The challenge of any literary history framed synchronically within ten-year increments, as is the case with the volumes in the African American Literature in Transition book series, is how to speak to the diachronic elements of the works and authors under study. In other words, how do we discuss the developments happening in the 1930s as unique but also innately tied to a larger Black literary history? This is particularly important in a volume like ours, which has the added challenge of tending to a literary decade bookended by two of the most explored literary movements in twentieth-century African American literature: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the emergence of social realism and protest fiction in the 1940s. In spite of this, in this volume, we contend that the decade of the 1930s provides a meaningful time frame for many scholars who seek to give substantial attention to generic shifts, parse out the development of individual authors, and account for the unique aesthetic and political influences that the Great Depression buoyed in Black literary and cultural production.
In tracing Black art as it transitions between 1930 and 1940, we have committed to engaging a broad perspective on the decade and providing a textured account of the historical contours of African American literary production and criticism. In lieu of beginnings and ends, we offer a volume rooted in notions of fluidity. Rather than categories of stability, we examine the era’s volatility. We ask how might we conceive innovative means of critical engagement if we lean into the Great Depression’s influence on the decade’s writers? What new insights about Black expression might we attain if we contemplate the Depression as muse, creative roadblock, and cultural broker? What inventive reading strategies can we initiate to forge nuanced interpretations of 1930s Black writing?
We have dealt with these issues and questions by tapping into contemporary scholarship of African American literature overwhelmingly produced in the dawning decades of the twenty-first century. What we have found is that some of the richest works of scholarly inquiry do not focus exclusively on the 1930s decade but instead tend to explore the interwar years, the post–Harlem Renaissance, Depression-era proletarian literature, the Old Left, the Great Migration, or the Chicago Renaissance. Although we are less interested in adhering to fixed boundaries of periodization that such literary phrasing claims, any scholar interested in the 1930s as a transitional decade would be wise to tap into these keywords. Thus, for the general history that undergirds this volume, we have consulted a number of groundbreaking texts that approach the decade from these various modes of periodization. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) provides a compelling narrative-based historical account of the Great Migration, reminding us that some 480,000 African Americans left the American South in search of opportunity during the Depression.1 Robert Bone and Richard Courage’s The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932–1950 (2011) highlights the role that Chicago played in incubating many of the writers that would come to the fore of literary production during the 1930s and into the 1940s. Finally, Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff’s Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era (2009) provides a comprehensive history of the limits placed on Black cultural producers within the federal system. Taken together, these texts highlight the historical conditions, material realities, and geographic contours that made the 1930s a fecund period for literary development that was also limited by the political realities of systemic racism on every front. Additionally, our approach to convening this volume would be incomplete without some consideration of E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States (1939). Frazier’s sociological study analyzes Black migration, urbanization, precarity, segregation, and desire for racial uplift, all themes shared with many Black literary writers developing their corpuses during the 1930s.
Again, what emerges beyond literary history and periodization is the interplay between politics and poetics during the decade. A number of scholars have robustly explored the generic innovation prompted by the precarity of the Great Depression and the relief promised by the competing possibilities of Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Stacy I. Morgan’s Rethinking Social Realism (2004) is a particularly astute interlocutor for understanding the generic shift toward social realism brought on by the Depression. Along with Morgan’s work, Barbara Foley’s Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (1993) and Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996) provide frameworks for understanding African American proletariat literature within a broader radical US literary movement centering on the working classes. Likewise, William J. Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (1999), James Smethurst’s The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946 (1999), and Anthony Dawahare’s Nationalism, Marxism, and African American Literature Between the Wars (2003) all explore the radical left, Marxism, and the Communist Party’s influence on Black literature’s generic and political concerns. Case in point, volume contributor Nicole Waligora-Davis argues that 1930s and 1940s African American artists “transformed a tradition of African American expressive culture” by utilizing Marxist ideology and the social science techniques for documenting Black life advanced during the period.2 For Bill V. Mullen, this 1930s Black aesthetic rarefies the CPUSA’s Popular Front and fuels the Black Chicago Renaissance, which locates African American cultural workers’ coming of age in the lake-front Midwestern city (whose Southside had the second largest Black population) rather than identifying it as a holdover from Harlem’s “New Negro.”3 What becomes clear in this collection of critical scholarship is that the African American literary turn toward Marxism, the CPUSA, and the Popular Front helps us to understand the 1930s as a critical moment in African American literature’s turn to internationalism as a viable mode of production. This turn would seed the coming decades of Black American international literary production.4
Additionally, in telling the story of the 1930s one must also tell the stories of the close interpersonal, intellectual, and aesthetic ties among the decade’s Black cultural producers. This volume, then, finds itself in the company of Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2010) and Gene Jarrett’s Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2007). As editors of this volume, we make our first critical intervention by reconsidering periodization and bridging the gap between the Harlem Renaissance and the literature of social realism to foreground the transitional quality of the 1930s. For example, “dean” Richard Wright, who crops up during the Depression and dominates 1940s social realist fiction, and “truant” Frank Yerby, whose anomalous fiction evidences the diversity of Black cultural production, are in conversation as writers employed by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).5 Wright and Frank Marshall Davis are but one set of writers who offer additional insights into how Black writers transitioned from journalism to fiction as well as Black political aesthetics. In these instances, our adherence to historical dates and generation-defining events highlights – and distinguishes – the various “deans” and “truants” of the 1930s, including the decade’s writers and foremost critics, such as Alain Locke and Sterling A. Brown. You’ll find more examples of such period, genre, and professional bridging in the chapters of this volume.
