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New Negro and Genteel Protest

New Negro and Genteel Protest

The Sonnet during the Harlem Renaissance

(p.39) Chapter 2 New Negro and Genteel Protest
The African American Sonnet
Timo Müller
University Press of Mississippi

Scholarly accounts of the Harlem Renaissance often foreground its politically radical and aesthetically innovative aspects. This tends to obscure the continuing strength of genteel ideas in African American writing of the period. This chapter traces the productivity of the sonnet during the Harlem Renaissance to its productive revisions of the genteel tradition. Drawing on a range of previously neglected poems, it situates Claude McKay’s epochal “If We Must Die” against the gradual transformation of the protest sonnet over the 1910s. In a second step it shows how genteel conventions shaped the subversive variety of protest that Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, and Helene Johnson explored from the mid-twenties. The ambivalent position of the sonnet in between gentility and protest, the chapter argues, is behind the difficulties that scholars like Houston A. Baker have faced in assessing the interplay of formal mastery and deformative self-assertion in the Harlem Renaissance sonnet.

Keywords:   Harlem Renaissance, New Negro, protest, modernism, Claude McKay

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