Literary Magazines

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Literary Magazines

Literary magazines and journals have occupied a position of great importance in the development of African-American literature. Since their appearance in the nineteenth century, such magazines have served as outlets for writers who would otherwise have had few opportunities to publish their work. They have been important forums for discussion of the literary aesthetics of black literature and catalysts of change in black culture and politics. The influence of black literary journals is especially notable given their small numbers and the difficult conditions in which they were generally produced. With scarce financial support and limited readership, most black literary journals rarely survived long enough to publish more than a few issues. Magazines and journals that concentrated on literary work while maintaining a more general focus on society and politics occasionally offered more stable platforms for literary publication, but literature was often the first thing to be eliminated from such publications during times of financial distress.

Another important factor in the difficulty of sustaining African-American literary magazines has been the often factional and highly politicized nature of black intellectual and literary debate. Politics has always been integral to African-American literature. Many of the most important literary magazines were considered by their creators to be primarily political publications; their contents often contained much that would not conventionally be considered literature, in the sense of poetry, drama, and narrative fiction. The abolitionist journalism of the early nineteenth century, the political editorials of W. E. B. Du Bois, and the ongoing debates over the proper role of the arts in black culture have all made significant contributions to black literature and provide important examples of the varied and often apparently extraliterary writing that has appeared in black literary magazines. One theme that frequently recurs in the history of black literary magazines is the ongoing debate over the relationship between literary aesthetics and cultural politics, a debate that often led to attempts to avoid or transcend the apparent dichotomy between "art as propaganda" and "art for art's sake." More important, it can be seen as a sustained effort to develop a literature that can bridge the gap between the two.

The earliest African-American journals were published in the northern centers of the free black population in the 1820s. Avowedly abolitionist and opposed to racial discrimination, they established the foundation on which later black protest journalism was built. The first black periodical was Freedom's Journal (1827), followed by the National Reformer (1833), the Mirror of Liberty (1837), an early incarnation of the Colored American Magazine (18371841), and Douglass' Monthly (18581861). These early journals had a strong political focus and usually served as mouthpieces for their publishers. A notable exception to this practice was the Anglo-African magazine (18591862). The Anglo-African and the associated Weekly Anglo-African newspaper (18591865) were more diversified in approach, and their inclusion of contending political perspectives and literary efforts made them the most influential African-American journals of their day. The Anglo-African magazine was also the first African-American journal to include substantial works of literary prose, initiating the early development of a black literary aesthetic. Because of the difficulty African Americans encountered in finding publishing opportunities, these magazines afforded one of the only venues for black authors. Martin Delany's novel Blake; or, The Huts of America, for example, was serialized in the Anglo-African magazine in 18591860 but was not published in book form until 1970. Other notable contributors to Anglo-African magazine included Frederick Douglass, John Langston, Daniel Payne, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and William Wells Brown.

After the Civil War and the failure of radical Reconstruction, the optimism of the abolitionists was eroded. Although African-American newspapers flourished during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, literary magazines virtually vanished during this period. As the century approached its close, Booker T. Washington emerged as the pre-eminent leader of African Americans. He made substantial efforts to gain control of the African-American journals and thus to eliminate opposition within the African-American community to his accommodationist position. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Washington's views were endorsed by most of the notable journals of the time, including Southern Workmen (18721910), Colored Citizen (1900), Age (1900), and most notably, Colored American magazine (19001909). Colored American, edited in its opening years by Pauline Hopkins, was the first significant African-American literary journal of the twentieth century, publishing the works of such notable writers as William Stanley Braithwaite, Benjamin Brawley, James Corrothers, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Until 1904, when Washington succeeded in having Hopkins dismissed from her post, its varied contentspolitics, business, religion, history, and fictionreflected strong opposition to his views.

Despite Washington's takeover of Colored American, the opposition was at this time gaining strength under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois. A number of new journals reflecting Du Bois's ideas were established, the most important of which were Voice of the Negro (19041907), Moon Illustrated Weekly (19051906), and Horizon (19071910). Voice of the Negro, edited by J. Max Barber, was the first African-American magazine edited in the South, and Moon and Horizon were Du Bois's first journalistic platforms. While none of these journals was able to survive for long (because opposition to Washington virtually eliminated any possibility of substantial financial support), they served an important role in developing a radical aesthetic of explicit and energetic political protest.