Additionally, the Great Depression and its aftermath complicate this putatively literary divide and invite us to consider new relational exchanges. African American Literature in Transition, 1930–1940 also makes great strides in fleshing out the coalescing articulations among Black women that would develop into Black feminist thought throughout the twentieth century. Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Marian Minus, Marita Bonner, and Margaret Alexander Walker would all find voices to articulate the particular precarity of Jane Crow.6 By tracing interpersonal, intertextual, and ideological connections, we hope to provide a sense of the stakes involved in developing a literary and critical framework for understanding the community of Black cultural producers that would impact the nation and the world well into the twentieth century.
Just as the past thirty years have produced a number of impressive studies that begin to devote substantial attention to the 1930s, we want to highlight the fact that the decade the chapters in this volume study also marks the emergence of some of the earliest volumes of African American literary history and criticism. Vernon Loggins’s The Negro Author: His Development in America (1931), Sterling A. Brown’s Negro Poetry and Drama (1937) and The Negro in American Fiction (1937), and Alain Locke’s The Negro in Art (1940) were all published during this decade and serve as early scholarly studies meant to codify and analyze the historical and aesthetic shifts that comprise what we have come to take for granted as African American literature. These are some of the foundational, early twentieth-century articulations of African American literary criticism. In addition to temporizing the infamous clash between Hurston and Wright, the 1930s also signals the maturation of African American literary criticism with Hugh M. Gloster founding the College Language Association, a historically Black organization serving the scholarly and professional interests of college teachers of English and foreign languages, in 1937. When considering these publications and events, the 1930s begin to take shape as an integral decade in the development of African American literary history and cultural production. As the editors of this volume, we attend to Depression-era literature with fresh modes, methods, and frameworks to highlight the difference in the period’s sense and sensibility, which provides fertile ground for engendering a transhistorical and historically specific Black aesthetic.
Methodologically, African American Literature in Transition, 1930–1940 follows and maps Black art as it draws on its predecessors and imagines new pathways for its successors. The chapters contained in this volume are remarkable for their willingness to linger in the economic, social, and political uncertainty – the transitions – that mark this often under considered decade. Bound not simply by a willingness to grapple with cultural works produced during national and international economic, political, and social upheaval, the volume’s chapters are unified through a four-pronged methodological approach. Each chapter explores some different aspect of the African American literary tradition, while also offering: (1) an articulation of the dynamics of change; (2) an identification of catalysts and chain reactions to document how new literatures, themes, or aesthetics are brought into being; (3) an engagement with both the literary and the extra-literary effects on writers and cultural production; and (4) a challenge to stable categories, narratives, and modes of periodization that many scholars and students take for granted when engaging in African American literary history. This four-pronged approach ensures historicization, theorization, and analysis of the material conditions and formalistic adaptations of Black literary production amid the social turmoil of the US Great Depression, the global crisis that would bring the country into World War II in 1941, as well as the burgeoning throbs of decolonization that would rock many nations of the African continent during the late 1950s and 1960s.
The Great Depression and its repercussions, most notably the New Deal programs, haunt the majority of the chapters contained in this volume. Thus, our second intervention as editors of this volume is to make explicit the various ways in which federally funded Black arts open up a space for training, networking, and honing the modern Black radical tradition that would shape the decade and those that followed. But, as Darryl Dickson-Carr asserts, the FWP was an “ambivalent opportunity” for Black writers, providing financial support to writers in the midst of a national financial crisis but limiting the independence of Black writers who might write against the US racial and economic policies and practices.7 Thus, a number of our contributors explore the tension between opportunity and constraint offered by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The 1930s mark a transition for modern African American literary and cultural work precisely because the decade reflects a shift and a stasis in textual content, artistic production, and professional networks.
A convergence of aesthetics and politics, of creativity and critique, threads the decade’s seemingly disparate ambitions. In contrast to existing scholarship on the tradition, this volume of African American Literature in Transition highlights the need for literary scholars to rethink how we engage with the 1930s as well as configure its history. Together, the volume’s chapters explore the transitional effect of economic precarity on 1930s African American literary production by delineating the decade’s themes but also noting key social, political, and creative methodologies. The volume’s eleven chapters are arranged by four themes that function as orienting subsections: “Productive Precarity and Literary Realism,” “New Deal, New Methodologies,” “Cultivating (New) Black Readers,” and “International, Black, and Radical Visions.” These subsections are meant to provide a governing arrangement for the ideas shared by their composite chapters. Yet, in the spirit of the volume’s emphasis on transition, each chapter gestures to a shared 1930s milieu, the literary history that prefigures and motions toward the decade’s creative legatees.
Contextualizing “The Crash” for Black Life
Although the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, is often framed as the start of the most financially, politically, and socially challenging decade of the twentieth century, many Americans remained uninformed regarding the dramatic economic decline’s long-term impact in the days and weeks that followed. This unawareness was no less true among African American citizens. One early Black newspaper to engage the crash was the Baltimore Afro-American, which, about two weeks out from the event, provided reactions from a few local Black business-oriented men. They noted a lack of impact in their lives from the crash and attributed this lack to their limited participation in speculation markets.8 The Black press’s and Black businessmen’s refusal to centralize the stock market crash’s bearing on Black life debunks the contemporary narrative regarding the unprecedented event’s uniform significance for all Americans. While unseating the market crash as the singular colossal calamity impacting Black life in the early decades of the twentieth century, the relative silence of the press and these Baltimore businessmen’s seeming disregard for its impact also speak to the deeper and longer-standing deterrents to Black socioeconomic advancement.
