Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America

Conjuring the Folk addresses the dynamic relation between metropolitan artistic culture and its popular referents during the Harlem Renaissance period. From Jean Toomer's conclusion that "the Negro of the folk-song has all but passed away" to Zora Neale Hurston's discovery of "a rich field for folk-lore" in a Florida lumber camp, Harlem Renaissance writers made competing claims about the vitality of the African-American "folk." These competing claims, David Nicholls explains, form the basis of a discordant conversation on the question of modernity in African America.

In a series of revisionary readings, Nicholls studies how the "folk" is shaped by the ideology of form. He examines the presence of a spectral "folk" in Toomer's modernist pastiche, Cane. He explores how Hurston presents folklore as a contemporary language of resistance in her ethnography, Mules and Men. In Claude McKay's naturalistic romance, Banana Bottom, Nicholls discovers the figuration of an alternative modernity in the heroine's recovery of her lost "folk" identity. He unearths the individualist ethos of Booker T. Washington in two novels by George Wylie Henderson. And he reveals how Richard Wright's photo-documentary history, 12 Million Black Voices, places the "folk" in a Marxian narrative of modernization toward class-consciousness.

A provocative rereading of the cultural politics of the Harlem Renaissance, Conjuring the Folk offers a new way of understanding literary responses to migration, modernization, and the concept of the "folk" itself.

Praise /​ Awards
"Moving from Zora Neale Hurston, through the Harlem Renaissance, to Richard Wright, Nicholls charts the literary portrayal of a migratory people from the rural to urban experience. He examines modern and poststructuralist theories in explaining historical and literary treatments of migration. Writing in flawless and precise prose, Nicholls summons the shared identity of African American folk in juxtaposition to the realities of the U.S. political landscape. He offers no facile or definitive answers to what constitutes a collective African American identity; he raises instead probing questions about how each writer invites the reader to set aside assumptions about cultural homogeneity and to explore the plurality of the journey to self-fulfillment, empowerment, and autonomy."
A. J. Guillaume Jr., Indiana University, South Bend, Choice, July 2001