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In this chapter, I return to Hughes’s early jazz-inspired writing with an eye to his crucial awareness of music and embodiment as combined within African American contributions to modernism, and critical to an emboldened new Black subjectivity after World War I. Associations between music, the body, and Black subjectivity are key to conceptualizing Hughes’s Black modernist style on its own terms – that is, without only looking for points of correspondence in literary form with the work of his white canonical counterparts. Thus, I root my discussion of Hughes’s work in critical understandings of jazz, Black musical aesthetics, and performance that privilege uses of the body. As I argue, Hughes’s vision for a decidedly Black modernist aesthetic depended always on his acute understanding of the radical effects of African American performance strategies and his appreciation for jazz not just as an innovation on musical form but also as an embodied counterpoint to the discursive and the semantic as privileged modalities.
This chapter considers Ellison’s contradictory relationship to the black writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. While Ellison met and conversed with Alain Locke about black writing as an undergraduate at Tuskegee, and benefitted directly from mentoring by African American creative forebears like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright after his move to New York in the late 1930s, he also expressly distanced himself from these figures later. In chapters like 1963-64’s canonical “The World and the Jug,” for example, Ellison emphasizes the influence of various white modernists like T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and André Malraux as he downplays his debt to Hughes and Wright, both of whom bookended the politicized aesthetic of the Renaissance. As a counterpoint, I consider Ellison stylistic points of resemblance with these earlier black modernists to suggest a more substantial genealogical connection than Ellison himself admitted at times in his own rhetorical self-fashioning.