The Harlem Renaissance was a period between World War I and the Great Depression when black artists and writers flourished in the United States. Critics and historians have assigned varying dates to the movement's beginning and end, but most tend to agree that by 1917 there were signs of increased cultural activity among black artists in the Harlem area of New York City and that by the mid-1930s the movement had lost much of its original vigor. While Harlem was the definite epicenter of black culture during this period and home to more blacks than any other urban area in the nation in the years after World War I, other cities, such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, fostered similar but smaller communities of black artists.
The movement came about for a number of reasons. Between 1890 and 1920, the near collapse of the southern agricultural economy, coupled with a labor shortage in the North, prompted about two million blacks to migrate to northern cities in search of work. In addition, World War I had left an entire generation of African Americans asking why, given that they had fought and many had died for their country, they were still afforded second-class status. By the end of the war, many northern American cities, such as Harlem, had large numbers of African Americans emboldened by new experiences and better paychecks, energized by the possibility for change. A number of black intellectuals, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, were making it clear that the time had come for white America to take notice of the achievements of African-American artists and thinkers. The idea that whites might come to accept blacks if they were exposed to their artistic endeavors became popular.
To this end, magazines such as the Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Opportunity featured the prose and poetry of Harlem Renaissance stars Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Major New York-based publishing houses began to search for new black voices and print their poems, short stories, and novels. White intellectual society embraced these writers and supported—financially and through social contacts—their efforts to educate Americans about their race, culture, and heritage through their art. Ultimately, however, the financial backing began to run dry in the early 1930s with the collapse of the New York stock market and the ensuing worldwide economic depression. The Renaissance had run its course.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
Born May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky (although a few accounts claim Baltimore or New York City), Countee Cullen is believed to have been reared by his paternal grandmother, who died when he was fifteen. He was then adopted by the Reverend Frederick Cullen, later the head of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and introduced to the lively intellectual and cultural life of New York. He received an undergraduate degree from New York University and a master's degree from Harvard University.
Cullen, a writer of both poetry and prose, believed that art should be where whites and blacks find common ground. In 1925, his most well-known work, Color, was published to nearly universal praise. In the 1930s, he turned to teaching and eventually began producing his plays. Cullen received numerous awards for his work, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928. He died of uremic poisoning January 9, 1946, in New York City.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
William Edgar Burghardt Du Bois, or, as he is more commonly known, W. E. B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, February 23, 1868. Trained as a sociologist, Du Bois received his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He condemned racism in the United States and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He wrote numerous books on race issues and worked as a university professor.
In addition to his support of young writers during the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois's 1903 sociological examination of African Americans, The Souls of Black Folk, helped create the atmosphere in which many of the Renaissance writers and artists could flourish. He coined the phrase "talented tenth" to denote the group of highly educated, culturally adept, and politically astute blacks who would lead the rest of the race into better lives. By the early 1930s, Du Bois became disillusioned about life in the United States, and his political beliefs forced him to resign from his NAACP position. His politics led to membership in the Socialist Party, and he experienced confrontations with the U.S. government on several occasions. After joining the Communist Party in 1960, Du Bois moved to Ghana, where he died on August 27, 1963.
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in Snow Hill, New Jersey, April 27, 1884, the daughter of a minister. She was the first black woman to graduate from Cornell University, received a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In addition to writing novels, poetry, short stories, and essays, Fauset taught French in the Washington, D.C., schools and worked as a journal editor. It was in this last capacity that she encouraged many of the more well-known writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
While her reputation as an editor of other writers' works has tended to outshine her reputation as a fiction writer, many critics consider the novel Plum Bun Fauset's strongest work. In it, she tells the story of a young black girl who could pass for white but ultimately claims her racial identity and pride. She wrote three other novels, with mixed reviews, but many readers of that period's writings believe that Fauset's strengths lay in nonfiction. Fauset died of heart disease April 30, 1961, in Philadelphia.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
James Langston Hughes, or just Langston Hughes as he was commonly known, was a writer of poetry, short stories, novels, plays, song lyrics, and essays. His frank portrayals of the black community around him often provoked sharp comments from African-American literary critics. Hughes's retort, that he was simply depicting life as he saw it, did not impress the critics who believed that he should present black life in the best possible light to help improve the plight of African Americans.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to a father who was a rancher, a businessman, and a lawyer, and a mother who worked as a teacher. Hughes's background was varied and colorful: By the time his first poetry book, The Weary Blues, came out in 1926, he had spent time as a cook, waiter, truck farmer, college student, nightclub doorman in Paris, and sailor, and he had lived in numerous American cities and foreign countries. He died on May 22, 1967, in New York City of congestive heart failure.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
Zora Neale Hurston, the daughter of a preacher and a seamstress, was born January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, Florida. Hurston quit school at age thirteen to care for her brother's children but later attended a Baltimore high school, thanks to a generous patron. Her undergraduate and graduate studies in anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University influenced her novels, plays, and two published collections of African-American folklore.
Hurston fought against a common belief that the poverty often associated with black American culture made it less valuable. She continually encouraged blacks, especially those of the educated middle class, to recognize their rural cultural heritage. Many criticized her writing as bawdy and her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, as simplistic and reactionary. Other readers, ultimately the majority, praised the book as offering positive self-affirmation for African Americans.
Hurston also worked as a maid, a staff writer for Paramount Studios, a librarian at the Library of Congress, and a theater professor, and she received Guggenheim fellowships in 1936 and 1939. On January 28, 1960, she died in Fort Pierce, Florida.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
While James Weldon Johnson did produce literature during the Harlem Renaissance period, he is noted for his civic leadership and support of young black writers. Born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida, Weldon was at various times a poet, novelist, editor, lawyer, journalist, educator, civil rights leader, songwriter, translator, and diplomat. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Atlanta University and did graduate work in creative literature at Columbia University.
Johnson's work as a newspaper owner attracted the attention of such luminaries as W. E. B. Du Bois. Johnson's only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, is remembered for its realism, and his groundbreaking study of black music, The Book of American Negro Spirituals, educated many Americans about the fact that black music encompassed more than minstrel shows; this book paved the way for his depiction of black sermons as poetry in God's Trom-bones. During the 1920s, Weldon served as the head of the NAACP and edited a critically acclaimed collection of verse entitled The Book of American Negro Poetry. He died following a car accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964)
Nella Larsen was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 13, 1891; her father was black West Indian and her mother was Danish. This mixed heritage became the foundation for her novels Quicksand and Passing, in which the heroines struggle with the challenges of being neither black nor white. Many critics have said that Quicksand, winner of a Harmon Foundation Prize in 1928, was one of the period's best novels. Larsen's education included time at Fisk University in Nashville, the University of Copenhagen, as well as librarian and nursing schools in New York. In 1930, Larsen was the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship.
A series of incidents, including a mistaken charge of plagiarism and her divorce from physicist husband Elmer S. Imes, caused Larsen to leave literary society and spend the final twenty years of her life working as a nurse in Manhattan hospitals. She died March 30, 1964, in New York City of heart failure.
Alain Locke (1886-1954)
Alain Le Roy Locke, born September 13, 1886, in Philadelphia, was the son of two schoolteachers. He received a doctorate from Harvard in 1918, after studying philosophy at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He also studied at universities in Paris and Berlin. Some critics credit Locke with bringing about the Harlem Renaissance in earnest with the 1926 publication of The New Negro: An Interpretation, his compilation of the best early-twentieth-century African-American literature.
Locke believed that the best chance for blacks to become accepted in the United States lay in exposing white communities to the work of black writers and artists. He also encouraged black artists to look to their history and culture for inspiration. In addition to serving as the chairman of the Howard University Department of Philosophy for more than forty years, Locke published and edited other books on African-American music, history, and poetry. He died in New York City on June 9, 1954, after a long illness.
Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Claude McKay (born Festus Claudius McKay) was born September 15, 1889, to a farming couple in the British West Indies—what later became Jamaica. McKay reveled in British poetry and learning about European philosophy while in school. After he began to write his own poetry, however, one of his teachers encouraged him to stop imitating the English style and develop his own voice—a suggestion he embraced.
In 1912, he left Jamaica to enroll at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, thanks to a monetary award for his book of poetry, Songs of Jamaica. He made his way to New York City by working as a laborer. McKay's poetry became more militant as he experienced racism and began publishing in the Liberator, a magazine run by a well-known American Communist, Max Eastman. In 1928, after traveling around the world for a number of years, including trips to the Soviet Union, McKay published his provocative and controversial first novel, Home to Harlem.During the 1920s, McKay also participated in Communist Party activities in the United States. He died of heart failure in Chicago on May 22, 1948.
Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
Born in Washington, D.C., on December 26, 1894, into a racially mixed family, Jean Toomer spent his early years living in primarily white, well-to-do neighborhoods. When he was a teenager, the family suffered a financial setback and began living as an average black family, sending Jean to an all-black high school. He attended a number of universities but decided on being a writer during his year at the City College of New York. For one year, between 1921 and 1922, Toomer worked as the principal of a rural black school in Georgia, an experience that gave him a chance to investigate his black roots.
Toomer wrote some of the most experimental and progressive literature of the early twentieth century. His first novel, Cane, published in 1923, combines poetry and prose and is considered a masterpiece of avant-garde writing (writing that is considered at the forefront for the period or somewhat experimental). He also published plays, and numerous journals printed his essays and short stories. Toomer died in Doyles-town, Pennsylvania, on March 30, 1967.
Jean Toomer's Cane is a three-part novel comprising both poems and short stories. Published in 1923, the work was hailed as a revolutionary exploration of black city and rural life in early twentieth century America.
Toomer's experimentation with style, structure, and language reflects the influence of the numerous avant-garde writers and artists (those whose work is considered groundbreaking or somewhat experimental) he met while living in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. The book received much praise from the critics for its efforts to break from typical realism and for its exciting use of language but garnered little popular success. While Toomer went on to write essays and plays, Cane was his only published book.
In 1925, Countee Cullen published his first collection of poems, Color, to high praise. Cullen's work, including the poetry in Color, was known for its beauty and lyricism, despite featuring incidents of racism. Alain Locke referred to Cullen as "a genius" in his review in Opportunity, published not long after the release of Cullen's collection, comparing Cullen with the poets A. E. Houseman and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Both black and white readers eagerly awaited Cullen's first book; in fact, his poetry especially that found in his first collection was so popular that many blacks of the day knew Cull-en's verses by heart. The best-known poem from this collection is "Heritage," in which Cullen considers the meaning of Africa to himself and African Americans. The collection won a Harmon Foundation award in 1925.
God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse waspublishedin1927. This collection of poetry established Johnson as one of the literary stars of the period and reflected the style and rhythm of the preaching that the author heard in African-American churches. Countee Cullen, reviewing the collection in The Bookman, called Johnson's work "magnificent." Many critics noted that Johnson does not use dialect in this poetry collection, and generally the response to the poet's decision was favorable.
- In 1984, Francis Ford Coppola directed The Cotton Club, a movie starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane, and Gregory Hines, about the famous jazz nightclub in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. The film was distributed by Orion Pictures Corporation.
- In 1937, Claude McKay's novel Banjo was made into the film Big Fella, distributed by British Lion Film Corporation.
- The Langston Hughes short story "Cora Unashamed" was made into a television film of the same name in 2000, distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service.
- Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance is a boxed set with four CDs featuring various artists of the period reading and performing their works and music. Langston Hughes, for example, reads his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and Duke Ellington performs "The Cotton Club Stomp." In addition, some contemporary artists participate in the recording: rapper Ice-T reads Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die." The set was released in 2000 by Wea/Rhino.
- Langston Hughes's first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, is celebrated on a CD of the same name, featuring Hughes reciting his poetry and the legendary jazz musician Charles Mingus performing music that recreates the atmosphere of a Harlem blues club. The CD was originally released in 1958 and as of 2008 was available on the Uni/Verve label.
- In 2005, Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was made into a TV movie of the same name. The movie teleplay was written by Suzan-Lori Parks and underwritten by Oprah Winfrey. Darnell Martin directed and Halle Barry starred as Janie Starks. As of 2008 it was available on DVD from Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
Home to Harlem
Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem was published in 1928, the first in a series of three novels that many critics see as a trilogy of black life in America. The story centers on the relationship between two black men, Jake and Ray. Jake is an AWOL soldier, intent on returning to Harlem and the good times he remembers there. Ray is his opposite—a highly educated man who has completely lost touch with his culture. Through their conversations and actions, McKay shows two ways of responding to the racial prejudice in the United States during the 1920s. Ray experiences an intellectual angst and leaves for Europe, while Jake remains in Harlem, happy with his life and friends but intent on maintaining his pride.
Home to Harlem was the first bestselling book by a black writer in the United States. The novel was such a commercial success that it was reprinted five times in two months. Many readers were attracted by the book's racy image of jazz-age Harlem; McKay writes of prostitutes, nightclubs, and boozy parties. However, many critics—especially those black critics who believed that positive representations of African Americans would help rid the nation of its racial problems—condemned McKay's novel for its bawdy images of black life in Harlem.
The New Negro: An Interpretation
Many historians and critics of the Harlem Renaissance credit the 1925 publication of Alain Locke's anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation, with fueling the explosion of energy among black artists and writers in the 1920s and 1930s. The collection includes poetry and prose from such Renaissance stars as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay. The high quality of the anthology's work attracted the attention of literary critics of the day and alerted the public to the talents of a previously unknown group of writers. The book also served to alert black writers that they were not alone by exposing them to other writers' efforts and by building an atmosphere of inspiration.
The anthology received excellent reviews, including positive comments from W. E. B. Du Bois. Locke felt strongly that a group of African-American artists and writers could bridge the gap between white and black communities, and the publication of The New Negro was an effort to start that process.
Nella Larsen wrote two novels addressing the issue of light-skinned blacks living as whites, Quicksand and Passing, but Quicksand, published in 1928, was the first and better received. In Quicksand, Larsen tells the story of a woman of mixed ancestry, much like herself, who feels comfortable in neither black nor white society.
Critics were impressed with the rich psychological background Larsen gave her characters, as well as with the novel's use of symbolism. In addition, many readers were happy that a black writer, while still tackling sensitive issues of race and culture, had chosen to place most of the story in a relatively genteel setting, as opposed to many other novels that depicted impoverished black society. With the publication of Quicksand, many intellectuals involved in the Harlem Renaissance took positive notice of Larsen, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, and predicted her continued success as an author. The novel won the Harmon Foundation's bronze medal in 1928.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Critics consider Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston's best fictional work. The 1937 novel (late in the period but still considered a Harlem Renaissance work) is informed by the extensive work Hurston did collecting black folk-tales throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It tells the story of a black woman struggling to assert her identity—both as an African American and as a woman—in the southern United States around 1900.
The critical reception of Their Eyes Were Watching God was mixed; some readers praised its accurate portrayal of small-town black life, while others, such as Richard Wright, accused Hurston of pursuing racial stereotyping to please white audiences. Overall, the novel was under-appreciated when it was first published and viewed as an escapist piece of fiction. It gained considerable respect, however, in the last half of the twentieth century as a feminist tale of empowerment and fulfillment.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote short stories and poetry, much of which is available online. Her short story "Titee" was published in her collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899). Her fiction features local color—that is, characters drawn from the real life of her home in New Orleans. "Titee" is about a black schoolboy in the Third District of New Orleans. He is not very good at schoolwork but knows every corner and face of his neighborhood. A growing boy who eats as much as he can, one day he suddenly starts eating very little. Some days later, he is discovered to be missing from home. His family finds him by the railroad tracks with a broken leg but he will not let them take him home. He instead takes them to visit an old man living in a cave to whom he has been bringing food twice a day. The Old Man then receives charitable aid and the boy's leg heals. By Dunbar-Nelson's account, Titee behaves no differently than before.
The Weary Blues
The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes's first published collection of poetry, released in 1926, contains both traditional lyric poems written on classical subjects and poems about being black in America in the early twentieth century. Some of the strongest verses, in fact, reflect Hughes's love for blues and jazz music by imitating the cadences of popular tunes heard in Harlem nightclubs and on the streets.
Though a few of the poems in this collection were written when Hughes was a teenager, many critics still saw in the volume a special energy and vigor; indeed, many of these poems remain the author's best known and well loved pieces, such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Many black critics, however, were uncomfortable with Hughes's less traditional rhyming schemes and, concerned that Hughes was furthering the negative image of African Americans, disliked his portrayals of unsophisticated blacks and their dayto-day lives. They referred to him as a "racial artist," or an artist who relies too heavily on his identity as an African American. Other critics praised his successful integration of musical styles in his poetry and language, especially in the title piece, "The Weary Blues," which captures the tone of a piano player performing in a nightclub. Hughes's experimental style was both respected and condemned by various readers and critics.
As many critics have noted, the literature from the Harlem Renaissance displayed a wide variety of themes and topics; in fact, some have blamed this lack of cohesion for its supposed failure to maintain its momentum much past the early 1930s. However, there were a handful of themes and issues that commonly appeared in many of the writers' works.
Race and Passing
The issue of skin color is central to many of the novels, stories, and poems of the Harlem Renaissance. For example, a quick examination of the titles included in Cullen's first collection of poetry, Color, indicates that he is very conscious of his race and its defining connotations in America: "To a Brown Girl" and "Black Magdalens" are two of the titles in the collection. In another one of the collection's poems, "The Shroud of Color," Cullen writes of his race and of the experience of being a second-class citizen because of his skin color:
Lord, being dark, forewilled to that despair
My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt
Beneath my brother's heel.
In addition, many of the period's authors refer to a phenomenon known as passing—a
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Many of the period's prominent writers studied at Columbia University in New York City. Research the histories of Columbia University and other American universities during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. What were the policies of various institutions regarding admitting black students? What were the choices for blacks who wished to attend college during the 1920s and earlier in the century? Present your findings in an essay.
- Churches played a key role in the lives of many Harlem residents. In addition to holding Sunday services, some churches, such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church, organized community centers, helped feed the poor, and operated homes for the elderly. Investigate the growth of churches in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s and how many developed into influential and powerful organizations.
