Black Identity in America
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
By Yani McNeil, Virginia State University
First Place Winner, Critical Essay, 2022 VSU English Department Writing COntest
The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the "New Negro Movement," had a progressive impact on the African American community in the early twentieth century. This movement encouraged “a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics'' (Boswell, slide 9). Alaine Locke, the writer who coined this term believed that the "New Negro" was a cultural identity that resonated with every black person living in Harlem, and that black identity was rooted in black people’s ability to prosper against racism. However, Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes, also famous authors of this time, disagreed with Locke's notion of a singular black identity. Irene Redfield, the main character of Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, symbolizes what it means to live without an identity. Larsen uses the setting of the Harlem Renaissance to juxtapose what the individual black mind looks like against societal expectations, even when African American society appears to be prosperous. In his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes further proves that one can not prosper in a prosperous society if they have no identity. Together, with their illustrations of Irene Redfield and the young Negro poet, Larsen and Hughes create a parallel claim that the effects of racism cause black people to stray from their true identity because they are conflicted by society.
W.E.B. DuBois, another philanthropist during the Harlem Renaissance, believed that black Americans lived under a “double consciousness” or “two-ness”. By this he meant that African Amerians in Harlem lived two lives: the one they wanted to live for themselves and the one that they had to live based on the society in which they are living. DuBois explained, “One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Boswell, slide 12). The structure of this sentence is powerful because it resembles a building internal contradiction, which shows how conflicted the mind may be. Essentially, DuBois is saying that African Americans have two identities: American and black. Therefore, that creates two separate thought processes, two separate goals, two separate identities, both trying to survive in one body that is barely keeping it together. This concept can be seen in both Hughes and Larsen’s literary pieces.
In his essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Langston Hughes describes his encounter with an aspiring Negro artist he has met. In their exchange, the young man tells Hughes “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet” (Hughes). Hughes mentions that the poet did not want to be a negro poet, specifically to show how important race is to people. Instead of being a poet, one has to choose between black poetry and white poetry. Clearly, Hughes wants to portray that the young poet is ashamed of his identity. Media, stereotypes, racism, and society taught the young poet that being white was better than being black. Hughes responded, “And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet” (Hughes). Hughes describes the poet as running away “spiritually” because he wants to show that the issue is way more than skin deep. This is where DuBois’s beliefs intercept with Hughes. Instead of it being a skin issue, a mental issue has occurred. The young poet aspires to write because one of his identities likes that, but he also wants to do it in ways that appeal to the white audience because his other identity wants to be accepted.
In Nella Larsen's Passing, Irene Redfield practices this same fractured way of thinking. When sitting on the rooftop in Chicago, Irene is frightened when she believes the woman staring at her knew she was black. “It wasn’t that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place” (Larsen, 19). In this scene, the reader can see the discomfort of existing in society as someone who has no identity. Instead of being comfortable at the table, Irene is constantly worrying if someone knows that she is lying about her race. Since she is not being true to herself, she is on constant alert. Just like the poet in Hughes' essay, her issues aren’t just skin deep, but more so a lack of internal security, safety and comfort with her identity. Here, the double-consciousness is at work both the poet and Irene because they each have a desire that they long to fulfill, yet they can not be comfortable with their identity if they have to keep switching it on and off for those around them or striving to achieve a "white" notion of prosperity.
In his essay, Hughes describes his perception of the middle-class and the “high-class” negro families. A middle-class family is someone who is “by no means necessary rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry-- smug, contented, respected folks, members of the Baptist Church” (Hughes). Hughes calls these people respectable folks who live a religious life, yet he also regards them as smug. Although these people may appear holy on the outside, they still exhibit unpleasant qualities. Even the way Hughes uses quotations around the term “high-class" shows his mocking tone, implying that they aren’t better than anyone else. Hughes also mentioned that the father is often a doctor, the wife doesn’t typically work, and the darkest men tend to marry the lightest women. Analogous to this, Irene’s home is the epitome of the family lifestyle that Hughes describes: She is a stay-at-home mother to her two sons, married to a successful doctor, living in a large home with two maids, and she is an active member in the Negro Welfare League, participating in their fundraising efforts. Her closest friend is a white man who frequents these events. Hughes describes the typical upper-class black family, and with Irene Redfield and her family, Larsen illustrates how they live.
With their critiques of Harlem's “high-class," both Hughes and Larsen seem to share a sense of disagreement with an idea known as “The Talented Tenth," of which W.E.B. DuBois was an advocate. DuBois believed that the “Talented-Tenth”, or the smartest ten percent of the population, were going to be the saving grace for the entire black community and help the lower-lass citizens. It was their responsibility to gain an education and become prosperous in the interest of "racial uplift." Irene and Hughes' poet contradict this idea by showing how sometimes the upper-class people who are supposed to “have it all together” barely even know themselves. Both Larsen and Hughes are trying to show that, if one does not know who they are, they cannot help anyone else figure themselves out either, and seeking prosperity and acceptance in a racist society only deepens the divide. Both authors seem to argue that the "high-class" people of Harlem tend to pass judgement on those “below” them.
