West of Harlem
African American Writers and the Borderlands
Finalist, Weber-Clements Prize
Luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance—Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, and Arna Bontemps, among others--are associated with, well . . . Harlem. But the story of these New York writers unexpectedly extends to the American West. Hughes, for instance, grew up in Kansas, Thurman in Utah, and Bontemps in Los Angeles. Toomer traveled often to New Mexico. Indeed, as West of Harlem reveals, the West played a significant role in the lives and work of many of the artists who created the signal urban African American cultural movement of the twentieth century. Uncovering the forgotten histories of these major American literary figures, the book gives us a deeper appreciation of that movement, and of the cultures it reflected and inspired. These recovered experiences and literatures paint a new picture of the American West, one that better accounts for the disparate African American populations that dotted its landscape and shaped the multiethnic literatures and cultures of the borderlands.
“A high quality of archival recovery and historical contextualization lies at the heart of West of Harlem. Lutenski ends with a coda reminding scholars that the borderlands is a multiethnic place that holds Americans, Native Americans, Anglo-Americans, Asian Americans, and also African Americans. West of Harlem highlights the productive impact of the grating between the borderlands West and African American literary production.”
—Journal of American History
“In West of Harlem, Emily Lutenski brings heretofore marginalized or erased black modernist experiences to the center. [She] joins the growing ranks of scholars who would disrupt, challenge, and outright refuse monolithic racial and cultural narratives.”
—American StudiesSee all reviews...
“In addition to introducing a new geographic rubric that invigorates African American literary studies and is, in turn, animated by a range of scholarly traditions—most notably, modernism, feminism, and Chicana and Chicano studies—Lutenski’s study reveals the unacknowledged provincialism of some of the foundational studies on race and region within African American literary studies.”
—Western Historical Quarterly
“Expertly written and researched, enjoyable to read, relevant across specializations and disciplines.”
—American Historical Review
“A fresh way of seeing and reading these [Harlem Renaissance] writers as they define their identities in the spacious, diverse borderlands.”
“Broad in scope, original, and fascinating in its content.”
“Emily Lutenski explores an American West which is more racially complex and culturally vibrant than previous scholarship has led us to believe. Her book is an important contribution to western American literature and African American studies. ”
—Blake Allmendinger, author of Imagining the African American West
“From Anita Scott Coleman’s New Mexican homesteads to Arna Bontemps’s imagined Los Angeles to Langston Hughes’s Mexican wanderings, Lutenski shows us how we must go West to go to Harlem.Accessible to a wide range of readers and creative in its framing and approach to sources, it’s a terrific book.”
—Flannery Burke, author of From Greenwich Village to Taos: Primitivism and Place at Mabel Dodge Luhan’sSee fewer reviews...
Tapping literary, biographical, historical, and visual sources, Emily Lutenski tells the New Negro movement's western story. Hughes's move to Mexico opens a window on African American transnational experiences. Thurman's engagement with Salt Lake City offers an unexpected perspective on African American sexual politics. Arna Bontemps's Los Angeles, constructed in conjunction with Louisiana, provides a new vision of the Spanish borderlands. Lesser-known writer Anita Scott Coleman imagines black Western autonomy through domesticity. The experience of others—like Toomer, invited to socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan's circle of artists in Taos—present a more pluralistic view of the West. It was this place, with its transnational and multiracial mix of Native Americans, Latina/os, Anglos, and African Americans, which buttressed Toomer's idea of a "new American race."
Turning the lens elsewhere, Lutenski also explores how Latina/o, Asian American, and Native American western writers understood and represented African Americans in the early twentieth-century borderlands. The result is a new, unusually nuanced and unexpectedly complex view of key figures of the Harlem Renaissance and the borderlands cultures that influenced their art in surprising and important ways.