A Black Author’s Duty – Essay by P Chatelain


Visionary Writers of the Harlem Renaissance and their Critics

Archibald J. Motley, Nightlife, 1943, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.3 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, IL.

Black writers’ struggle with publication of Black novels and poems due to the enormous white readership. Did they have a duty to depict minorities under a certain light?

During the period after the reconstruction, often referred to as the New Negro movement, many African Americans were becoming famous as writers and artists. Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes are two writers that gained critical acclaim for their inspirational and groundbreaking literary works portraying African Americans. Their stories were met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, the white media found them to be riveting and unique to the history of the black people. On the contrary, black literary analysts rejected the stories by these authors because of their crude representation of African Americans.[1] Both Hurston and Hughes faced criticism because most black critics believed that African Americans should be portrayed in a certain way; the New Negro Movement was based on the idea that the former view of the black population in America was changing because more blacks were becoming educated, so this depiction of blacks hurts its cause. Hughes believed that he could only write from his own personal experiences, therefore he maintained that his stories were realistic representations of what he saw. Although many critics insisted that blacks be depicted positively to their misinformed public, black writers of the New Negro movement did not have an obligation to be partial towards blacks because there is literary value in any depiction of African Americans.

The New Negro advancement in literature, art, and society brought about pride in African American culture and was a way of motivating African Americans to believe that they were equals because they had the newly found chance to build their social image. Poets of the Harlem Renaissance shared the message that the time of strife had passed; therefore, the New Negro period was the time for them to rise up and change how white people viewed them. This was a profound shift in the dynamic of the country, and many writers began to tell stories about the intelligence of African Americans. Whereas many writers of the time fabricated stories filled with literary allegory representing a changed race, some writers like Hurston and Hughes only wrote more realistic stories in which they portrayed more of the culture and history of the black American race. In one review of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lucille Tompkins writes, “In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow and the images it carries are irresistible.”[2] Here, Tompkins notes that Hurston’s use of language is invaluable by adding to the message of the story because it reveals the black culture and history. Hughes faced the same type of criticism for his poetry in Fine Clothes to the Jew. He noted that, “I knew only the people I had grown up with… so I didn’t pay any attention to the critics who railed against the subject matter of my poems.” He also writes, “Curiously enough, a short ten years later, many of those very poems in Fine Clothes to the Jew were being used in Negro schools and colleges.”[3] Hughes did not blatantly want to undo the progress of the New Negro, nor did he want to negatively change how the country viewed his race. He saw the importance in telling these stories unaltered. Many black critics did not realize that in keeping the language through their literary works, Hurston and Hughes did a justice to the history of the African American.

A certain literary value comes from the crude and unedited depiction of the African Americans in Langston Hughes’s poetry; therefore, it does not prove imperative that writers portray the characters in a polished manner. In Hughes’s autobiography, entitled The Big Sea, he responds in one of the chapters to some of his critics, commenting on the fact that writers in his era were very much at the mercy of their publishers. “It was a bad title, because it was confusing and many Jewish people did not like it. I do not know why the Knopfs let me use it, since they were very helpful in their advice about sorting out the bad poems from the good,” he writes, in reference to Fine Clothes to the Jew. [4] Contrary to what the negative critics believed, Hughes successfully relayed a message of the history of the African American brothers through his poetry; many writers were not allowed by their publishers to write the kinds of things Hughes included in his poetry.

Whereas critics continued to bash Hughes, he is respected for his outstanding message that is present in his realistic depiction of blacks. The black newspapers and critics fiercely criticized his book: “The Chicago whip characterized me as ‘The poet lowrate of Harlem.’ Others called the book a disgrace to the race, a return to the dialect tradition, and a parading of all our racial defects before the public.”[5] The critics may have thought they had the image of the African American in their best interest, but by limiting the scope of the minds of many writers, they also limited their creativity, not to mention they also practically erased the history from which they came. Hughes writes, “The Negro critics and many of the intellectuals were very sensitive about their race in books. In anything that white people were likely to read, they wanted to put their best foot forward, their politely polished and cultural foot—and only that foot.”[6]

Many writers resigned themselves to this standard. However, there was not much of a choice; they either conformed to the mold that black critics had set up, or faced criticism for their writing. Hurston’s writing, in the same way as Hughes, faced mixed reviews for her unique interpretation of the African American.

Zora Neale Hurston’s depiction of blacks in Their Eyes Were Watching God was praised by those who realized the beauty and historical importance of her type of writing. Alain Locke’s The New Negro is a collection of stories, poems, art, and other work by black people during this period of vibrant thought, an example of the progress of African Americans into famous intellectuals. Hurston’s short story, “Spunk,” is featured in Locke’s anthology. He notes in the first chapter of his collection, “The Negro is being carefully studied, not just talked about and discussed, in art and letters, instead of being wholly caricatured, he is being seriously portrayed and painted,”[7] this being the reason for which many analysts were especially critical of the portrayal of blacks in literature. In Opportunity, an African American magazine that circulated during the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke reviewed Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. He acknowledges Hurston’s “cradle gift” of being able to write folklore fiction, but suggests that Hurston must “come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction.”[8] He asserts that southern fiction should be progressive and should not only tell the story of the south, as Hurston does, but there should also be a positive message.

Other critiques of her work show disdain for this negative depiction of the blacks, but her style of writing is a work of art. Richard Wright states, “Her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits the phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’ the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”[9] He assumed that if African Americans were not shown at their best, white audiences saw that they indeed were better than blacks. On the other hand, some critics sensed that she had a talent: “Miss Hurston’s forte is the recording and the creation of folk-speech. Her devotion to these people has rewarded her. Their Eyes Were Watching God is chock full of earthy and touchy poetry,” said Sterling Brown in The Nation.[10] She focuses more on the literary beauty of the crude dialect than solely on the ignorant representation of the people, as the negative critics think. Both of these writers spoke realistically and from their own experiences, which made their writing more of an art form than degrading of the advancement of the black Americans.

Even though Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were harshly criticized for writing the way they did, they kept alive the history of the African Americans forever by writing it down; therefore, it is more important to write realistically than to present black characters in a special way. They knew and recognized the literary value of being realistic and telling their stories as they viewed them. By redacting and polishing their stories, many writers of the era looked to please their publishers and the black audience, but they lost the true substance of their writing. Hurston and Hughes are regarded with being a major part of the history and culture of black Americans during this era, and it came through their realistic representation of African Americans.

Works Cited

Brown, Sterling. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, Distributed by Penguin USA, 1993.

Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, Distributed by Penguin USA, 1993. 16-23.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, Distributed by Persea Books, 1986. 263-268.

Locke, Alain. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, Distributed by Penguin USA, 1993. 18.

Locke, Alain, comp. The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Touchstone, 1999. 9.

Tompkins, Lucille. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, Distributed by Penguin USA, 1993. 19.

Brown, Sterling. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, Distributed by Penguin USA, 1993. 20.


[1] Langston Hughes writes in his autobiography The Big Sea about some of the critiques of his writing. Also, Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Appiah compile some reviews of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in their book Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present.

[2] Tompkins, Lucille. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, Distributed by Penguin USA, 1993. 19.

[3] Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, Distributed by Persea Books, 1986. 268.

[4] Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 265.

[5] Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 266.

[6] Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 266-7.

[7] Locke, Alain, comp. The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Touchstone, 1999. 9.

[8] Locke, Alain. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. 18.

[9] Wright, Richard. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. 17.

[10] Brown, Sterling. Gates, Henry L., and Kwame A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. 20.

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