The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, JULY 26, 1936
Literature Of The Negro
Julia Peterkin Sounded The Death
Knell Of The
Conventional Negro In Literature And Others Have Carried On.
By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: The time--1936--the place--Charlotte, North Carolina--for an article like this one make it truly extraordinary and demonstrates as well as anything Cash ever wrote his commitment to the cause of reality, opposing the old racial stereotypes developed to rationalize slavery and, in turn, which fueled racism long after slavery had gone, well even into the 1960's and '70's in parts of the country. Those unfortunate critics of Cash who embarrassingly seek to characterize him, if only incidentally or apologetically, as contributing to these stereotypes in portions of his writing in The Mind of the South or in slighting--or eliminating entirely--African-Americans in his exegesis of the Southern "mind" badly misunderstand and misinterpret Cash and the purpose of his book, not to mention the time of its publication. This and many other similar articles Cash wrote years before the book was published exhibit an enormous sensitivity to the invidious nature of the previous portraits of blacks painted by white Southern writers of the old school (as well as to the very modern notions of the appropriateness of "Black pride" and that it is dubious that any white person can truly understand); and, here, he goes further to exalt the writing of contemporary black authors of the time. And it can never be stressed enough, that for a white writer in the South of 1936--and for at least two decades thereafter--to do this very necessary thing, was taking into his own hands his life or at least his reputation. (See Cash's own rather serio-humorous take on this subject in "Criticism Of Criticism" - July 5, 1936.) Bear in mind that at the time he wrote the following piece, Cash was actually living in the hometown of Thomas Dixon, Jr.,--still quite alive and kicking in 1936--Shelby, N.C. It is supposed, of course, that Cash probably figured that there was some safety in the notion that the most virulent racists were too illiterate and ill-informed to bother to read the book-page of The News or, moreover, The American Mercury. Cash was encouraged by Knopf editors and others to tone down the book from the rhetoric of his articles for The Mercury and he, somewhat reluctantly, complied. That bit of editing may account in some degree for misinterpretations which seem to grow in persistence the further along we get from the very segregated era of 1941. Perhaps the overriding problem sometimes causing misunderstanding of Cash today is the ever-increasing loss, especially since circa 1970, of comprehension of the subtleties of literary writing generally. Too much rube tube and feckless text?
For an article on Cash's view of African-American poetry, written a few months after this article, see "The Negro and His Poetry", April 11, 1937.
For the poetry and other art of the Harlem Renaissance see http://www.nku.edu/~diesmanj/harlem_intro.html.
(Disconnected footnote to the literate: A book reviewed on the book-page of this same date was Jefferson in Power, by Claude G. Bowers. Mr. Bowers chronicled the great calumnies spread abroad against Mr. Jefferson, such that "no President ever has been so greatly libeled". It seems there were "whispering campaigns" and a long poem by one Fessenden "which attacked his private character and yet was solemnly reviewed as a work of literature by the Federalist newspapers of that time". Ah, how far we have come in 200 years.)
ONE of the the most interesting things that has been happening in the field of American writing in the last ten or fifteen years--a period in which an enormous number of interesting things have been happening--is a thing that has been happening to the literature of the Negro. And by "the literature of the Negro," I mean both literature about Negroes, whether written by black or white, and productions of black men themselves.
Down to the 1920s, novels or poetry written by white writers about Negroes all dealt with him from within the frame of an immensely narrow convention--presented him after a set pattern as rigid and as abstract as that of any Punchinello who ever figured in the old masked comedies of the Middle Ages. He was either an Uncle Tom, infinitely devoted and infinitely full of quaint humors and droll tales, or he was Jim Crow, that banjo-picking, heel-flinging, hi-yi-ing coon first concocted by Christie, the father of the minstrel show, back in the 1840's, and elaborated through all the generations since, or if he was not strictly always one of these, then at the uttermost, he was, as in novels of the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., a menace, a sort of cosmic Rape-fiend forever in wait for unwary virgins. But whatever his mask, he was ultimately only a symbol to set off tears or laughter or bitter anger as the case might be--was never recognizably and in his own right a human being in the round.
But not any more. Julia Peterkin sounded the death knell of the convention when she published her "Green Thursday." She drove the sword into its vitals with her "Black April." And what she had begun was quickly finished by such writers as DuBose Heyward and Howard Odum, whose "Rainbow Round My Shoulder" for the first time got at the the truth behind the figure of Jim Crow. Today there are a dozen white writers who concern themselves with delineating the black man in terms of direct observation. The reaction against the convention has gone so far, indeed, that there is no longer any market for the writings of those who cling to it, save in a few of the popular journals which still labor under the impression that William McKinley is presently parked in the East Room of the White House.
It would be too much to say, I think, that any of these white novelists have really yet got down the Negro whole--that they have taken us fully into his private mind and soul. Mrs. Peterkin's novels, for instance, are open to grave criticism on the score that, in their way, they tend too much to present the black man's life as essentially an idyll. Nevertheless, at least a relatively honest approach has come into vogue--which is a very great advance.
When we turn to the Negro writers themselves, we find their numbers have enormously increased in the period of which I speak. Hearing of Negro literature in 1920, one thought of Phyllis Wheatley, of the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, of Washington's "Up From Slavery," and of W. E. B. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk," of the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar--and what else? But today the names are legion. There are Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and Jean Toomer and Rudolph Fisher, all young and all of great competence in both fiction and verse. There is Countee Cullen, a lyric poet of high order. There is James Weldon Johnson, scarcely less talented than Cullen as a poet, and the author of the intensely absorbing "Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man." There are Frank Horne and Gwendolyn Bennett and Jesse Fauset and Sterling Brown and Lewis Alexander and Angelina Grimke and William S. Braithwaite--every one of them capable makers of verse. And there are Walter White and Arthur Kent Schomburg and George Schuyler and Kelly Miller and Alain Locke and Benjamin Brawley--famous for their essays, and all of whom have made all or the great part of their reputation since 1920.
We find, moreover, that the works of these Negro writers are increasingly displaying a new forthrightness and independence. Whereas the novels of the older men usually deal with Negroes who have got into the professions and are doing their level best to be simply sun-burned white men, those of Hughes and McKay and others begin to concern themselves with the common black man, with roustabouts and stevedores and laborers in the factory and on the land. And all the makers of essays and articles have gone over from the position of Booker Washington to that of Du Bois, and no few of them have gone far beyond Du Bois. Many of these writers are hysterical in their assertion of race consciousness, indeed, and nearly all of them are too much obsessed by the white man. Still, their pride in being black, their insistence on self-respect before the white man, and their concern with their race in general, is a more healthy state of affairs than the old servile subservience with hate (too often) lurking behind it in the old itch to get themselves somehow white.
No member of the race has as yet got into the really first rank of American writers. But with their growing competence and their growing numbers, the thing promises to happen one of these days.
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