- Many critics note that, while the Harlem Renaissance ended during the early 1930s, African-American writers did not stop producing work. Research the important black writers of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. Acquaint yourself with themes these writers dealt with, their styles, and so on. Discuss in a short essay any similarities or differences you see between this literature and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
- Some historians and critics have argued that the present time is another "renaissance" for black artists, entertainers, and writers, similar in a number of ways to the Harlem Renaissance. Consider the two periods and create a chart showing the similarities and differences between the two as regards politics, social institutions, major cities involved in the arts, and the artistic achievements themselves.
light-skinned black person living as a white person. In Larsen's Passing, the heroine faces tragedy when her white husband becomes aware of her African-American background. In another of Larsen's books, Quicksand, the mixed-race heroine struggles to find a place in society where she can feel comfortable and welcomed. She feels restricted when she attempts to settle in black society but experiences dissatisfaction and discontent while passing as a white woman.
Many of the period's authors highlighted their African heritage. Some viewed Africa in a romantic light, as an ancient place of origin and therefore a prime source of artistic insight. For example, Hughes, in his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," refers to the thousands of years of African experience inside him when he writes:
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
One of Cullen's best-known poems, "Heritage," celebrates the rich cultural legacy being discovered by many of the Renaissance artists. In the poem, he ponders the meaning of Africa to himself and to other American blacks.
In his anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation, Locke encourages young black artists and writers to look for inspiration in their own African heritage—as separate from the dominant white American-European heritage. The book closes with an essay by Du Bois suggesting that American blacks reach out to blacks in Africa and around the world, initiating a Pan-African movement. In fact, The New Negro and other books published during the Renaissance were decorated with African-inspired motifs and designs.
Conflicting Images of Blacks
One of the most difficult issues writers dealt with during the Renaissance was how to portray African-American life. On one hand, many writers and intellectuals had a keen desire to illustrate black society only in the most positive fashion, writing stories filled with middle-class, educated characters working to become successful in a white-dominated America. On the other hand, many believed that white perceptions of black society should not matter and that all sides of the African-American experience should be exposed and celebrated in the literature. Adding to this dichotomy was the concern that the more sensationalist or primitive images of blacks in literature were the ones that sold—especially to white readers.
Many black intellectuals condemned, for example, the first and only issue of the literary magazine Fire!!, published by Wallace Thurman. The issue contained stories and poetry by some of Harlem's most famous young writers, but much of what they were writing about did not fit the positive image of the race that black thinkers such as Du Bois and Benjamin Brawley considered appropriate. In fact, after reading the issue, which included pieces about prostitution, homosexuality, hatred of whites, and conflicts between lower-class black men and women, Brawley allegedly burned his copy. Thurman was and continues in the 2000s to be a controversial figure; critic Granville Ganter argues that Thurman's work and influence was larger than the Harlem Renaissance, placing him in the international bohemian arena. Hughes responded to the idea that black writers should be circumspect in what they produce in his 1926 article "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," proclaiming, "If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter, either."
One writer who was often condemned by members of the black intelligentsia for portraying blacks in a negative fashion was McKay. His novel Home to Harlem upset many who believed that his story, set amid the nightclubs and speakeasies of Harlem, catered to the image many whites had of blacks as savages who, even when dressed in fine clothes, were ready to succumb to their baser urges at a moment's notice. Some black critics also charged Hurston with writing stories that were unnecessarily bawdy and crude, but she argued that her work accurately reflected the folktales she collected in black rural areas.
Use of Dialect and Colloquialisms
There was no consensus on the use of black or rural dialect in the work of Harlem Renaissance writers; some authors used it liberally while others shunned it entirely. Hurston used dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God to reflect the atmosphere and tone of the language she heard when collecting folktales. For this, Richard Wright later condemned the novel and claimed that she was painting a negative and stereotypical image of blacks for white readers.
Johnson used dialect verse and misspellings in some of his poetry but decided to discard these techniques when writing his collection of rural sermons turned into verse, God's Trombones, considered to be, far and away, his best work. He is reported to have said that dialect restricted what he wanted to do in God's Trombones. The sermons maintain the rhythm and pacing of speech he admired in black preachers but are delivered in a more sophisticated manner. For example, the poem-sermon entitled "The Creation" is written in standard English but maintains the cadence of powerful oratory:
Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet. . . .
Use of Music
Many of the Renaissance poets experimented with the cadences of popular music in their work, but none was as well known for this technique as Hughes. He used blues and jazz beats in much of his poetry, recreating the sounds and music he heard in the clubs and on the streets of Harlem. Hughes's poetry not only incorporates the rhythms of familiar music but also covers topics common to many blues songs: economic hardship, failed romance, loneliness, and sexual desire. In the poem "The Weary Blues," Hughes writes of a piano player performing at a club and uses the technique of repetition, a familiar technique in many blues songs.
Urban and Rural Settings
Because many of the Harlem Renaissance writers moved to the cities from rural areas, both settings were critical components of their work. For example, Toomer's book of poetry, stories, and a play, Cane, includes a section devoted entirely to characters in rural Georgia, with images of trees and sugar cane. In the second section, the action takes place in Washington, D.C., and is filled with images of streets, nightclubs, houses, and theaters. Hurston set most of her stories in rural towns, in accordance with her lifelong effort to collect black rural folktales.
The move between rural and urban is also critical to many Renaissance novels. In McKay's Home to Harlem, the primary locale of the story is Harlem. But each of the novel's protagonists comes from someplace else: Jake is assumed to be originally from the rural South, and Ray is Haitian. Larsen's novel Quicksand follows a mixed race woman who travels from her job at a black southern college to various large cities around the world in search of a place she can truly call home. She ultimately ends up living in rural Alabama, feeling suffocated.
Visual Arts during the Harlem Renaissance
Visual arts made a strong statement during the Harlem Renaissance, creating images based on newly developed consciousness about heritage and culture. For example, in her article on Harlem Renaissance art and artists in Print, Michele Y. Washington notes that black artists' interest in Egypt as part of Africa and their heritage contributed to many of the motifs in the Art Deco style becoming widespread during the 1920s and 1930s.
Aaron Douglas, one of the period's leading artists, used images of African masks and sculpture in his geometric, art deco-style drawings. He served as an apprentice to Winold Reiss, the German artist whose geometric and angular drawings were featured on the original cover of Alain Locke's The New Negro. Douglas became the premier illustrator for the period's magazines and books and also created large murals on the walls of various Harlem nightclubs.
Many of the leading Renaissance artists had formal art training but used vibrant and energetic African images to break away from the more traditional forms of European art. Like Douglas, many of these artists collaborated with black writers to decorate the covers and pages of their published poetry collections, novels, and magazines.
The Renaissance in Other American Cities
While the energy of the explosion of African-American literature, music, art, and politics was focused primarily in Harlem, other cities also experienced their own versions of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s. Artistsand writers located in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., were producing valuable and exciting work.
Locke, for example, maintained his contact with Howard University in Washington, D.C., as the chairman of its Department of Philosophy for more than forty years. A number of writers got their start in the nation's capital, including Toomer and Rudolph Fisher, and Hughes often spent time there. Chicago was not only a hotbed of musical energy during the 1920s and 1930s, but writers such as Frank Marshall Davis wrote while living there. And, though he wrote just after the period of the Renaissance, Richard Wright relied heavily on his own Chicago experiences in his work.
Music during the Harlem Renaissance
Music saturated Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s, whether at the numerous Protestant churches, where age-old and new spirituals comforted the congregations, or at the neighborhood's hundreds of speakeasies, nightclubs, and theaters, where jazz and blues tunes stimulated dancers well into the early morning hours.
Of all the styles of music in Harlem, the district is probably best known for its jazz. Black bandleaders such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington made jazz the neighborhood's (and the nation's) most popular musical style in the 1920s and 1930s, even though many people—including numerous black intellectuals—found its rhythms too harsh and bawdy. But the rage for jazz would not die, and patrons crowded Harlem's countless clubs nearly every night to hear the dynamism and spontaneity that are the hallmarks of jazz.
In 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened, and its reasonable cover charges encouraged people of all races and economic levels to spend the evening dancing and listening to excellent jazz. While many well-known musicians performed there, the Savoy was also a place where unknowns could see if they had the talent to compete. Jazz and blues singers Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald got their starts at the Savoy.
Black Aesthetic Movement
The black aesthetic movement was a period of artistic and literary development among African Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was the first major African American artistic movement after the Harlem Renaissance and was closely paralleled by the civil rights and black power movements. The black aesthetic writers attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to black audiences. Key figures in black aesthetics include one of its founders, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones; poet and essayist Haki R. Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee; poet and playwright Sonia Sanchez; and dramatist Ed Bullins. Works representative of the black aesthetic movement include Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman, a 1964 Obie award-winner; Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Baraka and playwright Larry Neal and published in 1968; and Sonia Sanchez's poetry collection We a BaddDDD People, published in 1970. The black aesthetic movement was also known as the black arts movement.
The post-aesthetic movement was an artistic response made by African Americans to the black aesthetic movement of the 1960s and early '70s. Writers since that time have adopted a somewhat different tone in their work, with less emphasis placed on the disparity between black and white in the United States. In the works of post-aesthetic authors such as Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and Kristin Hunter, African Americans are portrayed as looking inward for answers to their own questions, rather than always looking outward to the world. Two well-known examples of works produced as part of the post-aesthetic movement are the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration involved huge numbers of African Americans moving from the rural southern United States to northern industrial cities during the first few decades of the twentieth century in search of better jobs. This shift in population helped foster the cultural richness that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
For most of the nineteenth century, the southern United States, like most of the rest of the country, was primarily an agricultural society. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the northern economy began to shift to a more industrial base. The southern economy became stagnant, which provided a strong impetus for black (and white) farm workers to consider moving north, where the jobs were. Southern blacks considered a move to the north as a step toward economic independence and a better life in a region of the country where they believed they might be treated more fairly.
In addition to the worsening southern economy, blacks were attracted to the north by the fact that during World War I, the United States began limiting the number of immigrants allowed in the country. This created a labor shortage in the north just at a time when the factories were expected to increase production to fulfill orders in support of the war effort. Companies that had rejected the idea of hiring blacks were forced to recruit them actively, even sending labor agents into the South to find workers and offer training in areas such as shipbuilding. Soon, family members were returning to their southern homes from New York, Detroit, Chicago, and other urban centers, telling stories of better jobs and higher salaries. Between 1916 and 1919, about half a million blacks moved to the North; roughly one million blacks made the trip in the 1920s. Between 1910 and 1920, New York City's African-American population jumped 50 percent.
The New Negro
"New Negro" was the term white Americans had used to refer to a newly enslaved African. However, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the phrase denoted an African American who was politically astute, well educated, and proud of his cultural heritage—the very opposite of a slave. Booker T. Washington's view of a New Negro was outlined in his 1900 book, A New Negro for a New Century and encompassed education, self-improvement, and self-respect.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Locke used the term in the title of his anthology of African-American poetry and prose, The New Negro: An Interpretation. Locke believed that African-American writers and artists should participate in the leadership of their people and should be involved in showing white America a new vision of blacks as productive and creative forces to be reckoned with. The New Negro, in Locke's estimation, should be an African American who asserted himself or herself economically, politically, and
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s-1930s: Harlem is well known for its entertainment venues, including the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club, and the Apollo Theater. National acts regularly play at these stages, including Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Lionel Hampton.
Today: After closing in the 1970s because African American acts had access to better-paying venues, the Apollo is now a national historic landmark owned by a nonprofit organization that books such international stars as Luther Vandross, B. B. King, hiphop artists, and unknown musical hopefuls seeking national exposure.
- 1920s-1930s: Claude McKay publishes his novel Home to Harlem, the first bestselling book in the United States written by an African American. Major New York publishing houses search for the next black writer who will satisfy the reading public's sudden interest in African-American voices.
- 1920s-1930s: Lynchings and racially motivated murders of blacks are not unusual. In 1920, an estimated 33 blacks are lynched; in 1930, an estimated 24 blacks die from lynchings.
Today: According to national hate crime statistics collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, three racially motivated murders of African Americans and 462 racially motivated aggravated assaults against African Americans occurred in the year 2000.
culturally. In his role as the disseminator of the New Negro philosophy, Locke organized a series of traveling African-American art exhibits and helped launch a national black theater movement.
Red Summer of 1919
In the years immediately following World War I, relations between blacks and whites were strained. White war veterans returning to northern cities felt threatened by the increased population of blacks and their stronger economic position—at least when compared to the prewar years. Many blacks returned from the war wondering why, after fighting for their country and receiving commendations for their bravery from the French, they were still treated as second-class citizens at home. Southerners sensed a heightened level of self-confidence among the blacks visiting their families from their jobs in northern cities. Economic pressures hit the general American population after the war when the government lifted price controls and unemployment and inflation rates jumped.
During the summer and early fall of 1919, 25 race riots erupted across the nation, in Chicago; Charleston, South Carolina; Omaha, Nebraska; Washington, D.C.; and other cities. In the space of six weeks, 76 lynchings were reported; a dozen of the lynchings were perpetrated on black men still wearing their service uniforms.
Johnson coined the term "Red Summer" while investigating these incidents for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Racial tensions were exacerbated by the nation's postwar fear of the newly formed Bolshevik, or "red," regime in Russia. Many efforts by blacks to improve their economic and political status were met with white suspicions that they were as "radical" as the Russian Bolsheviks.
Life in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s
Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, became the preeminent black urban enclave in the United States early in the twentieth century, when thousands of blacks migrated northward primarily from southern and rural regions. Previously, the area had been a wealthy white neighborhood, but economic hard times and skyrocketing real estate values at the start of the twentieth century created a situation in which clever entrepreneurs began leasing vacant rooms in white-owned buildings to black newcomers to the city. Harlem's black population in 1914 was about fifty thousand; by 1930 it had grown to two hundred thousand.
The neighborhood also attracted black intellectuals, artists, and others interested in participating in Harlem's increasingly vibrant cultural environment. Black political organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, established offices in Harlem, as did major black newspapers such as The Messenger and The New York Age.Marcus Garvey, leader of the "back-to-Africa " movement, set up his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem. Garvey and others energized Harlemites with their messages of black pride and self-sufficiency.
Harlem also became an entertainment capital early in the century. Musical performers moved to Harlem, drawn by the atmosphere and the hundreds of nightclubs and other venues where the jazz sound was wildly popular. Performers Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and others played to appreciative crowds at nightspots like Smalls's Inn and the Savoy Ballroom. But not only locals patronized the free-spirited nightclubs that began to give Harlem a wild reputation; whites from other parts of New York City "discovered" Harlem and made it the place to be on a Saturday night. Ironically, some of the nightclubs were off-limits to blacks, including the famous Cotton Club, until 1928 catering to a wealthy white clientele intent on experiencing the "exotic" Harlem atmosphere.
The criticism on the Harlem Renaissance movement tends to focus on its impact on black literature and on the African-American community. In fact, many critics, while acknowledging that the current energy in black literature and music does have its foundations at least partly in the Harlem Renaissance, hold that the movement came up short in terms of staying power. Andrea Stuart, writing in New Statesman, questions whether the Harlem Renaissance has had any lasting impact on the lives of ordinary black Americans. "The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance remains a profoundly romantic one for the black bourgeoisie," Stuart comments. But, "on the streets, where the great majority of black culture is made, its echoes are only faintly heard," she claims.
Amritjit Singh notes in his book The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers that the artists involved in the Harlem Renaissance failed to develop a "black American school of literature" for a variety of reasons. The most critical reason, he argues, is that the artists themselves "reflect the spirit of the times in their refusal to join causes or movements" and were interested less in the societal problems of blacks than in their own individual problems. Margaret Perry, in her book The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary, generally agrees with this concept, noting that the writers of this period "failed to use their blackness to fullness and with total honesty in order to create that unique genre of American literature one called black or Afro-American."
While acknowledging the shortcomings of the Harlem Renaissance as noted by numerous current critics as well as by the era's participants, George E. Kent believes that the movement has still provided American literature with some very "fundamental" accomplishments. He argues in Black World that "the short story in the hands of [Jean] Toomer, Eric Waldron, and Langston Hughes became a much more flexible form," and that, while no Harlem Renaissance author created a truly new form of the novel, these writers did provide stories that "occasionally stopped just short of greatness." Kent also praises the playwriting of the period, though it received little Broadway exposure.
Other readers of the period's literature have noted its influences. Kenneth R. Janken addresses the deep affection black intelligentsia had for French culture during the early part of the twentiethcenturyandhowthisbothcontributedtothe movement and prevented them from seeing the limitations of the French social model. He comments in The Historian that, while the Harlem Renaissance certainly was indebted to French intellectuals for much of its philosophy about racial equality and recognition of an African diaspora, it viewed the position of blacks in French society through rose-colored glasses. Harlem Renaissance writers "could not thoroughly critique the French colonial system . . . that continued to exploit the majority of Africans," Janken notes.
Many critics have depicted the Harlem Renaissance as a period of great hope and optimism, but Daylanne K. English disagrees. In Critical Inquiry, he argues that, upon closer examination, the opposite is true. "The Renaissance writers were, in fact, preoccupied by the possibility and the picturing of various modern, and only sometimes racially specific, wastelands," notes the author.
Nathan Huggins, in his well-respected 1971 book Harlem Renaissance, questions the exclusiveness of the movement to the nation's black population and posits that black and white Americans "have been so long and so intimately a part of one another's experience that, will it or not, they cannot be understood independently." He argues that the creation of Harlem "as a place of exotic culture" was as essential to whites as it was to blacks. Locke's declaration of the New Negro reflected America's continuing fascination with remaking oneself and was, in truth, "a public relations promotion," Huggins asserts. African Americans had to be presented in a better light, in a way the majority of whites could accept and blacks themselves could internalize. "Even the best of the poems of the Harlem Renaissance carried the burden of self-consciousness of oppression and black limitation," he notes.
