The Work of History: Black Proletarian Literature and Archival Collecting

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:50 PM
Stevens C-6 (Hilton Chicago)
Emily Lutenski, Saint Louis University
This paper uses Arna Bontemps, who first made his name as a Harlem Renaissance poet, as a lens to explore how waged and artistic labor intersected for African Americans in the Depression-era. He offers a particularly useful case study, for in 1931, after recently publishing his first novel, Bontemps lost his job. He was then the father of two small children; he would have five by 1940. His economic precarity was a catalyst for a turn to history, which he pursued in two ways. He first sought training that would enable him to obtain more secure and salaried employment; he became a professional librarian who focused the development of black special collections. He also left poetry behind and embraced of the genre of historical fiction. “The work of history” became a consistent part of both his professional and writerly practice. It was also, however, intellectually and politically paradoxical. On the one hand, historical collection was a decidedly leftist and anti-racist project. Bontemps’s work as a curator sought to preserve the African American past in the face of white supremacist historiographical neglect, and his work as a writer used historical fiction make Marxist claims for proletarian revolution. But on the other hand, historical collection appealed to the desire for bourgeois stability. Bontemps’s work as a curator provided him with salaried employment, and also emphasized the obtainment and preservation of papers by the most storied members of the “talented tenth”—who were highly educated, professional, and mostly male; furthermore, his work as a writer produced novels that would be more likely to sell on the mass market than other genres. This paradox exemplifies the position of the black intelligentsia during this period, who were often caught between the achievement of financial comfort and their desire to make claims for black working-class solidarity.