’s idea of the ‘racial mountain’ essentially entails that black Americans have been socialized to hold up white culture as superior to their own. In doing so they have constructed obstacles to creating authentic representations of black cultural heritage; …this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness’ . This remains an issue in contemporary discussions on the relationship between race and culture. High profile black artists, notably Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Whitney Houston, have been accused of ‘whitening up’. In his article ‘Whitney Houston Critics called her “too white”’ Larry Elder notes; “Houston struggled with drug and alcohol problems for years …” But Houston also struggled with something else…ridicule and ostracism for “selling out,” or “acting white,” or not being “black enough.” This shows that the idea of racialized culture is still relevant today. Hughes criticised his Harlem Renaissance peers for writing in a way that pandered to white aesthetic values. Over half a century later, musicians were being judged according to race-based expectations.

Hughes was one of the younger generation of renaissance figures who looked disparagingly at the ‘The Nordicized Negro Intelligentsia’ . Claude McKay was another prominent Harlem writer who saw the working class as possessing a greater, more authentic black culture notably in his seminal novel Home to Harlem (1928), which focuses on the grimier, working class side of Harlem. Furthermore, in his autobiography ‘A Long Way from Home’ McKay emphasises the detrimental effect that black elites have on the Harlem Renaissance movement as a whole; ‘…among the Negro artists there was much of that Uncle Tom attitude which works like Satan against the idea of a coherent and purposeful Negro group. Each one wanted to be the first Negro, the one Negro and the only Negro for the whites instead of for the group.’

Hughes’s description of working class blacks’, stands in stark contrast to his scorn for black elitism. Leach notes; ‘Hughes celebrates the “low-down folks” … These people do not waste time imitating whites or feeling ashamed of themselves.’ Hughes’s admiration comes across clearly; he praises their unashamed pride in their African heritage, and sees them as the ones to produce art which truly reflects the black culture and experience; ‘perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.’ His antipathy towards the intelligentsia who strive to assimilate into white society, combined with his enthusiasm for the potential of “low-down folk” to produce authentic representations of black art leads Hughes to assign a socio-cultural responsibility to working class black artists to break down the ingrained perceptions that black culture is of lesser value;

‘…it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?

For all its virtues and significance, Hughes’s essay does have a level of hypocrisy which cannot be ignored. He devotes much of the article to praising the new generation of black artists for their individuality and embracing their heritage; ‘We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.’12 And yet, he also states ‘An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.’ This implies that Hughes sees the expression of African-American heritage as the only option for emerging black artists, which conflicts somewhat with his emphasis on individual expression.

langstonhughesIn spite of this contradiction, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ serves as one of the most important essays of the Harlem Renaissance era, and as an unofficial manifesto for the younger generation, of Harlem Renaissance figures. It serves as an effective portrayal of the complexities and conflicts between the different artistic circles of the movement. In addition, the essays represents a turning point for Hughes. Dolan Hubbard emphasises the significance of this essay in terms of Hughes’s within Harlem; ‘It was the publication of The Negro Artist…that signalled Hughes’s transformation from a promising writer of nonfictional prose to one of America’s most engaging essayists.’ This essay marks Hughes out as one of the exceptional figures of the movement and demonstrates the endurance of his ideas is evident from their appearance in contemporary debates on race issues.


Elder, Larry, ‘Whitney Houston’s Critics Called her “too white” — Black Republicans Can Relate’
(, 2012) ‘The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader’ (London: Penguin Books, 1995)

Hubbard Dolan and Hughes, Langston, ‘The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Essays on art, race, politics, and world affairs’ (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002)

Hughes, Langston, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ in ‘The Nation’ (June 23 1926)

Leach, Laurie F. ‘Langston Hughes: A Biography’ (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing, 2004)

McKay, Claude, ‘A Long Way From Home: The Harlem Intelligentsia’ in Levering Lewis, David ed.,


Bessie Smith’s ‘’aint Nobody’s Bizness if I do’ By Emily Smith

BessiesmithThis song was recorded by many blues singers, with Bessie Smith recording her version in 1923 and the song itself becoming the biggest selling race record of 1949. Bessie herself was an incredibly popular singer, selling more records and earning more money than any other blues performer at the height of her popularity: She produced her first album in 1923 and sold a million copies, an incredible success for a black women from a poor background.. She achieved all of this success without compromising her individuality: she often performed wearing elaborate costumes with fringed shawls and dresses, heavy headdresses and jeweled caps, which at the time were deemed inappropriate for black women to wear by many prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Marcus Garvey . This integrity and refusal to conform to standards set by others is what I think makes Bessie Smith such an important and inspiring artist of the Harlem Renaissance.

The first verse of this song contains the lyrics “There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say/ That folks don’t criticize me/ But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway/ And don’t care if they all despise me. These lyrics show a response to the constraints which were placed on black women during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, both by white and black society. Negative stereotypes of black women had long pervaded American society since the beginnings of slavery, and still carried on at this time. The main trope urban black women were often placed into at this time was ‘the Jezebel’: a sexually promiscuous women. This trope is particularly relevant to Bessie Smith as female blues singers were a key target for being assimilated into this trope, as blues lyrics often contained sexually charged references, and dance halls and cabarets, where blues was performed, were viewed, in the words of William H. Jones as nothing more than ‘sexual pantomimes… similar to many of the ancient and primitive methods of publicly arousing human passion in preparation for lascivious orgies. Female members of the black middle class sought to ‘protect’ working class black women through organisations such as the Phillis Wheatley Association, founded by Jane Edna Hunter , who described the association as “an instrument for the social and moral redemption” of young black women. This quote shows that black women were seen even by members of their own race as inherently corrupt and immoral, in need of redemption. Hazel V. Carby notes that working class black women “could be variously situated as a threat to the progress of the race; as a threat to the establishment of a respectable black middle class; as a threat to congenial black and white middle- class relations…” The tone of this song, however, seems to reject the idea that an individual is responsible for anyone other than herself, and as such organisations like the Phillis Wheatley Association who viewed it as their responsibility to shape the lives of young black girls to fit a certain mold were trespassing onto territory of lives that were not theirs, even if they belonged to the same race.

BSmithThe idea of a collective race responsibility was prevalent during the Harlem Renaissance. W.E.B. DuBois saw black art as “a new way to challenge Jim Crow” and that through “supporting their (black artists) striving and their achievements” it would give “the lie to the racism that underpinned segregation.” As a result a responsibility was placed on black artists to use their art as a vehicle for black activism. This is problematic as it left black artists in the position of creating their art with the standards and tastes of white society in mind, and placed limitations on what was deemed acceptable to produce. The fear of failing to live up to white standards and forever being condemned to being seen as a stereotype is perhaps what is responsible for the creation of organisations like the Phillis Wheatley Association, yet rather than freeing black women it placed further restrictions on their behaviour and stripped them of their own agency. Bessie Smith refused to take into consideration both the wants of black and white society when it came to the production of her own art. Openly bisexual, known for being drunk, boisterous and openly engaging in casual sex, I believe that through acting for herself and refusing to owe anyone anything, Smith forwarded the cause for the empowerment of black women. I don’t think this advancement would have been possible, or possible so soon, had her and other similar characters of the Harlem Renaissance acted in accordance with W.E.B DuBois’s view, that African Americans must essentially be on their best behaviour; behaviour as deemed acceptable by whites, at all times whenever in front of a white audience. DuBois and Smith, as members of the middle-class and working class, respectively, differed in their attitudes on how to combat the racism of American society possibly due to their class differences. While middle class black men like DuBois often mixed with white middle class society, and placed great importance on intellectualism, Smith avoided this mixing as much as possible, even avoiding actually living in Harlem, and instead living in Philadelphia where the colour line was much more defined. It is likely that as a poor black women Smith faced much more abject cruelty from whites than DuBois did, and this may be why DuBois was much less resistant to white ideals than Smith.