Aderemi Bamikunle also examines how whites affected the work of Harlem Renaissance writers. He asserts that the white connection with black writing has a long history, going back to the mid-1800s, when white abolitionists found and published black authors who would write "according to a particular genre," specifically, the slave narrative. Bamikunle points to the comments many black writers made during the Harlem Renaissance about the struggle to appeal to both a black and a white audience. "For blacks who felt a strong obligation towards the black race there was bound to be conflict between that obligation and the constraints of writing within a white culture," he argues.
The Harlem Renaissance was not an exclusively male event, and some critics have chosen to highlight black women's roles in the achievements of the period. While Cheryl Wall, writing in Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris an d New York, admits that no female black writer working during the 1920s and 1930s came close to the talent and skill exhibited by many of the era's leading male writers, she adds that black women "were doubly oppressed, as blacks an d as women, and they were highly aware of the degrading stereotypes commonly applied to them." For this reason, she believes, black women poets often wrote more restrained poetry and prose than their male counterparts.
Sanderson holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, Sanderson looks at how the Harlem Renaissance writers succeeded in creating a literature of pioneering.
The literature of the Harlem Renaissance was produced by a generation of writers steeped in ideas illuminated most clearly by Howard University philosophy professor and intellectual Alain Locke. Locke first referred to the concept of the New Negro in an article in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, a special issue of the journal entitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.
In one of the issue's articles, which he expanded later that year into the introduction for his anthology of the best African-American writing, The New Negro: An Interpretation, Locke defines the New Negro as one who has thrown off the age-worn stereotypes of the subservient and docile black. For generations of white Americans, he notes, blacks have been "something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be 'kept down,' or 'in his place, ' or 'helped up,' . . . harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden." In place of the "Old Negro" comes the New Negro, "vibrant with a new psychology" reflecting that "a new spirit is awake in the masses." Locke expected this new and talented group of African-American artists—many whose work appeared in Survey Graphic and later in his anthology—to recreate and improve the image of the race through their art, in hopes that blacks would finally become appreciated by white society.
This was a tall order for barely more than a handful of people. The economic and social conditions of most black Americans at the turn of the century and after World War I were somewhere between deplorable and less-than-adequate. Though their work could not undo hundreds of years of racism and second-class status, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance did succeed in giving a voice to a generation of black pioneers: blacks who followed a grand American tradition by leaving impoverished and difficult conditions for the promise of a better life. Their migratory route was within the United States, primarily from the rural south to the industrial north, and they created strong and vibrant cities and neighborhoods built on their dreams.
In fact, Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance,argues that Locke's anthology is similar to "the valued documents from which we grasp iconic images and pictorial myths of a colonial or frontier America." Locke succeeded, according to Baker, in writing "our first national book, offering . . . the sounds, songs, images, and signs of a nation."
Most American students can recite from memory the stories of immigrants leaving their homelands and coming to the United States in hopes of finding something more—whether the story is about the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution or others leaving a homeland inflamed
WHAT DO I STUDY NEXT?
- W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the black intellectuals involved in launching and encouraging the Harlem Renaissance. David L. Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Du Bois, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (1994), provides readers with a highly detailed narrative of the great thinker and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the years preceding the Harlem Renaissance.
- Blackvisualartists experiencedanexplosion in ideas and energy during the 1920s and 1930s similar to that experienced by writers. Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (1997) covers the accomplishments of African-American painters, sculptors, photographers, actors, and singers working during the period. The book, edited by Richard J. Powell and David A. Bailey, includes 150 color plates and 100 black-and-white drawings.
- Starting in 1910, the NAACP published The Crisis, a popular magazine that was responsible for giving the up-and-coming writers of the Harlem Renaissance the exposure and experience they needed to develop their talents. The Crisis Reader: Stories, Poetry, and Essays from the NAACP's "Crisis" Magazine (1999), edited by Sondra Kathryn Wilson, is a collection of writings drawn from the publication primarily during the 1920s.
- Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association championed the rights of black Americans but believed that blacks would never achieve equality in a white-dominated country such as the United States. This controversial leader, whose philosophies launched the "back to Africa" movement in the early years of the century and affected the thinking of many black intellectuals and others during the Harlem Renaissance, is examined in the biography Marcus Garvey (1987), edited by Mary Lawler and Nathan Huggins.
- George S. Schuyler was a black writer who lived during the Harlem Renaissance and took great pleasure in satirizing and lampooning many of its leaders, artists, and philosophies. Those who read his work in the 1920s and 1930s found him to be harsh and sometimes unfair but always interesting and readable. Critics writing during the 1960s and 1970s were less enthusiastic and condemned him as a reactionary conservative. Schuyler's 1931 novel about a black man who decides to use a formula that will make him white, Black No More, caused a sensation. It was reprinted in 1999.
with war or devastated by famine or poverty. Even after sailing across oceans, those immigrants participated in the nation's strong tradition of internal migration to move to the western United States, the next state, or the next town when opportunity presented itself. But African Americans at the turn of the century were, for the most part, the children and grandchildren of a people forcibly brought to America rather than offered the opportunity to migrate. That opportunity has always been, in a sense, one of the defining characteristics of being American; as a people, we have always counted on being able to pick up and start over in another place. Only after the official end to slavery in the United States were African Americans able to participate in this very American activity.
The Great Migration, roughly from the 1890s through the first half of the twentieth century, saw literally millions of blacks moving from their southern homes to northern urban centers in search of decent jobs and a life free from fear. Between 1885 and 1905, there were more lynchings in the nation than there were
‟THOUGH THEIR WORK COULD NOT UNDO HUNDREDS OF YEARS OF RACISM AND SECOND-CLASS STATUS, THE WRITERS OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE DID SUCCEED IN GIVING A VOICE TO A GENERATION OF BLACK PIONEERS."
legal executions. In many parts of the South, tenant farming and sharecropping—systems in which the farmers often found themselves in perpetual debt to the landowners—had depleted the soil's fertility and kept the price of cotton low through the beginning of the twentieth century. Working at other jobs, after their crops had failed, left blacks frustrated at their low wages and limited opportunities. Black men's voting rights were often denied through poll taxes and literacy tests. Like other Americans before them, blacks began a migration that changed the face of the nation. For example, New York City's African-American population jumped 50 percent between 1910 and 1920.
Of course, the north was no paradise. Very often, blacks received low wages and were treated just as poorly as they had been back home. When World War I finished, and white soldiers returned to their northern cities wanting jobs, blacks were often the first employees fired.
The fact remained, however, that blacks in huge numbers had taken a step to redefine themselves by choosing where they would live and how they would live. They were at the same time participating in another great American tradition: that of re-envisioning oneself and one's people through stories. Locke's proclamation of the New Negro was a clear indication of this, and his publication of black poetry, fiction, and essays in his anthology was the literal retelling of those stories.
Nathan I. Huggins, writing in his book Harlem Renaissance, notes that white Americans have forever desired to cast themselves as new and improved, primarily to separate themselves from their Old World origins. This separation, of course, has always been paired with a corresponding desire to associate oneself with the Old World by taking pride in the cast-off ancestral country. The changes in black society at the beginning of the twentieth century and the development of the Harlem Renaissance, according to Huggins, afforded blacks a similar opportunity to take part in this "intense and national sport" by declaring that the New Negro had been born and was ready to acknowledge his ties to, and appreciation of, ancestral Africa.
The writers of this era were creating the literature of pioneers, people of a new land, and in doing so writers worked to develop the stories that would tell the rest of the world (and white America) what defined them, what made them proud, and what troubled them. Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," included in Locke's special Survey Graphic issue, is a love song to ancestral Africa, for example, but tempered with a sense of regret and caution. He desires to be swept up in the continent's heat and passion but realizes that as someone who is "civilized," he must tell himself to "Quench my pride and cool my blood." Zora Neale Hurston stays closer to home in her subject matter but still recalls the land of her forebears (the rural South, from where so many blacks had migrated) in her novel TheirEyesWereWatching God. Hurston follows Janie, a black woman living in rural Florida, and her lifelong search for fulfillment and identity as a woman.
Claude McKay, through his poems and his fictional characters, often wrote about the plight of African Americans in an angry and defiant fashion. Also included in the special Survey Graphic,McKay'spoem White Houses, challenges the racist attitudes and practices of whites against blacks. He opens the poem noticing that "your door is shut against my tightened face," and he is "sharp as steel with discontent" in the next line. But by the end of the poem, McKay warns himself to avoid becoming involved in "the potent poison" of the white man's hate. In his novel Home to Harlem, McKay casts two opposites as protagonists: Ray, who, like McKay, is a well-educated black but uncomfortable with Harlem's festive atmosphere and struggling to fit into either white or black society; and Jake, a black man who leads an untroubled life filled with party-going. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Ray's association with whites, specifically through his bourgeois education, has damaged his identity as a black man, andheflees thenew worldofHarlemfor the Old World of Europe.
A question remains, however, if one looks upon these writers as the voices of migrants and pioneers. Pioneers are usually pictured as a hopeful lot; indeed, much of Locke's language in describing theNewNegrointhe Survey Graphic special issue is optimistic: he uses words such as "genius," "vibrant," and "metamorphosis," and comments that these young writers "have all swung above the horizon." But Daylanne K. English raises a good point in her Critical Inquiry, when she argues that "Renaissance writers were, in fact, preoccupied by the possibility and the picturing of various modern, and only sometimes racially specific, wastelands." Indeed, looking at the work of McKay and others, the energetic and optimistic pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance may have realized that, despite Locke's belief that art would mend racial fences, some tough times lay ahead. Their words, according to English, seem to testify to "a clear and widespread sense of urgency, even of anxiety and despair." This combination of hope and anxiety about the future, in fact, is apparent in Langston Hughes's "The Dream Keeper":
Bring me all of your dreams
Bring me all of your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too rough fingers
Of the world.
Indeed, the voice sounded by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance offered a sense of both hopefulness and caution to those who would listen. Black writers would continue to work and produce fine results—Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in the 1940s and 1950s, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker in the century's latter years—but Locke's hope that the best and the brightest of the black pioneers could wash away the sins of a nation never came about.
Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on the Harlem Renaissance, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
In this essay, Ganter argues that the transgressive sexuality and bohemian lifestyle of Harlem Renaissance author Wallace Thurman offer a framework for understanding Thurman's writings.
Despite his dynamic output as an author and critic of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman has not often inspired critical admiration. Several generations of scholars have lamented the alcoholic excess of his lifestyle and the indecent content of his writing. From the beginning of his career, Thurman's disinclination to celebrate his black heritage caused considerable anxiety among leaders of the New Negro movement. In his review of Thurman's first novel, The Blacker the Berry, W.E.B. Du Bois expressed his regret at Thurman's apparently "self-despising" racial outlook and complained that Thurman seemed to "deride blackness." Although later critics have acknowledged Thurman's energy and promise, Du Bois's verdict is still echoed today.
The moralistic tones of the case against Thurman tend to invoke puritanical assumptions about sex and race that continue to have powerful influence in the twenty-first century. Because assessments of the Harlem Renaissance have been often shaped by parochial—and laudable—beliefs that oppressed races, classes, and sexual orientations should celebrate their communities as a matter of pride, the bohemian aspirations of Thurman's role in the Renaissance have been underappreciated, if not outright rejected. Although Thurman broke many social taboos during his short brilliant career, one of his most challenging characteristics was his acerbic intractability. Thurman was neither a picture
‟AS AN ARTIST, THURMAN BELIEVED THAT THE DESIRE TO PLAY WITH ALTERNATIVE IDENTITY WAS ONE'S TICKET TO PASS THE BOUNDS OF SOCIAL CONFORMITY AND PROCEED INTO THE CREATIVE WORLD OF THE MIND, AN ARTISTIC ACTIVITY AS REWARDING FOR THE WRITER AS FOR THE DRAG QUEEN."
of heterosexual virility nor was he exclusively gay. Combined with his lukewarm interest in promoting African American identity, Thurman has not found a comfortable place amidst the progressive identity politics of post-1960s literary scholarship. In contrast to fay Richard Bruce Nugent, who has been welcomed by contemporary gay scholars, Thurman remains a wallflower, neither self-consciously black enough, nor gay enough, to serve as a Renaissance poster-boy, although his literary output dwarfs Nugent's. As George Hutchinson has argued persuasively, several recent generations of scholars have balked at the complex interracial and interethnic politics of the Renaissance for lack of an adequate American discourse about hybrid identity. As a result, writers like Thurman, who actively sought to challenge the nationalist, racial, and sexual isolationisms of his day (and regrettably, ours), have yet to receive kindly treatment for their iconoclasm.
As many of his literary peers recognized, Thurman looked to Europe for aesthetic inspiration, not just America. Culturally stifled while growing up in Salt Lake City and Boise, Thurman apprenticed himself as a young writer to European artists of the Decadent movement. Identifying with figures such as Baudelaire, Huysmans, Wilde, and Gorky, Thurman imagined himself as part of an international avant-garde devoted to exploring the creative possibilities of the modern, the artificial, and the prohibited. In 1928, he wrote to a friend that he saw his generation as "Columbuses. . . . discovering things about themselves and about their environment which it seems to them their elders have been at pains to hide" (Van Notten 141-42). One of Thurman's patrons, Alain Locke, recognized the decadent, Frenchified spirit of the 1890s behind Thurman's work, but he did not think it black enough, or decent enough, to advance the political goals of the Renaissance (Locke 563).
In particular, Thurman's omnivorous sexuality, an important facet of many writers associated with the decadisme in Europe, has not yet received a sympathetic examination. By most accounts, Thurman was bisexual, if not homosexual. He also had white and black lovers of different sexual orientations. There is no shortage of complaint about Thurman's behavior. Dorothy West, a younger contemporary of Thurman's, suggests he was a homosexual tortured by simultaneous desires to be a full-blooded "male" and a father (West 80). Although West seems unable to conceive that healthy bisexual or homosexual people could want to have children, most of Thurman's peers were also perplexed about his sexual conduct.
Recently, however, scholars interested in the homoerotic aspects of Harlem life have begun to explore the ways in which queer sexuality inflected the literature of the period, both in terms of content (homosexual characters and themes) and style (writing techniques that seem characteristic of queer sensibilities). Thurman may have been queer in the strictly erotic sense of the term. He engaged in homosexual behavior. However, Thurman's sexual conduct was also queer in the sense that he didn't operate by the norms of strictly homosexual or heterosexual culture. Whether Thurman was hetero or homosexual is difficult to say. He was, however, indisputably bisexual. Thurman's resistance to easy characterization, usually invoked as an impediment to his personal development or genius as a writer, is a key to his work. Thurman was an explorer. As I shall argue, Thurman's bohemian sexuality may be seen as a metaphor for the breadth of his imaginative vision as a writer and artist.
Despite her concerns about his complex sexual identity, Dorothy West acknowledges that Thurmanoften claimedhewantedtodoevery-thing once before he died. In his literary criticism, Thurman asserted that the artist's duty was to be polymorphously open to all forms of human experience. He felt that the genius of literary artists was documented in their openness to the unusual. Bisexuality was another facet of Thurman's polymorphous imaginative sensibility. For Thurman, writers' imaginative queerness lay in their cosmopolitan ability to pass comfortably into another identity, be it sexual, racial, or cultural. Thurman sought to materialize this transgressive imaginative sensibility in both his fiction and non-fiction.
The intimate relationship between Thurman's sexuality and his art is apparent in a letter he wrote to a friend and literary collaborator, William Rapp, in 1929. Thurman was going through a divorce at the time and his wife, Louise Thompson, had accused him of homosexuality. He wrote to Rapp to explain a story that Thompson had circulated among his friends concerning a homosexual proposition Thurman accepted when he first came to New York City. Although the letter's exculpatory remarks can be read as divorce propaganda, both its content and its stylistic shift from third to first-person narrative bear a striking resemblance to Thurman's short story, "Cordelia, the Crude." In his letter to Rapp, Thurman writes,
In 1925 a young colored lad anxious to make a literary career came to New York. He had little stake which was soon gone. He found no job. He owed room rent and was hungry (not offered in extenuation of what is to follow but merely a statement of the facts.) One night he got a job as relief elevator operator, just for one night. He worked. The next night he returned hoping to work again. Failing he returned homeward. At 135th St. he got off the subway, and feeling nature's call went into the toilet. There was a man standing in there. The man spoke. He did more than speak, making me know what his game was. I laughed. He offered me two dollars. I accepted. Two plainclothesmen, hidden in the porter's mop closet rushed out and took the two of us to jail. Night court. I was fined twenty-five dollars or three days. The man got six months. He was a Fifth [A]venue hair dresser. He had been picked up before, and always of course as the aggressor. I gave a fake name and address, then sent a special delivery letter to the only friend I had in New York. He borrowed money, gave it to a minister friend who came down and got me out after I had spent 48 hours in jail. Only two people thus knew it. The minister took great interest in me. And to my surprise I discovered that he too belonged to the male sisterhood and was demanding his pound of flesh to keep silence. I cursed him out, told him he could print it in the papers if he dared and saw him no more. Meanwhile of course he had told his scandal. By some quirk of fate it reached Louise just at the time she was fighting me for a money settlement. She told Ernst. He verified the story, and they threatened to make charges t[h]at I was homosexual, and knowing this and that I was incapable of keeping up my marital relationship [and] had no business marrying. All of which Louise knew was a lie. The incident was true, but there was certainly no evidence therein I was a homosexual and Louise also knew that tho there had been sexual incompatibility it had been her fault not mine. Tues May 7 
One of the most significant aspects of the letter is that Thurman refuses to have his sexuality defined by someone else. Thurman confesses to engaging in an act of homosexual prostitution but denies that it is "evidence therein" of his homosexuality. Like James Baldwin, he admits to homosexual practices but not necessarily to being identified as a homosexual (Ross 505). Rather, he describes himself as a young man who is unusually open to new experience. He laughs at the thought of bargaining sexual favors for cash. The homosexual element of the situation does not seem to faze him, either. Upon hearing the terms of the proposition, Thurman inscrutably writes, "I accepted." Whether motivated by physical desire, financial need, youthful curiosity, or some combination of incentives, Thurman doesn't explicitly say. Throughout the letter, however, he seems concerned about his reputation and anxious to prove that he had heterosexual desires as well. Although the letter could be interpreted as evidence of Thurman's closeted homosexuality (and most Thurman scholars have tended to summarize the letter's contents in this way), it is also explicit documentation of Thurman's sexual polyvalence.
