African American Existentialism in Harlem Renaissance Novels
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This thesis aims to examine the emergence of African American existential thought during the Harlem Renaissance as manifested in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker The Berry (1929), Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930), and George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931). The construction of identities within the African American experience merges with existential inquiries that fundamentally question the existence of Black individuals, as racism perpetuates a struggle that prompts an existential response to nihilism. In these selected Harlem Renaissance novels, Black characters’ experience takes on a proto-existentialist quality, expanding canonical existentialism with its historical and geographical associations. Adopting an existential mode of thought becomes essential in the context of Black existence. While Black people strive toward regaining their humanity in reaction to the oppressive nature of a society characterized by antiblack views, they form complex structures, systems of values, and identity constructions. By opposing oppressive systems, Black people actively pursue meaningful and “authentic” existence and assert their identities. The selected literary works in this thesis offer a variety of perspectives and personal experiences in particular contexts. Chapter 1 examines Nella Larsen's protagonist Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928), analyzing the complexities of racial constructions and the pursuit of meaning and identity. Chapter 2 studies the protagonist Emma Lou from Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker The Berry (1929), who struggles with internalized racism, but ultimately finds self-acceptance and “authenticity” by embracing her Black identity and existential responsibility. Chapter 3 offers alternative responses to nihilism in Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930) by focusing on questions regarding traditional religious affiliations and affirmation of a Black identity through the use of music. Chapter 4 explores George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) with its critique of both white and Black constructions of identity. By exploring these distinct perspectives and themes, this thesis presents a deeper understanding of African American existential thought during the Harlem Renaissance and its significance in shaping literary discourse and cultural identity.