All the journals, whether influenced by Washington or Du Bois, included literary pieces in addition to social

and political commentary, and debate over the appropriate aesthetic for African-American literature intensified in this decade. Hopkins and Du Bois, recalling the energetic protest journalism of the abolitionists, attempted to develop a direct and audacious style of writing that would reinforce the radically confrontational political themes of their literary work. After 1904, however, the pro-Washington magazines, such as Alexander's and Colored American, generally avoided such provocative positions, placing less emphasis on explicitly political themes and favoring instead light poetry and popular fiction written with conventional restraint and intended to provide entertainment or to describe some exemplary achievement.

By the time of Washington's death in 1915 the sort of conventional literature favored by those magazines under his influence was rapidly losing ground to the energetically and provocatively modern style fostered by Du Bois and such journals as The Crisis (1910) and Opportunity (19231949), published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, respectively. These journals, financially supported by social and political organizations involved in race relations, provided for the first time not only a stable forum for black literary work and critical discussion, but also a substantial, national black readership. As a result of this support and wide exposure, a remarkable number of young writers, including Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay, gained national recognition. This new generation of writers moved beyond traditional concerns with countering white prejudices and opposing related political views to address themselves to issues of African-American self-definition.

Over the next two decades, black literature experienced an unprecedented degree of aesthetic experimentation and development as African-American writers turned their attention to articulating the identity of the "New Negro," the term chosen by Alain Locke as the title of his landmark 1925 anthology of the period's poetry and prose. As Locke observed in 1928, "Yesterday it was the rhetorical flush of partisanship, challenged and on the defensive. Nothing is more of a spiritual gain in the life of the Negro than the quieter assumption of his group identity and heritage; and contemporary Negro poetry registers this incalculable artistic and social gain" (Locke, 1928, p. 11). The organizational journals and a host of little literary magazines were the primary vehicles for this development and the ensuing controversy.

The first, and in many ways the most influential, of the organizational journals was The Crisis. Du Bois's sponsorship of young writers and his own development of an energetic, modern style of writing made him the most important figure in the early growth of the modern black literary aesthetic that would reach maturity in the Harlem Renaissance. Along with Jessie Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis from 1919 to 1926, Du Bois provided critical early support and exposure for the unprecedented numbers of young, educated black writers. The quick national success of The Crisis was encouraging, and its example was followed by the launching of Stylus (19161941) and New Era (1916), both smaller literary magazines. Stylus was established at Howard University by Locke and Montgomery Gregory, and New Era was a short-lived attempt by Pauline Hopkins to revive the early form of Colored American magazine.

Despite Du Bois's central role in the early development of the Harlem Renaissance, his increasingly emphatic insistence that literature concern itself with political and moral issues had distanced him from many of the younger generation by the mid-1920s. As Du Bois lost influence, dominance of the expanding literary scene shifted to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the editor of Opportunity from 1923 to 1928. Unlike Du Bois and, to some extent, Fauset, Charles Johnson did not insist that literary aesthetics be tied to the political and moral values of the prosperous, educated, black middle classthose Du Bois called the "Talented Tenth." Instead, he asserted that self-expression and artistic freedom were the paramount concerns for the new literature, and Opportunity 's support of more radical young writers of the time marked the maturation of the Harlem Renaissance.

The more general cultural vitality of the Harlem Renaissance brought further attention to black literary development through a number of special issues of essentially white periodicals, including Palms (1926), Carolina magazine (19271929), and Survey Graphic (1925), much of which was reprinted in Locke's anthology The New Negro (1925).

With the success of the organizational magazines and the attention garnered by the special numbers of white periodicals, the African-American literary community had become optimistic enough to launch a number of independent little literary magazines. New Era and Stylus were followed in the mid-1920s by numerous other independent journals, including Harlem (1926) and the more conservative Black Opals (19271928) and Saturday Evening Quill (19261930). However, in many ways the most notable of the little magazines of this era was Fire!! (1926), the first exclusively literary, independent black magazine. Edited by Wallace Thurman, the first and only issue of Fire!! caused substantial controversy upon publication because of its energetically antipuritanical position. Rather than presenting conventional portraits of exemplary, middle-class African Americans, the magazine attempted to put forward a new radical aesthetic that concerned itself with many of the aspects of African-American life considered to be disreputable, such as prostitution and homosexuality.