In literary terms, the letter is also significant because it suggests the close relationship between Thurman's life and fiction. Later in the letter, he asks Rapp if his story sounds like a novel. The question is not merely rhetorical. Three years earlier, in his short story, "Cordelia, the Crude," he had told a similar tale. Both Thurman's letter and short story begin with a tone of objective realism, apparently adopted from Dreiser's Sister Carrie, which shows the matter-of-fact transformation of an urban ingénue. As in his letter, Thurman's short story begins with little in the way of judgement of its protagonist, describing Cordelia Jones from an objective, third-person point of view as a restless girl who desires to escape the restrictions of her homelife. She goes to a theater where she is dimly aware that women are being propositioned by young men. Halfway through the story, the narrative shifts to the first person when a young man takes up the story as he meets Cordelia in the theater. Cordelia takes the man to a flophouse, but the narrator suddenly loses his nerve, shoves two dollars in her hand, and flees. At the end of the story, the narrator meets Cordelia again at a rent party where it is apparent she has become a prostitute. The similarities of Thurman's autobiographical letter to the story are probably explained by Thurman and Rapp's recent collaboration on the play, Harlem, which was an adaptation of Thurman's story "Cordelia," and which had just debuted a few months earlier.
One of the curious things about the resemblances among the three narratives (Thurman's letter, "Cordelia," and the play, Harlem) is that Thurman wrote the fictions first. In his letter to Rapp, his life conforms to his art. What makes this connection doubly interesting, however, is that Thurman initially wrote the autobiographical fictions from a woman's viewpoint.
Thurman's use of a female protagonist to represent his own experience in "Cordelia" and Harlem is particularly significant because the protagonist of his first novel, The Blacker the Berry,is alsoa woman. There are several explanations for why Thurman was drawn to female protagonists in his early work. On one level, Thurman seems to have wanted to write a black Sister Carrie or Madame Bovary, both of which focused on the plight of women to illustrate the curious modern collision of urban reality with sentimental fiction. In The Blacker the Berry, Emma Lou Morgan's first name evokes Flaubert's tragic protagonist, Emma Bovary, whose discomfort with provincial life, brought on by reading too many fanciful romances, leads her to stray from her marriage. Chasing a desire "to live and to die" in Paris, and unable to find spiritual redemption, she eventually drinks poison. Emma Lou's life experience also suggests the plot of the first half of Sister Carrie, where Carrie ingloriously becomes the mistress of a salesman while wandering the streets of Chicago looking for respectable work. Secondly, it seems likely that Thurman's ill-fated heroine was a direct reply to Jessie Fauset's hard-working protagonist, Joanna Marshall, in There Is Confusion (1924). If Thurman felt that Fauset's brand of realism had erred by attempting to normalize the victories and defeats of black middle-class experience, Thurman's Emma Lou Morgan was a study in what might happen to an earnest Fauset character in the hands of an unkind god. Finally, on a third level, Dorothy West speculates that a female protagonist allowed Thurman to distance himself from his novel's autobiographical material. At the same time that Thurman attempts to separate himself from Emma Lou's experiences, however, he also identifies with them. As Thurman declared in both his fiction and non-fiction, the imaginative burden of artists is to investigate the broadest domains of human thought and feeling. Thurman's use of female protagonists is both a deliberate test of his artistic powers and an attempt to envision the world from another person's point of view.
Thurman's identificationwithwomen's experience is suggested in part by his reference to homosexuals in Infants of the Spring as "uranians." The term, coined by the German jurist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, refers to homosexuals as people with women's souls trapped in men's bodies, or the reverse. In a series of pamphlets written between 1864 and 1870, Ulrichs proposed that the human embryo could develop a female soul at the same time its physical development took a male path, or vice versa (Symonds 162). This theory explained why some women seemed to have a masculine temperament and some men a feminine one. Although Ulrichs sketched a complicated sexual taxonomy from this premise, he referred to people who experienced hybrid development in the egg, Urnings or Uranians, from the term "uranos" in Plato's Symposium, meaning "heavenly." Uranianism was a popular theory among turn-of-the-century homosexuals because it did not explain gay or lesbian sexuality in degrading language.
Thurman's use of the term uranian is also revealing in light of Edward Carpenter's claim that uranians made great artists. Along with John Addington Symonds, Carpenter was a key English popularizer of Uranian theory. Carpenter's book, The Intermediate Sex (1906), argued that uranians were often society's great artists and teachers because their hybrid nature made them much more sensitive to the entire spectrum of human emotions. Thurman's choice of female protagonists may indicate his belief that he could feel as women felt, and that a female persona heightened the sense of marginality he wished to explore in his characters.
As a journalist, Thurman had long voiced his belief that fiction writerswereobliged to reach beyond the boundaries of their own personal lives in choosing characters for their art. In a book review of I.A.R. Wylie's Black Harvest,Thurman applauded the white female author for successfully portraying the psychology of the male mulatto protagonist, Jung Siegfried. Although Thurman regretted that more blacks had not chosen to write about their own experience, his review steadfastly upheld the right of literary artists to cross all sexual and cultural boundaries in the pursuit of their craft.
Thurman's defense of a writer's act of imaginatively passing into the experience of a different person gives an additional significance to the concept of racial passing in his work. Part of Thurman's defense of authorial freedom was rooted in a specific debate carried on in the columns of the Crisis between February and November 1926 about how black Americans should be represented in fiction. Rejecting the propagandist philosophy of Du Bois's program of racial uplift, Thurman's literary journal, Fire!!, took an avant-garde approach toward fostering social equality. Rather than describe black culture as it ought to be, Thurman felt it should be described as it really is (Van Notten 118-19). For Thurman, documenting Harlem life meant describing rent parties, discrimination among blacks, unusual sexual choices, and, in some cases, people's dissatisfaction with their own skin color. In the middle of the Crisis debates, May 1926, Thurman chided Walter White for the moralistic conclusion of his novel Flight where White's passing protagonist, Mimi, decides to give up passing and return to black culture. Not only did White miss the opportunity to explore the tragic potential of his main character, Thurman argued, but such behavior was not always the truth. As if in response to White, a black artist in Thurman's later novel, Infants of the Spring, declares that "thousands of Negroes cross the line every year and I assure you that few, if any, ever feel that fictional urge to rejoin their own kind. That sort of nostalgia is confined to novels." Another of Thurman's characters in Infants, Aline, later decides to pass for white, moves downtown, and never comes back.
Thurman's strong views on the issue of passing rankled his race-pride patrons, and they also explain why he has been largely eschewed by queer-friendly literary scholars interested in identity politics. For example, while Amy Robinson's study of the linkage between racial and sexual passing in Harlem Renaissance literature is ostensibly committed to working toward a more inclusive society, her essay ironically categorizes people as simply homosexual, white, or black. She argues that both types of passes (passing for white; passing for straight) are best understood as practices of reading andperformance rather than indications of ontological essence. The title of her essay, "It Takes One to Know One," refers to a triangular relationship between the passer, the hetero/white community, and the homosexual/black insiders, where a successful pass requires the consent of the under-privileged group, which has the eyes to see such a performance take place and to take pleasure in that silent knowledge. On one hand, Robinson's performative schema of identity is an attempt to move away from homophobic and racist ideologies which mark often hetero- or white-normativity. However, by invoking reductive communities of interest (black is Black and homo is Homo), Robinson reproduces two grave problems of identity politics for literary analysis. First, she extrapolates the experience of some members of subordinated groups who share some kinds of primary interest in their own community for the community's identity as a whole. This logic of representation is highly necessary for the success of political movements. As a literary credo, however, it tends to promote a conformist ethos, which is precisely what Thurman objected to as a writer concerning the variety of sexual and racial differences. And second, her emphasis on properly reading performance celebrates a climate of scrutiny and surveillance no less intrusive than the oppressive ideologies she is ostensibly trying to dismantle. To her credit, Robinson concedes the dangers of her thesis toward the end of the essay when she admits that the pleasures of detecting a pass have always been "qualified" at best. She does not, however, elaborate on the important aesthetic yield of her dramaturgical analysis: the question is not simply whether one has been detected; it is whether the performance of passing was any good.
For Thurman himself, the main question with passing was not moral (i.e., should it be done? what would it mean for our community?)—it was aesthetic: was it done well?Asan artist, Thurman believed that the desire to play with alternative identity was one's ticket to pass the bounds of social conformity and proceed into the creative world of the mind, an artistic activity as rewarding for the writer as for the drag queen. Unfortunately, many critics of The=Blacker the Berry have found Thurman's portrait of Emma Lou Morgan unsatisfying (Williams; Perry). Even one of Thurman's closest friends, Richard Bruce Nugent, asked Thurman why "he had made himself into a woman in the novel" (Van Notten 224). Nugent told him that he did not know enough about women to be successful. According to Eleonore Van Notten, Thurman's biographer, "Thurman's reaction was an ineffectual attempt to evade the question. He replied that few people were aware of the autobiographical links between himself and [Emma Lou] Morgan."
Reviewing The Blacker the Berry for examples of authentic femaleness creates its own dubious value system, but Thurman works hard to convey the details of a dark-skinned woman's experience, focusing on her restricted employment opportunities and her heroic attempt to stay looking pert on the interview trail. In many scenes he also draws attention to Emma Lou's sense of social claustrophobia and physical confinement. Interestingly, Thurman evokes a sense of enclosure which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have associated with novels authored by women, and which also figures prominently in the conclusion of Nella Larsen's Harlem Renaissance novel, Quicksand. Assuming that Nugent was right, and that Thurman's characterization of Emma Lou draws extensively upon Thurman's own dark-skinned experience, Thurman is envisioning his life in terms of women's literary history as well as contributing his own ethos to that tradition.
Thurman even frankly addresses Emma Lou's awakening sexual desire as she spies men on the street corner: "She began to admire their well formed bodies and gloried in the way their trousers fit their shapely limbs, and in the way they walked, bringing their heels down so firmly and noisily on the pavement." When Emma Lou first falls in love, Thurman spends two pages describing her attraction to her lover's physique and her appetite for the touch of his tongue. It is difficult to say whether these images of desire are feminine or gay. In either case, however, the feelings are closeted, either from the perspective of Thurman's autobiographical reticence, or Emma Lou's reluctance to acknowledge her "clashing" sexual desires.
Thurman's portrait of Emma Lou's suppressed desire on the street may be related to the kind of queer sensibility Joseph Boone has described in his study of gay urban modernism, Libidinal Currents. Examining the relationship between literary form and homosexual content in Richard Bruce Nugent's Harlem Renaissance short story, "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," Boone argues that there is a fusion of urban space, sexual desire, and modernist syntax in Nugent's work. The text itself begins to manifest the life-world of gay Harlem or Greenwich Village, the narrative taking on tropological elements of "cruising": taking abrupt turns, pausing, circling, and coyly showing off. Thurman's novel makes similar thematic use of the city around Emma Lou, but, as a dark-complexioned female, her subaltern desires are thwarted by social prohibitions of a different sort. Emma Lou's employment and housing opportunities are dependent upon keeping up proper appearances, a sense of confinement which is the inverse of Nugent's uncloseted desire and simultaneously a reflection of Thurman's desire to control his own public image.
In his second novel, Infants of the Spring, Thurman's primary characters are male but his concern with the imaginative passing of the artist is even more explicit. Aside from being a record of the social climate of the Harlem Renaissance, Infants is Thurman's diagnosis of the art the period produced. As many scholars have remarked, Paul Arbian represents one of the more talented figures of the novel, but the novel is also filled with several different examples of bad artists. One of the novel's artists is Bull, whose central trait is a primitive virility. Although no one expects Bull to have any talents above the waist, hesurprises theclanat Niggeratti Manor by showing off his portfolio of women's portraits. His sketches are "painstaking, vigorous, and cleancut":
But Bull's women were not women at all. They were huge amazons with pugilistic biceps, prominent muscular bulges and broad shoulders. The only thing feminine about them were the frilled red dresses in which they were all attired.
As an artist, Bull's problem is that he can't see beyond his own masculine identity. Thurman credits Bull with better talents than Pelham Gaylord, whose aesthetic shortcomings are expressed in his twofold abuse of his subjects: not only does Pelham symbolically abuse the young girl who lives upstairs by drawing a misshapen portrait of her, but he later violates her physically and is accused of rape. In contrast to Pelham, Bull is technically capable (both as a lover and a draughtsman), but he lacks the ability to imagine something that isn't himself, what Keats once described in a letter as Shakespeare's "Negative Capability." Bull's sexual and artistic talents are too egotistical. For example, when Bull muscles in on one of Raymond's girlfriends, Lucille, Raymond is shocked that she could be attracted to such a "cave man." For Thurman, good artists and lovers share a sensitivity to others' experience.
The most talented artist in Infants of the Spring is the openly bisexual Paul Arbian, a dramatization of Thurman's real-life friend and alter-ego, Richard Bruce Nugent. Like Nugent, Paul's wide-ranging sexual tastes are reflected in his multiple talents as painter, performer, and writer. When asked to explain the paintings of brightly colored penises that decorate his walls, Paul responds:
That's easy. I'm a genius. I've never had a drawing lesson in my life and I never intend to take one. I think that Oscar Wilde is the greatest man that ever lived. Huysmans' Des Esseintes is the greatest character in literature, and Baudelaire, the greatest poet. I also like Blake, Dowson, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Poe and Whitman.
When his companion answers, "That's not telling me anything about your drawings," Paul replies, "Unless you're dumber than I think, I've told you all you need to know." Although several of the artists that Paul cites are well known for their nonconformist sexuality, he is also declaring that he prefers artists who question the boundaries of the acceptable. Identifying with Blake's attack on the mind-forged manacles that bind human desire, with the grotesque limit experiences of Poe, and with the visionary utopianism of Whitman, Paul situates himself within an artistic legacy famous for its iconoclasm as much as its technical expertise.
Paul's invocation of the unholy trinity of Wilde, Huysmans, and Baudelaire also points to a specifically decadent modernism based in exploration of the supra-natural or abnormal world. Baudelaire describes decadence as a perverse aesthetic of going against-the-grain: "To apply to pleasure, to the sensation of being alive, the idea of the hyperacuity of the senses, that Poe applied to pain. To effect a creation through the pure logic of contrarity. The path is already marked in the opposite direction ('a rebours')" (qtd. in Weir 85). Paul Arbian thrives on this decadent aesthetic of contrarity. As Paul's friend, Raymond, remarks, the mere decoration of Paul's room, painted in shocking red and black, is doubly perverse. On one level, the colors are a garish choice, very much like the colors with which Huysmans' Des Esseintes decorates his own home in A Rebours (Huys-mans' tribute to Baudelaire, variously translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature). On another level, Paul's gaudy taste deliberately mocks bigoted expectations that blacks will "go in for loud colors" because his flamboyance both flaunts his racial identification and burlesques it at the same time.
Like Huysmans' Des Esseintes, the denizens of Thurman's Niggeratti Manor take pleasure in what they ostensibly should not. The crucial point, however, is not that Thurman's decadents are truly corrupt; they simply appear to be so from the perspective of staid Victorian morality. The purpose of their unorthodox pleasures is not a celebration of evil, but the discovery of new forms of art, which, after all, is a fundamentally romantic quest. Decadents strive for ratified forms of beauty that others cannot yet see. The experience, as Wilde puts it, is like awakening to a dream. After Dorian Gray reads Huysmans' A Rebours, he feels that "Things which he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed" (qtd. in Baldick 5).
The scene in which Paul recounts his romantic dream explicitly links these visions of decadent aestheticism with sexual enlightenment. In the dream, apparently modeled on Nugent's "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," Paul declares that he became
aware of a presence. An ivory body exuding some exotic perfume. Beauty dimmed my eyes. The physical nearness of that invisible presence called to me, lured me closer . . . I reached out and clutched a silken forelock. Involuntarily my eyes closed and I was conscious of being sucked into it until there was a complete merging. For one brief moment I experienced supreme ecstasy.
Paul shocks the more conservative members of Niggeratti Manor with this story because he cannot remember whether his lover was male or female, and he does not seem to care. The specific sex is of no importance to him; all that matters is the pleasure of merging. When they ask him which sex he prefers, he replies: "I really don't know. After all there are no sexes, only sex majorities, and the primary function of the sex act is enjoyment. Therefore, I enjoyed one experience as much as the other."
Paul's sexual freedom, however, also has a specifically racial significance. As none of the novel's characters seems to notice, Paul's story also describes an interracial union: his dream lover is ivory white. The dream appears to anticipate the consummation of the interracial affair between Raymond and Steve Jorgenson, Raymond's Scandinavian bedmate, both of whom also pursue heterosexual affairs. As in real life, where Thurman had a long term love affair with Harold Jan Stefansson and yet married Louise Thompson, the fluid sexuality of Thurman's artistic protagonists gestures toward an idealized sphere of affiliation that transcends the political and social prejudices of race and sex.
The contrast between Paul's sexual utopia where artists, sexes, and races merge, and the segregated realities of American life is brilliantly demonstrated in another dream sequence toward the end of the novel. Distressed by the flight of his lover, Stephen, and the imprisonment of Pelham, Raymond collapses in the street. He drifts into a soothing, womb-like dream of kisses, undulating waves, and billows, very similar to the erotic utopia dreamed by Paul Arbian. As his consciousness returns, he hears a voice callously mutter, "How's the coon?" A female voice responds, "He's coming out of it. Must be epileptic." This passage grimly suggests that Raymond's interracial ideals may remain out of reach in the near future. The last laugh, however, evoked in the dark-humored, dramatic irony of the scene, belongs to the decadent artist, Thurman. As in James Baldwin's novel Another Country,which proposes that the interracial and bisexual affairs of its bohemian characters take place in a literal and metaphoric other country, Thurman's novel puts his artists in stark relief to the world around them.
