JOOK: RENT PARTY POEMS
Author ORCID Identifier
Year of Publication
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
Arts and Sciences
Frank X Walker
Jook is a spirited collection of historical persona poems situated in the vibrant rent party scene of 1920s Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance of New York was a decade of black innovation, artistry, and cultural expansion spanning 1920-1930. During this post-Emancipation, Great Migration era, black families leaving the South moved north only to encounter new forms of oppression. They were fleeing the lynchings, racism, and segregation that they experienced back home. In Harlem, black families earned disproportionately lower wages and paid much higher rents for subpar housing conditions compared to white families. To supplement their low incomes and to make the rent for the month, tenants hosted house-rent parties, also called social whist parties, in their apartments. They offered southern food, jazz and blues music (often live), and bootlegged liquor. Party guests paid a modest cover fee of 25 or 30 cents to enjoy the amusements, thus helping the hosts to pay their rent. The resistance work of this black joy in the face of economic, environmental, and social racism fascinates me and led me to research and uplift these narratives via persona poetry.
The central figure in these poems is a 20-year-old Georgia migrant named Mae Lynne King. Mae has moved north with her older sister Maddy. The daughters of a southern preacher and a seamstress, the women find their footing in New York in very different ways. Mae works as a domestic and takes in laundry and sewing on the side while 24-year-old Maddy Jane becomes a streetwalker. The two young women live together and quickly become immersed in the rent party phenomenon while working to build a life away from the strict religious upbringing they knew back home. Mae and Maddy struggle against racism, sexism, and poverty discovering their roles as lovers, friends, and members of a new black Harlem. Mae’s journey through Harlem is one of revelation and awakening, and Maddy’s is one of self-actualization, autonomy, reclamation. Both women embody the womanist attitudes and practices, blackness, and sexual fluidity that are central to my work overall and that were highly visible during the Renaissance.
While swaths of literature celebrate the art, music, and culture of the Harlem Renaissance, no contemporary collections of poetry contend with the oppression that African American people who migrated from the racially segregated South to Harlem faced. Jook is an offering of history, memory, language, and research to bridge that gap. This collection draws from Langston Hughes’ poetry and autobiography The Big Sea, Zora Neale Hurston’s novels and dramas, all of Harlem’s “negro literati,” jazz and swing music, photography, and archival materials from The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Yale University. Jook traverses free verse and formal boundaries while championing persona and a unique Harlemese vernacular in order to celebrate the fierce subversion that African Americans in 1920s Harlem engaged in via their rent party gatherings.
I enter these poems with music and memory at the fore of my creative process and craft employments. I call on forms such as Ruth Ellen Kocher’s Gigan, the jazz sonnet, contrapuntal, and the ghazal to illustrate the simultaneous artistry and travailing that defined the Renaissance for African American people. I also borrow from the narrative elements of fiction to explore a specific arc within the lives of a cadre of imagined personas. The aim of this project is to recover and celebrate the unexplored stories of rent parties and to acknowledge the suffering and striving that these gatherings were born out of.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Dye, Angel, "JOOK: RENT PARTY POEMS" (2019). Theses and Dissertations--English. 93.