More than disrupt the economic progress of African Americans on the whole, the Great Depression made more visible the relative lack of advancement in Black Americans’ work life and wealth that had been in place since the post-Reconstruction period. As Cheryl Greenberg writes in her history of the African American experience during the Great Depression: “Most African Americans … did not have that far to fall when the Great Depression arrived. Even before 1929, the vast majority lived in desperate poverty.”9 African Americans’ economic position improved after their emancipation from slavery, but it was never on a par with that of their white counterparts or recent European immigrants. From 1890 to 1930, most Black Americans earned significantly lower wages, remained relegated in great proportion to menial employment options, or were unemployed at much higher rates. These employment disparities were shaped by institutional racial injustices just as they precipitated additional inequities. For example, whereas the illiteracy rate for US-born whites was 2 percent, almost 25 percent of African Americans were illiterate in 1920. In comparison to half of white families, fewer than a quarter of Black families owned the homes in which they lived by the time of the stock market crash. “African Americans lived in a depression,” Greenberg explains, “long before Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 gave the economic catastrophe a name.”
In their groundbreaking 1945 sociological study of Black urban life, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton referred to African Americans’ socially engineered employment stagnation during the early twentieth century as the “job ceiling” in order to capture the habitual and systemic role of racial discrimination within the US labor marketplace.10 While Black workers would find increasing representation in the menial labor marketplace throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their representation within the skilled labor force remained small.11
Some of the racial inequalities entrenched in the South, where more than 90 percent of the Black population lived in 1860, eased with African Americans’ migration to the North and West, where, by 1930, more than 20 percent of the Black population lived. However, African Americans still had limited access to skilled jobs, albeit the number of these positions had increased, and the higher cost of living that Black migrants faced in their new urban dwellings did not drastically alter their collective economic mobility. At the bottom of the labor hierarchy, Black women experienced restrictions on their employment options and compensation doubly due to sexism and anti-Blackness. Almost 60 percent of employed Black women remained in service or in domestic work in 1940.12 Forced to stand on sidewalks to secure a day’s work, New York domestic workers earned an average of $15 a week during the 1920s; they were subject to unregulated hours and pay and sexual harassment, too. Once the Depression hit, their working conditions deteriorated further, and their already meager wage dropped to $6–$10 a week.
Although Baltimore’s Black businessmen did not register the impact of the 1929 stock market crash two weeks after the event, a month out from the crash, George Schuyler recognized the decided shift and impending transition for Black life that the Great Depression would produce for Black Americans long term. In his article “The Talented Tenth,” circulated across many press platforms, including New York Amsterdam News, Schuyler uses the United States’ looming financial crisis and early governmental plans for an intervention to argue for the importance of Black American social integration and uplift as a central national agenda item. Schuyler would come to be remembered more for his satirical critiques questioning the legitimacy of an authentic and distinct Black American culture and the political conservatism conveyed in his 1931 satirical and speculative fiction Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933–1940. However, at the dawn of the 1930s he also saw the limitations of racial inequity in restricting Black people’s capacity to fully integrate into American society. Shortly after the crash, Schuyler notes, particularly in his journalism, that while the rest of the nation might strive for a return to “normalcy,” such a backwards-looking intention was not preferable for Black Americans: “Unlike American business, the Negro cannot afford to go ‘back to normalcy.’ That’s what he wants to get away from. He wants something better in every field of endeavor.”13 Despite appealing to white paternalism in his vision for Black social progress in the United States, what stands out is Schuyler’s sense that the Depression needed to be thought of beyond recent and short-term fiscal losses for Black Americans. Addressing the long-standing impact of racial discrimination would take far more than restoring the US economic system to pre-crash business as usual. In other words, focusing on the impact of the stock market crash and ignoring Black Americans’ systemic oppression would not comprehensively tell the long and vexed history of Black economic precarity in the United States – neither would failing to acknowledge the added deprivation that the 1930s effectuated.
Already disadvantaged African Americans increasingly felt the brunt of the crash as the Depression unfolded and persisted. According to the American Federation of Labor, three million people were unemployed in January of 1930, and the federal government estimated that 38 percent of the Black population, in comparison to 17 percent of the white population, needed public assistance. Three years later, 13.5 million people could not find jobs. Pandemic unemployment aggravated hunger, homelessness, health issues, and orphaned children. Manufacturing stalled; entrepreneurs and tradespeople forfeited their clientele; sharecroppers lost their livelihood. The crisis, although far-reaching, had an acute effect on disenfranchised African Americans, who were the last hired and first fired, had less in the way of savings and less access to traditional banking and finance services, and paid more for segregated housing. Additionally, white men and women’s willingness to take less-desirable and menial jobs historically dominated by Black men and women, including domestic work, had added repercussions for Black employment.14
While the stock market crash was seismically impactful, solely centering on it and the reciprocal narrative of Black poverty does not provide a full portrait of African American life during the 1930s – or its representation in African American literature. In this volume of African American Literature in Transition, we mark the subtle and climactic changes to the literary and cultural landscape of Black people by suturing the aesthetic and political disjuncture of the Depression era. In keeping with the series’ broad objectives, the 1930–1940 volume aims to resist relying exclusively on questions about who, what, where, and when, which prioritize the singular and the dramatic. Instead, the chapters of this volume also provide a deep exploration of how and why in order to show the revision and fluidity of African American cultural production due to both the gradual and the striking historical shifts of the decade. Focusing on the Great Depression while also complicating our understanding of its impact on African American communities and creative endeavors allows us to move beyond austere literary movements and their corresponding aesthetic modes; our approach to the 1930s invites nuanced interpretations of the decade’s fiction and nonfiction work as well as new understandings of its cultural workers. This book offers any student or scholar of the decade a coherent but elastic account of its variabilities to accommodate its conflicts, pivots, and fluctuations.