As it can be seen that different individuals in the Harlem Renaissance had different priorities and goals which they sought to gain from the renaissance, it raises the question of whether the concept of the ‘New Negro’ was inclusive enough and able to fit all types of black identity. In some ways Smith can be seen to fit into the concept of the ‘New Negro’ and the lyrics of this song can be seen to express some of the attitudes believed to be held by the ‘New Negro’ as in J. A Rogers view that “The New Negro wastes no time worrying about his colour” , which, as much as was possible, Bessie Smith did not. Yet it seems as if the New Negro is not a concept which allows much room for women, as many influential people of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to create a separate confine of identity for women, as seen in the aims of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Black Cross Nurses. While many themes may be found in this song, I think the main tone of the lyrics rejects the idea of placing constraints upon the behaviour of black women, and urges the listener to do as she pleases. Smith’s legacy has influenced many famous singers throughout generations, such as Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, and she still holds cultural relevancy today as the policing of black women’s body still exists, as can be seen in the non infrequent number of cases where black girls have been threatened with expulsion if they refuse to change their natural hairstyles.


Alberston, C (2008). Bessie . New Haven: Yale University Press.

Carby, H. (1992). Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context. Critical Inquiry. 18 (4), 738-755.

DuBois, W.E.B.. (2004). XIV. In: Gates JR, H. and McKay, N. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton. 758-765.

Hunter, A. (2013). Vanessa Van Dyke Could be Expelled After Having Her Hair Mocked. Available: Last accessed 4th March 2015.

Leeuwen, D. (2000). Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Available: Last accessed 4th March 2015.

Rogers, J, A. (1927). Who Is the New Negro and Why?. The Messenger Reader. 11 (1), 308-312.

Sage, A. (2007). Bessie Smith: ‘Down Hearted Blues’ and ‘Gulf Coast Blues’ Revisited. Popular Music. 26 (1), 117-127.

Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ by Katie Ward

photo_9149_wide_largeDuring the 1920s, New York City became the destination for many African Americans. Their progression in its society led to the Harlem Renaissance in arts, politics and culture. Into this community Nella Larsen released her second novel, ‘Passing,’ the story of mixed-race Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Old childhood friends, the pair meet in a white restaurant on a hot summers day where it is revealed that Clare chose to secretly ‘pass’ for white. A controversial topic of focus, which received a mixed reception, with some accusing Larsen of promoting racial passing and notable figures such as W. E. B. Dubois declaring it was “one of the finest novels of the year.” After its feminist revival in the 1970s, its contemporary audience has highlighted elements of gender and sexuality, linking its themes to the “Queer Harlem” that also emerged during the Renaissance. Often included in the canon of African American female literature, the novel remains powerful and relevant when evaluating many major themes of Harlem society.

Passing is an ambiguous term that applies to various social transgressions, but primarily Larsen’s novel addresses racial passing. Larsen, as a mixed race woman, offers a perspective that “few purely Negro or white writers can hope to attain.” Consequently, her apparent ambiguous position is reflected in the character of Irene. She views Clare’s “breaking away” from the familiar black community into “another community” as not just “strange” but “not entirely friendly.” This expresses not only deep contemplation of the situation in which Clare has placed herself, but also reflects the engrained differences between the black and white communities at that time. This indeed makes it seem like Clare is part of a completely different society, and therefore would explain Irene’s confusion at their interaction, and her thinking that she may have been an acquaintance from Europe. However, Heidi Durrow suggests that Irene, and Larsen’s, ambiguity could be a contemporary construct due to the inability to “understand the problem of the colour line in the same way” as Larsen. Certainly, in ‘Beyond the Colour line’ (1929) Larsen is accused of making passing an admirable trait. Clare is said to be “a little too beautiful to be true,” and an “apotheosis of halfe-caste loveliness.” This view may be more suited to the Black Nationalism of Garvey’s UNIA, but the argument is problematic. Clare is described as beautiful with “bright lips” and radiant “happy eyes;” but this is arguably a representation of the fascination of her as an exotic object. However, the issue with Larsen’s portrayal of passing also highlights the problematic nature of Harlem’s “New Negro” and its roots in the individual’s perception of African American racial progression. Therefore, due to it not being a societal image of progression, some could see racial passing as problematic, and Larsen’s ambiguity could be misconstrued.

Nonetheless, the feminist revival of ‘Passing’ suggests, not only that Larsen was a credible female writer, but also that there was significance in how Larsen portrayed women. It is notable that the text focuses on the life of three middle class African American women, and that the novel only addresses the issue of female racial passing. When presented with a man who has transgressed slightly due to his choice to become a Jew, the women see this as a source of ridicule and hilarity. Therefore, this would suggest that the common gender for racial passing would be female; which would conform to the strict gendered lines of 1920s American society with women being more dependent on men to determine their social situation. This is problematic, and it may highlight also an issue within the renaissance. Many of its leaders were men, with many females being entertainers rather than intellectuals. Also, although Irene is depicted as a strong female character within the community, she is somewhat polarised by the character of Gertrude. Gertrude chose not to actively pass and is often described as being quite “mammy”-like, with a “broad, fat” body and “stout legs in sleazy stockings.” This would suggest that the Harlem Renaissance, although viewed as liberating, could have also added to gender constraints. This would be further supported by the high commentary on prostitution in other popular novels such as Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928). However, this appears to be a view held by a contemporary reader, as a mentioning of gender does not tend to appear in the reviews of the book at its time of release. Therefore, it could be argued that the expectations of gender were so engrained during this time that it is only a prevalent issue to the contemporary reader.

Finally, a contemporary reading can identify the transgressive aspects of sexuality evident in the novel. This homosexual feeling is primarily between Clare and Irene, and is evident in Irene’s sensual descriptions of Clare. Irene takes care to describe Clare’s “wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin,” the contrasts of red and white indicate a presence of desire and lust. By describing Clare as ivory it not only indicates exoticness, but also value. Furthermore, Clare’s letter to Irene speaks of “longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before.” The “ache and the pain” that Clare speaks of seems to mirror a love letter, not friendly correspondence. Although, this element of the book is easily overlooked, it seems that Larsen is also hinting at the other movement included in the Harlem Renaissance. “Queer Harlem” acknowledged that many African American artists and intellectuals were in fact also homosexuals, and that this was socially acceptable. However, the homosexual elements of the book are easily overlooked, it is not clearly stated that Clare and Irene are just not really good friends. Leaving the situation to the discretion of the reader reveals more about Larsen as an ambiguous person. Nonetheless, it is commonly perceived by the contemporary reader that this novel, and the Renaissance’s primary struggle for racial equality, is paralleled to the homosexual struggle for equality that continues today.

