Women Writers During the Harlem Renaissance


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The book The Sleeper Wakes edited by Marcy Knopf shines a bright light on the women’s literature of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance is a time period where there was an increase in the African American population in the north. African American’s migrated north during this time period in search of better opportunity for work and education. This book consists of short stories written by women authors of the Harlem Renaissance that never received the spotlight for their phenomenal work. Many of these stories share a large relationship with this time period. “Comedy American Style” and “Wedding Day” have similar themes, but with different storylines. Throughout these short stories racial tension, self-hatred, misunderstanding, passing, and identity problems are revealed throughout the story.

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In Jessie Fauset’s, “Comedy American Style”, Mrs. Olivia Blanchard Cary and her husband pass as the typical American white family. She has the perfect little family, one girl and one boy. As her two children grow up she wants to protect them from the cruel stereotypes that African Americans experience. Mrs. Cary preaches, “I just don’t want you to have Marise and people like that around because I don’t want you to grow up among folks who live the life that most colored people have to live” (Fausets, “American Style”, 291). Although Olivia does not want to associate herself with African Americans her husband still has the utmost respect for them. Mr. Cary shines a light of enlightenment on the family history. He believes that it is important for them to know about their “black forebears” (Fausets, “American Style”, 292).

A couple years had passed and the Cary family had another child on the way. As soon as the baby came out he was healthy and perfect, but not in Olivia’s eyes! Jessie Fauset describes the very moment by saying, “that expectant smile faded as completely as though an unseen hand had wiped it off. She turned to her husband sharply: “That’s not my baby!”” (293). The newborn baby had soft and curly black hair with a bronze gold complexion. She refused to be the mother her husband longed for her to be because the complex of the newborns skin. The only interaction Olivia had with her newborn house was behind wall of her enclosed house where no one would see her. Oliver was abandoned by his mother during his childhood, but never truly understood why.

Gwendolyn Bennett’s story called “Wedding Day” is a story about an African American boxer who has a very strong hatred for American white people. Paul’s boxing career went tumbling down the hill because he could not keep up with his opponents. He set sail for a small town in Paris to discover a new journey in his life. His destination in Paris was the small town of Montmartre where African American lives were centered. All the citizens in Montmartre noted that Paul was the man who would not, “the last syllable of the word, nigger, never passed the lips of a white man without the quick reflex action of his arm and fist to the speaker’s jaw” (Bennet, 49-50). While living in Paris he was approached by a white woman that he wanted nothing to do with. He shouted at her, “Get away from here. I don’t like your kid” (Bennet, 53). After Paul spent time with Mary and brought her to get food he was hooked instantly. Paul’s attraction and love for Mary grew insanely strong that he had to marry her. The morning of their wedding day started with the warm sun shining in Paul’s face. As he prepped for his bride’s special day all he could think of was that he had to go wish her a “happy wedding day”. When he was finished getting ready, “He decided that he might as well walk around to Mary’s hotel to give his greeting” (Bennet, 53). Once he arrived at Mary’s hotel his day turned upside down.

The end of this story leaves the character in distraught. His fiancé left him a note saying, “just couldn’t go through with it” (Bennet, 54). Hundreds of scenarios went through his head trying to map out where things went wrong. Was it because she feared what her family would think of her if she married an African American? Was it because she was using him for his money? Mary’s actions left Paul feeling self-hate and misunderstood.

The Harlem Renaissance was a time period of a great migration of African Americans. African Americans traveled north to escape their lives of slavery in the south. Living in the north provided African Americans with better job opportunities and education advantages. The Sleeper Wakes is a book that consists of short stories written by woman authors from this time period. Although these stories are from the same time period they share a deeper relationship than that. These women’s stories consists of characters and storylines that deal with self-hate, misunderstandings, racial passing, and identity issues.

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