Documenting Precarity in 1930s Black Writing
The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s, and the emergence of protest fiction, which characterized the 1940s, simultaneously overshadow Depression-era Black literature. Comparably, African American modernism (1910–1950) envelops 1930s Black literary production within the various trends and historical happenings of the first half of the century, including the Black Chicago Renaissance (1935–1950). The experimental forms and alienation themes of Western European and Euro-American modernism’s writing methods convene with the effects of the Great Depression as well as the Great Migration, two world wars, unionism, and the beginnings of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement on Black American life.15 Consequently, African American literature produced between 1930 and 1940 is often deemed amorphous or incongruous. Scholars of the tradition tend to write through the 1930s as an extension of the previous decade’s New Negro Renaissance, a preemption of the subsequent decade’s social realism, or an appurtenance under modernism’s expansive and sundry blanket. Our goal, then, is for this volume to register the transitions of these dynamics rather than the beginnings and ends of their categorical periodizations, which are less definitive and conclusive than they are often deemed.
Whereas the Depression’s added economic weight on Black lives is clear, for many of the writers transitioning from the patronage and endowment support of the Harlem Renaissance, the imprint of the 1930s financial crisis is understated in their creative works. In addition to George Schuyler’s novel Black No More, poet Countee Cullen’s only novel One Way to Heaven (1932), Wallace Thurman’s roman à clef about the Harlem Renaissance Infants of the Spring (1932), and Langston Hughes’s short story collection The Ways of White Folks (1934) distinguish themselves discursively from the historical moment. Daryl Dickson-Carr highlights: “Despite their publication dates in the 1930s, very little material within these works explicitly considers the impact of the Depression on African Americans.”16 He explains that this is because many of the texts are written in the 1920s or early in the Depression era and, thus, did not have the chance to reflect upon the crisis. These writers would be eclipsed toward the end of the decade by a generation of emerging writers compelled to write about the economic and political realities brought on by the Depression. Writers like Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Dorothy West, Marita Bonner, and others would find explicitly writing through the economic realities of the Depression foundational to their writing. Nonetheless, as Ichiro Takayoshi points out, “literary problems popularly associated with the 1930s, such seemingly sui generis events as the political radicalization of literary culture, government funding of arts, and the rise of documentary journalism, are revealed as especially stormy manifestations of traditional literary concerns at a time of transition.”17 That is to say, the factors characterizing the 1930s may not have been new, but their expression was distinct. In this volume, we demonstrate that the Depression’s impact on African American literature may have been incremental, delayed, and provisional, but it was significant. The period’s precarity manifests in 1930s poetry, autobiographical reflections published in later decades, and, as contemporary scholars reveal, well-known Depression-era texts: namely, in the free verse of lesser-known writer Frank Marshall Davis; the 1956 memoir of the most celebrated writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes; and Zora Neale Hurston’s canonical novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
During the Depression, poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis published three collections of poetry regarded as too propagandistic and too similar to his newspaper reportage. Davis, along with Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, Fenton Johnson, Theodore Ward, Marian Minus, and Fern Gayden, was a member of the South Side Writers’ Group (SSWG), which was part of the Black Chicago Renaissance credited with ushering in 1940s social realism. Black Man’s Verse (1935) and I Am the American Negro (1937) garnered Davis the first prize for poetry from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation in 1937, which he followed up with the poetry collection Through Sepia Eyes (1938), but he is most known for his news coverage throughout the 1930s and into the 1950s. Kansas-born, Davis moved to Chicago, where he worked briefly for the Gary, Indiana American. In 1931 he moved to Atlanta to become editor of the World, then a semi-weekly newspaper. By 1934 he had returned to Chicago to join the Associated Negro Press, eventually becoming its executive editor during his fourteen-year tenure. In his autobiography Livin’ the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet (1993), Davis frames his relocations as “Depression-driven,” as the market crash forced him to leave Kansas State College one semester short of graduating with a major in industrial journalism. The economic devastation also obliged Davis to earn money as a train dining-car waiter alongside a Black dentist and a Black psychologist, making him an “educational casualty” of the Depression akin to the Black professionals’ requisite relegation to service work. Davis moved South “for the sake of regular food and shelter” and a lower cost of living, but he returned North three years later because, although the effects of the Depression were slow to impact Black communities, they were the hardest hit economically, and Black Americans had greater access to federal relief in the North.18
The economic realities that shaped 1930s Black life are more explicitly embedded in the personal narratives of African American artists and cultural producers who shifted from the Harlem Renaissance to the era of social realism. For instance, Langston Hughes opens his autobiography of post–Harlem Renaissance life, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), by stating: “When I was twenty-seven the stock-market crash came.”19 By his twenty-eighth birthday, Hughes writes that a bout of depression and the national economic Depression forced him to think differently about what it might mean to make a living as a writer. Like the Baltimore businessmen and much of the Black press in the immediate wake of the crash, Hughes found the crash significant but not singular in his personal narrative of financial precarity. In fact, for him, more important than the market crash initially was the falling-out with his white patron of nearly a decade, Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy physician’s widow. Hughes recounts that in those intervening years between the market crash (1929) and access to the social safety net of the WPA (1935), he was forced to think creatively about how to “turn poetry into bread.”20 His first strategy for making a living as a writer was to embark upon a lecture circuit reading poetry at historically Black colleges and universities, Black churches, libraries, and public meeting houses across the nation. And with these opening lines of his autobiography, Hughes provides a snapshot into how Black writers working during the roaring 1920s transitioned beyond the perceived literary and cultural advances that we have come to associate with the Harlem Renaissance.
