Great Plains Quarterly looks at New Negro movement in Midwest

Released on 09/15/2004, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., September 15th, 2004 —

From 1914 to 1940, the New Negro arts and letters movement, or Harlem Renaissance, influenced black students at predominantly white Midwestern universities to engage in intellectual pursuits that challenged prevailing myths of blacks' intellectual and cultural inferiority.

In the summer issue of Great Plains Quarterly, Richard M. Breaux, assistant professor of black studies and history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, writes that black students at the universities of Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota engaged in racial vindication through classroom assignments, research and publications.

Among the most well known of these students at the University of Nebraska were Aaron Douglas and Zanzye Hill. Douglas emerged from the university to become the signature artist of the Harlem Renaissance and later established an art department at Fisk University. One of Douglas' paintings, "Window Cleaning," is in the collection of Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. Hill was a poet who in 1929 became the university's first African American woman to receive a law degree.

At the University of Iowa, Margaret Walker wrote a collection of poems for her master's degree titled "For My People," which earned the Yale University Series of Younger Poets award in 1942. Breaux said, "The poems in Walker's thesis speak to a folk tradition that only a few black students at the four Midwestern universities had an opportunity to study formally."

Breaux notes the importance of black writers, singers, and actors who visited Midwestern college campuses in the 1930s. Langston Hughes, Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson played to packed houses at these campuses, helping to expand the New Negro arts and letters movement to the Midwest. However, some students and alumni from the four universities threw their own hats into the literary ring even earlier. In 1911, William N. Johnson, a football player at the University of Nebraska, published several poems and short stories in "Crisis" magazine. In "The Coward," he relays the tale of a black plowman who reflects on his family's history as slaves and tenant farmers.

"Great Plains Quarterly" is edited by Charles Braithwaite and published by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The journal can be purchased from bookstores and from the center at (402) 472-3082.

CONTACT: Richard M. Breaux, Asst. Prof., Black Studies & History, UNO, (402) 554-4864; or
Charles Braithwaite, Editor, Great Plains Quarterly, (402) 472-6178