Author (Your Name)

Anne McManus, Colby College

Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Colby Access Only)


Colby College. American Studies Program




In the preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson makes two crucial points that describe the motivations for the arousal of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson first remarks that "the public, generally speaking, does not know that there are American Negro poets," and that "to supply this lack of information is, alone, a work worthy of someone's effort" (Huggins, 281). Expanding on this idea, however, Johnson makes the additional comment: the production of literature by the colored people in this country involves more than supplying information that is lacking. It is a matter which has a direct bearing on the most vital of American problems ... a people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior. The status of the Negro in the Unites States is more a question of national mental attitude than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity of the Negro through the production of literature and art. (Lewis, 281) With the reasons that Johnson expresses here as the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance! it is not difficult to understand why African-Americans chose the arts as a vehicle to the acknowledgment of their talent and integrity by the world. In addition, it was clear that they would do everything necessary to reach a point of national admiration. Until then, however, individuals had to step forward and prove that they believed in social progress through artistic accomplishment. In addition, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance would show African-Americans nationwide that 'passing' in its many guises could be achieved, for either good or bad. By the mid-1920s, people of all different races, classes, and genders began to express their own perspectives on the use of art as a form of expression for African-Americans. David Lewis writes: nothing could have seemed to most Afro-Americans more extravagantly impractical as a means of improving racial standing than writing poetry or novels, or painting, but Charles Johnson and a few other Harlem luminaries were keenly aware that some white writers had already found the Afro-Ainerican a salable commodity in the literary world. (Lewis, 91) Artists did exist such as the literary inspirations of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Jessie Fauset, and the musical heroines of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, however, believed in their opportunity and didn't waste their time in thoughts of failure. Because of these and other African Americans who believed in the authentic expressions of art, the Harlem Renaissance ignited a new era for their race. In Voices From the 'Harlem Renaissance, Nathan Huggins uses the term "tragic mulatto" in reference to those African-Americans who engaged in the struggle to pass for white, Huggins states that ''blacks viewed the phenomenon of 'passing for white' as ironic, signaling great temptation and opportunity as well as tragedy" (p.135). Huggins also asserts that the issue of passing is "merely suggested" in the works of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, which draws attention to the importance of female authors of the time. Women such as Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset consistently raise the issue of passing in their novels, suggesting the intricate and powerful roles of race, class, and gender in passing. The term "tragic mulatto" used by Huggins is strongly exemplified in the characters of Larsen and Fauset's works. Discussing the themes and issues that developed out of African American recognition during The Harlem Renaissance, David Lewis also raises the issue of passing, defining it as "Negro seepage into the culture of white America" (Lewis, 102). One can only gain a true sense of what passing meant to African-Americans during the 19205 by recognizing the power it had to create change for the individual and the ramifications such change had on the race as a whole. A useful way to understand what it meant for an African-American to pass in the 1920s is to look not only through the lens of literature, but more deeply through the lens of music, recognizing them as equally important vehicles. The consuming talents of the singers and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, in addition to the lighter color of their skin, allow them to "pass" from a place unknown into a place of their own. Through their novels and their lyrics, they break barriers never broken before. Although literature and music exploited separate methods of passing, both forms actively embraced the term. The way this and other cycles of passing play and display on each other, are evident in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.


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Harlem Renaissance, African Americans in literature, Passing (Identity) in literature, Race in literature, Music and race, African Americans -- Music, African American musicians, Racially mixed people -- Race identity -- United States, United States -- Race relations