As Stacy I. Morgan notes in his study of mid-twentieth-century African American literature, the literary movement toward social realism among African American cultural producers in the 1930s grew out of Black artists’ efforts to represent the “harrowing social conditions” of poverty and violence that became more prevalent as the nation experienced the Great Depression.21 For his own part, Hughes, recently broken from Mason, deeply felt the financial squeeze.22 His growing “Red radicalism” and affinity with communist ideals would coincide with the failure of the white patronage system, capturing the elemental shift toward a more community-based financial support network that was necessary before the federally sponsored work of the WPA became available to Black artists. Mary McLeod Bethune suggested that Hughes should travel South to do readings of his poems at historically Black colleges and universities. Hughes recounts doing just that with his friend and visual artist Zell Ingram; he read at libraries, community centers, and Black educational institutions. As Hughes notes, governmental intervention through the WPA, part of President Roosevelt’s experimental New Deal plan to reinvigorate the national economy, eventually augmented Black artists and cultural producers. However, Hughes’s remembrance of those interceding years captures the power of Black resilience and reliance on other Black people for income and support.
Additional mid-twentieth-century Black autobiographies archive the decade. James Weldon Johnson published his autobiography Along This Way in 1933, but a handful of African American writers, intellectuals, activists, and artists published autobiographies in the 1940s and 1950s that take up the economic precarity of the 1930s in direct and veiled ways. Early autobiographies by prominent public figures include W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn (1940), Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea (1940), Mary Church Terrell’s A Colored Woman in a White World (1940), Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945). Terrell uses the historical term Depression only once in A Colored Woman in a White World, which appeared just as the economy began to recover, but she does recall her inability to find a clerical position after her dismissal from Washington, DC’s Emergency Relief Division in 1934. She writes: “[F]or every difficulty experienced by a white woman or a white man seeking a way to earn his or her daily bread, at least 50 times that many confront his brothers and sisters of a darker hue.”23 Several autobiographies discussing the 1930s surfaced over a decade later, namely Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter (1946), Ethel Waters’s His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951), Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues (1956), and Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand (1958). Still later, Black writers engaged the Depression era while living through the Civil Rights movement: George Schuyler’s Black and Conservative (1966), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Chester Himes’s The Quality of Hurt (1972), and Harry Haywood’s Black Bolshevik (1978). In all instances, Black artists and intellectuals were eager to reflect on the ways in which the 1930s shaped and reshaped their lives, writing, and thinking. These documents stand as a testament to the importance of the decade to which this volume is dedicated.
In particular, the autobiography of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, one of the mid-twentieth century’s most confounding artists and intellectuals, illustrates the Depression’s fickle literary effect, as her reminisces in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) concomitantly address and elide the economic insecurity of Black writers during the 1930s. Sharing the same financial “Godmother” as Langston Hughes, Hurston received $200 a month from Mason per their 1927 employment contract for ethnographic research on Black culture. Hurston does not reference the market crash or its ensuing economic hardship in Dust Tracks on a Road until she recounts the financial struggles she experienced in 1932, when she transitioned to writing fiction to guarantee monetary compensation. “[T]he depression did away with money for research so far as I was concerned,” she explains.24 Before shifting her focus to short stories and novels, Hurston had collaborated with Langston Hughes on the play Mule Bone in 1930, but their professional and personal relationship languished during the Depression. Her frustration with his suggestion that they share the play’s future profits with Louise Thompson (who typed the manuscript without payment) and his indignation at her copyrighting a revision of the play under her name derailed their partnership. “To be sure,” biographer Valerie Boyd clarifies, “Hurston’s behavior was greatly influenced by the oppressive economic times.”25 Hurston does not discuss that money and their “Godmother” were at the root of her conflict with Hughes, but her life mapped a series of economic reversals – from asking her former patron to cover a past due $18.40 heat bill to a $200 publisher’s advance – before her publication record gained momentum with “The Gilded Six-Bits” (1933) and her debut novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934).26
Though neither focused on nor emblematic of the economic decline’s widespread devastation, Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was effected by and reflective of it. In the novel, the economic precarity of Black communities is pervasive and an elusive undercurrent. As a result, the book illustrates the critical neglect of Depression-era allusions in African American fiction as well as the decade’s aesthetic shifts and evolving positionality in African American literary history. Since Alice Walker’s 1970s recovery of Hurston, who fell into critical obscurity by 1950 and died in a Florida county welfare home in 1960, Their Eyes Were Watching God has been praised as a feminist work, an erotic tale of an African American woman’s self-discovery, and the greatest Black love story ever told. However, financial security as much as eros motivates the three intimate relationships of protagonist Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods. Her brief first marriage to an older man is shored up by forty acres of land; her second union is based on ardor and upward mobility; and her third romantic coupling is all love and no pecuniary promise. The novel closes with Janie’s return to Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville – and financial stability – with an invaluable account of love gained and lost.
