Book - Women of the Harlem Renaissance

Tony Cross read the anthology Women of the Harlem Renaissance, out now from MacMillan Collectors Library, edited by Marissa Constantinou with an introduction by Kate Dossett...

Women of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Marissa Constantinou is an anthology of poetry and prose, written by women from the era of the Harlem Renaissance. This means - roughly - from 1910 to 1930. Work by black writers. Some of it overtly political, some of it less so. But politics is pretty much there everywhere.

It's a fascinating read. I'll admit that I found the poetry selections - mostly - less interesting than the prose ones. Two short stories in particular - The Abyss, by Clara Ann Thompson and The Closing Door, by Georgia Douglas Johnson - are astonishing work. Both are about women and the birth of their children. Both are about how racism has a fundamentally destructive effect on the lives of black people in primarily white societies. An impact that white people don't notice by omission. It is often asked about Germans, when talking about the Holocaust, 'how could they not have known?' Well, the same question can and should be asked of white people all over the world. 'How could we not have known what we were doing?' The answer that a lot of people did, but chose either to look away or to benefit from it. Others pretended it wasn't happening. They pleaded ignorance. Sins of commission v sins of omission.

Both The Abyss and The Closing Door are emotionally tough reads. The Abyss should be read alongside The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman as incredibly power takes on post-birth trauma. The Closing Door is similar but there is something crueller and darker at the centre of it.

Violence often haunts these stories too. An Apostrophe to the Lynched, which is a short poem* is a powerful thump of anger against America that could be written now. I highlighted the following section in particular:

"Call down vengeance upon this barbarous nation; a nation of hypocrites, timeservers and goldworshippers; a nation of ranting, ramping, stamping creatures who call themselves evangelists and who practice the evangel of restriction and proscription...."

I remember when 9/11 happened a black author - whose name I don't remember - pointed out that when people talked about this being the first major terrorist attack on US soil they were forgetting the long campaign of terror aimed at black people. Having read Percival Everett's 'The Trees' recently this is at the front of my mind. How can you terrorise a group of people for four centuries and then get angry when THEY get angry. It might feel a little glib to say it but it seems that American society is suffering from a kind of social post-traumatic stress disorder and is refusing to face up to that.

But I found this a fascinating and powerful collection. It's highlighted a number of writers whose work I didn't know due to my own ignorance I admit. And as Kate Dossett says in her excellent introduction:

"Anthologies are important in determining who gets remembered, whose ideas matter and how we understand our pasts. They are part of a broader knowledge-producing industry in America, one long controlled by white and usually male Americans. Anthologies confer legitimacy on certain writers while excluding others."

So this gives a voice to writers who haven't been given a hearing or deserve to have more of a hearing. Kipling once said, "“What do they know of England, who only England know?” This anthology asks “What do they know of America, who only white America know?”

Worth a read.

*Note: I think the layout of the version for Kindle is bad [Tony read the book via NetGalley - Ed]. Notes appear randomly in the text - I think they're supposed to be footnotes but the pages of the hard copy don't match the Kindle version. They're are odd line breaks and space issues. Sometimes you're not sure if something is a poem or prose. The hard copy probably makes all this clear.

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Image - Amazon

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