Saturday, October 4, 2008

African-American Literature in the 20th century and the “Problem of the Color Line” (From the Archives)

Sifting through my old computer files, I found this short essay I wrote as part of the final exam for a course in Modern American literature that focused on African-American writers. Though it's fairly rough and somewhat reductive in places, it implies certain things that I think are relevant to those (like me) interested in the development of Mormon literature.

Anyway, here it is:

W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” (xi; emphasis mine). This problem was of such importance that DuBois further pled with his readers to “study[ his] words” (xi) in an attempt to find “the grain of truth hidden” (xi) within them. Many black writers of the twentieth century took this advice seriously, taking the time to understand “the problem of the color line,” if not by reading DuBois’ book, than through their own lives and experiences. And while each approached this problem in their own way, by looking more closely at different attempts to find a solution, we can better understand the truth and beauty hidden within the black person’s soul. In this essay, I will explore the ways in which three black writers—Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Suzan-Lori Parks—approached “the problem of the color line” in their work.

In the poetry of Langston Hughes, we find the yearnings of a black man as he searches to represent his race in the best possible light to a white audience. Hughes and his fellow Harlem Renaissance writers “had to consider whether a particular image of black people would help or harm [their] cause.” (“Langston” 1892) His answer to this quandary was to focus on adapting contemporary black life to the rhythms and structures of verse. He best typifies this world in his poem “I, Too,” in which the speaker moves from “sing[ing] America” (line 1)—representative of the songs of the slave experience wherein the “darker” (2) siblings were relinquished to “eat[ing] in the kitchen” (3), apart from the slave owner’s family—to being America, when the blacks have received equal rights and become part of America’s family because whites have come to see “how beautiful” (16) blacks really are.

Zora Neale Hurston approached the problem from a different way, one that was not “entirely popular” (“Zora” 1506) with other Harlem writers, including Langston Hughes, because she “refused to align her work with anybody’s ideologies” and “rejected the idea that a black writer’s chief concern should be how blacks were being portrayed to the white reader.” (1506) Hence, she did not write to “uplift the race” (1506), but felt that she could best represent blacks as they really were, by creating characters with “mixtures of good and bad, strong and weak.” (1506) This personal ideology is evident in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which another black writer attacked because he said “it exploit[s] those ‘quaint’ aspects of Negro life that satisfied the tastes of a white audience.” (Washington viii) Yet, the intensity of Hurston’s portrayal of Janie Crawford lends immediacy and immorality to the book, showing the high’s and low’s of black reality through the eyes and the oral tradition of a black woman struggling as other humans struggle: with the problem of finding oneself in a brutal world.

Finally, we come to Suzan-Lori Parks, whose The America Play departed from these solutions in a dramatic way. With its “faux-historical” (Parks 169) narrative, it challenged the conventional thinking of many who thought black drama “should offer positive role models through its art” and “remain within the boundaries of realism” (Garrett) to help the black community rise above historic disadvantages, presenting a postmodern solution to the problem of the color line: rewrite American history, paying special attention to the places and the ways in which blacks have been influenced by historical events have been neglected or disregarded.

It becomes apparent from these examples that, though writers approached the problem of the color line from many different angles—from appealing to a non-black audience to presenting black reality as it really is to rewriting history to include blacks—, writers saw that ignoring the problem would not make it go away. Instead, they confronted it head on and, in the process, opened the world’s eyes to the reality that, no matter a person’s color, we all need to be heard and understood.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, et al. “Langston Hughes.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume D. 6th Ed. New York: Norton. 1891-92.

---. “Zora Neale Hurston.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume D. 6th Ed. New York: Norton. 1891-92.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Garrett, Shawn-Marie. “The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks.” Theater Communications Group, 2000. 19 Nov. 2005. .

Hughes, Langston. “I, Too.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. Volume D. 6th Ed. New York: Norton. 1894.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. The America Play and Other Works. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.

Washington, Mary Helen. Foreword. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper and Row, 1990. vii-xiv.