Larsen’s conclusion to the novel as described in ‘Beyond the Color Line’ as “utterly unconvincing.” The death or murder of Clare arouses suspicion and shock, questioning Larsen’s ability to offer an active solution to the Renaissance’s social issues. It could be that Larsen could not envisage a solution, as she was merely a documenter of this progressive time in African American history. Nonetheless, Passing’s ability to transgress not only social issues, but time, appear to be one of the endearing strengths of the novel as it remains a staple aspect of the American Female literary cannon and Harlem Renaissance study.


Anonymous. “Beyond the Colour Line.” In Passing, Nella Larsen, edited by Carla Kaplan, 85-87. New York: Norton, 2007.

Blackmer, Corinne E. “The veils of the law: race and sexuality in Nella Larsen’s passing.” College Literature 3 (1995): 50. Literature Resource Centre, EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2015).

Dubois, W. E. B. “Passing.” In Passing, Nella Larsen, edited by Carla Kaplan, 97-98. New York: Norton, 2007.

Durrow, Heidi, W. “Nella Larsen’s Passing: Authoritative Text Background and Contexts Criticism.” Callaloo 31:2 (2008): 613- 617.

Field, James A. “The Progress of Eugenics.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 26:1 (1911): 1-67. Business Source Complete. EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2015).

Griffin, Mary. “Novel of Race Consciousness.” In Passing, Nella Larsen, edited by Carla Kaplan, 96-97. New York: Norton, 2007.

Labbe, Jessica. “Death by misadventure: Teaching transgression in/through Nella Larsen’s Passing.” College Literature 4 (2010): 120-145. Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost (accessed February 27, 2015).

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. London: Serpent’s Tale, 2001.

Pelak, Cynthia Fabrizio. “Feminism and Women of Colour.” Encyclopaedia of American Studies (2015). Accessed: February 9, 2015. DOI:

Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’ by Janet Son

1152w_0Jacob Lawrence was perhaps the most highly acclaimed African American artist of the twentieth century. Several of his paintings can be found in the collections of renowned art museums throughout America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is best known, however, for a group of sixty panels he created in 1941 titled the Migration Series. As a collective whole, the panels depict the exodus of African Americans from the South during and after World War I, along with the benefits and hardship they experienced after they arrived in the North.

Although Lawrence never lived in the South nor was part of the Great Migration himself, “the stories he heard while growing up […] afforded him an intimate picture of the South that he did not know from personal experience”[1]. His parents, for example, were part of the first wave of the Migration and met coming up north from Virginia and South Carolina. Historians now agree that the Great Migration was one of “the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history”[2]. Lorensen estimates that “between 1910 and 1970 approximately six and a half million African Americans left the South for a ‘Promised Land’ of mainly large urban centers—Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York, Pittsburgh, among others—where they could escape from the vicious cycles of the southern sharecropping economy and the legal and social strictures of Jim Crow”[3].

They made this journey primarily in search of economic freedom and social equality that could not be found in the South. The demand for factory workers in the North increased as European immigration diminished and white American men went off to World War I, causing a shortage of labour back home. Furthermore, in 1915, “drought, floods, and a boll weevil infestation […] destroyed crops and resulted in no harvests for two successive years”[4] making it even harder for African American workers to survive in an impoverished South. They also wanted to come north in order to escape from a harsh reality in which lynchings were common and exploitation of Blacks was frequent due to the Jim Crow laws. Thus, African Americans living in the South envisioned the North as a haven where they would be able to escape segregation and be economically self-sufficient, even though they found this not to be completely true once they arrived in the urban cities of the North.

Lawrence was already an established artist by the time he created the Migration Series and had previously steeped himself in knowledge of African American history. For his Migration Series, he chose to paint with tempera on hardboard. Lawrence described his style of art as “dynamic cubism” and placed an emphasis on movement in his paintings, as he “[equated] migration with movement”[5]. His figures are two-dimensional, geometric, and express a clear message. Lawrence also included a short description at the bottom of each panel in order to reiterate their individual importance. He chose to paint all sixty panels at once in order to unify them as being several parts of one single work, and in order to create colour consistency. Lawrence contrasted bright pigments with muted, dark shades in order to guide the viewer’s eyes towards specific areas of the panels that required attention. He may have also done this in order to show that despite the innumerable hardships African Americans faced in the North, they had access to opportunities and benefits that were nonexistent in the South. Despite their simplistic appearance, Lawrence’s works are highly sophisticated as they “[suggest] a single, narrative strain, uncomplicated by subtle variations of shade, light, or interpretation”[6].

Jacob-Lawrence-Migration-at-MoMA-SwipeLife-4In each individual panel, Lawrence documents a different aspect of African American life before and after making the migration north. The first half of the paintings depicts “day-to-day struggles with poverty, natural disasters, lack of educational opportunity, unjust courts, prejudicial law enforcement, segregation, and harsh and unfair treatment at the hands of employers and landowners”[7] – all parts of daily life for African Americans living in the rural South. Mixed in with these scenes of racial injustice are panels which show African Americans receiving letters from relatives who have moved up north telling them about how their lives have improved; communication served as the primary catalyst which caused the Migration to rapidly expand and increase in numbers.

The latter half of the panels shows the lives of African Americans after they have reached the North; they found jobs in industrial factories, were able to vote, and their children had access to better educational opportunities. However, Lawrence was also aware of the negative changes that came as a result of overpopulation in the cities. His very last panels deal with segregation, race riots, and the spread of illnesses such as tuberculosis. Lawrence did not aim to glorify the Great Migration, but to accurately “convey the energy and hopes of the migrants as well as their struggles”[8]. It is also worth noting that the series begins and ends with panels depicting African Americans leaving for the North in crowded train stations, emphasising the fact that the Great Migration was not a single historical event, but a process that took several years and involved millions of people from different backgrounds. Thus, the Migration Series is a collection of stories from these African Americans and their experiences in two different sides of America.

As a member of the younger generation living in Harlem, Lawrence was aware of Harlem’s status as the Black mecca of the North. Therefore, rather than carving out a definition of the New Negro as previous artists of the Harlem Renaissance had done, Lawrence reflected on the successes and hardships that the older generation had to face in order to create these opportunities for their children; thus, “the Migration Series is not a series of ‘history paintings,’ […] but […] a text of remembrance”[9].

[1] Jutta Lorensen, “Between Image and Word, Color and Time: Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series”, African American Review, 40.3 (2006), 571-586 (p. 572).

[2] Nicholas Lemann, Quoted in Ibid., p. 571.
[3] Ibid., p. 571.
[4] James D. Laney, “Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series: Art as Narrative History”, The Social Studies, 98.4 (2007), 131-134 (p. 132).

[5] Ibid., p. 132.
[6] Martha Jane Nadell, Enter the New Negroes: Images of Race in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universtiy Press, 2004). p. 144.

[7] Laney, pp. 132.
[8] Jacqueline Francis, “The Make of the Modern”, Callaloo, 17.4 (1994), 1269-1272 (p. 1271).
[9] Lorensen, pp. 572.