The radical themes of Fire!! were more than a simply aesthetic rejection of the practices of the Talented Tenth. The focus on lower-class black life also reflected the growing influence of socialist political theory among the black writers of the 1920s. In 1926 Thurman had served a brief term as editor of the era's third influential organizational journal, the Messenger (19171928), which had begun as a radical socialist magazine and eventually became allied with the mainstream labor movement (In 1925 it became the official organ of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.) Despite its early rejection of the importance of black literary efforts, the Messenger became a significant supporter of many of the more radical Harlem Renaissance writers after it came under the editorial control of George Schuyler and Theophilus Lewis in 1923. With the exception of Thurman's brief stint as editor, Schuyler and Lewis maintained control of the magazine until its demise five years later, and under their leadership the Messenger provided support for literature that reflected the growing interest in the life of the black lower class.

The literary renaissance of the 1920s turned out to be unexpectedly short-lived. With the onset of the next decade, economic hardship made financial survival difficult for journals, and their numbers decreased sharply. While The Crisis and Opportunity were able to survive, both experienced such financial difficulties that they sharply curtailed their support of literature. The depressed economic situation also had its impact on literary aesthetics; both the primarily middle-class aesthetic of the organizational journals and the radical aesthetic style of some of the little magazines seemed increasingly out of touch with the problems of the Great Depression. The radical writers' focus on the life of the lower classes, however, now came to the fore as the foundation for much of the black literature of the 1930s. In Challenge (19341937), edited by Dorothy West, and New Challenge (1937), edited by West, Marion Minus, and Richard Wright, a new generation of black writers (including Wright and Ralph Ellison) developed a literary aesthetic that linked radical socialism to folklore and to the experience of the working class. While such work foregrounded politics to a degree that had not been seen since the early writing of Du Bois and Pauline Hopkins, the socialist orientation of the new literature focused on class tensions as much as it did on race.

With the onset of World War II, the political position of most African-American journals shifted to liberal anti-communism, and the journals focused their attentions on the legal struggle to achieve integration, an emphasis that would remain dominant throughout the 1940s and most of the 1950s. At the same time, many black authors found it increasingly easy to publish in mainstream literary journals. For instance, James Baldwin's famous attack on Richard Wright and the black protest tradition, "Many Thousands Gone" (1949), appeared not in an African-American literary magazine but in Partisan Review. The diversity and unity of human experience became the primary thematic concerns, and notions of an independent or oppositional black literary aesthetic were minimized. Many mainstream publications were opened to black writers for the first time, although such interest was limited to formulaic entertainment pieces. Only two small journals, Negro Quarterly (19421944) and Negro Story (19441946), existed during the war, and The Crisis and Opportunity continued to serve as important outlets for serious literary work. However, both experienced further financial strain and erosion of circulation during wartime, and neither journal was able to maintain a significant role in literary development after the war. Opportunity had reached particularly desperate straits, and it ceased publication in 1949. Phylon (1940), a journal published by Atlanta University and started by W. E. B. Du Bois, took over the position left open by Crisis and Opportunity in the late 1940s and maintained its influence through the next decade.

The era's aesthetic trend toward the white mainstream was not conducive to independent little black magazines, and their scarcity during this period eventually became a cause for concern among black writers. By the end of the 1940s, the predominant aesthetic emphasis on the universality of human experience began to be perceived by some as a potentially negative influence on African-American culture, drawing it into the mainstream while diluting its identity. Harlem Quarterly (19491950) and Voices (1950) were short-lived efforts to counteract this trend; they attempted to answer the need for a journal of black fiction about African-American life in particular. Free Lance (19531976) and Yugen (19581963), the earliest platforms for LeRoi Jones (later known as Imamu Amiri Baraka), addressed the same problem in the next decade, though neither of these journals was exclusively concerned with African-American interests and literature.

By the middle of the 1960s, the black arts movement and black political militance created a climate in which the rejection of Western cultural norms and values in favor of an independent African-American cultural identity became the basis for a new black literature. The return to a literary aesthetic of opposition and protest was carried out through a new renaissance of independent small journals, including the Liberator (19611971), Soulbook (19641976), Black Dialogue (19641970), the Journal of Black Poetry (19661973), and the more moderate Umbra (19631975). Negro Digest (19421970) also lent support to this perspective after a shift in its editorial position in the middle of the decade. The aesthetic position that developed in the small journals of this decade was part of the larger attempt by the black arts movement to disengage African-American artistic culture from the Western tradition and to form a new black cultural consciousness. Fundamentally political, the black aesthetic combined language and form indigenous to the African-American experience with revolutionary, nationalistic political critique.

