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"The Bitter Dream": Internalized Racism in the Passing Narratives of the Harlem Renaissance

By Weston Kulvete

From the author:

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of great artistic expression for black Americans following the end of the first world war.  Authors, artists, singers, and dancers determined to gain recognition from the public used their cultural heritage for inspiration in their works.  Novels, short stories, and poetry from the period provide a beautiful, sometimes tragic, but ultimately honest portrait of the black experience in the early 20th century.  Several fine examples of art created in Harlem during this time have become an intergal part of the American canon.

Several themes reoccur again and again in the works of this period.  One of the more fascinating is the concept of racial passing.  In many stories, a light-skinned African American character would, for various reasons, choose to place themselves in great danger by pretending to be white and integrating themselves into the American mainstream.  These characters frequently had to cut ties with their past lives entirely, and risked everything in an attempt to access opportunities available only to the white majority.  In my essay, I examine the passing narrative in several novels from the Harlem Renaissance, with a particular emphasis on George Schuyler's satirical Black No More and James Weldon Johnson's faux-confessional Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.  I examine the reasoning behind racial passing and attempt to uncover some of the more subconscious motivations found in these characters' decision.
 

Read: "The Bitter Dream": Internalized Racism in the Passing Narratives of the Harlem Renaissance

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