William Grant Still’s ‘Symphony No. 1 – Afro-American’ by Natty Sikand-Youngs


‘The American Negro had made an unrecognised contribution of great value to American music’ declared the black composer William Grant Still in a retrospective interview in 1968. In this assertion, his career itself was his best proof: his symphony and opera were both performed by leading musical groups in the United States, he conducted a ‘major’ orchestra in the Deep South, and his works were included in the International Composers’ Guild and the American Composers’ Concerts. Still was the first American with black skin to have accomplished each of these feats. While his successes were thus a great proof of the artistic and intellectual capabilities of African-Americans, the content of his work itself is far more complex and ambiguous in its treatment of black culture and identity. There is no richer example of this than his most famous composition, the Symphony No. 1, simply and aptly named Afro-American. Written in 1930, it strove to ‘elevate the blues [to] a dignified position in symphonic literature’. With this melding of two distinctly black and white musical traditions, the work engages with some of the most contested debates of the Harlem Renaissance. By using contemporary African-American thought and writing as a lens with which to examine the musical content of the composition, Still’s ‘Afro-American’ symphony proves to be as much a political and cultural exploration of the black experience as it does a modernist experiment in cultural hybridity.

As with European classical traditions, the symphony’s opening movement serves to introduce the core themes that underpin the entire work. Still begins with a simple and contemplative flute solo that pivots on the flat-seventh and flat-third – the two defining tonalities of the blues. By adding more instruments and counter-motifs, this initially simple blues melody is woven with the complexity and diversity of character required for an entire symphonic movement. Doing so not only demonstrates the musical possibilities contained within this one particular melody, but also signifies the broader cultural value and merit of black art; it is itself a ‘New Negro’ movement, growing from its timid opening as if triumphantly responding to W. E. B DuBois’ demand in the Crisis magazine in 1926 – ‘of what is the colored artist capable?’. Yet closer analysis of the first movement challenges the extent to which the music actually contests the perception of African-American art forms as primitive. Still’s motivic development – the crux of his demonstration of the value of black music – is built upon two central practices of white European classicalism: firstly, a more polyphonic texture compared to the often strict division between lead and accompaniment parts found in blues and jazz; and secondly, a triadic structure that resembles the sonata form. Such a fundamental reliance on the techniques of white classicalism reflects Still’s specific ambition to ‘elevate’ – rather than to celebrate – the blues.


The political ambiguity of the work thus hinges on whether it succeeds in endowing African-American music with the complexity and artistry of European classical traditions, or whether Still merely reinforces the hegemonic dichotomy of blackness as primitive and whiteness as the aspirational ideal. Many figures in the Harlem Renaissance warned of such perils when engaging with white culture. Langston Hughes’s famous article ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ identified a ‘Nordicized Negro intelligentsia’ who failed to ‘express [their] individual dark-skinned sel[f]’. Alain Locke certainly regarded Still as one such artist, describing his music as ‘ultra-modernistic and too sophisticated for the laity’. Initially, these critiques seem to become ever more applicable to the Afro-American symphony after the first movement. The ‘Adagio’ (slow) second movement evokes as much European modernism as black American blues: it departs from the twelve-bar form, relying instead on the non-diatonic chromaticism which musicologist Carol Oja identifies as being typical of Still’s distinctive modernism. So too in the final movement, where a blues theme is embedded in the sorts of tonally disorientating themes that have come to define the experimental practices of contemporary composition. This assimilation of blues, jazz and modernism, however, is not just the racial integration of black and white; rather, it is also the stylistic amalgamation of the musical time and place out of which the symphony was written. Engaging with a range of contemporary music regardless of racial provenance allows the symphony to evoke the aesthetic of that moment in history – the ‘structure of feeling’ as Raymond Williams put it. Still’s articulation of black identity, particularly the black experience, thus recognises that racial constructions are inseparable from their broader cultural contexts. Although it dilutes the symphony’s African-American identity in a purely stylistic sense, it is this musical integration that allows Still to ‘express his individual darker-skinned self’.

Ironically, this synthesis of different musical styles – divided by “race”, yet united by time – serves to better situate the Afro-American symphony as a product and representation of the Harlem Renaissance, even at the peril of clashing with many of the movement’s artists and writers (like Hughes and Locke, but also the broader ideological black nationalism of the likes of Marcus Garvey). As demonstrated by Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet in his poetry, Archibald Motley’s inspiration from the “Old Masters” of European painting, or even the financial support provided by white patrons, the African-American writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance were not independent of “white” America. As Nathan Irvin Huggins summarised, contemporary African-American artists were ‘bound up in a more general American experience than a “Harlem Renaissance” would suggest’. Yet more crucially, the Afro-American symphony highlights a shared ideal in otherwise conflicting perspectives on the Harlem Renaissance. In the closing sections of the Criteria of Negro Art, DuBois hopefully anticipates that ‘as soon as true art emerges, […] someone touches race on the shoulder and says, “[the black artist] is not a Negro […] he is just human”’. Hughes’s The Racial Mountain, despite its disputation with DuBois’s view, concludes on a similarly humanistic note, declaring that ‘we [African-American artists] know we are beautiful. And ugly too’. The diversity of character and emotion conveyed by the Afro-American symphony is fundamentally constructed from this parallel in the politics of DuBois and Hughes. Still uses music to evoke not only the idealised attributes of the ‘New Negro’ – pride, exaltation, resilience – but also real, lived feelings: vulnerability, despair, and loneliness. It is a work that prioritises the expression of a black experience over a black identity. Rooted in this premise, William Grant Still’s Afro-American symphony continues – just as it did at the height of the Harlem Renaissance – to resonate in both dissonance and harmony with the countless voices of the black experience in America.


Motley, Archibald. Interview at his home in Chicago, Illionis. 23 Jan. 1978. ‘Oral history interview with Archibald Motley, 1978 Jan. 23 – 1979 Mar. 1.’ Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. Archives of American Art. Web. 12 Feb. 15. <;.

Still, William Grant. Interview by R. Donald Brown for the Oral History Program, California State University at Fullerton. 13 Nov. and 4 Dec. 1967. Qtd in Judith Anne Still Headlee. ‘William Grant Still: A Voice of High Sounding’. Music Educators Journal 70.6 (Feb. 1984): pp. 24-30. JSTOR. Web. 01 Mar. 2015. <;.

______. Symphony No. 1 in ¬A-Flat – ‘Afro-American’. Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra cond. by John Jeter. Naxos, B0007ORDYU, 2005.

Bibliography of Critical Material

Arvey, Verna. ‘Memo for Musicologists’ in R. B. Hass ed. William Grant Still and the Fusion of Culture in American Music. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975: pp. 88-93.

DuBois, W. E. B. ‘The Criteria of Negro Art’. The Crisis 32 (Oct. 1926): pp. 290-297. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <;.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. The Harlem Renaissance. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hughes, Langston. ‘The Negro and the Racial Mountain’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay eds. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. 2nd Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004: pp. 1311-1314.

Locke, Alain. The Negro and his Music. Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.

Oja, Carol J. ‘“New Music” and the “New Negro”: The Background of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony.’ Black Music Research Journal 12.2 (Autumn, 1992): pp. 145-169. JSTOR. Web. 01 Mar. 2014. <;.

Smith, Catherine Parsons. William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001.

Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ – By Ellen Musgrove

NellaLarsen3Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) is an exploration of racial identity in 1920s America. In particular the novel concentrates on the phenomenon of “passing,” or posing as a member of a social group to which one has not been assigned. Larsen focuses on two mixed­race people who “pass” as white: the protagonist, Irene, narrated in third person omniscient form; and her childhood acquaintance Clare Kendry. The two meet by chance at the novel’s opening whilst “passing” in Chicago’s Drayton Hotel, and their reignited connection highlights their different experiences of race. Clare was raised by white relatives and married a white man, whereas Irene has married into, inhabits and associates with the African American middle­class of Harlem. Clare misses this community and attempts to re­assimilate unbeknownst to her racist husband Jack.

Irene, however, begins to see Clare’s return as a threat to her own ordered life. She becomes jealous and obsessive, even concluding that her husband is in love with Clare. She considers removing Clare by revealing her race to Jack, which is achieved during an accidental encounter with him. At the novel’s end he intrudes on a party attended by Clare and the Adlers, infuriated by his realisation. Confusion follows, in which Clare falls from a high­rise window to her death, possibly pushed by Irene, whose erratic mental state allows no clarification of these events.

As a specific part of the broader African American experience, Larsen uses the phenomenon of “passing” to highlight the performativity of race, class, sexuality and gender, and the potentially dangerous implications of an intersectional existence. The identity of African Americans was highlighted as a vital discussion point by Larsen’s contemporaries, primarily those of the Harlem Renaissance seeking to define the ‘New Negro’. Living in New York City, Larsen became involved with this black bourgeoisie and exposed to their attitudes towards racial identity. The ‘New Negro’ was educated, culturally productive, racially proud and equal to any white counterpart. Larsen herself was held up as a specific example of this social and cultural advancement though her acceptance to the Library School of the New York Public Library (Ibid, p. 151). However, this advancement ideology sometimes blurred into an ‘inverted racialistic nationalism’ using whiteness as an aspirational measure. This features in Passing, with Larsen’s characters inhabiting a materialistic socialite world displaying a ‘capitalist ethos’, far superior to the black working classes and the inferiority associated with them via racist stereotypes. Larsen uses this to expose the shaping of racial identity by the ‘political economy of capitalism’ (Dawahare, p.24).

By focusing on complex characters, Larsen also complicates the “tragic mulatto” trope found in literature of this period and prior to it (Tate, p. 142). This literary image was created primarily to appeal to a white audience, and painted a picture of a mixed­race individual inspiring pity and sympathy through their heroic struggle with the consequences of their racially mixed parentage. Their whiteness was emphasised above their blackness,


Tate, Claudia, ‘Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation’, Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), 142­146, p. 142.

Anthony Dawahare, ‘The Golden Standard of Racial Passing in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and
Passing’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 52.1 (Spring, 2006), 22­41, p. 22.

Holmes, Eugene C., ‘Alain Locke and the New Negro Movement’, Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn, 1968), 60­68, pp. 65­66.

Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’ – By Hannah Winter


Nella Larsen was a modern woman who “feels that people of the artistic type have a definite chance to help solve the race problem”[1]; she wrote from the epicentre of the Harlem Renaissance, winning an award from the Harmon Foundation in 1928 for “the best piece of fiction to come out of Negro America since Chesnutt”[2] and she was the first black woman to win a Guggenheim award for creative writing in 1930. It is her critically acclaimed novels Quicksand and Passing that afford Larsen her reputation as “the major novelist of […] the Harlem Renaissance”[3] because of the way in which these texts indisputably engage with the major tropes of the period – exploring the intricate relationship between race, gender, class and sexuality – thus allowing her to discretely critique “the gendered and sexual double standards of the well-to-do black middle classes of which she was a part”[4], exploring how these factors complicated the ‘New Negro’ identity construction, leaving many coloured people like herself on a quest for their sense of belonging within the cultural climate. Her texts are subtly persuasive and powerfully poignant when situated both within the context of the Harlem Renaissance and in contemporary debates about race, gender, class and sexuality, thus arguably rendering her novels “contemporary and timeless”[5]. She does this by manipulating existing literary traditions concerning race, for instance the reductive ‘tragic mulatto’ caricature and the autobiographical elements of her texts which are employed in order to realise her ambitions for a resolution to racism and sexism.

Larsen questions racial outlines via the problematic notion of the ‘colour line’ in both Quicksand and Passing, exploring the difficulties encountered by ‘mulatto’ figures such as her protagonists Helga Crane, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. Clare and Irene express polarising attitudes towards race, with Irene promoting the racial pride of the emerging Garveyism of the time through her “mounting anger and indignation”[6] over Bellew’s overt racism, while Clare muses “I’ve often wondered why more coloured girls […] never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do”[7], thus perpetuating the perceived racial hierarchy whilst simultaneously refuting the embracement of race seen in other strains of the movement – for instance Countee Cullen’s Edenic description of Africa in his devotional poem to his home land. These conflicting attitudes towards race arguably embody Larsen’s own internal conflict over the morality of ‘passing’ and act as reliable resources which demonstrate some of the attitudes towards race at the time. Moreover, “passing is sometimes thematized as the taking of a new, not necessarily racialized, identity in various locales”[8] as Helga Crane does in Quicksand. It is the text’s autobiographical elements such as Crane’s Danish heritage and the trope of European exploration before a return to ‘home’ in Harlem that allow Larsen to traverse the concepts of trans-nationality within the Harlem Renaissance which assisted African Americans in reconciling their racial identities. This theme echoes that of Claude McKay’s best-selling Home to Harlem which also entertains the idea of European travel, thus likening Larsen’s fiction to those texts within the sphere of influential contemporary African American writing.


The tragic mulatto paradigm inspects the inextricably linked expectations of race and gender in nineteenth and twentieth century texts, rendering Larsen’s female protagonists doubly entrapped in a slave-like racial subordination and an archaic female inferiority. However, Larsen arguably manipulates this literary convention, with her protagonist Helga Crane rejecting the racial and patriarchal expectations of her character with the emphatic declarative “I’m not for sale”[9]. Arguably, despite her displays of female independence, Larsen’s protagonist is ultimately doomed, falling into motherhood and dying alone, therefore being permanently affected by her marital status and entrapped within the stereotypical constraints of her gender. It is this inability to “[round] off stories convincingly”[10] that many of her African American contemporaries shared[11] which perhaps demonstrates one fundamental problem; there was no solution to white racism. Larsen’s protagonists are fuelled by the contemporaneous issues of gender and sexuality, exploring their connection to race at the time by refuting the typically sexualised exotic “commodification of the black female body”[12] seen in African American poetry of the time such as ‘The Harlem Dancer’ by Claude McKay, in favour of an attempted sexual independence displayed by the subversive homoerotic undertones of Irene’s attention to the “lovely creature”[13] Clare and her “mesmeric”[14] eyes. This would have been shocking for contemporary audiences, who would have only experienced black female sexuality in slave narratives, with an oppressive white male influence, or in the previously stated exoticised manner. In this way, Larsen’s protagonists are “ill suited for the proscribed existence ordinated by whites for blacks”[15] and she displays a search for new boundaries to “the limited possibilities open to African American women during the 1920s”[16], and in doing so acts as a pioneer of her time, fearlessly navigating controversial, sometimes taboo notions of black female sexuality.

