The University of Texas at Austin - Civitas Institute

Getting the News from Harlem Renaissance Novels and Novellas

Claude McKay and George Schuyler on the centrality of the popular press in championing democracy

March 31
12:30 PM - 1:30 PM Lone Star Room in the Union RSVP
Chi Elliott

The “bad nationalist” Claude McKay and the contrarian conservative George Schuyler disagreed about many things in the 1930s. But they agreed on the centrality of the popular press in championing democracy, particularly when it came to the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, about which both wrote copiously. In this talk, I compare McKay’s and Schuyler’s fiction and non-fiction and the very different ways the two authors sought to bolster and chronicle democracy. In Claude McKay’s posthumously published Harlem Renaissance novels Amiable with Big Teeth and Romance in Marseille, newspapers are democracy’s allies and its sworn enemies. Against the backdrop of the Back to Africa and New Negro movements, anti-fascist resistance in Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War, McKay’s characters rely on the gadfly attention of the omnipresent popular press as a key lever of democratic power for Black people of vastly different social classes and national origins. Press encounters elucidate a range of beliefs and expectations about democracy, including the belief that the news is a mechanism of democracy, not its chronicler; in McKay’s view, that latter important role is reserved for novels themselves, which function as a second (less evanescent) news cycle about the quotidian realities of Black liberation struggles. By contrast, Schuyler famously denied the existence of Black racial identity, famously describing African Americans as “lampblacked Anglo- Saxons.” But his pseudonymously published serialized fiction stands in sharp contrast. And so, I argue, does his journalism on Ethiopia. In his Pittsburgh Courier column, Schuyler explained one reason the anti-fascist resistance in Africa had captured the imaginations of so many African American readers (and presumably himself as well): “the simple truth of the matter is that we already have fascism here [in America] and have had it for some time, if by fascism one means dictatorial rule in the interest of a privileged class, regimentation, persecution of racial minorities and radicals, etc.” (17 Oct 1936: 12). I argue that Schuyler’s pseudonymously authored novellas took advantage of their serialized newspaper format; the adjacent articles supplied the facts and the novellas elaborated and those facts with the extended romance and fantasies that, in Schuyler’s view, made the African American political consensus about the war so ennobling and robust. Reading McKay’s unpublished 1930s novels and Schuler’s newspaper fictionand nonfiction in tandem illuminates a rare moment of Harlem Renaissance political consensus. It also reveals some of the key ideological conflicts that underpinned the period’s most vivid articulations of racial patriotism and racialnationalism.

Lone Star Room in the Union

Lunch will be provided

Chiyuma Elliott is Nonresidential Fellow of the Civitas Institute and Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she directs the African American Intellectual Traditions Initiative, a project that explores religious and classical influences on African American intellectual life. Her scholarly work and teaching focus on poetry and poetics, African American literature, intellectual history from the 1920s to the present, and Black Geography/Cultural Geography. Prof. Elliott is the author of four books of poems: Blue in Green (2021), At Most (2020), Vigil (2017), and California Winter League(2015). She is currently at work on a poem cycle about technology and migration, and a scholarly monograph tentatively titled The Rural Harlem Renaissance, about rural life and art in the 1920s. She completed her Ph.D. in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

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