Hughes mentioned how smugness and religion coincide, and further proved this by incorporating the practices of the black churches who were suffering from identity crisis during this time, too. The leaders often defended their practices by saying “‘We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in shouting’” (Hughes). The use of the words "correctly" and "quietly" are to represent the way white people act and speak. By saying that they don’t believe in shouting, a shot is being thrown at black people for being stereotyped as loud. Although the women in the church are of the “higher-class,” that did not necessarily mean that they are doing anything to help uplift anyone. Hughes shows how, instead, these women judge those who do not live how they do.
The attitudes of these women are much like Irene’s attitudes. The women in the church in Hughes' essay look down on the way black people worship, and Irene looks down upon the servants that she has in her home. Describing her servant Zulena, Irene says, “Zulena, a small mahogany-colored creature…” (Larsen 94). Larsen's use of the word "creature" here tells us that Irene does not see her servant as a real person. Although they are of the same race, and Irene claims to love her people, the closest relationships she has with people of her race are forced and awkward, and she clearly sees those of her own race who work for her as less-than. In another example, Zulena comes to deliver a telephone message to Irene and Larsen writes, “‘Yes, Zulena, what is it?’ She inquired, a trifle tartly, of the servant who had silently materialized in the doorway” (Larsen 122). Here, the reader can see that Irene is not the most pleasant woman to work for and she does not have a kind relationship with her servants. The fact that Zulena “silently materialized” as well as disappeared shows that the servants are not treated as important enough for Irene to notice them.
Larsen uses these encounters to show that the members of the “talented-tenth” are not always willing to help. Here, Irene, an active member of the Negro Welfare League, has two darker-skinned servants in her home, and instead of fellowshipping with them the way her friend Clare does, she treats them like they are beneath her. Much like the women in the church, Irene shows signs of being judgmental. These relationships are meant to show that people who do not know themselves are often angry and jealous of those around them. Since they do not know who they are, it is intimidating for them to encounter people who are content with who they are and secure in their identity.
One final parallel between Larsen’s novel and Hughes’s essay is the theme of being afraid of the truth. Towards the end of his essay, Hughes mentions the unsatisfied reviews that a popular novel, Jean Toomer's Cane, received. Hughes wrote, “Most colored people who did read ‘Cane’ hate it. They are afraid of it” (Hughes). Since Cane is rooted in the deep south during slavery, by using this novel, Hughes is showing that the truth can be scary and people tend to run away from it. In his opinion, Cane was the “finest prose written by a Negro in America,” yet the common man hated it (Hughes). This is because Toomer's novel confronted readers with the hard truths they all would prefer to forget.
Irene is the same way when it comes to facing the reality of what life may look like for her black sons in America. One scene in the novel paints Irene, her husband Brian, and their two sons at the table eating breakfast. In the encounter, the youngest son, Teddy, is curious about lynching since he heard his father talking about a recent one. Instead of allowing the conversation to continue, Irene intervenes and begs Brian to not discuss such information with the children, emphasizing “there’ll be time enough for them to learn about such horrible things when they’re older” (Larsen 191). From this, the reader can see that, just like the readers too afraid of Cane to see its literary merit, Irene is afraid of what exposing her sons to racism will mean for them. She is afraid of the reality that their lives may be tremendously hard, no matter how safe she tries to make it. She is also afraid of what may happen if Brian is right about the family making the decision to move to a different country. Since she does not know much about herself, she is attached to the titles that she has placed on herself. Therefore, if Irene allows these conversations to happen, then she must face the fact that she is living the life of a colored woman in America, and not that of a passing white woman.
Langston Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Movement” and Nella Larsen’s novel Passing share many parallels that help to illustrate the fact that, contradictory to the idea of a "New Negro" identity, black identity in Harem during the 1920s was actually fractured, broken, or lost. Both Hughes and Larsen show that the "double-consciousness," something we can still see reflected in modern society when we encounter stories where African Americans practice code-switching in professional situations, leads to mental suffering and a loss of identity in the black community. Looking at the ways each author agrees and disagrees with important figures of their time through their literary works, readers can better understand the social reasons that black people during this time were taught to deny their race and try to assimilate to the majority views and way of life.
Boswell, Rebecca, “Passing, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance”
Hughes, Langston, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” from The Collected Works of
Langston Hughes, published by University of Missouri Press.
mountain. October 13th, 2009.
Larsen, Nella, “The Passing”, published by New York & London, A. A. Knopf, 1929,