In conclusion, Larsen’s “emotional nomads”[17] appealed to the disenfranchised groups of the Harlem Renaissance, namely African American women. However, these characters – marginalised for their race and gender – appeal to “any woman who has searched for […] a job where she could be paid what she deserved (despite her ovaries), or sought to fashion a love […] based on respect and honor for self and partner”[18], and it is this engagement with ongoing disputes over not only gender, but all aspects of sociological taxonomy which allocates Larsen’s works their “eternal relevance”[19].


[1] Larson, Charles R. Introduction to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. Anchor Books (New York, 2001) pp. xii

[2] DuBois, W. E. B. Quoted in Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature by Maria Balshaw. Pluto Press (London, 2000) pp. 47

[3] Larson, Charles R. Introduction to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. xii

[4] Balshaw, Maria. Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature. pp. 53

[5] Golden, Marita. Foreword to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. viii

[6] Larsen, Nella. Passing, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 202

[7] Ibid. pp. 187

[8] Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press (London, 2007) pp. 12

[9] Larsen, Nella. Quicksand, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 117

[10] Larsen, Nella. Passing, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 365

[11] Ibid. pp. 365

[12] Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance. pp. 11

[13] Larsen, Nella. Passing, in The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. 180

[14] Ibid. pp. 191

[15] Golden, Marita. Foreword to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. vii

[16] Carroll, Annie Elizabeth. Word, Image and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press (Indiana, 2007) pp. 227

[17] Golden, Marita. Foreword to The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and the stories. pp. vii

[18] Ibid. pp. viii

[19] Ibid. pp. viii

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Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’ – by Jenny Whitaker


Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 autobiographical essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me offers a complex expression of racial identity in the United States. Samira Kawash described Hurston’s challenge to ‘the fixity and boundedness of such categories as race and nation’.[1] Colored Me presents this challenge in the intricate interplay of the cultural community and the individual. Much of Hurston’s work celebrated the distinct cultural history of African-Americans, and explored groups largely ignored or obscured by misrepresentation in the white media.[2] However, Colored Me works to some extent to blur racial distinction in the United States, and Hurston bases this on an exploration of being ‘colored’. While Hurston expresses cultural and racial pride, she views the ideas of ‘white’ and ‘colored’ as a distinct opposition which seeks to define society fundamentally along a racial line. Hurston deconstructs and dismisses this all-consuming racial definition and celebrates herself as a unique individual whose identity draws from her race and culture amongst a ‘miscellany’ of aspects.[3]

The notion of being ‘colored’ is established as Hurston contrasts her childhood with her adult life. Of key importance is the idea that she ‘became colored’ on a specific day during her thirteenth year. This sentence clarifies Hurston’s conception of ‘colored’ as something that does not truly equate with her racial identity, but as a term imposed on her by American society. Hurston grew up in the Florida town of Eatonville, which was ‘exclusively a colored town’.[4] She describes revelling in the uniqueness of her race to the passing guests, particularly the Northerners who ‘peered cautiously from behind curtains’. She perceived little difference between herself and the white community except that ‘they rode through the town and never lived there’. However, upon leaving Eatonville, Hurston’s race became the fundamental aspect of her perceived identity. This is most apparent in her transformation from ‘everybody’s Zora’ to the ‘little colored girl’- a shift from a term which encompasses her individuality and value, to one which replaces all individual identity simply with the vast impersonal concepts of race and gender.[5]

Throughout the latter half of the essay Hurston presents a tension between her ‘color’ and her individuality as she fluctuates between identifying with, and distancing herself from, her race. The vivid description of the Cabaret where her ‘color comes’, or the image ‘beside the waters of the Hudson’ where she is ‘a dark rock surged upon’, are powerful depictions of a sense of racial unity against the ‘sharp white background’.[6] However, this is intertwined the assertion that she is not ‘tragically colored’; here forming a barrier between herself and what she calls the ‘sobbing school of Negrohood’ – a reference to the voices of social protest, and thus indicative of Hurston’s alienation of many of those involved in the Harlem Renaissance.[7] She occasionally separates herself entirely from the notion of racial identity stating ‘at certain times, I have no race’, instead being replaced by the ‘cosmic Zora’ who belongs to no race or time.[8] This builds on the transformation from ‘everybody’s Zora’ to the ‘little colored girl’, now Hurston transforms herself into an absolute spiritual version who exists beyond the limitations of human society.

Colored Me is deeply engaged with the discourse of the Harlem Renaissance on race in the U.S. and on the African-American artist’s representation of racial identity. Firstly, Hurston’s fluctuating relationship with her race and her primary desire to express herself as an individual may prove problematic in regards to Langston Hughes’s argument in the essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. Here Hughes criticizes the ‘black poet who says “I want to be a poet, not a negro poet”’, suggesting that the denial of race is an ‘urge […] towards whiteness’.[9] However, Hurston’s essay suggests that the choice between ‘poet’ or ‘negro poet’ is too simplistic. She suggests that racial identity is important, but if it is made the single defining characteristic of an individual it is damagingly reductive. This is a contentious issue which continues into the modern day.


Hurston’s controversial discussion of slavery allows for further examination of artistic representations of race and identity. She dismissively states that ‘slavery is 60 years in the past’ and it does not depress her.[10] In fact, she concludes, the present situation of the white population is more ‘difficult’ stating ‘the game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting’.[11] In omitting a tragic representation of slavery, and replacing it with a satirical comment on modern society, Hurston seeks to remove herself from a history of oppression and an artistic tradition of tragic narrative styles. She presents herself as a modern individual who will not be defined by the past. Instead she sharpens her ‘oyster knife’ preparing to actively take what she wants from the world.[12] Hurston’s distinct lack of discussion of her feminine identity – excluding the mention of it in ‘cosmic’ form as the ‘eternal feminine’ (where it has become something God-like and powerful) – may also be a conscious effort to remove herself from a position lacking power and agency.[13]

Finally, the New World Cabaret passage has been under particular academic scrutiny due to Hurston’s identification of her racial identity with the primitivist stereotype. In the Cabaret Hurston is taken over by her ‘color’, she describes herself as ‘in the jungle and living in the jungle way’.[14] Brian Carr and Tova Cooper dismiss criticism of this as ‘a failure to read Hurston as contingently and ironically as she deserves’. They cite the passage as an ‘engagement with white stereotypes’ rather than an expression of these stereotypes; as ‘skin paint, rather than skin complexion’.[15] Hurston’s deliberate term ‘primitive fury’ indicates she is aware of the stereotype she addresses, and ‘fury’ connects it immediately to anger and danger.[16] In the passage, she transforms the simplistic primitivist stereotype, as something innocuous and exotic, into something dangerous and resentful. Zora’s description of the Cabaret maintains a powerful connection between the spirit of jazz music and its African roots; however it mocks the simplicity of the white stereotype which has appropriated this idea for entertainment.

In Colored Me Hurston presents a valuable exploration of her strained relationship with race and identity. Hurston conveys ideas of the ‘New Negro’ in her deconstruction of old stereotypes and her assertion of a new, powerful and confrontational African-American voice.[17] However, she refuses to be defined fundamentally by this idea. Hurston’s celebration of herself as a complex and ever- changing individual expresses her refusal to be defined by any single aspect of her identity.


