Reflections on African-American Authors of the 1940s
To commemorate Black History Month 2014, ArthurAshe.org built upon Arthur Ashe's introduction to the 1990 edition of
The Negro Novelist 1940-1950, by Carl Milton Hughes to explore the lives and works of famous African American authors from that period. In addition, other relevant and important persons were included, either in relation to current events or historic anniversaries .
Below is the full text of Ashe's introductory essay for The Negro Novelist where he discusses the cultural and systemic challenges facing black writers and the importance of their contributions.
Alongside his writing are the direct links to the individual profiles:
"In his critique and review of prominent African-American novelists and essayists, Carl Milton Hughes centers on a unique decade. Before 1940 the pens of many black writers were focused on several common themes: the difficulties inherent in the great migration from the segregationist South to the more promising northern cities; the literary legacy left by the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance covey of authors; and the particularized effects of the Great Depression on black America and race relations.
After 1950 these same writers and their newer colleagues turned angrier as World War II raised expectations, hopes, and horizons. Unquestionably the black writers of the decade 1940-1950 helped frame the emotional and spiritual mindset for the legal gains of the 1950s. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court would hand down the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 partially because of the fictionalized moral arguments proffered by the novelists in this book.
It was never easy or comfortable for black critics of American foreign or domestic policies and customs to be objective and secure. The Negro literati and intelligentsia had flirted with Communism in the 1930s. Some like Paul Robeson actually moved to the Soviet Union for a time, not so much because of a primal love for Communism or the Soviets but rather because racism seemed so intractable stateside. Entire subject areas, geographical regions, colleges and universities, public accommodations, et al. were simply off-limits to blacks, and there seemed little hope that change for the better was imminent.
One subject area that experienced constant change and examination was the very nomenclature of ethnic self-definition. In the white press of the 1940s and earlier, the word “negro” was spelled with the n in lower case. Southern papers, of course, did so intentionally as a sign of white racial superiority. Others did so because negro was not considered a proper noun. In textbooks or anthropological works the appellation “Negroid”—referring to a particular or distinct race of people—was spelled with the upper case n.
This exercise was not done for semantics’ sake alone. The arguments had to do with the etymology of how whites—or Caucasians—labelled their darker brethren. Concurrent with the new sense of liberation felt just after World War II, Negroes wanted to—even insisted on—being able to define themselves instead of accepting whatever name—or label—was given to them by whites. There could be little meaningful political liberation without true cultural liberation. This cultural metamorphosis began with self-definition. At the beginning of the Depression in 1931, George Schuyler had written Black No More in which he railed against equivocating Negro leadership, and satirized America’s fear of yellow, black and brown peoples. The Black in his title was intentional and more biting than Negro would have been.
Negro novelists also had to contend with the burgeoning political liberation on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In West and East Africa, the immediate post-World War II era was the backdrop of the beginning of the end of European colonialism. When Great Britain’s Prime Minister Harold McMillan spoke in the early 1960s of “the winds of change” sweeping across the African continent, rustlings had been felt as early as the late 1940s. In Anglophone Africa in particular, there was no hint of uncertainty over nomenclature or self-definition. Africans were “black,” proud of it, and centuries-old tribal loyalties actually favored ethnic purity. While Negro writers in America wrestled with the dilemma of light-skinned versus dark-skinned blacks, African novelists exposed the effects of colonialism in the Portuguese, French, English, and Afrikaans languages.
The 1940s in America had an even further distinction. It was the last full expanse of time before the advent of television and the portable radio. Radio was still king but one listened to it at home. Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah were popular caricatured Negro characters but without any lasting or redeeming import. They seemed to be faceless audio versions of the old Coontown series of cartoons in Harper’s Magazine in the 1880s. Against this feckless exploitation of black people, the Negro novelist strained to be read, heard, and understood. Negro history in segregated or nominally integrated public schools was limited to acceptable figures like Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Mary McCloud Bethune. Richard Wright’s Native Son was seen as threatening.
Richard Wright himself was easily the most famous Negro novelist of the decade, if not the most prolific. Bigger Thomas, the central character in Native Son, is posited as the embodiment of the contradiction inherent in male Negro America. There is on the one hand a striving for acceptance as an American with all that it includes. But juxtaposed alongside this yearning is the stark and graphic realization that being a true or real American is for white folks only. While some said that Wright reached stardom because white critics annointed him, there is no doubt that Native Son struck discordant notes of anguish, despair, and pathos.
