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Jazz epidemics and deep set diseases: The de-pathologization of the black body in the work of three Harlem Renaissance writers

Shane Hunter, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation argues that the Harlem Renaissance was, in part, a response to Victorian-era medical and scientific racism, and that the three writers on which it centers, Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Wallace Thurman (1902-1934), and Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987), participated in subverting these racist discourses. I focus on elements of their creative work that de-pathologize the black body. Specifically, I consider how these writers undermine Victorian-era medical racism that had, by the 1920s, come to inform American racial politics. Hughes’s, Thurman’s, and Nugent’s work from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s is at least partly concerned with undermining medically racist ideology by either re-inscribing the black body as healthy, or by showing medical racism’s pernicious effects. While each of these writers’ voices is unique, and their lives and careers ultimately followed different trajectories, their work resists the pressures that a burgeoning medical establishment exerted on African Americans to conform to stereotyped norms. Each one highlighted elements from popular and material culture to show that these pressures contributed to pathologizing the black body. Using a historicist and biocritical approach, I position these writers in opposition to medical discourses that pathologized the black subject. In Chapter One, I contextualize Hughes’s, Thurman’s, and Nugent’s close personal and professional relationships with each other, and demonstrate that their Harlem Renaissance writing was part of a larger concern within the movement to re-inscribe the black subject as healthy and raise awareness about urban, black public health crises. In Chapter Two, I argue that Hughes’s 1920s cabaret poems resist popular medical knowledge that constructed jazz as disabling by re-inscribing the Harlem dance club as healthy. In Chapter Three, I argue that Thurman’s short story “Grist in the Mill”, and his novel The Blacker the Berry, attack racist, sexist, and classist medical traditions about the black body’s pathology. In Chapter Four, I examine two Nugent poems, “Shadow”, and “Bastard Song”, and two short stories, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” and “Lunatique”, to argue that he borrows tropes from the Decadent movement to interrogate Victorian-era sexological constructs of homosexuality, thereby expanding literary and artistic representations of gay men of color.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Hunter, Shane, "Jazz epidemics and deep set diseases: The de-pathologization of the black body in the work of three Harlem Renaissance writers" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10102323.