Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2008

Abstract

In 1925, book collector and Harlem Renaissance patron Arthur A. Schomburg began the essay "The Negro Digs Up His Past," published in Alain Locke's landmark anthology The New Negro (1925), by proclaiming that the "American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. ... So among the rising democratic millions we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and opt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all" (231). These words might be surprising to the beginning student of the Harlem Renaissance, seduced by the period's ebullience and transgressive energies into perceiving the period as heralding a decisive, refreshing break from the past rather than as the product of revitalized retrospection. However, as any introductory discussion of the definition and connotations of the word "renaissance" must inevitably reveal, a renaissance typically entails the return to and reengagement with the texts of the past as a way of inspiring fresh considerations of the present and the future. The Harlem Renaissance is no exception to this paradigm, as visible not only in the frequency with which Harlem Renaissance writers directly discussed their literary forebears, among them Frederick Douglass and Paul Laurence Dunbar, but also in the publication of such works as The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson, which made the black literary past newly available to interested readers. Just as courses in literary modernism cause students to reconsider the basis of the modern in the less-than-modern, classroom pedagogy of the Harlem Renaissance must also negotiate the period's avant-garde innovations with its "antiquarian" impulses, whether in its frequent use of the literary past as source material or in its adaptation to the conditions of the Harlem Renaissance present.

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