Wright and other male writers also described the ambiguous, exploited, and tenuous position of black women. But none could match the incisiveness, clarity, and attention to detail that was etched by Zora Neale Hurston. It had been historically difficult for black men to accurately portray black women both because of the normal American relegation of all women to second class status, and because black men have nearly always felt a visceral competitiveness with their mates. America had never let black men be “real men” without paying a dear price that included neuroses, sociopathological behavior, and psychological dysfunction. Indeed, there was no archetypal black woman analogous to the fictionalized and romanticized Southern white virginal belle.
There were precious few black women of education, wealth, and social status who could serve as paradigms for all other black womenhood. These roles were served variously by black ministers’ (ordained or not) wives and daughters, black college presidents’ wives and daughters, and perhaps the wife and/or daughter of the handful of black doctors. The tenacity with which this ambiguity remained is somewhat evident by the lukewarm reception accorded the feminist movement of the 1970s by black women. No novel of the 1940s even hinted at a nascent but coordinated black feminist movement with the same goals as their white sisters. Perhaps it was precisely this void that inspired the prose and poetry of black women writers that began in earnest during the black social revolution of the 1960s.
For black men and women novelists of the 1940s there was seldom enough economic and psychic breathing space to write full-time. As is pointed out, no one wrote more than two novels in this ten-year period. Though thought of as a profession by the authors themselves, writing did not pay well “up front,” and there was a clear past history of competition among black for patrons. Arnold Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes: 1902-1941 makes not often of a “godmother” shared by Hughes and Alain Locke. Most black novelists had no such assistance, and frequently wrote with only a remote possibility of begin [sic] published. According to Charles Harris, the black publisher of Amistad Press’s Demonic Genius by Margaret Walker, “the vast majority of black authors up through today feel that for them there may be no second chance; that one flop may mean no more published works.” In other words, the godmother for Hughes and Locke in the pre-World War II era has been replaced by giant bottom-line-oriented publishing firms in the 1980s. Consequently, even writers like Frank Yerby, who was considered very prolific in the 1940s, could hardly subsist completely on commissions alone.
The themes expressed in this decade can now be viewed somewhat objectively and part of a continuum right up to the 1990s. Barbara Chase-Riboud has certainly learned and followed the rich detail of Zora Neale Hurston. In both Sally Hemmings and The Echo of Lions, Chase-Riboud borrows from historical omissions of seminal figures in African-American history who have been studiously demoted to footnote status. David Bradley and John Edgar Wideman in the 1980s showed more than a trace of Richard Wright, though Bradley and Wideman tend more to non-fiction. Wideman has written of his imprisoned brother (in real life) in vivid detail, and one can think of him as a Bigger Thomas (in Native Son) from a middle-class family. With the same fortunate opportunities open to his sibling, Wideman makes a good case that racism remains so pervasive that black sociopaths will still emerge even in culturally advantaged families.
Finally, the novelists herein write of what Dr. Maulana Karenga of the Institute of Pan African Studies calls “the black masses.” The subject matter is real people with real problems with unreal expectations. America has teased and formally indoctrinated blacks with the exalted notions of equality and freedom, yet these highly desirable states always seem just barely out of reach: theoretically possible but practically wanting.
I am, in 1990, struck by the way most of the works of this decade were ended. Was the “happy ending” typical? As a matter of fact, no. Nearly all left the reader with a graphic account of the anguish and pain and suffering, but few solutions that did not seem incongruent or born of wistful fantasies. Those resolutions had to wait another fifteen to twenty-five years when the anger of the 1960s had been synthesized. Without that sea change in awareness brought about by television, the writers in this book conjured up detailed but true portraits of life in black America. This collection is enough to give even the most casual reader pause to reflect and to ponder if the world described in these pages in the same one they encountered in their history books in high school. If not, then the history books are incomplete."
Excerpted from: Hughes, Carl Milton. The Negro Novelist 1940-1950 (New York: Citadel Press, 1953; reprinted New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990).
Below are direct links to Selected Individual Profiles for