Thurman's urbane awareness of the disjunction between bohemian idealism and racial prejudice in America is similar to the work of Maxim Gorky, whom Thurman invokes in one of the novel's two epigraphs. There are two sides of Gorky that appear in Thurman's work. The first is the polemical author of Mother (1906), the champion of Russia's rural poor and the principles of socialist realism. In Mother, Gorky's characters often represent, and speak for, Ideas. Some of the dialogues in Thurman's Infants manifest Gorky's soapbox tendencies. The second Gorky, less well known, is a stylist of striking imagery and economy. Inspired by the originality and "weird creativity" of the Russian Decadents and Symbolists (Dewey vii), Gorky's descriptions of his rural upbringing are spellbinding and grotesque, such as the blood foaming from his foundling-brother's mouth after an accident, or the fascination with which he watches his grandparents' house burn in My Childhood. Gorky drew on such autobiographical memories in his 1925 novel, variously translated as Decadence or the Artamonov Business. Available to Thurman in English translation by 1927, the novel chronicles three generations of the Artamonov family textile business leading up to the Bolshevik revolution. Like Thurman's Infants, Gorky's novel becomes more and more cynical toward the end, reflecting Gorky's growing disillusionment with the communist ideals of 1917. At its conclusion, Gorky seems to celebrate neither the triumph of the revolutionaries nor the achievements of the industrialists; the blood of the parents seems to have been shed in vain. Similarly, Paul's suicide at the end of Infants does not fulfill his promise as a writer, nor does it provide the Negro Renaissance with a master-work. All that is left is Paul's blood-soaked drawing of the spectacle of Niggeratti manor, crumbling at its foundations and ablaze with the white searchlights of America's expectations.
It is not known whether Thurman read Decadence, but Infants of the Spring also has clear similarities to Gorky's portraits of himself as a bohemian student. In both My Universities and Fragments from My Diary Gorky focuses his narratives around the eccentric tramps, writers, and peasants who inspired him. Encounters with these bizarre characters constitute the tissue of Gorky's autobiographies. As Thurman reminds us in the epigraph to Infants, Gorky identifies with people "not quite achieved, who are not very wise, a little mad, 'possessed."' It is such people "on the lunatic fringe," Infants' central character Raymond asserts, "who take the lead in instituting new points of view, in exploring slightly known territory." In both these authors' work, the value of eccentricity is the attempt to assay the unknown, and it results as often in inspirational failure as in practical success.
Thus, in Thurman's work (and in the decadent writers he admired), failure can carry the positive value of having gone to the limit. Modern scholars of the Harlem Renaissance complain that Infants has not much of a plot and ends with an uninstructive nihilism (Perry). Robert Bone goes so far as to claim, "it was the canker of Bohemianism, in Thurman's eyes, which threatened to nip the new Negro movement in the bud." These assessments tend to misrepresent both Thurman's literary pedigree, as well as his sexual and artistic aspirations. First, Victorian measurements of plot development and self-culture are inappropriate measures of Thurman's decadent and early modernist sensibility. Paul's suicide must be pathetic and nihilistic: anything less would be a concession to the moralistic literature Thurman was at pains to criticize. Second, as the novel emphasizes several times, the genuinely bohemian characters are the only ones whose work promises to amount to anything: Raymond declares that "it's going to be Pauls we need, not Pelhams." Ultimately, the destruction of Paul's magnum opus in a deluge of blood and bathwater is an eloquent tribute to Huysmans's decadent romanticism, not its rejection. In Thurman's eyes, the problem with the Renaissance was not that artists like Paul died young or that their work did not last: it was the inability of their immediate followers to live up to the promise of those vanguard talents.
Thurman's transgressive sexuality thus provides a framework for understanding his fascination with liminality and passing in a context which does not ritually condemn him for self loathing or racial sedition. Rather, it allows us to see that indeterminacy is what makes Thurman's work so rewarding and challenging. As Langston Hughes memorably described him, Thurman was "a strange kind of fellow, who liked to drink gin, but didn't like drinking gin, who liked being a Negro, but felt a great handicap; who adored bohemianism but thought it wrong to be a bohemian."
Second, acknowledging the European and decadent aspects of Thurman's work puts him in literary company where his value as a writer is not judged solely by his contribution to the advancement of black American racial dignity. Thurman may not have been a race leader worthy of NAACP approval, but his work continues to be read both popularly and in the academy.
Finally, Thurman's decadence highlights the inadequacy of approaching his work from a rigidly national framework. Given the content of his writing and his mentors, it is important to situate him in a transforming, international bohemian literary movement, stretching from the Romantics, to the Decadents and the Beats, and to rap music. This is a crucial point for getting beyond nationalist discussions of the Harlem Renaissance as a failure (or Thurman's place in it). As George Hutchinson argues, by imagining American culture as both white and black (and among other things, not necessarily wholesome), we can begin to see the lasting contributions of the Harlem Renaissance without faulting it for failing to rapidly overturn the effects of centuries of racial discrimination. Perhaps, by returning to writers like Wallace Thurman, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance is just unfolding.
Source: Granville Ganter, "Decadence, Sexuality, and the Bohemian Vision of Wallace Thurman," in MELUS,Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 2003, pp. 83-104.
In the following essay, Perry profiles novels and novelists of the Harlem Renaissance.
There were no novels by Harlem Renaissance writers of major importance in general American literature during the 1920s. All of the black writers were in the massive shadow of literary luminaries such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis. There were novels of major and minor importance, however, among black writers; every principal writer produced at least one novel during the years 1924-1932. The release of artistic expression gathered momentum beginning in 1924 when The Crisis and Opportunity announced creative writing contests and Jessie Fauset and Walter White published their first novels. In 1927, for instance, the black literary output was an unchecked flow of poetry and prose that wound in and around periodicals and publishing houses on the eastern literary scene. Rudolph Fisher had six short stories which appeared throughout the year, Cullen edited a collection of poetry by Negroes, Caroling Dusk, and two of his own books of poetry, Copper Sun and The Ballad of the Brown Girl appeared. Hughes's second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew, gave the black press an out let for denouncing a movement that could not now be stopped. On the other hand, the publication of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones drew praise from the critics even though he anticipated a chorus of rebuke fro m them because he consciously avoided dialect. One may safely assert that in the year 1927 dialect was declared dead. (One important exception, of course, was the work of Sterling Brown.)
The prevailing notion of the fiction of the Harlem Renaissance writers during the 1920s was that it exaggerated the more offensive qualities of low-life in the black ghetto—drink, sex,
‟THE PREVAILING NOTION OF THE FICTION OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE WRITERS DURING THE 1920S WAS THAT IT EXAGGERATED THE MORE OFFENSIVE QUALITIES OF LOW-LIFE IN THE BLACK GHETTO—DRINK, SEX, GAMBLING, VIOLENCE, AND EXOTIC BEHAVIOR. THE TRUTH IS THAT THE LITERATURE SPANNING THE PERIOD OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE, ROUGHLY FROM 1923 THROUGH 1932, FOCUSED ON EVERY ASPECT OF BLACK LIFE."
gambling, violence, and exotic behavior. The truth is that the literature spanning the period of the Harlem Renaissance, roughly from 1923 through 1932, focused on every aspect of black life. The portrayal of low-life was part of the trend toward freeing readers from seeing the black person as a problem; it was also an attempt to portray blackness with a candor that the newer writers felt had been lacking in the literature of the past. In fiction, several angles of black life were explored in order to emphasize the harsh injustice of prejudice, the basic human worth of the black race, the bourgeois life of blacks, the irrepressible spontaneity and vitality of the race, and the search for a common heritage, so that, in the words of Countee Cullen, blacks would not have to sing:
What is last year's snow to me,
Last year's anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set—
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
The overall controlling symbol of blackness formed the basis for the major themes explored in the fiction and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance writers. In various plot modes and poetic outpourings, the themes of passing, miscegenation, the "tragic mulatto," the Negro's struggle for self-assertion, violence (mostly white), forms of prejudice (white against black, black against black), and the vitality of the Negro were recurrent in the works of these young writers. Some of the works were in the form of propaganda; some offerings bordered on or succumbed to the cult of exoticism; still other works presented a realistic portrayal of Negro life. The novel, of course, was the perfect vehicle for exploring all of the concerns which the Negro writer wished to portray and explicate.
The mediocre novels written by Negroes (e.g., Herman Dreer, Mary Etta Spencer) who preceded the Harlem Renaissance novelists were not immediately replaced by examples of high art. After all, the oral tradition was still the most potent influence on the black artist. The unique need felt by some to propagandize through fiction also hindered other writers from recognizing and employing the better tools of fiction. The body of Harlem Renaissance novels, therefore, is unevenly chiseled, but the primary aim of all Negro novelists, regardless of their style or thematic preoccupation, was to act as truthful interpreters of the black race for the reading public. No longer would there be the fiction of distortion, created by writers who lacked knowledge of the black world or who actually believed in the existing black stereotypes. The Negro novelist of the past, Chesnutt and Dunbar included, had sometimes succumbed to the same easy habits of the white writers in portraying the Negro in caricature. A conscious attempt was made during the 1920s and early 1930s to rid readers of the idea that the black character was a little less than human or so pious and patient in the face of oppression that he achieved an otherworldly sanctification that strained credibility. The one character that the Harlem Renaissance writers seemed unable (or, perhaps, unwilling) to purge from their postbellum literary heritage was the "tragic mulatto." Of course, it can be argued, without straining too greatly, that this type was a real part of the everyday world the Negro writer of the 1920s knew.
To grasp the intent of the various writers and to understand how they attempted to articulate their concerns through artistic expression, individual novels must be examined. The working out of themes and the crystallization of black life and culture were abundant in the novels of the following writers: Rudolph Fisher, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, whose works will be discussed in this chapter. The novels of Wallace Thurman, Jessie Fauset, Walter White, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arna Bontemps, and George Schuyler will be discussed in the next chapter.
Rudolph Fisher was a literary craftsman who understood and practiced such arts of fiction as control over plot, characterization, tone, and language, and who had a natural poise in exposition. Fisher was as at ease writing novels as he was writing short stories, although the short stories are of greater artistic quality. Fisher is one of those writers about whom one would like to speculate, "If only he had lived longer"; even so, his accomplishments by 1934 (he died in December of that year) were far from negligible. His first novel, The Walls of Jericho, for instance, contains one of the most amusing yet cynical scenes (the Merritt-Cramp conversation) in modern literature. He was the first black writer to have a creditable and absorbing mystery published in America (The Conjure-man Dies). As a stylist, Fisher had no peer among the nonexperimental Harlem Renaissance writers. This skill, however, led to his most notable weakness—a clever adroitness that makes his satire somewhat strained in some instances, and, related to this, a feather-light style that sometimes blurs his dramatic impact.
The Walls of Jericho (1928) is a study in black realistic fiction, for Fisher follows closely the dictum of Henry James in giving his novel an "air of reality" (as opposed to representing life) through his concern with mimesis rather than theme and form. (This is stated merely for contrast, not in terms of exclusion; Fisher was certainly concerned, as a stylist, with form, and as a man caught up in the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, he was not oblivious to the importance of theme and motif.) An early commentator on the Harlem Renaissance wrote about Fisher:
[His] realism does not go searching after exotic places, but walks the streets of Harlem with its lowly. His interest dwells upon transplanted southern country folk who, having reached the city, have not yet had bound upon their natures the aes triplex of city sophistication. They are simple, funloving folk, sometimes religious, more usually superstitious, leaning ardently toward the good but not too zealously to be sometimes led astray by bewildering temptations.
There is a plot and subplot in The Walls of Jericho, where all strata of Negro society in New York City are represented—the uneducated lower classes (but not the poverty-stricken), the gamblers, the middle class, and the so-called upper class. The hero, Ralph Merrit, a lawyer by profession, can be counted among the few in this last category. He is, in the words of the common Negro, a "dickty," and he receives little support or sympathy at the opening of the book where it is revealed that he has bought a house in a white neighborhood just bordering on Harlem. Despite this move, the extremely pale (but kinky-haired) Merrit has none of the pretensions often present in Negroes of his class, even though it is assumed that he does by the characters Fisher presents in contrast to him—Shine (Joshua Jones), and Jinx and Bubber (Fisher's black Damon and Pythias). As a matter of fact, Merrit's reason for moving into the white neighborhood is not obvious. As he explains:
All of you know where I stand on things racial—I'm downright rabid. And even though . . . I'd enjoy this house, if they let me alone, purely as an individual, just the same I'm entering it as a Negro. I hate fays. Always have. Always will. Chief joy in life is making them uncomfortable. And if this doesn't do it—I'll quit the bar.
Side by side with the story of Merrit is the romance between Shine and the Negro maid, Linda. She works for Miss Cramp, a bigoted neighbor of Merrit, who sees herself as an enlightened benefactor of the downtrodden and misguided. Miss Cramp takes on causes the way sticky tape picks up lint, and her interest is as short-lived as lint-covered adhesive is useful. Her arrogant notions of racial superiority are mitigated only by her evident obtuseness and sheer ignorance. Such a restricted, narrow mind is beyond repair, as her name implies: she stands as a symbol of the blind, bigoted do-gooder who clutters the world with unproductive activities and confused motives. She is also unfortunately a victim of Fisher's penchant for caricature; the light touch he applies to Miss Cramp lessens the magnitude of what she really symbolizes. Still, it is possible that her name will become as meaningful to the literate reader as the name Babbitt, thereby enriching the descriptive language of America.
The work companions, Shine, Jinx, and Bubber, provide the book with comic characters and also furnish the reader with an insight into staple personalities in black society—persons who are (or, perhaps, were) rarely seen outside of Harlem (at l east, in their true character) and therefore remain a mystery to the white world. To citizens of Harlem, the prototypes of Jinx and Bubber were in evidence daily. They add as much to an air of reality as do the places described in the various scenes. Both men conform analogically to the black joker hero and, in a more tenuous fashion, to the trickster hero.
Thematically, Fisher was concerned with the idea of black unity and the discovery of self. He uses the Bible story of Joshua to reinforce his concern for the black man's search for his true nature that will permit him to disengage himself from the deceptions of the past. Every man is Joshua, facing a seemingly impenetrable wall:
No man knows himself till he comes to an impasse; to some strange set of conditions that reveals to him his ignorance of the workings of his spirit; to some disrupting impact that shatters the wall of self-illusion. This, I believe, is the greatest spiritual battle of a man's life, the battle with his own idea of himself.
It is such knowledge that draws divergent segments of the black population—the Ralph Merrits and the Joshua Joneses—into a unity that can do battle with the white enemy inside the walls of Jericho.
Fisher's second book, The Conjure-man Dies (1932), is the first black detective novel published in the United States. The book was an important addition to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance because it exhibited again Fisher's abiding interest in his race and the formulation of ties with the African homeland. Fisher believed that Harlem was a natural setting for the mystery novel:
Darkness and mystery go together, don't they? The children of the night—and I say this in all seriousness—are children of mystery. The very setting is mystery—outsiders know nothing of Harlem life as it re ally is . . . what goes on behind the scenes and beneath the dark skins of Harlem folk—fiction has not found much of that yet. And much of it is perfectly in tune with the best of mystery tradition—variety, color, mysticism, superstition, malice and violence.
The semicomic Jinx and Bubber appear in this book also. They liven the action and the conversation, contributing some touches of comic relief to the peculiar, mysterious atmosphere. They were Fisher's favorite characters, "who," as he said, "having shared several adventures with me before, have become very real to me."
Fisher was also fascinated by the technique of constructing a mystery novel—the mingling of fact and fiction, and the opportunity to commence what was to have become, had Fisher lived, a corpus of detective novels known as the Dart-Archer series. In discussing The Conjure-man Dies, Fisher stated: "An archer, of course, is a bowman, one who shoots an arrow. Dart is another word for arrow. Dr. Archer and Detective Dart, therefore, stand in the relationship of a bowman and his arrow; the vision of the former gives direction and aim to the action of the latter." The book also gave Fisher a grand chance not only to vivify Harlem as a place of clubs and cabarets but to portray it as the home of the ordinary black folk who supply most of its color and movement.
When Claude McKay died in 1948, it was noted that "it was a request of Mr. McKay that his funeral service be held in Harlem, where he spent so much of his active life." McKay spent the years between 1922 and 1934 out of the United States, but the memory of Harlem and all that it meant to him, both symbolically and sensually, never faded from his mind, even when he had lost some of his younger fervor for its haunts.
McKay was damned as a novelist by Du Bois and others (even James Weldon Johnson did not like Home to Harlem) who felt that McKay exploited the theme of Negro primitivism and leaned too heavily on the effects of exotic descriptions of lowlife. The formless aspect of his narratives was also disconcerting. This was so even though he included, for example, a subtitle, "A story without a plot," on the title page of the novel Banjo. The formlessness, therefore, was clearly intentional.
One of McKay's assets was his unambiva-lent attitude toward race: he was a black man and he was proud of it. He wasn't interested in assimilation, although he had a forceful streak of the European aesthete in him which he neither exalted nor damned. He once wrote: "Whatever may be the criticism implied in my writing of Western civilization I do not regard myself as a stranger but as a child of it, even though I may have become so by the comparatively recent process of grafting. I am as conscious of my new-world birthright as of my African origin, being aware of the one and its significance in my development as much as I feel the other emotionally." This dualistic sentiment did not mean that he was not conscious of the problem his color presented. One must not forget McKay's own admission that "my main psychological problem . . . was the problem of color. Color-consciousness was the fundamental of my restlessness." McKay was satisfied with his own understanding of himself and his dual heritage; what saddened and often exasperated him was the lack of understanding he found among whites who could not envision how a man as civilized as McKay could refuse to accept the European, Anglo-Saxon value system. This dualism, a problem not to be solved by a simple statement incorporating the idea that the black race had a respectable past, one different from whites but equal to it in terms of the values that were transmitted from one generation to the next, was simply one more result of the white man's refusal to legitimize black experience. As McKay saw it, then, the problem really wasn't his alone; the white person had to share the responsibility for placing McKay, and others like him, in two world s. And when one exists in two worlds, one can hardly be completely loyal to either of them. McKay understood this, but many of his critics, he surmised, did not.
