The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and sociological movement born out of the failure of post-Civil War reconstruction, the migration of African-Americans from the rural south to northern cities, the after effects of World War I and the celebration of black dignity and creativity.
The most active period was from 1919 to the mid-1930s, though influences began to come together by 1900, and cultural effects still exist. The Renaissance brought black culture into an American context, expanded intellectual and social contacts for parts of both the black and white communities, and helped lay the foundation for the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was primarily a middle-class, urban, Eastern U.S. movement, centered around that part of New York City called Harlem.
Except that Anita Scott Coleman, a prize-winning short-story writer, poet, script-writer for silent films, and essayist, came from New Mexico.
Anita Scott was born in Mexico in 1890, the daughter of a black U.S. Calvary corporal and his wife. She grew up in New Mexico, graduated from the New Mexico Normal School, taught school, married a printer and photographer, and raised five children, as well as numerous foster children. Her husband, James Coleman, moved to Los Angeles in 1924, in the hopes of work for himself and better schooling for their children. Two years later, having found employment as a typesetter, he sent for Anita and the rest of his family. She lived in Los Angeles until her death in 1960.
This book is divided into four parts. The introduction is a scholarly discussion of Coleman's life and how that life, and her literary works, wove in and out of the Harlem Renaissance. It puts a human face on a cultural movement.
Part I is seventeen of her short stories, all of which were published between 1919 and 1943 in newspapers and magazines that were part of the Harlem Renaissance. Part II is a collection of her poems, and Part III contains two essays, "Unfinished Masterpieces," and "Arizona and New Mexico--The Land of Esperanza."
The short-stories are breathtaking. Initially, it takes a moment to get into the stories' style. The rhythm is of a different time and kind of story-telling, akin to the first reading of O. Henry, or the journals of the nineteenth-century Canadian journal-keeper, Susanna Moody. But by the second or third story, that strangeness falls away.
A woman sells her clothes to raise money so she and her husband can buy a bakery. A band leader tries to run a con so his band members can have places to stay while they are touring. A working man and a spinster cook both covet a little gray house. The endings are, for the most part, happy but not happily-ever-after. The most disturbing endings are in "Jack Arrives," where I thought I knew the ending but really hoped I'd guessed wrong; and "Cross Crossings Cautiously." The last sentence in that one sent a chill up my spine.
The short stories and essays appealed to me more than the poems, not because of anything lacking in the poems, but because my interest lies more in prose. If anything, the poems distill ideas expressed in the short stories to the point that reading them is painful, like a drop of hot acid on your skin.
If you are a short story fan, a poet, or interested in either history or black women's lives in the first part of the twentieth century, I recommend this book.
Cynthia Davis is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, University College. Verner D. Mitchell is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Memphis. They can be contacted through the University of Oklahoma Press.
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