As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg. While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance with Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places. Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.
This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson. I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage. The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government. There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like. I’ll have to follow up further later.
At this point I haven’t been able to determine much more than these scant biological connections, but I am intrigued with the role that regions some distance from our cultural centers end up playing a role, major or minor, in the lives of our writers and in the larger movements that they create. I discovered a similar connection to Alice Dunbar Nelson that I’ll note in a later post.
In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)
This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals. Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments. it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.
I was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely. But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously. Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand. I also liked the challenge of trying to write
about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment. Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate. A little flavor of this aspect of the review:
“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. While reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”
I had the great good pleasure of presenting on Goodbye Christ? the past couple of Sundays at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. My slides used in the presentation are embedded below, though I offer them mostly as a demonstration of my astonishingly limited visual imagination. Some of the slides don’t stand easily on their own and require more explication than I care to include at the moment, but maybe I’ll work on it later. And I’ll be glad to respond to any questions in comments sections below.
One thing I was pleased to hunt up and discover for this presentation were the tangential but still interesting connections of the City of Harrisburg to the Great Migration and the cultural currents of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, stuff I hadn’t looked in to at all in my book proper.
One thing that can’t be represented here is the great pleasure it was to lead discussion in a church whose people are interested in knowing more, and desirous of doing more to make the world a better place through educating themselves and others. A good place to worship, and belong.
I didn’t really look into the poetry and other writings of Esther Popel Shaw while working on Goodbye Christ?, but digging around for the ways the Harlem Renaissance may connect to the City of Harrisburg for a presentation I’m doing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I discovered her biographical connection to the region. Born in Harrisburg and the first African American to attend Dickinson, she left the area to attend Howard University after not being allowed to live on Campus. She eventually worked on various literary and political journals in Harlem for a while and was a teacher for much of her life. I hesitate to say these poems are representative since I don’t know enough about all her writing, but a nice collection can be found at The Beltway Poetry Quarterly. I reproduce one of them here. The ironic juxtaposition of American (and/or Christian) ideals with the realities of racial violence was a common trope of literature of the period
“I pledge allegiance to the flag”
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman! “Of the United States of America”
One mile they dragged him
Like a sack of meal,
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!) “And to the Republic for which it stands”
And then they hanged his body to a tree,
Below the window of the county judge
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
Of murder in the style of ’33!
“(Three thousand strong, they were!) “One Nation, Indivisible”
To make the tale complete
They built a fire
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was fleshand boneand hair
And reeking gasoline! “With Libertyand Justice”
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too! “For ALL!”