The black arts movement peaked at the end of the 1960s, just as Negro Digest adopted its new title, Black World (19701976). The decline of the movement, and of the Black Power movement in general, was gradual and not immediately noticeable. In the early years of the 1970s, a number of new magazines and journals were established as part of the movement, including Nommo (19691970), Black Creation (19701975), Black Review (19711972), Kitaba Cha Jua (19741976), and First World (19771980). However, as the general political climate cooled and the movement splintered and slowed, financial support for such journals became scarce. Few survived.

By the middle of the 1970s, the pendulum had swung away from radical oppositional politics, and the new emphasis became the necessity of establishing a strong and consistent critical and theoretical base for a separate black literary aesthetic. A number of university publications, such as Hambone (1974), Callaloo (1976), and Black American Literature Forum (1967, 1976), played a central role in the development of this new aesthetic, providing academic critics (such as Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker) with an unprecedented degree of influence in the African-American literary community. Other literary magazines and journals that contributed to this development include Obsidian/Obsidian II/Obsidian III (1975), Y'Bird (19771978), Quilt (19801984), Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women (1984), Catalyst (1986), Shooting Star Review (1986), and Konch (1990).

At the same time that more recent literary journals have reflected an increasingly academic orientation, they have also displayed a significant shift toward greater diversity of focus and opinion. Unlike the literary debates of earlier periods, that of the 1980s and early 1990s did not reveal any particular dominant concern, but rather began to confront the internal heterogeneity of the African-American literary community. This heterogeneity accounts in part for the relatively large number of literary journalssince the 1960s.

While established literary journals such as Callaloo continued to hold a dominant position in the late 1990s and into the new century, the expansion of the Internet has provided new outlets for African-American poets and fiction writers, allowing publishers to disseminate the work of both new and established writers at a far lower cost. The Cave Canem organization, which is "committed to the discussion and cultivation of new voices in African American poetry," was formed in 1996, and many members of its "faculty" edit Web publications such as Ambulant. FYAH!!, dedicated to a "new generation of Black wordsmiths," is an online magazine that publishes the work of such poets as India Savage Anderson, who has also published in the quarterly e-magazine Mosaic, founded in 1998. Mosaic has become a leading publisher of new and established African-American and other writers, including Staceyann Chin, Colson Whitehead, Major Jackson, Willie Perdomo, Colin Channer, Roger Bonair-Agard, Sonia Sanchez, bell hooks, and Haki Madhubuti. Another online project that has provided a forum for new writers is Voices from the Gap: Women Artists and Writers of Color, published at the University of Minnesota. Online publications such as VelvetIllusion reflect a more internationalist perspective, featuring the work not only of African Americans but also of people of color throughout the world.

Another development, one that reflects the growing reach of a distinctly African-American literature, is the prominence of publications that not only review the work of African-American writers but that themselves publish some of that work. One of the most widely read is the African American Review, published since 1967 at St. Louis University (the journal was originally titled Negro American Literature Forum; In 1976 it became the Black American Literature Forum; and it took on the current title in 1992). The African American Review is the official publication of the Division on Black American Literature and Culture of the Modern Language Association. It has published work by such writers as Houston A. Baker, Jr., Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Trudier Harris, Arnold Rampersad, Hortense Spillers, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed. A more recent review is Black Issues Book Review, published since 1999. The success of these mainstream publications help firmly entrench African-American voices in the contemporary literary landscape.

See also Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi); Black Arts Movement; Black World/Negro Digest ; Crisis, The ; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Fauset, Jessie Redmon; Harlem Renaissance; Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth; Johnson, Charles Spurgeon; Liberator, The ; Messenger, The ; New Negro; Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life ; Phylon ; Schuyler, George S.; Thurman, Wallace; Washington, Booker T.


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Johnson, Abby Arthur, and Ronald M. Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of African-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

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Locke, Alain. "The Message of the Negro Poets." Carolina 28 (May 1928).

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matthew buckley (1996)

michael o'neal (2005)

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Literary Magazines

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