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At these times, the Negro drags his captors captive. On occasions, I have been amazed and amused watching white people dancing to a Negro band in a Harlem cabaret; attempting to throw off the crusts and layers of inhibitions laid on by sophisticated civilization; striving to yield to the feel and experience of abandon; seeking to recapture a taste of primitive joy in life and living; trying to work their way back into that jungle which was the original Garden of Eden; in a word, doing their best to pass for colored.
(James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way)
She wasn't, she told herself, a jungle creature. She cloaked herself in a faint disgust as she watched the entertainers throw themselves about to the bursts of syncopated jangle, and when the time came again for the patrons to dance, she declined.
(Nella Larsen, Quicksand)
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, in some of the 1960s and 1970s Black Arts Movement critiques, was an artistic movement of African Americans frolicking with the oppressors. Whereas the salons and sociability of Gertrude Stein, Muriel Draper and other modernists have been celebrated as the gathering of kindred spirits, the Black Arts Movement's assessments of the Harlem Renaissance set it up as an interracial party or spectacle of assimilation, in which the self-determination of the Negro was constantly jeopardised.
An essay “On Being Young - a Woman - and Colored” (1925), written by Marita Bonner, offers a profound glimpse into the ethos of women's writing of the Harlem Renaissance. At the end of this essay Bonner muses, “Perhaps Buddha is a woman,” as she decides that the image of Buddha may best describe what it meant in 1925 to be “young - a woman - and colored.” The image of the brown Buddha presents the young “colored” woman as contained but somehow moving in spite of the appearance of stasis. Bonner writes, “Like Buddha - who, brown like I am - sat entirely at ease, entirely sure of himself; motionless and knowing, a thousand years before the white man knew there was so very much difference between feet and hands. Motionless on the outside. But inside?” (112). This image captures the complexity of Harlem Renaissance women's poetry. “On Being Young - a Woman - and Colored” was published the same year, 1925, as the pivotal, male-oriented anthology The New Negro. As opposed to Locke's archetype of the “New Negro,” Marita Bonner makes Buddha her prime archetype for the young “colored” women emerging in 1925. The very image of the “colored” female Buddha evokes a peaceful hybrid fusion of the old and the new as opposed to Locke's vehement differentiation between the “Old Negro” and the “New Negro.” The female Buddha is imagined as the best way to counter the stereotypes that deny black women's aesthetic sensibilities and femininity. Bonner wonders why a black woman must be viewed as a “feminine Caliban craving to pass for Ariel” (111). This notion of the black woman passing for Ariel, presumably an image of refined white womanhood, illuminates the nexus of gender, class, and race constraints negotiated by women poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
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