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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rafia Zafar on writers of the Harlem Renaissance—and the first “naissance”

To celebrate the publication of Harlem Renaissance Novels, volume editor Rafia Zafar spoke and read selections from the novels at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October. The animated Q&A session afterwards offered many intriguing insights into how these novels have been received—by Professor Zafar’s students and some recent reviewers.
Question: You say you feel shy about declaring your favorite [of the nine novels in the collection]. But what about your students? Do they have favorites? 
Zafar: They do. It’s interesting because I tell them sometimes I have no idea what they are going to like. And generationally it changes. For example, this is going back to nineteenth century [writing]. I taught Iola Leroy, the 1892 novel by Frances Harper, for years and my students would think it was the biggest snooze in the world, though I love it. And then about fifteen years ago my students started saying “This is the bomb, Dr. Z. This is so cool. They’re really talking about real issues and important matters.” Okay, what happened? The girls often like Plum Bun because, whatever their ethnic background, it speaks to them as young women trying to figure out who they are. It’s an identity . . . it’s a bildungsroman
That’s another thing. There are lots of different things that people do with genres in this period. Mystery novels. The female bildungsroman. The interesting modernist concatenation of forms that Jean Toomer does in Cane. Depending on where individual students are in their lives, they can really seize on books. But I’m sometimes surprised. Like with Iola Leroy—I think this might be didactic. Black Thunder is great. I like having history made alive. Some students like The Conjure-Man Dies because they think “Oh, wow, I’m reading a mystery novel for my literature class and that’s so cool.” They like different things. 
Question: You haven’t said anything about George S. Schuyler’s Black No More
Zafar: Oh, wow. One of the funny things that happened is there was a review in The Wall Street Journal and a review in the San Francisco Chronicle—and I won’t say which is which, but one of them said “I don’t know why she included this novel.” I mean, she’s obviously insane. And the other said: “Brilliant to include Black No More.” Satire is difficult. Sometimes the students—particularly because this satire gets very vicious toward the end where there’s a whole inversion of lynching—the students can get very, very disturbed. That’s a hard one to read. I love satire. 
But it’s not only satire. You can think of [Schuyler] as a precursor to Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany because it’s also science fiction. There’s the mad scientist, Dr. Crookman, the black scientist who invents this procedure that will turn black people white. The hook of the book is: what happens to America if all the black people disappear. And he just goes on from there. And it’s very, very funny. But there’s a very scary, dark humor that comes in at the end. I won’t give away what happens when all the black folks disappear. Wave a magic wand. 
Question: You said that early in your career you looked for the “naissance” before the “renaissance.” Could you say more about that? 
Zafar: If there was a reflowering of African American literature, when was the first flowering? That’s what led me to Phillis Wheatley whom I’ve written about long ago and then again recently for the Harvard Literary History. I just wanted to know who was writing then. My students are often shocked. They say, “Oh, there were black writers in the eighteenth century?” I say,“Yeah, maybe not thousands of them, but there were people writing.” 
And with the shift to transatlantic literature it’s been very interesting for me, since I love Phillis Wheatley. I love Harriet Jacobs. I think of them as my role models. One of the things I like to say is that, like Harriet Jacobs, I like to feel that I’m “creeping along with the humbler bugs”—one of her great lines from one of her letters. 
This is a really interesting time for early American literature, if you’re following it, because Wheatley is now seen as transatlantic. When you think of how she was hived off as the first black writer, the person the abolitionists held up: “See they can write! They can rhyme! They can write poetry!” And now she’s seen as part of this broader continuum of letters going transatlantic. You now have Donna Landry, a scholar who writes about the milkmaid poets in England in the eighteenth century and she includes Phillis Wheatley because she sees this continuum of white and black working class poets. And that’s kind of an exciting thing. In the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, there is this real explosion of African American writing and that’s what I was looking at in my first book. [We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870]
Watch a video of Rafia Zafar speaking at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute (50 mins)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set); American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (includes eleven poems by Phillis Wheatley); Slave Narratives (includes The Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs)

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