A spiritual and intellectual cleavage existed as well between McKay and the black bourgeois writers of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay was keenly aware of the inner struggles of the younger black writers. Thus, he portrays his concern about every aspect of blackness, the black soul, and the "new Negro" through Ray, who becomes his spokesman in both of his vagabond novels. These same concerns are also a part of his autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937).
When Home to Harlem appeared in 1928, McKay was accused of being too greatly influenced by Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven. McKay defended himself against this unsubstantiated charge when his book first appeared; later, in his autobiography, he explained:
Many persons imagine that I wrote Home to Harlem because Carl Van Vechten wrote Nigger Heaven. But the pattern of the book was written under the title of "Home to Harlem " in 1925. When Max Eastman read it he said, "It is worth a thousand dollars." Under the same title it was entered in the story contest of the Negro magazine Opportunity. But it did not excite the judges. Nigger Heaven was published in the fall of 1926. I never saw the book until the late spring of 1927, when my agent . . . sent me a copy. And by that time I had nearly completed Home to Harlem.
This explanation ought to be accepted not only because it seems convincing but also because both novels are each so different that the question of Van Vechten's influence becomes academic.
Home to Harlem is a vagabond novel, full of color, noise, and vitality, rounded out by a touch of intellectualism and social criticism. The story is loosely structured around the search by Jake,x the primary character, for the "tantalizing brown" whom he enjoys on his first night in that home of homes for the black man, Harlem. Jake is home from the war—the white man's war—an AWOL with a taste for English-made suits, an uncomplicated sensualist who lives each day to its fullest. He is the archetypal primitive who will never succumb to the restraints of Puritan American civilization. At the end of the novel, he finds his girl (who, by the way, left him the $50 during that first joyful night) and discovers her name which, quite appropriately, is Felice ("Joy"). While the movement from beginning to end is episodic and disjointed, the novel is successful in: (1) its portrayal of life in Harlem's cabarets, rent parties, pool rooms, and other dives of the more lowly; (2) its exposure of the mentality and weaknesses of bourgeois life; (3) its exploration of the problems of the Negro intellectual (i.e., a person overly cultivated in norms alien to his origins and, therefore, an unhappy disaffected individual); and (4) its examination of the nature and place of sex in the black world.
It is an antithetical world which McKay paints, a world rendered in disjointed sentences, slang, and elliptical Negro phrases that ring with authenticity. There may be a little exaggeration, but McKay's contrast of a world within a world requires some overstatement. The antithesis is also internal, for his aim in presenting characters like Ray and Jake is not to juxtapose opposing elements of society but, more important, to give two sides of the contradictory nature of man: sensual man vs. sensible man.
This kind of probing is an important element in McKay's novel Banjo (1929). Ray is also a key character in this book, and Jake is replaced by his counterpart, the Banjo of the title. The book is peopled with men and women who inhabit the fringes of "respectable" society. They live around the waterfront in Marseilles where their existence is a combination of the grim, the grimy, and the happy-go-lucky. The most important segments of the book deal with Ray's tirades against the black American for his aping of whites and discursive conversations that explain McKay's sentiments about the Harlem Renaissance. Here, for instance, is Ray talking to a Martiniquan student:
'In the modern race of life we're merely beginners. If this renaissance we're talking about is going to be more than a sporadic and scabby thing, we'll have to get down to our racial roots to create it.'
'I believe in a racial renaissance,' said the student, 'but not in going back to savagery.'
'Getting down to our native roots and building up from our own people,' said Ray, 'is not savagery. It is culture.'
'I can't see that,' said the student.
'You are like many Negro intellectuals who are bellyaching about race,' said Ray. 'What's wrong with you all is your education. You get a white man's education and learn to despise your own people . . .
'You're a lost crowd, you educated Negroes, and you will find yourself in the roots of your own people.'
From such episodes, something can be learned about McKay as Ray's attitudes waver from bitterness to tenderness to moral confusion. At the book's end Ray retains some of his ambivalence, although he makes a positive choice to remain, at least for a time, in the sensual world. His decision, then, is made with an air of one who is still experimenting with notions of how to live one's life.
McKay's last novel, Banana Bottom (1933), is not within the basic time or thematic scope of this book and will not be discussed. In one critic's view it "is the first classic of West Indian prose." The West Indian tone and mood prevail in McKay's collection of short stories, too, although the Harlem stories have greater artistic strength. Gingertown (1932) contains twelve examples of McKay's short fiction. The Harlem tales, in particular, give an intimate and vivid portrait of Renaissance Harlem. For example, "Brownskin Blues," a story of another Mary Lou (Thurman's), is about a woman whose black skin leads to tragedy. "Mattie and Her Sweetman" portrays the life of an older woman who is supporting a young man. In both of these stories, crude as they are, McKay exhibits control over his characterizations and the setting. "High Ball" is another of his successful tales, in terms of theme and characterization; the protagonist, Nation, is sympathetically and realistically portrayed (see Chapter 7 for further discussion of this story). In this story McKay explores a virulent form of race prejudice and expresses one aspect of the black man's struggle for self-assertion. Curiously, the West Indian tales are the weakest in the book, but they are written with such a lyrical nostalgia that the stories have a unique, seductive quality.
McKay's importance in the Harlem Renaissance is undisputed, even though he was physically absent from the United States during its height. His almost obsessive concern with the nature of contradiction in the black man's character compelled him to write fiction and poetry which embrace many of the earmarks of Harlem Renaissance literature.
McKay, like Cullen, was unable to fulfill his potential, although the body of McKay's work is not unimpressive. What seems to be lacking in his work is a certain breadth which he might have displayed if he had continued in the direction in which he started when he wrote Banana Bottom. In it he seems to have turned to another level of expression, the orthodox novel, but he ceased producing significant artistic literature at this point in his life. Stephen H. Bronz assesses McKay in this perceptive summation of his role in the Harlem Renaissance:
Because McKay was not fully a member of any one group, and because of his radical education and outspoken personality, he set the outer limits of the Harlem Renaissance. No other important Negro writer in the 'twenties protested so fiercely and single-mindedly against prejudice as did McKay in his sonnets of 1919. And no other important Renaissance figure disregarded possible effects on the Negro public image so fearlessly as did McKay in his prose fiction. From his Jamaica n days to his strange conversion to Catholicism, McKay forever spoke his mind, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes clumsily, but always forthrightly. In so doing he did much to make the Harlem Renaissance more than a polite attempt to show whites that Negroes, too, could be cultured.
Robert Bone places Nella Larsen, along with Jessie Fauset, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walter White, in the class of "The Rear Guard," that is, "novelists [who] still wished to orient Negro art toward white opinion. They wished to apprise educated whites of the existence of respectable Negroes, and to call their attention—now politely, now indignantly—to facts of racial injustice.
Nella Larsen was a descendant of two widely different racial and cultural backgrounds: her father was a West Indian Negro and her mother was Danish. Larsen's own origins and the subsequent unfulfilled life she led as the wife of an adulterer (whom she finally divorced) provided her with the material for her life's work. Certainly she followed the admonition to young writers to "write what you know about" in her first novel, Quicksand. The theme of the tragic mulatto is merged with what Bone describes as the basic metaphor of the novel which is "contained in its title [and] supported throughout by concrete images of suffocation, asphyxiation, and claustrophobia." The story of Helga Crane, daughter of a black man and a Danish woman whom he deserted, is obviously patterned on Larsen's early life. Supported by a sympathetic uncle after her mother's death, Helga grows up with all the bourgeois inclinations of the black middle class. Deep within her, however, is a desire to repudiate the ethic of the bourgeoisie. "The woman as bitch," resting latent within Helga, causes her final doom as she settles into the "quicksand" of a mediocre domesticity. The downward, symbolically circular path to this suffocating pit (her marriage and the South) moves via a series of sharply etched episodes that reveal Larsen's skill at characterization. She shows that she is well aware of the "craft of fiction"; there is vividness, truth (especially in her revelations of a woman's inner life), and an ability to create scenes of encounters among people even though she fails to be entirely convincing in her ending. However, even Percy Lubbock, in The Craft of Fiction, notes that an author may lack some part of the craft and still succeed.
Clearly, the plot is subordinate to the characterizations. Helga Crane moves from the stultifying atmosphere of a southern Negro college to New York, via a brief stay in Chicago where she is scorned by her sympathetic white uncle's new wife. Thus, rejected with finality by the American branch of her family, Helga settles in Harlem where she finds temporary contentment. Helga's life is a series of only evanescent fulfillments, for she is plagued with a restlessness that has deeper causes than Miss Larsen bothers to penetrate. It is in Harlem that Helga cultivates and develops her "black" soul. Her embracing of this blackness is emotionally incomplete at this juncture, however. At the beginning of her life in Harlem she reflects:
Everything was there [in Harlem], vice and goodness, sadness and gayety, ignorance and wisdom, ugliness and beauty, poverty and richness. And it seemed to her that somehow of goodness, gayety, wisdom, and beauty always there was a little more than of vice, sadness, ignorance, and ugliness. It was only riches that did not quite transcend poverty. 'But,' said Helga Crane, 'what of that? Money isn't everything. It isn't even the half of everything. And here we have so much else—and by ourselves. It's only outside of Harlem among those others that money really counts for everything.'
This passage foreshadows a reverse in Helga's attitude; for when she moves from the black world into the white one of her rich relatives in Denmark she momentarily relinquishes the moral superiority of her black universe:
She liked it, this new life. For a time it blotted from her mind all else . . . To Helga Crane it was the realization of a dream that she had dreamed persistently ever since she was old enough to remember such vague things as day- dreams and longings. Always she had wanted, not money, but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things.
Helga Crane, a nervous and somewhat complex character, is one of the more interesting creations found in the Harlem Renaissance novels. For one thing, she is one female of the bourgeois who displays a desire to be sexually fulfilled. In her decision to reject the physical and social comforts of the white (or, as Harlem Renaissance writers termed it, Nordic) world for the warmth and vitality of the black one, Helga fits the Renaissance's persistent pattern. By fitting into this mold and accepting her blackness, Helga begins to understand what motivated her father's desertion:
For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, who so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all Negro environments.
At this point Helga finds release from false values and commences the backward journey into her true black self. She selects religion to carry her back into the bosom of blackness. The portrait of Helga from this point to the end becomes blurred and confusing. After her "conversion," she turns to Pleasant Green, a greasy, sweaty, mediocre preacher; despite the Oedipal implication of the search for a father, this major move is unconvincing. One explanation for the confused motivation near the end of the book may be that she tired of writing in the midst of describing Helga's Copenhagen experiences. Suddenly, it seems, Helga gives up living and accepts an existence that will limp along in a wearisome, depressing manner.
The reader is left with an inkling that Larsen decided to make Helga forget that part of her past that made her fight for the things she wanted. The author, in an attempt to rescue herself artistically from the book's weak ending, inserts a scene which may provide a clue to what she intended. Helga requests a reading of Anatole France's "The Procurator of Judea." Just as Pilate let himself forget the momentous event of his condemnation of Christ, so Helga, it appears, in requesting to hear this ironic tale, seems to be telling the reader that she is simply going to forget the past. Larsen's skillful use of this device, however, does not compensate for the unsatisfactory religious motivation Helga is given for becoming Mrs. Pleasant Green in the first place.
Nella Larsen's second novel, Passing (1929), is written in that hasty, seminonchalant style that put her a notch above some of her black peers of this period in terms of simple narrative technique. Therefore, even though the narrative moves smoothly in Passing, the story itself is inconsequential. The ending is melodramatic and, again (surely a Larsen weakness), unconvincing. One is not sure whether Larsen intends the reader to view Clare Kendry's death as suicide (intentional? accidental?) or murder (intentional? accidental?). It is entirely possible that she wanted this confusion to persist forever in the reader's mind, but this certainly does not give the book any artistic complexity that might intrigue the imagination.
One important feature of Larsen's work that is clearly evident here, as it is in Quicksand, is her awareness of female sexuality. The latent desire for sexual fulfillment that Helga satisfies with her marriage to the gross preacher is akin to Clare's attraction to her friend's husband. In both cases, the black man either symbolizes or brings sexual gratification, thereby reinforcing the Renaissance view that it is the black, and not the white, race that is fertile, vital, full-bodied, and rich in humaneness.
Miss Larsen never fulfilled the promise of her early successes, and she disappeared from the literary scene after an unpleasant exposure and accusation concerning plagiarism.
A date, or time itself, perhaps, is meaningless within itself; that added element, amplification, is needed to give significance to a date. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a case in point: this single novel by James Weldon Johnson was published under a pseudonym in 1912. Its inclusion in a study of the Harlem Renaissance, however, is relevant because of its plot and treatment of racial prejudice in a mode that parallels other novels of this period. Moreover, its reissue in 1927 demonstrates that Johnson's contemporaries also saw the novel as akin to the Harlem Renaissance literature. This book forcefully upholds the notion that Johnson can be promoted as being a precursor of the Harlem Renaissance. The 1927 edition contained an introductions by Johnson's good friend, Carl Van Vechten.
Despite its deceptive title, this book remains one of the most accomplished pieces of lengthy fiction written by a Negro during the first four decades of the twentieth century. It is a dispassionate picture of what it was like to grow up nearly white in the racist society of the early part of this century. The prejudice against blacks was blatantly illogical and so rampant that no excuses were needed. The protagonist of Johnson's novel, knowing the truth of "label a mulatto white and the world's view of him adopts the label," finally succumbs to the advantages of uncomplicated day-to-day living as a "passer." Even so, at the novel's end, he states: "I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage."
The melancholy of Johnson's protagonist, as well as his cowardice, are not romantic poses. In this novel Johnson implants a psychological motif which appears again and again in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, namely, the belief that the Negro who abandons his people also forsakes a richness that cannot be replaced by the superficial freedom which passing into the white world accords. This motif appeared, for example, in nearly all of the works of Jessie Fauset, Walter White, Claude McKay, and Nella Larsen and was certainly implied in Rudolph Fisher's work and in Countee Cullen's one novel.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a mingling of realism and irony. The realism is of the simplest kind: Johnson portrays in rich, convincing detail several strata of Negro life in the South and the East. The irony is perhaps unintentional: the whole narrative is, first, one of understatement and, second, one in which the hero's life changes direction radically after one episode—the loss of money for college—which the author intimates as being the "irony of fate." Irony operates rather successfully, too, when we realize that the hero's decision to pass, after his seemingly objective review of both sides, fails to give him the happiness he had expected. Dispassionate objectivity may lead to nowhere, the author seems to say.
Briefly, the novel follows the life of an unnamed light-skinned protagonist who, upon leaving the South at an early, undisclosed age, is reared in genteel, middle-class comfort in Connecticut. He does not discover the fact or meaning of being a Negro until he is ten, when an embarrassing classroom situation forces this fact upon his sensitive nature. Even then, his life is relatively calm, and he successfully completes his adolescence, aloof from most of his classmates but not entirely isolated. The hero, musically talented, proceeds southward to enter Atlanta University. His money is stolen during his first day there; but rather than explain his unhappy circumstances to the university administrators, he gives up college life and commences his life of wandering and his search for self. The conflict that wars within begins to emerge at this point: he wishes to become the best sort of Negro, to present to the world the Negro's musical heritage, and, the easier wish to satisfy, to gratify himself as just another man in the world, to enjoy the normal, even routine joys experienced by the middle- or upper-middle-class white American. As the title of the book suggests, the "hero" finally chooses the last goal. The story follows his wanderings from work in a cigar factory, to piano playing in a club, to travels in Europe with his rich employer, and to the United States again where he collects Negro folk songs. But he now abandons his race, not simply for love of a white woman but also because of the contradictions of his nature. On the one hand, as he says, "I have been only a privileged spectator of their [Negroes] inner life," and on the other, "I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother's people."
As evidenced by the society Johnson describes as well as the duality of the protagonist's nature, the novel can be said to be within that tradition of duality dominant in American fiction. The tradition is clear in the protagonist's inner contradictions and the struggles of good and evil within him, demonstrated in his circumstances, his actions, and, most dramatically, his inner turmoil which makes him realize that he has sold his birthright "for a mess of pottage." This intermingling of black and white taints the hero's moral character much as his physical being was tainted in the belief of American society that such an offspring, the product of racial intermingling, was a corrupted version of the human species. Through the act of passing, the protagonist assumes the role of one who has failed once again to demonstrate personal integrity. There is a continual relinquishing of values portrayed through the actions of the protagonist; for instance, the acquiescence to the easier way out of a dilemma (not going to college), or his lack of shame when confronted with a lapse in his moral character (the chasing and tormenting of a black boy from his school). And, of course, his "passing" is his greatest act of moral cowardice.
There is a quality of the bildungsroman in Johnson's work, although the forays into black propaganda and the hero's remaining air of perennial questioning of his chosen path in life weaken the impression that Johnson perceived the book on this level. Indeed, in his autobiography he is curiously reticent about discussing his book in a literary sense and seems more concerned with emphasizing that The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was fiction rather than the story of his life.
Although the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were not oblivious to the influence of the black man's religion in shaping his character, they rarely used religious settings for their novels. The prominent exception, Countee Cullen, is not surprising, inasmuch as he was the adopted son of a minister. Cullen's single novel, One Way to Heaven, was published during the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance (1932), but it bears the marks of a Renaissance novel. It is, in Cullen's words, a "two toned picture" which explores the lives of the upper and lower strata of Negro life in Harlem during the 1920s.
Cullen wrote to his good friend, Harold Jackman, and talked of Flaubert: "I would give years of my life to learn to write like that [re Madame Bovary]...I suppose Flaubert devoted his entire life to mastering words and studying human emotions. Art such as his takes a lifetime to develop." Cullen, though never a Flaubert, achieved a polish in language and an emotional depth in One Way to Heaven that clearly can be traced to his admiration of the great masters. It is one of the better novels of the Harlem Renaissance period.