[1]Lori Jirousek, ‘”That Commonality of Feeling”: Hurston, Hybridity, and Ethnography’ in African American Review, 38 (2004), p.417.

[2]For example, her folklore anthropological works such as Mules and Men in the U.S. and Tell My Horse in the Caribbean.

[3]Zora Neale Hurston, ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’ in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914- 1945 ed. by Julia Reidhead (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), p.541

[4]Hurston, p.538

[5]Hurston, p.539.

[6]Hurston, p.540.

[7]Hurston, p.539; Lovalerie King, The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.106.

[8]Hurston, p.541.

[9]Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926) <; [Accessed on 4th March 2014].

[10]Hurston, p.539.

[11]Hurston, p.540.

[12]Hurston, p.539.

[13]Hurston, p.541.

[14]Hurston, p.540.

[15]Brian Carr and Tova Cooper, ‘Zora Neale Hurston and Modernism At The Critical Limit’ in Modern Fiction Studies, 48 (2002), p.293.

[16]Hurston, p.540.

[17]Alain Locke, Enter The New Negro (1925), <; [Accessed on 4th March 2014]


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Langston Hughes’s ‘Cross’ – By Sharon Abraham


Langston Hughes was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance movement and was considered “the most prolific and the most successful[1]”. Hughes was known primarily for his poetry as his poetry “truly evoked the sprit of Black America[2]”. This notion of “Black America” is an idea that is explored problematically in Hughes’ poem Cross. The poem Cross explicitly explores the frustrating issue of being both black and white in 1920s America. The speaker throughout the poem incessantly projects his confusion and displacement, as the speaker feels he does not belong to either of the two races. The theme of a mixed race identity, which Cross explores, is central to understanding the Harlem Renaissance movement as not only was the Harlem Renaissance about creating a “new black identity”, but also wanted to promote the idea that race and identity is something that is not fixed and definitive.

Hughes explores and questions what it means to be a black person in the US during the 1920s. One of the man devices that he uses in his poem Cross is the prevalent theme of the ‘tragic mulatto’. The term ‘tragic mulatto’ “denotes a light-colored, mixed –blood character (possessing in most cases a white father and a coloured mother) who suffers because of difficulties arising from his bi-racial background.[3]” Hughes himself was of mixed race desent, his great grandmother was African- American and his great grandfathers were white slave-owners in Kentucky’[4]. The fact that for some mixed-race people they were the result of their white ancestors raping black slaves cannot be overlooked and adds to the confusion of heritage. Despite the abolition of slavery over a hundred years earlier, Hughes’ poem Cross bears historical significance as in 1920s America the cultural and racial segregation of African Americans and Caucasians were very defined and apparent. However, Hughes has to face the difficulty and confusion of belonging to two races. The title Cross embodies Hughes’ confusion as the title suggests to the reader that he is a ‘cross-breed’ and is in fact at a crossroads as he does not how to categorize himself. What is more, I believe that Hughes is making a broader point that goes beyond his personal experience and feelings. He points out the constructed nature of race and shows that race is something that cannot be defined and it is more complicated than being just ‘black’ or ‘white’.

The fact that Hughes addresses this issue of the ‘tragic mulatto’ gives us an indication of how mixed race people were perhaps feeling during this time. I sympathize heavily with the speaker’s confusion and anger. I think the use of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme in this poem works as strong critique of racism. At the beginning, the tone of the poem is anger. The first line: “My old man’s a white old man”, is expressed in an angry tone. The speaker prefers ‘My old man’s’ instead of ‘My father’, which shows anger. However, the speaker apologizes for the curses he made earlier ‘I’m sorry for that evil wish’, exemplifying a change in tone from anger to confusion. Hughes highlights the reductive, confusing and limiting nature of racial labeling. Being a ‘mulatto’ meant that you failed to fit in neatly within the categories of being ‘white’ or ‘black’.

It is undeniable that the theme of the ‘tragic mulatto’ was relevant during this time, as it is the cornerstone of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand. Larsen, another figure in the Harlem Renaissance, uses the poem Cross as her epigraph to the beginning of her novel Quicksand. The fact that she uses this poem demonstrates that this is an issue that is also close to her. Larsen also battles with the confusion within herself over defining her race, which she depicts through her central protagonist Helga Crane. Both Hughes and Larsen depict the struggle of being defined through race, whilst providing the reader with an insight into their feelings.

Hughes’ poem Cross displays “the racialization of [a] class[5]” divide between black and white people in America. In the poem he states ‘My old man died in a fine big house. My ma died in a shack’. The poem associates dying in a ‘shack’ with being ‘black’ and dying in a ‘fine big house’ with being white. Hughes’ prominent use of the adjectives ‘fine’ and ‘big’ before the word house, exemplifies this idea to the reader that white people are associated with wealth. In addition, the fact that Larsen chose Cross as an epigraph for Quicksand demonstrates that she shares this same notion with Hughes. Throughout the novel, Helga Crane appears to be very ambitious and we see Helga’s ardent desire for material goods. ‘Ever since childhood she had wanted not money but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things. Things[6]’. It is undeniable that Helga’s desires are bourgeois, however as Anthony Dawahare argues: “Helga realizes as a Mulatta she is ‘hung on this Cross as she is too optically black to pass for white and therefore cannot escape the black/shack or black/ worker equations[7]‘. Both Hughes and Larsen exemplify this “internalized economic category[8]” that wealth can only be associated with white people and poverty is associated with black people.


The last stanza in Cross not only points out Hughes feeling of alienation and rejection from both races but also brings to the attention of the reader the poverty of black people in comparison to the wealth of the white people during this time. He fails to decipher how to categorize himself in terms of identity and socio-economic standing as he realizes he is a product of both races. Only knowing if he is to live life as a black man or as a white man will he know where he is to die. However, the speaker’s failure to make a decision is borne out through the use rhetorical question in the last line of the poem, this question leaves the reader both curious and unsettled. Neither the reader nor Hughes can answer his question, which makes this poem even more distressing.

Overall, Hughes’ poem Cross demonstrates the flaw in the labeling of race. He projects the idea that race cannot be definitive. His use of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme in the poem shows why race is problematic as he belongs to two different races. In addition, the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme proved to be relevant during the time as Larsen also explores this in Quicksand. Both Hughes and Larsen show their struggles with racial identity but ultimately they show class is shaped by race. They both clearly associate affluence with white people and poverty with black people, whilst exploring the notion of place and belonging.


