Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How Young (or Old) were Young Black Artists in 1926?

Earlier today, I attended a presentation about Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Sweat." The presentation was organized by Elizabeth Cali, Allegra Castro, Christina Gutierrez, and Erin Ranft, four emerging scholars all based at the University of Texas at San Antonio. At one point, they circulated a facsimile of Fire!!, the literary publication where Hurston's story first appeared in 1926. 
Cali alerted us to the tag-line for the periodical, which states "Devoted to Younger Negro Artists." Given my previous writings about the birth years of artists, I began wondering about what was considered "younger" in 1926. More specifically, I thought about the different ages of Hurston and Langston Hughes, another contributor to that issue of the publication, at the time.

Hurston was born in 1891, so when Fire!! was published, she would have been about 35 years old. At the time, Hurston was about 10 years away from writing her most well-known work Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). But in 1926, she was in the mix with a group of "new" literary and visual artists who were defining the contours of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Langston Hughes, who contributed poetry to Fire!!, was born in 1902, so he was about 24 when Fire!! was published. Hughes had published "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in The Crisis magazine in 1921. That poem would become one of his most celebrated and reprinted works.     

In interviews and interactions with various people, Hurston was sometimes less than honest about her actual age. Perhaps, there were some professional benefits to concealing, if not lying about, how old she really was, since other "new," presumably young  African American artists such as Hughes, Helene Johnson (b. 1906), Countee Cullen (b. 1903), and Arna Bontemps (b. 1902), for instance, were all in their early 20s.   

Whatever the case, the publishers and contributors to Fire!! envisioned themselves as "young" and fiery counterpoints to an older generation of black writers, who were viewed as passe, if not conservative. Consequently, about 10 years later, a "new" young black writer would publish a powerful essay, "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), where he would critique the shortcomings of those writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. But that piece, like Hurston's novel, was years away from being written.

In 1926, the essay's author -- Richard Wright -- was an 18-year-old high school drop.

Birth Years & Age Matters    

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