The novel's two stories are frequently interwoven, but it is still primarily a novel with two different stories, one in contrast with the other because two different realms of Harlem life are explored. Indeed, some readers may consider this narrative mode the major weakness of the novel. To be fair to Cullen, between the significance of the title and the focusing upon Sam Lucas at the beginning and the ending, it seems that the Sam-Mattie love story is the primary one.
The opening scene is laid in a church where an evangelist is speaking during a "watch meeting" night. Sam Lucas, a one-armed con man, enters with the intention of performing his faked act of conversion. It is the eve of a new year, with the evangelist out to catch wayward souls and Sam Lucas out to get the most out of his highly practiced art. He strides to the altar and presents his razor and cards as symbols of his conversion. A young lady in the audience, moved by his action, submits to the "spirit" and is truly converted. Thus, their relationship starts on a compromised basis because of his deceit and her subsequent naïveté in believing that religion, which has brought them together, will shape their future life together. They marry, although Sam encounters difficulties unknown to him before in the wooing and winning of Mattie. This is evident in the following scene, which also serves to illustrate the sacred and profane aspects that form a leitmotif in the novel:
They walked along in a silence which was mainly fear of themselves, fear of the fierce desires at the roots of their beings . . . Sam had forgotten the services of the church as soon and as lightly as he had stepped across its threshold out into the sharp January sun. All that he was concerned with now was the woman at his side . . . . He wished he knew how to tackle her; for he felt that she was like some new and strange being, unlike the other women he had known. Those others had been like himself, creatures of action and not of speech . . . . He knew when a flippant word meant 'Leave me be.' But this girl . . . She seemed near at hand, asclose as if they were linked together by a strip of flesh, yet inaccessible, as if getting religion and joining church had suddenly grown walls about her and shut her away from the world. Her eyes smiled at him, but their message was . . . 'Speak to me' and 'Tell me things.' The palm of his hand was moist with panic.
After marrying, Sam has a hard time keeping up the deception about his new-found religion. He cheats on Mattie, moves out to be with his woman, but returns to Mattie in the end when he is suffering from pneumonia. Just before he dies, he pretends to believe again and Mattie is happy. Cullen suggests that Sam's last act of deception secures his salvation because it is sacrificial.
Mattie is employed as a maid for the Harlem socialite Constancia Brandon, a witty, pretentious, and extravagant woman who mocks as she is mocked. The sycophants who hang about her salon are much more savagely portrayed because they are unaware of the fragility and senselessness of the putative Negro "society." Constancia is well aware of the cracks in the Negro psyche, but she possesses, in addition to intelligence (she is a Radcliffe graduate), common sense and a love for those Negro strengths and unique qualities that enrich life. (The truth or falsity of this premise is not the point, either in this novel or in any of the others that promote the idea of black vitality.) At one point, Constancia states:
I often think the Negro is God Almighty's one mistake, but as I look about me at white people, I am forced to say so are we all. It isn't being colored that annoys me. I could go white if I wanted to, but I am too much of a hedonist; I enjoy life too much, and enjoyment isn't across the line. Money is there, and privilege, and the sort of power which comes with numbers; but as for enjoyment, they don't know what it is.
As viewed through Constancia, then, blacks are implied to be basically superior to whites in terms of warmth, compassion, humaneness, and ability to enjoy life despite social restrictions and persecution. It is obvious, also, that Cullen admired his Constancia: she outshines Mattie and Sam so outrageously that the reader is left wishing that Cullen had written two books instead of one.
The desire to portray all strata of Harlem social classes weakens the book because the characterizations never achieve full dimensions. The failure to present Harlem in depth is a pity, for one is struck by Cullen's facility with language in his descriptive or narrative passages. His dialogue is natural, too, even though it seems forced in some of the scenes with Constancia. On a deeper level, Cullen demonstrates an awareness of the uses of symbol and metaphor, and he displays a feeling for the sort of literary complexity absent in some of the other Harlem Renaissance novels.
The symbols of the razor and cards, pervasive throughout the book, are manifestations of the evil that Sam professes to have abandoned. The salvation theme is also developed through the symbols of cards and razor and concurrently through the use of dark and light imagery and colors. For instance, red has the dual symbolism of salvation and sin (e.g., the "blood of the Lamb" and red lips). In the case of the red kimona that Sam offers Mattie, the color reflects the shame Mattie shares in joining with Sam, the overt sinner. White functions in the traditional mode to symbolize purity, but black is employed to epitomize beauty instead of dark deeds and foul acts.
Like the razor, Sam, too, is an instrument: he is an instrument of salvation. Heaven has sent Sam to Mattie and she reclaims him for this divine abode. Sam is an instrument of salvation because his final act is presented ultimately as an act of sacrifice rather than of pure chicanery. Without Sam's ruse Mattie would be doomed; she would be barred from the salvation she earnestly seeks.
If there is a single metaphor for Cullen's book it lies in the title: one way to get into heaven is through a type of personal salvation that results from well-meaning deception. Mattie is fooled by the pretense, the "trickster" act of Sam, but Sam, in a roundabout, theological sense, is possibly saved as well. He pretends to hear music and to see bright lights in order to convince Mattie that he has had a vision. Before he dies, "he could feel Mattie's hand tremble on his forehead. Aunt Mandy stood transfixed and mute. He knew that for them he was forever saved." Thus, with careful attention to the details of Sam's vision, Cullen brings to an orderly conclusion the chaos of troubled souls. The fact that Cullen begins and concludes his work with the lives of Sam and Mattie is evidence that they were meant to be the primary focus of Cullen's story. Therefore, Cullen should have concentrated on it. The novel would have been strengthened by greater attention to these confused, common folk, especially since it is their story that supplies the novel with its thematic title.
It was another poet, the most enduring and well-known survivor of the Harlem Renaissance, who wrote perhaps the most appealing and least controversial novel during the waning of the Renaissance. It was during his student days (in his mid-twenties, however) at Lincoln University that Langston Hughes started writing his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). Although the book was favorably reviewed, Hughes later expressed disappointment with his character portrayals. Here he was perhaps not the best judge, for his characterizations are one of the strengths of this frankly nostalgic novel. Despite weaknesses in the structure and an obvious simplicity in Hughes's interpretation of the lives he describes, the book was warmly applauded by some reviewers whose opinions are worth quoting:
It is written with understanding, tolerance and beauty, it lays special claim to the attention of those who love life and its mirroring in fiction.
It is significant because even where it fails, it fails beautifully, and where it succeeds— namely, in its intimate characterizations and in its local color and charm—it succeeds where almost all others have failed.
Its strength lies in this simplicity, in its author's unflinching honesty, and in his ability to make the reader feel very deeply the problems of his characters.
Even Martha Gruening, in her article berating the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, gives tribute to Hughes:
[It] is not only uniquely moving and lovely among Negro novels but among books written about America. It is affirmative in a sense in which no other book by an American Negro is, for it is the story of a Negro happily identified with his own group, who because of his identification tells what is essentially, despite the handicaps of poverty and prejudice, the story of a happy childhood.
Hughes explains what he was attempting to do in Not Without Laughter in his autobiography:
I wanted to write about a typical Negro family in the Middle West, about people like those I had known in Kansas. But I thought I had been a typical Negro boy. . . . We [his family] were poor—but different. For purposes of the novel, however, I created around myself what seemed to me a family more typical of Negro life in Kansas than my own had been.
Reality through nostalgia was a primary concern, then; and to treat the novel as one with a complex theme and motive is to do the book an injustice.
The story centers on the life of Sandy as he grows up in a small town in Kansas (Stanton). His mother, Annjee, is married to a no-account, good-looking mulatto named Jimboy. Annjee's mother, Aunt Hager, a version of the mammy prototype, says of him: "Who ever heard of a nigger named Jimboy, anyhow? Next place, I ain't never seen a yaller dude yet that meant a dark woman no good—an' Annjee is dark!"
Sandy has two aunts, Tempy and Harriett. Tempy has risen in the world and has all the shallow veneer of the "nouveau bourgeois." In reality, she is unsure of herself, although she makes it clear how she is to be treated and, in receiving this phony respect, remains isolated from her warm-hearted, unpretentious family. Tempy and others in her "class" know how tenuous their role is, for they "were all people of standing in the darker world—doctors, school-teachers, a dentist, a lawyer, a hairdresser.... One's family as a topic of conversation, however, was not popular in high circles, for too many of Stanton's dark society folks had sprung from humble family trees and low black bottoms."
Sandy's other aunt, Harriett, epitomizes the uninhibited, sensuous, generous woman—the sort of person, as Hughes says, who never "soiled" her mind by too much thinking. She hates the stultifying atmosphere of her home because Aunt Hager is obsessed by religion and its sometime by-product, sin. Harriett displays toward her mother an impatience that erupts in venomous verbal spats. At one point she tells Aunt Hager:
I don't want to be respectable if I have to be stuck up and dicty like Tempy is . . . . She's colored and I'm colored and I haven't seen her since before Easter . . . It's not being black that matters with her, though, it's being poor, and that's what we are, you and me and Annjee, working for white folks and washing clothes and going in back doors, and taking tips and insults. I'm tired of it, mama, I want to have a good time once in a while.
Later, she shouts this shocking statement to her mother: "Your old Jesus is white, I guess, that's why! He's white and stiff and don't like niggers!"
In the end it is Harriett (by this time a night club singer) who intercedes in Sandy's behalf to aid him in the first steps towards achieving both his and Aunt Hager's dream of completing his schooling. Sandy's mother is not enthusiastic about education for the boy; work that pays enough to keep one alive is all that she considers necessary. But Harriett, even though rejecting Aunt Hager's way of life for herself, reminds Annjee, "Why, Aunt Hager'd turn over in her grave if she heard you talking so calmly about Sandy leaving school—the way she wanted to make something out of this kid."
The fictional canvas is rich in characterization and in its portrayal of a racial milieu little known at that time in our social history. The style of Hughes's prose is unrestrained and casual, tinged at times with an air of nostalgia and naïeté. The book is weakened by its episodic structure and by its incomplete, faltering characterization of the protagonist, Sandy. The novel sometimes seems to be more a novel about Aunt Hager, for she overwhelms the imagination and is presented in full dimension. Still, Hughes dissected "the ways of black folk" with a skill that he, and others, nderestimated. In choosing the mode of the realistic novel, in fusing it with the ambiance of the black folk tradition, Hughes wrote a book that is as charming as it is honest.
Source: Margaret Perry, "The Major Novels," in Silence to the Drums: A Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, Greenwood Press, 1976, pp. 61-88.
Baker, Houston A., Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 85.
Bamikunle, Aderemi, "The Harlem Renaissance and White Critical Tradition," in CLA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 33-51.
Cullen, Countee, "And the Walls Came Tumblin' Down," in the Bookman, Vol. LXVI, No. 2, October 1927, pp. 221-22.
English, Daylanne K., "Selecting the Harlem Renaissance," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 4, Summer 1999, pp. 807-15.
Ganter, Granville, "Decadence, Sexuality, and the Bohemian Vision of Wallace Thurman," in MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 2003, p. 98.
Huggins, Nathan I., Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp.10-11.
Hughes, Langston, "The Dream Keeper," in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, p. 664.
Janken, Kenneth R., "African American and Franco-phone Black Intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance," in the Historian, Vol.60, No.3,Spring1998, pp. 487ff.
Kent, George E., "The Fork in the Road: Patterns of the Harlem Renaissance," in Black Word, Vol. 21, No. 8, June 1972, pp. 13-24, 76-80.
Locke, Alain, "Color—A Review," in Opportunity, Vol. 4, No. 37, January 1926, pp. 14-15.
———, "Enter the New Negro," in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, pp. 631-34.
———, "Youth Speaks," in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, pp. 659-60.
McKay, Claude, "White Houses," in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, p. 662.
Perry, Margaret, The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary, Garland, 1982, pp. xxxv-xxxvi.
Singh, Amritjit, "'When the Negro Was in Vogue': The Harlem Renaissance and Black America," in The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923-1933, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, pp. 1-39.
Stuart, Andrea, "The Harlem Renaissance in the Twenties Produced a Wealth of Black Talent. But What Was Its Legacy and Who Did It Really Benefit?" in the New Statesman, Vol. 10, No. 459, June 27, 1997, pp. 40-41.
Wall, Cheryl A., "Poets and Versifiers, Singers and Signifiers: Women of the Harlem Renaissance," in Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York, edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier, Transaction Books, 1982, pp. 74-98.
Washington, Michele Y., "Souls on Fire: The Artists of the Black Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s Defined a New Cultural Identity Reflecting Their African Roots," in Print, Vol. 52, No. 3, May-June 1998.
Bontemps, Arna, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, 1972.
This is a collection of essays by a writer and thinker who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. The second chapter provides a useful overview of the period.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea, Hill and Wang, 1993.
Hughes's autobiography was originally published in 1940. This is a reprint of his memories of his life as a poet in Harlem and as a cook and waiter in various Paris nightclubs during the 1920s.
Lewis, David L., When Harlem Was in Vogue, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
This book is a social history of Harlem in the 1920s, focusing on the literature and music produced during the era.
———, ed., The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Penguin USA, 1995.
This collection includes essays, memoirs, drama, poetry, and fictional pieces from forty-five of the major and minor writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Smethurst, James Edward, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Smethurst examines the developments of the black arts movement by region. He explains ways in which the black arts movement changed the way art is perceived and funded in the United States.
Wintz, Cary D., Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, Rice University Press, 1988.
Wintz's book is an exploration of the Harlem Renaissance phenomenon in the context of black social and intellectual history in the United States, and it connects the Renaissance writers with the literary community as a whole.
If the Harlem Renaissance was neither exclusive to Harlem nor a rebirth of anything that had gone before, its efflorescence above New York City's Central Park was characterized by such sustained vitality and variety as to influence by paramountcy and diminish by comparison the similar cultural energies in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. During its earliest years, beginning about 1917, contemporaries tended to describe the Harlem phenomenon as a manifestation of the New Negro Arts Movement. However, by the time it ended in the winter of 1934–1935—with both a whimper and a bang—the movement was almost universally regarded as indistinguishable from its Harlem incarnation.
As the population of African Americans rapidly urbanized and its literacy rate climbed, Harlem, New York, the "Negro capital of America," rose out of the vast relocation under way from South to North. A combination of causes propelled the Great Black Migration: southern white mob violence, the economics of discrimination, crop failure, the interruption of European immigration after 1914 and a consequent labor vacuum in the North, and the aggressive recruitment of black labor for work at wartime wages by northern industrialists. With the vast welling of black people from Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and elsewhere, their numbers rose from 60,534 in all of New York City in 1910 to a conservative 1923 estimate of the National Urban League (NUL) that placed the number at 183,428, with probably two-thirds in Harlem. Although this section of the city was by no means wholly occupied by people of color—never more than 60 percent during the 1930s—it soon became distinctively black in culture and in the mainstream perception. If the coming of black Harlem was swift, its triumph had been long anticipated by the increasing numbers of African Americans living in midtown Manhattan's teeming Tenderloin and San Juan Hill districts. The Tenderloin (so called from a police captain's gustatory graft), stretching roughly from West Fourteenth to Forty-second streets, had become home to the city's nonwhites during the early nineteenth century, after they forced their way out of the old Five Points area east of today's Foley Square, where City Hall stands.
By the 1890s blacks were battling the Irish for scarce turf north of Fiftieth Street in what came to be called San Juan Hill, in honor of African-American troops in the Spanish-American War. Influx and congestion had, as the African-American newspaper the New York Age predicted, great advantages: "Influx of Afro-Americans into New York City from all parts of the South made … possible a great number and variety of business enterprises." The example of Lower East Side Jews accumulating money and moving on, in the 1890s, to solid brownstones on wide, shaded streets in Harlem was enviously watched by African Americans. The area had undergone a building boom in anticipation of the extension of the subway, but by the turn of the century many apartment buildings were sparsely occupied. A few white landlords broke ranks around 1905 to rent or sell to African Americans through Philip A. Payton's pioneering Afro-American Realty Company.
Two institutional activities were outstandingly successful in promoting the occupation of Harlem—churches and cabarets. Saint Philip's Episcopal Church sold its West Twenty-fifth Street holdings for $140,000 in 1909 and disposed of its Tenderloin cemetery for $450,000 two years later. The Abyssinian Baptist Church, presided over by the charismatic Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., negotiated a comparable disposal of its property in order to build one of Protestant America's grandest temples on 138th Street. Nightclubs such as Banks's, Barron's, and Edmond's transported music and a nightlife style from the Tenderloin that gave Harlem its signature. Barron's Little Savoy featured "Jelly Roll" Morton, Willie "the Lion" Smith, James P. Johnson, Scott Joplin, and other legends of the era. Barron Wilkins took his club uptown before the country entered the European war.
Precisely why and how the Harlem Renaissance materialized, who molded it and who found it most meaningful, as well as what it symbolized and what it achieved, raise perennial American questions about race relations, class hegemony, cultural assimilation, generational-gender-lifestyle conflicts, and art versus propaganda. Notwithstanding its synoptic significance, the Harlem Renaissance was not, as some students have maintained, all inclusive of the early twentieth-century African-American urban experience. There were important movements, influences, and people who were marginal or irrelevant to it, as well as those alien or opposed. Not everything that happened in Harlem from 1917 to 1934 was a Renaissance happening. The potent mass movement founded and led by the charismatic Marcus Garvey was to the Renaissance what nineteenth-century populism was to progressive reform: a parallel but socially different force, related primarily through dialectical confrontation. Equally different from the institutional ethos and purpose of the Renaissance was the black church. An occasional minister (such as the father of poet Countee Cullen) or exceptional Garveyites (such as Yale-Harvard man William H. Ferris) might move in both worlds, but black evangelism and its cultist manifestations, such as Black Zionism, represented emotional and cultural retrogression in the eyes of the principal actors in the Renaissance. If the leading intellectual of the race, W. E. B. Du Bois, publicly denigrated the personnel and preachings of the black church, his animadversions were merely more forthright than those of other New Negro notables like James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Alain Locke, and Walter Francis White.
