“To Express Our Individual Dark-Skinned Selves Without Fear or Shame:” Provoking Restricted Images of Blackness in the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond

deadline for submissions: 
May 29, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Christopher Allen Varlack, The Langston Hughes Society

SAMLA 91| Theme: Scandal! Literature & Provocation—Breaking Rules, Making Texts
November 13-15, 2020 (Virtual Conference)

In many respects, through his key role in articulating the zeitgeist of the New Negro Movement, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois helped set the tone for the African-American literary tradition of the time. Through his writing, he worked desperately to counter controversial stereotypes about the perceived intersection between Blackness and primitivism that he saw as dangerous to African-American advancement, claiming that “the instinctual, the sensual, and the animal” in Black-authored texts was antithetical to “the genteel image of respectability he, as a black leader, had strived to attain for his people” (Pontuale 65). Those images, he wanted to phase out from the national stage, to be replaced by figures from the intellectual vanguard and Black middle class who came to embody the possibilities of racial uplift in the twentieth century.

Despite these efforts at constructing a New Negro in contradistinction to the Brute Negro and exotic primitive, however, there was an equally powerful movement pushing toward increased diversity and representation of Blackness in art. This movement saw the more genteel image advocated by Du Bois and others as artificial, perhaps just as problematic as the white-authored stereotypes of the razor-wielding, sexually promiscuous Black figures cemented in the popular culture of the time. As a result, luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and others sought to celebrate folk culture and to construct an image of Blackness in text that provoked those very restrictions—a wave of literature that was entertaining, socially conscious, and politically engaged.

In keeping in line with the conference theme for the ninety-second annual South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) Convention, the Langston Hughes Society invites presentations on authors of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond who critiqued, condemned, and provoked restricted images of Blackness in an effort 1) to avoid reinforcing monolithic representations of Blackness in the U.S. cultural imagination, 2) to demand a vision of racial uplift that does not abandon the under-educated and working class, and 3) to destabilize prescriptive notions of Black artists’ responsibilities in defining a uniquely Black art. Special consideration will be given to proposals with an emphasis on the work and/or legacy of Langston Hughes.

Please send proposals of no more than five hundred words (for a fifteen to twenty-minute paper) to Dr. Christopher Varlack, President (lhsociety.president@gmail.com) and Dr. Richard Hancuff, Secretary (lhsociety.secretary@gmail.com) no later than May 29, 2020, with a response expected no later than June 1, 2020. Note that in addition to paying the membership and registration fees for SAMLA, presenters must also be members of the Langston Hughes Society by the time of the conference in order to present. Please indicate any audio-visual needs (if essential) in your Email.