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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

14 - African American literature and the Great Depression



The 1930s in African American literary history comprised jarringly significant shifts in the style, subject matter, and direction of prose fiction. If the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s were to be reduced to a simple, even simplistic binary, it represented a struggle between younger artists generally desiring artistic freedom, or the opportunity to create art for its own sake, and older artists and intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Brawley (1882–1939), Charles S. Johnson, and others who wished for the younger generation before them to see their art as part of an agenda of social and “racial” progress. This latter group could be as ambivalent as Du Bois in regarding these goals, voicing support on the one hand for works that “please,” “entertain,” and that are “good and human [stories],” while decrying works and authors who do not recognize that “all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” Du Bois's second view, it must be stressed, was an argument that art's beauty stems from its ability to tell the truth, and that telling the truth meant conveying experiences that the reader would recognize as the truth, or otherwise widen the expanse of what she considered truthful and real. For African American authors, Du Bois argues, telling the truth means creating art that helps in “gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy” all the riches that surround them.