An economic discourse underlies Janie’s connections and migrations, but rarely do scholars center Black financial vulnerability in their analyses of the novel. Sondra Guttman argues that several factors dictate early and late twentieth-century literary critics’ “inability to see any engagement with the hardships of the Depression in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” including their categorization of the text as romantic, pastoral, utopian, and ahistorical; their focus on Hurston’s Cold War–era political statements; and their rigid binarization of the Black female writer’s emphasis on folk culture and Richard Wright’s masculinist protest writing.27 Wright accused Hurston of minstrelsy in his 1937 review of Their Eyes Were Watching God for the Marxist magazine New Masses. The two, thus, became iconic representations of rigid 1930s conflicts between arts and politics, urban and rural, when many African Americans migrated between these poles. Added to these delimiting critical frameworks, the temporal arc of Their Eyes Were Watching God, as charted by Carla Kaplan, reflects on the antebellum past while Janie’s coming of age takes place from the early 1880s to the early 1920s, which leaves the 1930s, despite the novel’s publication date, to the narrative’s future.28 Yet Hurston’s portrayal of “the muck” and its destitute migrant workers signals the Depression era’s material deprivation albeit scholars often neglect the rural, diasporic Black community’s social condition in favor of celebrating Hurston’s depiction of its dynamic and sustaining vernacular culture.29 But Hurston employs the vernacular to sum up the working poor’s impoverishment: “It’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you.”30 The muck’s culture and community do not drive the agricultural laborers to their exploitative plight; economic need does. Guttman suggests that recognizing Hurston’s nods to the Great Depression in Their Eyes Were Watching God “dissolve[es] the boundaries between institutionally discrete periods, modes, and movements (‘proletarian fiction,’ ‘Modernism,’ and ‘the Harlem Renaissance’ in this case) [and] results in new avenues of textual engagement.”31 The social and political spheres, alongside the various kinds of writing they inform, reflect the decade’s interdependent transitions.
Anti-capitalism, Politics, and Representation
Beyond the overwhelming joblessness and poverty of the Great Depression, the 1930s would see an increase in racialized violence and lynching of Black people, both of which were met with an increase in Black political activism throughout the country.32 Probably the most internationally significant legal battle of the decade centered on a group of nine African American male teenagers who had hitched a train headed to Memphis, Tennessee, in search of employment. The young men were stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama, taken off the train and falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for raping two white women who were also riding the freight train in March of 1931. The young men would go on to be known in the Black and international press as “The Scottsboro Boys,” and the case became a national cause célèbre for the CPUSA.33 Party member and emerging Depression-era writer Richard Wright wrote more than twenty articles about the activities of the local national defense committee while head of the Harlem News Bureau of the Daily Worker in 1937.34 Throughout the 1930s and well into the 1940s, the case was a source for many African Americans to couple their concerns for equality and racial violence with a profound critique of American capitalism and democracy; the event would introduce many Black people to the Communist Party as a viable alternative to democratic labor practices that were inhospitable to Black economic and political equality.35 Wright’s SSWG introduced many of its members to the CPUSA, encouraging them to hone an artistic vision with an anti-capitalist ideological center.
The decade’s conflict over racial representation was also met with the political activism of the Black press as well as organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the CPUSA. In 1931, the Pittsburgh Courier began a petition against the radio show Amos ’n’ Andy (1928–1960), whose title Black characters were voiced by two white actors. The show harkened back to and expanded antebellum Blackface minstrelsy: Amos and Andy were hardworking Jim Crow simpletons while their friend Kingfish and his wife Sapphire evoked the Zip Coon stereotype (i.e. a lazy, buffoonish Black man) and popularized the trope of a shrewish and scheming Black woman, whose moniker wreaked havoc on Black domesticity throughout the twentieth century. However, radio also had the power to affirm Black achievement. For example, the live broadcast of boxer Joe Louis’s victory over German Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch fight was a win for both American democracy over fascism and Black American excellence in the face of US racism. The Black press and civil rights organizations were called to struggle against the symbolic violence of 1930s mainstream culture, which perpetuated damaging racial stereotypes to undermine Blacks’ social progress. The 1930 census recorded that only 14.4 percent of Black urban households and 0.03 percent of rural Black households had radio receivers, but radio dominated US popular imagination and Amos ’n’ Andy attracted 40 million listeners.36
In addition to Amos ’n’ Andy, Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1936), a bestseller, Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and Pulitzer Prize winner, along with its 1939 film adaptation, for which Hattie McDaniel became the first Black to win an Academy Award, served to ensconce myths about Black inferiority further. News of Hollywood’s adaptation of Mitchell’s novel, which dramatizes Southern whites’ suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, caused concern among civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the National Negro Congress, the National Urban League, and the Communist Party. Producer David O. Selznick asked Walter F. White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, to consult on the film while in production, and he also committed to review W. E. B. Du Bois’s history Black Reconstruction in America (1935).37 Despite this supposed effort, the film’s treatment of Black people during slavery and Emancipation led to picketing in Chicago and Washington, DC, and the Daily Worker fired a critic for a generous review of the film while the CPUSA was organizing a boycott of it. However, most reviews in the Black press volleyed between celebrating McDaniel’s talent and criticizing Gone with the Wind’s romanticization of the Old South, as did the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.38 The symbolic importance of the film would compel a small group of well-known African American writers, artists, and activists to travel to the Soviet Union in 1932 with hopes of producing the feature film Black and White, which was to be about American race relations. Black and White was never produced, but it stands as a testament to African Americans’ hopes for intervening in the racial stereotypes that were rampant in the mainstream media of the 1930s.
