Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English Language and Literature

First Advisor

North, Joseph


This dissertation examines the first forty-six years of black literary discourse in the American twentieth century. Beginning with Benjamin Brawley’s The Negro in Literature and Art (1910), I begin the dissertation by identifying black literary discourse’s original goal. In the parlance of the time, the goal of black literary discourse was to solve the “Negro Problem.” I then discuss how further into the twentieth century other critics and artists like James Weldon Johnson and Sterling Brown expanded on Brawley’s ideas in ways that attempted to get at the underlying philosophical thought that underpinned the Problem. By the 1930s a competing conceptual model that identified the organizing principle of black oppression differently would enter the field. The writers of New Challenge (1937) would argue that economic oppression was the organizing principle that should be at the forefront of black literature’s focus. These different conceptual models mirror the difference between left and far-left among black intellectuals after Harlem Renaissance. Each camp had its own set of ideas with respect to art, and these ideas would evolve in significant ways between the 1930s and the early-to-mid 1940s. The late 1940s would see different rhetoric emerge that was concerned with ambiguity and individualism. This would lead into the 1950s, a decade that began with the writers of Phylon championing works of black literature that leaned toward obscurity. Additionally, we also see within the pages of Phylon an investment in the figure of the black literary scholar. Ultimately, the argument of this dissertation is that through these 1 changes in black literary discourse, we see a shift in the relationship between literature and the broader social order. At the beginning of the twentieth century, literature was seen as a tool that can enable social change. Benjamin Brawley’s The Negro in Literature and Art makes this clear. However, by 1956, at the time Arthur P. Davis published “Integration and Race Literature” (1956), there was a sense that literature is a reward of social change.