[1] Gates Louis, Henry, K.A. Appiah Langston Hughes (New York: Amistad Press 1993 page 120)

[2] Ibid.,p. 120

[3] Edited by Werrner Sollors , Henry B, Cabot M. Anne Interracialism : Black – White Intermarriage in American History, Literature and Law ( United States: Oxford University Press 2000 page 317)

[4] Gates Louis, Henry, K.A. Appiah Langston Hughes (New York: Amistad Press 1993 page 120

[5] Anthony Dawahare, The Gold Standard of Racial Identity in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’’, Twentieth Century Literature 52, no.1 (spring 2006) page 29

[6] Larsen, Nella Quicksand (New York: Dover Publications 2006page 63)

[7] Ibid.,p.29

[8] Ibid.,p.29

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Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ – by Izzy Rhodes


The novella discusses the social and mental effects of racism and oppression through the eyes of a female African-American during the Harlem Renaissance in America and Europe. The protagonist’s struggle to find her ‘self’ and ‘place’ in society is extended across the four cities we see her travel between. The journey Helga Crane undertakes mirrors that of Larsen’s own. The author’s first-hand experience allows Helga to act as the fictional vehicle for the emotional reality of Larsen. Many critics “… read Helga’s tragic end as a powerful criticism of the social forces that conspire against her achieving a fulfilling life…”[i] The alternative ending to Larsen’s continued life, acts as a microcosm to accentuate the oppression of women both globally and intra-racially. We see Helga internally and externally battle stereotypes of primitivism and exoticism projected by white America and Europe upon those of African descent. In addition to social problems, Helga also struggles with her personal absence of cultural and historical definition. The character’s foundations are built upon her mother rejecting her and the isolation she experienced within her step-father’s white family as a child.The issues surrounding ‘mulatto’ individuals of the Harlem Renaissance allowed no solace in one particular race. Such resistance to integration within races caused them to be faced with hostility and oppression on a daily basis, and this is structured as one of Larsen’s main themes in the text. This theme, twinned with identity and abandon, regularly appears throughout Larsen’s work, and Helga’s transatlantic journey.

Not only do we witness rejection and social status as inter-racial features, but also as intra-racial one. Larsen’s focus on isolation and transnationalism automatically alludes to the political activists of the time. When we are first introduced to Helga in the predominantly black society of Naxos, she is being taught to avoid alluding to primitivism in her behaviour. She is simultaneously expected to adopt a culture alien to her, and conform to the bourgeoisie white-American behaviour W.E.B. DuBois[ii] was accused by some African-Americans of striving to emulate. The suffocating atmosphere Helga tries to escape from is illustrated through a merger of white bourgeoisie behaviour, and black culture and history. DuBois’ ‘talented tenth’[iii] is hinted at through Anne’s luxurious lifestyle and conceited attitude towards her peers. The population of DuBois’ tenth envisioned as ‘superior’ were of the bourgeoisie class. Larsen alludes to Helga’s trajectory into this class through the brief perspective of Anne, who “… knew… that though she herself was lovely – more beautiful than Helga – and interesting, with her, [Dr. Anderson] had not to struggle against that nameless and to him shameful impulse, that sheer delight, which ran through his nerves at mere proximity to Helga.”[iv] The “impulse” is not applicable to DuBois’ tenth, therefore highlighting it as an anomaly and a preventative trait in this text. His belief was to uplift the population through academic experience and shun the natural, or indeed primitive. However, the connotation of self-presentation not only connects an aesthetic superiority, but also the shallow and consumerist traits that the 1920’s instilled in the American population[v]. Materialism and vanity that erupted during this decade. Larsen reflects this through the text in the relentless use of imagery, idealising Helga’s ‘mulatto’ identity just as native[vi] European’s of the time would have. This line also points to the stereotypes placed on African-American males in Harlem at the time. The “… struggle against the nameless and to him shameful impulse…” connotes a primeval behavioural trait so often associated with primitive urges, and one that would not uplift African-Americans in society unless their ancient heritage was disregarded[vii]. The protagonist’s heart-breaking empathy “… with Mrs. Nilssen’s point of view, [and] her mother’s, her stepfather’s and his children’s points of view…”[viii] engage the readers in understanding the rift deep within America between the black and white populations. Larsen depicts these polar attitudes manifesting its disruption in the isolation and acute self-awareness of those whose heritage crosses both.[ix]


The reader is presented with a thorough chronicle of an independent female African-American’s experience at the time. The added social and economic constructs of both Harlem and Danish lifestyles inform the readers of the profoundly prejudice society Helga and Larsen occupied. The consumerist age the decade illustrates is highlighted when Helga is decorated by her aunt: “The earrings… and buckles came into immediate use and Helga felt like a veritable savage…”[x] Larsen interestingly contrasts this new materialism and bourgeoisie with the idea of “savage” primitivism. In this line Helga’s aunt uses her exotic niece to parade around Copenhagen to elevate her own status. Helga is used to illustrate Larsen’s own disgrace at the oppression she sought to be free from during her search for her identity. This polarised identity from the one she was used to having projected on her in America, is one that Jeffrey Gray recognises through the “… shuttling geographical movement [that] also corresponds to the binarism [of the] primitive vs. uplift, where the United States represents the primitive of the repressed self, and Europe the idealised (and aestheticized) Other.”[xi] Albeit a positive pedestal she is placed on in Europe, her isolation is equally as intense. Consumerism has its foundations in vanity and beauty, adding to the use of Helga as a mirror to reflect the author’s solitude. As an outsider in Naxos, Harlem, Copenhagen and Alabama, Helga has no true sense of belonging. Larsen uses Dr. Anderson as a metaphor for Helga’s lack of stability, and no cemented place to call home. The consumerism within the text visually emphasises Helga’s isolation,as she is constantly admired in Europe, but is instructed to conform to the unit that Naxos operates as, suppressing her identity.

In conclusion, the text acts as a microcosm to condense both the inter and intra-racial frictions of stereotype and prejudice, during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to social issues African-Americans faced, it also addresses the economical traits of the era through aesthetic images connoting the inescapable materialism and consumerism that was rife in the 1920s. Larsen affectively uses race to discuss social inequality, but also features class in order to accentuate the struggles Africa-Americans faced in local, national, and global scales.


[i] Kimberly Monda, Self-Delusion and Self-Sacrifice in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’, (African American Review, Vol. 31, Issue 1, Spring 1997), p. 23.

[ii] DuBois believed in total integration between blacks and whites, both socially and politically. In doing this, he was accused of trying to imitate white culture, and abandon the heritage of Africa-Americans.

[iii] The tenth of the black population with a ‘superior’ intellect and education was used to model his uplift of African-Americans to the same ‘status’ as white-Americans, in order for segregation to dissolve.

[iv] Nella Larsen, Quicksand, ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, (The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol D: 1914-1945, 2012), p. 608.

[v] ‘The Roaring Twenties’ after the First World War in the lead up to the Wall Street Crash was made visible with the aesthetic materialism that engulfed the Westernized consumerism of America.

[vi] Both Larsen and her protagonist’s mothers were from Denmark, yet their experience in American lead them to reject their daughters. Her mother’s sister embraces and respects Helga as a foreign and exotic relative when she lives with her in Copenhagen.

[vii] Marcus Garvey was an activist against the motion of disregarding African heritage and embracing and conforming to white standards, and would have found Anne’s stance within this image as direct correlation to the values he too felt against whites in America.

[viii] Larsen, Quicksand, p. 568.

[ix] Larsen was brought up in a family who didn’t share her heritage since the age of 6. In the text, she reflects her isolation through Helga, who recognises that she is unwelcome in the white community, even by those as close to her as her own family.

[x] Larsen, Quicksand, p. 592.

[xi]Jeffrey Gray, Essence and the Mulatto Traveler: Europe as Embodiment in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’, (Journal of Transnational American Studies 4, no. 1, January 1, 2012), p. 4.

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