Building and Funding the American Dream
Just as many Black people were being primed to consider the CPUSA and the NAACP as sources for national critique and political action, historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term American Dream to describe an optimism about the democratic project of the United States and all the possibilities it promised to its citizens. For Adams, that optimism endured despite the Depression and was articulated as the egalitarian “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”39 In Adams’s egalitarian vision, work, not birth or caste, would and should shape one’s access to the riches promised by American citizenship. Adams’s articulation of the concept of the American Dream and its optimism became the bedrock of American exceptionalism throughout the twentieth century; history, however, has shown us both the mutability and the faultiness of this logic.
Black writers and activists of the period clearly articulated a long-established sense that Black Americans stood outside the dream of American progress and inclusion while maintaining Blacks’ fundamental Americanness and entitlement to full citizenship. For example, in The Negro in America (1933), Alain Locke writes: “[The Negro’s] values, his ideals, his objectives, have been peculiarly and unreservedly American.” He goes on to explain: “[The Negro’s] racialism has never set up separate or different values or loyalties, but has only been a practical social device to secure on a separate basis and by another route the common values and ends which prejudice more directly denied or curtailed.” Thus, for Locke, “[e]xcept for superficial physical dissimilarities,” it was clear: “[T]he Negro would be indistinguishably American.”40 To edify this point, The Negro in America, a volume in the series Reading with a Purpose produced by the American Library Association’s Commission on the Library and Adult Education, provided a twelve-part study outline and recommended readings about slavery, Reconstruction, “The Present-Day Problem,” and “The Negro as Man and Artist” for its guided course for self-education.41 Affirming Blacks’ Americanism, Locke dismisses biases based on racial distinction and contends that realizing American democratic ideals – making real the American Dream – would solve the race problem. Yet the same year as The Negro in America’s publication, the NAACP lost its suit against the University of North Carolina on behalf of pharmacy school applicant Thomas Hocutt, its first attempt to desegregate higher education. Efforts to dismantle Jim Crow in public schools did not succeed until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. James Truslow Adams’s American Dream rhetoric was adopted and developed by other Black intellectuals over the course of the twentieth century, moving beyond merely Depression-era hopefulness to post-World War II realization and Cold War rhetoric. Meanwhile, African Americans experienced this dream in fits and spurts, and sometimes as nightmare.
African Americans’ knotty relationship with the American Dream manifested in their uneven experiences with the Great Depression’s economic devastation, which lasted until 1939 if not, in some regions, until the early 1940s when defense manufacturing geared up due to the onset of World War II. Unsurprisingly, Blacks’ American nightmare also recurred in the discrimination they faced amid federal strategies for economic recovery, or the New Deal. The federal salve, which Greenberg describes as “a potpourri of work, welfare, and development programs,” was paramount in national efforts to reinvigorate the economy with major policies regarding farming, banking, home ownership, and construction projects in 1933.42 The New Deal’s later expansion of the public sector benefited the unemployed masses, but racial terror continued to impact African Americans’ social condition during the 1930s. President Roosevelt failed to support anti-lynching legislation and generally neglected African Americans’ struggle for civil rights. Likewise, Roosevelt’s federal programs, projects, and policy inaugurated under the New Deal boosted the country’s economy, but racial inequities hampered Black Americans’ ability to take full advantage of said initiatives.
Black communities questioned whether the New Deal was actually a “raw deal,” and they branded the National Recovery Administration “Negroes Robbed Again” and the “Negro Removal Agency,” as bigotry and segregation dictated that African Americans did not have the same access to employment or relief.43 For example, domestic workers, along with agricultural workers who were also overrepresented among employed African Americans, did not secure the benefits provided to other laborers by way of the New Deal’s Wagner Act (or National Labor Relations Act) and Social Security Act.44 While white families in Atlanta received roughly $33 in relief each month, Black families were allotted $20. Rural families received less overall, but the racial disparity was proportionate. Further, African Americans were more often denied relief than white applicants, as recent Black migrants escaping Southern poverty were disadvantaged by residential policies upon their arrival in the North. What’s more, urban living meant that federal assistance covered fewer of the necessities. African Americans benefited from the work generated by federal construction of post offices, municipal buildings, housing, roads, bridges, dams, and park trails through the Public Works Administration, but they still faced discriminatory hiring practices.
Started in 1935, the WPA was part of the second phase of the New Deal that seemed to assuage the lost financial support that white philanthropists had provided Black writers and artists prior to the stock market crash. The WPA facilitated the hiring of 1930s writers, artists, and intellectuals under the auspices of its various outfits, including the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the FWP, and the Federal Theatre Project. The last two employed such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, Dorothy West, Ralph Ellison, Willard Motley, William Attaway, Frank Yerby, Theodore Ward, and Ebony and Jet magazine founder John H. Johnson. The WPA also supported the inestimable research of St. Clair Drake, Horace R. Cayton, Charles Jonson, E. Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, and Rayford Logan, among others. Despite the country’s economy bottoming out, the evolution of Black political and intellectual life during the 1930s shaped the subsequent period’s writing, publishing, and reading practices.
However, the WPA was not immune to discrimination. African Americans made up 20 percent of all WPA workers at the end of 1936, but, despite having skilled work experience, Black workers were not placed in comparable positions. The WPA offered higher wages than jobs in the private sector, but African Americans’ pay rates were lower than those of their white counterparts.45 For example, when Hurston worked for the FWP, she made $63 a month, which was significantly less than what Mason paid her to conduct research in the 1920s and less than her white male counterparts, who earned $37.50 biweekly.46 These inequities continued even as the Great Depression abated; twice as many Black men reported unemployment as white men in the North in 1940.47
Nonetheless, African American culture continued to thrive during the 1930s. Black writers and artists developed contingencies for economic recovery and political dissent through their artistic innovation. As editors of this volume of African American Literature in Transition, we contend that there is still more critical work to do in regard to registering the striking and subtle shifts of 1930s African American literature; our objective with this volume is to advance the study of Black cultural production as it relates to and moves beyond a Depression-era context.
Future Conversations in 1930s Black Literary History
Literary history benefits from putting written work in conversation with contemporaneous visual and oral texts. It also benefits from newfound and retrospective discoveries. As Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. presuppose, “[t]he writing of history, of course, must cross disciplinary boundaries, for it cannot otherwise provide nuanced reports on the indeterminacy of texts.”48 With the ongoing recovery of forgotten texts and the development of new theories, Graham and Ward broadly conclude that “literary history is always a work-in-progress.” While the chapters of this volume are primarily focused on literature and literary writers, we recognize that other contemporaneous forms of Black cultural production managed the short-term and long-term effects of the Depression on Black lives differently. We would, thus, like to briefly consider what might become available to literary scholars of the 1930s when we think in collaboration with other cultural mediums.
Certain genres of visual art and music reflect the economic situation’s liability and injustice, respectively, with their aesthetic ephemerality and narrative impudence. More specifically, prints by African American visual artists, though rare, intone the alienation and despair of the times. Stephen M. Doherty contends that the visual work evidences “the determination and will to make art under what was [sic] often adverse conditions,” and the number of Black artists was disproportionately small in relation to the entire artist population in the 1930s and 1940s.49 Moreover, the cadre of Black printmakers, whose medium was often seen as “experimental activities or temporary diversions” in comparison to more “serious” artistic undertakings, such as painting and sculpture, was subsequently less.50 The lithograph The Soup Kitchen by Norman Wilfred Lewis, an African American painter known for abstract expressionism, depicts the barrenness and somberness of economic hardship in a figurative, social realist style (Figure 0.1). The weariness of the scene, conveyed with a gray color palette, shrouds the suited men lined up to receive food. Noted in the background is the subsistence of the WPA, which sponsors the charitable meal and the artist who represents it.51 The print’s inexpensive technique and descriptive immediacy capture the historical moment. Its realism and production potentially provide additional insight into African American realist fiction, journalism, and other kinds of print culture.
Similarly, the blues’ characteristic ambivalence between pain and wit made them a fitting venue in which to critique the long-standing obstacles to Black economic mobility as well as lament the extenuating circumstances precipitated by the stock market crash. Angela Y. Davis underscores the economic discourse in Bessie Smith’s song “Poor Man’s Blues,” which was recorded in 1928 when few Black people could afford to buy records for private listening. Wedding realism, humor, and irony, the classic blues woman sings: “Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind … Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard times.”52 Not only does “Poor Man’s Blues” mirror African Americans’ protracted economic struggle by anticipating the Depression era before the market crash, but Davis identifies Smith’s song, which is often seen as an anomaly in her catalogue, as “a venerable but forgotten ancestor of the social protest genre in Black popular music.” In this vein, Smith’s “Poor Man’s Blues” complements Billie Holiday’s more well-known song “Strange Fruit” (1939), whose lyrics protesting lynching are also perceived as a departure from her recording legacy. Stressing blues music’s social commentary, Davis presumes that Holiday’s song resonated with broad 1930s and 1940s audiences because they had been “sensitized both by the transracial economic and social tragedies of the Great Depression and by the multiracial mass movements seeking to redress the grievances of Blacks and whites alike.” The material, social, and legal prospects of Depression-era Black life were uncertain due to the increased lack of labor opportunities as well as the prominence of mob ritualistic violence, among other racial injustices. The blues, then, are a ready soundtrack for 1930s Black visual and literary work. Their complicated affect, economic discourse, and political positions lend themselves to productive conversations about African American fiction’s genres and aesthetics as well as the fluidity between the literary and the popular in the tradition. The portrayal of African Americans’ economic hardship in blues music and print art, we argue, demonstrates the importance of examining 1930s African American fiction in the context of other synchronous Black cultural production in future studies of the period.
In conclusion, by charting the dramatic and subtle impact of the Great Depression on artists, practices, and ideas, this volume moves from financial deficit to the promise of social mobility, from the training of writers to the instruction of readers, and finally from the national to a transnational perspective. Each chapter of this volume concentrates on a diverse set of literary figures and historical debates in order to provide a more nuanced understanding of the decade’s various layers and turning points. While the volume may have omissions that are glaring to some, the aim is to create a rich snapshot of the decade’s transitional spirit. The chapters herein defy the scholarly tendency to slight or flatten the Depression era in African American literary and cultural production. We offer this volume as an invitation to return to a period of great personal and national tumult, paying attention toward the artistic innovation that the transition wrought for the benefit of the African American literary tradition.