The relationship of music to the Harlem Renaissance was problematic, for reasons exactly analogous to its elitist aversions to Garveyism and evangelism. When Du Bois wrote, a few years after the beginning of the New Negro movement in arts and letters, that "until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human," he, like most of his Renaissance peers, fully intended to exclude the blues of Bessie Smith and the jazz of "King" Oliver. Spirituals sung like lieder by the disciplined Hall Johnson Choir—and, better yet, lieder sung by conservatory-trained Roland Hayes, recipient of the NAACP's prestigious Spingarn Medal—were deemed appropriate musical forms to present to mainstream America. The deans of the Renaissance were entirely content to leave discovery and celebration of Bessie, Clara, Trixie, and various other blues-singing Smiths to white music critic Carl Van Vechten's effusions in Vanity Fair. When the visiting film director Sergei Eisenstein enthused about new black musicals, Charles S. Johnson and Alain Locke expressed mild consternation in the Urban League's Opportunity magazine. They would have been no less displeased by Maurice Ravel's fascination with musicians in Chicago dives. As board members of the Pace Phonograph Company, Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and others banned "funky" artists from the Black Swan list of recordings, thereby contributing to the demise of the African-American-owned firm. But the wild Broadway success of Miller and Lyles's musical Shuffle Along (it helped to popularize the Charleston) or Florence Mills's Blackbirds revue flaunted such artistic fastidiousness.
The very centrality of music in black life, as well as of black musical stereotypes in white minds, caused popular musical forms to impinge inescapably on Renaissance high culture. Eventually, the Renaissance deans made a virtue out of necessity; they applauded the concert-hall ragtime of "Big Jim" Europe and the "educated" jazz of Atlanta University graduate and big-band leader Fletcher Henderson, and they hired a Duke Ellington or a Cab Calloway as drawing cards for fund-raising socials. Still, their relationship to music remained beset by paradox. New York ragtime, with its "Jelly Roll" Morton strides and Joplinesque elegance, had as much in common with Chicago jazz as Mozart with "Fats" Waller. The source of musical authenticity and the reservoir of musical abundance lay in those recently urbanized and economically beleaguered men and women whose chosen recreational environments were raucous, boozy, and lubricious. Yet these were the men and women whose culture and condition made Renaissance drillmasters (themselves only a generation and a modest wage removed) uncomfortable and ashamed, men and women whose musical pedigrees went back from
The Renaissance relished virtuoso performances by baritone Jules Bledsoe or contralto Marian Anderson, and pined to see the classical works of William Grant Still performed in Aeolian Hall. It took exceeding pride in the classical repertory of the renowned Clef Club Orchestra. On the other hand, even if and when it saw some value in the music nurtured in Prohibition joints and bleary rent parties, the movement found itself pushed aside by white ethnic commercial co-optation and exploitation—by Al Capone and the mob. Thus, what was musically vital was shunned or deplored in the Harlem Renaissance from racial sensitivity; what succeeded with mainstream audiences derived from those same shunned and deplored sources and was invariably hijacked; and what was esteemed as emblematic of racial sophistication was (even when well done) of no interest to whites and of not much more to the majority of blacks. Last, with the notable exception of Paul Robeson, most of the impresarios as well as the featured personalities of the Renaissance were more expert in literary and visual-arts matters than musical.
The purpose of emphasizing such negatives—of stressing whom and what the Harlem Renaissance excluded or undervalued—serves the better to characterize the essence of a movement that was an elitist response to a rapidly evolving set of social and economic conditions demographically driven by the Great Black Migration beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century. The Harlem Renaissance began "as a somewhat forced phenomenon, a cultural nationalism of the parlor, institutionally encouraged and constrained by the leaders of the civil rights establishment for the paramount purpose of improving 'race relations' in a time of extreme national reaction to an annulment of economic gains won by Afro-Americans during the Great War" (Lewis, 1981). This mobilizing elite emerged from the increasing national cohesion of the African-American bourgeoisie at the turn of the century, and of the migration of many of its most educated and enterprising to the North about a decade in advance of the epic working-class migration out of the South. Du Bois indelibly labeled this racially advantaged minority the "Talented Tenth" in a seminal 1903 essay. He fleshed out the concept biographically that same year in "The Advance Guard of the Race," a piece in Booklover's Magazine: "Widely different are these men in origin and method. [Paul Laurence] Dunbar sprang from slave parents and poverty; [Charles Waddell] Chesnutt from free parents and thrift; while [Henry O.] Tanner was a bishop's son."
Students of the African-American bourgeoisie—from Joseph Willson in the mid-nineteenth century through Du Bois, Caroline Bond Day, and E. Franklin Frazier during the first half of the twentieth to Constance Green, August Meier, Carl Degler, Stephen Birmingham, and, most recently, Adele Alexander, Lois Benjamin, and Willard Gate-wood—have differed about its defining elements, especially that of pigment. The generalization seems to hold that color was a greater determinant of upper-class status in the post–Civil War South than in the North. The phenotype preferences exercised by slaveholders for house slaves, in combination with the relative advantages enjoyed by illegitimate offspring of slavemasters, gave a decided spin to mulatto professional careers during Reconstruction and well beyond. Success in the North followed more various criteria, of which color was sometimes a factor. By the time of Booker T. Washington's death in 1915, however, a considerable amount of ideological cohesion existed among the African-American leadership classes in such key cities as Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and New York. A commitment to college preparation in liberal arts and the classics, in contrast to Washington's emphasis on vocational training, prevailed. Demands for civil and social equality were espoused again after a quietus of some fifteen years.
The once considerable power of the so-called Tuskegee Machine now receded before the force of Du Bois's propaganda, a coordinated civil rights militancy, and rapidly altering industrial and demographic conditions in the nation. The vocational training in crafts such as brickmaking, blacksmithing, carpentry, and sewing prescribed by Tuskegee and Hampton institutes was irrelevant in those parts of the South undergoing industrialization, yet industry in the South was largely proscribed to African Americans who for several decades had been deserting the dead end of sharecropping for the South's towns and cities. The Bookerites' sacrifice of civil rights for economic gain, therefore, lost its appeal not only to educated and enterprising African Americans but to many of those white philanthropists and public figures who had once solemnly commended it. The Talented Tenth formulated and propagated the new ideology being rapidly embraced by the physicians, dentists, educators, preachers, businesspeople, lawyers, and morticians comprising the bulk of the African-American affluent and influential—some ten thousand men and women, out of a total population in 1920 of more than ten million. (In 1917, traditionally cited as the natal year of the Harlem Renaissance, there were 2,132 African Americans in colleges and universities, probably no more than 30 of them attending "white" institutions.)
It was, then, the minuscule vanguard of a minority—0.02 percent of the racial total—that constituted the Talented Tenth that jump-started the New Negro Arts Movement. But what was extraordinary about the Harlem Renaissance was that its promotion and orchestration by the Talented Tenth were the consequence of masterful improvisation rather than of deliberate plan, of artifice imitating likelihood, of aesthetic deadpan disguising a racial blind alley. Between the 1905 "Declaration of Principles" of the Niagara Movement and the appearance in 1919 of Claude McKay's electrifying poem "If We Must Die," the principal agenda of the Talented Tenth called for investigation of and protest against discrimination in virtually every aspect of national life. It lobbied for racially enlightened employment policies in business and industry; the abolition through the courts of peonage, residential segregation ordinances, Jim Crow public transportation, and franchise restrictions; and enactment of federal sanctions against lynching. The vehicles for this agenda, the NAACP and the NUL, exposed, cajoled, and propagandized through their excellent journals, the Crisis and Opportunity, respectively. The rhetoric of protest was addressed to ballots, courts, legislatures, and the workplace: "We urge upon Congress the enactment of appropriate legislation for securing the proper enforcement of … the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments," the Niagara Movement had demanded and the NAACP continued to reiterate. Talented Tenth rhetoric was also strongly social-scientific: "We shall try to set down interestingly but without sugar-coating or generalizations the findings of careful scientific surveys and facts gathered from research," the first Opportunity editorial would proclaim in January 1923, echoing the objectives of Du Bois's famous Atlanta University studies.
It is hardly surprising that many African Americans, the great majority of whom lived under the deadening cultural and economic weight of southern apartheid, had modest interest in literature and the arts during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Even outside the underdeveloped South, and irrespective of race, demotic America had scant aptitude for and much suspicion of arts and letters. Culture in early twentieth-century America was paid for by a white minority probably not a great deal larger, by percentage, than the Talented Tenth. For those privileged few African Americans whose education or leisure inspired such tastes, therefore, appealing fiction, poetry, drama, paintings, and sculpture by or about African Americans had become so exiguous as to be practically nonexistent. With the rising hostility and indifference of the mainstream market, African-American discretionary resources were wholly inadequate by themselves to sustain even a handful of novelists, poets, and painters. A tubercular death had silenced poet-novelist Dunbar in 1906, and poor royalties had done the same for novelist Chesnutt after publication the previous year of The Colonel's Dream. Between that point and 1922, no more than five African Americans published significant works of fiction and verse. There was Pointing the Way in 1908, a flawed, fascinating civil rights novel by the Baptist preacher Sutton Griggs. Three years later, Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece, a sweeping sociological allegory, appeared. The following year came James Weldon Johnson's well-crafted The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, but the author felt compelled to disguise his racial identity. A ten-year silence fell afterward, finally to be broken in 1922 by McKay's Harlem Shadows, the first book of poetry since Dunbar. In "Art for Nothing," a short, trenchant think piece in the May 1922 Crisis, Du Bois lamented the fall into oblivion of sculptors Meta Warwick Fuller and May Howard Jackson, and that of painters William E. Scott and Richard Brown.
Although the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance seems much more sudden and dramatic in retrospect than the historic reality, its institutional elaboration was, in fact, relatively quick. Altogether, it evolved through three stages. The first phase, ending in 1923 with the publication of Jean Toomer's unique prose poem Cane, was dominated by white artists and writers—bohemians and revolutionaries—fascinated for a variety of reasons with the life of black people. The second phase, from early 1924 to mid-1926, was presided over by the civil rights establishment of the NUL and the NAACP, a period of interracial collaboration between "Negrotarian" whites and the African-American Talented Tenth. The last phase, from mid-1926 to 1934, was increasingly dominated by African-American artists themselves—the "Niggerati."
When Charles S. Johnson, new editor of Opportunity, sent invitations to some dozen African-American poets and writers to attend an event at Manhattan's Civic Club on March 21, 1924, the movement had already shifted into high gear. At Johnson's request, William H. Baldwin III, a white Tuskegee trustee, NUL board member, and heir to a railroad fortune, had persuaded Harper's editor Frederick Lewis Allen to corral a "small but representative group from his field," most of them unknown, to attend the Civic Club affair in celebration of the sudden outpouring of "Negro" writing. "A group of the younger writers, which includes Eric Walrond, Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and some others," would be present, Johnson promised each invitee. All told, in addition to the "younger writers," some fifty persons were expected: "Eugene O'Neill, H. L. Mencken, Oswald Garrison Villard, Mary Johnston, Zona Gale, Robert Morss Lovett, Carl Van Doren, Ridgely Torrence, and about twenty more of this type. I think you might find this group interesting enough to draw you away for a few hours from your work on your next book," Johnson wrote the recently published Jean Toomer almost coyly.
Although both Toomer and Langston Hughes were absent in Europe, approximately 110 celebrants and honorees assembled that evening, included among them Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and the young NAACP officer Walter Francis White, whose energies as a literary entrepreneur would soon excel even Charles Johnson's. Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University and the first African-American Rhodes scholar, served as master of ceremonies. Fauset, literary editor of the Crisis and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University, enjoyed the distinction of having written the second fiction (and first novel) of the Renaissance, There Is Confusion, just released by Horace Liveright. Liveright, who was present, rose to praise Fauset as well as Toomer, whom he had also published. Speeches followed in rapid succession—Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Fauset. White called attention to the next Renaissance novel: his own, The Fire in the Flint, shortly forthcoming from Knopf. Albert Barnes, the crusty Philadelphia pharmaceutical millionaire and art collector, described the decisive impact of African art on modern art. Poets and poems were commended—Hughes, Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson of Washington, D.C., and, finally, Gwendolyn Bennett's stilted yet appropriate "To Usward," punctuating the evening: "We claim no part with racial dearth,/We want to sing the songs of birth!" Charles Johnson wrote the vastly competent Ethel Ray Nance, his future secretary, of his enormous gratification that Paul Kellogg, editor of the influential Survey Graphic, had proposed that evening to place a special number of his magazine at the service of "representatives of the group."
Two compelling messages emerged from the Civic Club gathering. Du Bois asserted that the literature of apology and the denial to his generation of its authentic voice were now ending; Van Doren said that African-American artists were developing at a uniquely propitious moment. They were "in a remarkable strategic position with reference to the new literary age which seems to be impending," Van Doren predicted. "What American literature decidedly needs at this moment is color, music, gusto, the free expression of gay or desperate moods. If the Negroes are not in a position to contribute these items," Van Doren could not imagine who else could. It was precisely this "new literary age" that a few Talented Tenth leaders had kept under sharp surveillance and about which they had soon reached a conclusion affecting civil rights strategy. Despite the baleful influence of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and the robust persistence of Uncle Tom, "coon," and Noble Savage stereotypes, literary and dramatic presentations of African Americans by whites had begun, arguably, to change somewhat for the better.
The African American had indisputably moved to the center of mainstream imagination with the end of the Great War, a development crucially assisted by chrysalis of the Lost Generation–Greenwich Village bohemia. The first issue of Randolph Bourne's Seven Arts (November 1916), featuring, among others of the Lyrical Left, Waldo Frank, James Oppenheim, Paul Rosenfeld, Van Wyck Brooks, and the French intellectual Romain Rolland, incarnated the spirit that informed a generation without ever quite cohering into a doctrine. The inorganic state, the husk of a decaying capitalist order, was breaking down, these young white intellectuals believed. They professed contempt for "the people who actually run things" in America. Waldo Frank, Toomer's bosom friend and literary mentor, foresaw not a bloody social revolution in America but that "out of our terrifying welter or steel and scarlet, a design must come." There was another Village group decidedly more oriented toward politics: the Marxist radicals (John Reed, Floyd Dell, Helen Keller, Max Eastman) associated with Masses and its successor magazine, Liberator, edited by Max and Crystal Eastman. The inaugural March 1918 issue of Liberator announced that it would "fight for the ownership and control of industry by the workers."
Among the Lyrical Left writers gathered around Broom, S4N, and Seven Arts, and the political radicals associated with Liberator, there was a shared reaction against the ruling Anglo-Saxon cultural paradigm. Bourne's concept of a "trans-national" America, democratically respectful of its ethnic, racial, and religious constituents, complemented Du Bois's earlier concept of divided racial identity in The Souls of Black Folk. Ready conversance with the essentials of Freud and Marx became the measure of serious conversation in MacDougal Street coffeehouses, Albert Boni's Washington Square Book Shop, or the Hotel Brevoort's restaurant. There Floyd Dell, Robert Minor, Matthew Josephson, Max Eastman, and other enragés denounced the social system, the Great War to which it had ineluctably led, and the soul-dead world created in its aftermath, with McKay and Toomer, two of the Renaissance's first stars, participating.
From such conceptions, the Village's discovery of Harlem followed logically and, even more, psychologically. For if the factory, campus, office, and corporation were dehumanizing, stultifying, or predatory, the African American—largely excluded from all of the above—was a perfect symbol of cultural innocence and regeneration. He was perceived as an integral, indispensable part of the hoped-for design, somehow destined to aid in the reclamation of a diseased, desiccated civilization. The writer Malcolm Cowley would recall in Exile's Return that "one heard it said that the Negroes had retained a direct virility that the whites had lost through being overeducated." Public annunciation of the rediscovered Negro came in the fall of 1917, with Emily Hapgood's production at the old Garden Street Theatre of three one-act plays by her husband, Ridgely Torrence. The Rider of Dreams, Simon the Cyrenian, and Granny Maumee were considered daring because the casts were black and the parts were dignified. The drama critic from Theatre Magazine enthused of one lead player that "nobody who saw Opal Cooper—and heard him as the dreamer, Madison Sparrow—will ever forget the lift his performance gave." Du Bois commended the playwright by letter, and James Weldon Johnson excitedly wrote his friend, the African-American literary critic Benjamin Brawley, that The Smart Set 's George Jean Nathan "spoke most highly about the work of these colored performers."
From this watershed flowed a number of dramatic productions, musicals, and several successful novels by whites, and also, with great significance, Shuffle Along, a cathartic musical by the African Americans Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller. Theodore Dreiser grappled with the
explosive subject of lynching in his 1918 short story "Nigger Jeff." Two years later, the magnetic African-American actor Charles Gilpin energized O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in the 150-seat theater in a MacDougal Street brownstone taken over by the Provincetown Players. The Emperor Jones (revived four years later with Paul Robeson in the lead part) showed civilization's pretensions being moved by forces from the dark subconscious. In 1921 Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Theatre, with music, lyrics, choreography, cast, and production uniquely in African-American hands, and composer Eubie Blake's "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way" entering the list of all-time favorites. Mary Hoyt Wiborg's Taboo was also produced in 1921, with Robeson in his theatrical debut. Clement Wood's 1922 sociological novel Nigger sympathetically tracked a beleaguered African-American family from slavery through the Great War into urban adversity. T. S. Stribling's Birthright, that same year, was remarkable for its effort to portray an African-American male protagonist of superior education (a Harvard-educated physician) martyred for his ideals after returning to the South. "Jean Le Negre," the black character in e. e. cummings' The Enormous Room, was another Noble Savage paradigm observed through a Freudian prism.
But Village artists and intellectuals were aware and unhappy that they were theorizing about Afro-America and spinning out African-American fictional characters in a vacuum—that they knew almost nothing firsthand about these subjects. Sherwood Anderson's June 1922 letter to H. L. Mencken spoke for much of the Lost Generation: "Damn it, man, if I could really get inside the niggers and write about them with some intelligence, I'd be willing to be hanged later and perhaps would be." At least the first of Anderson's prayers was answered almost immediately when he chanced to read a Jean Toomer short story in Double-Dealer magazine. With the novelist's assistance, Toomer's stories began to appear in the magazines of the Lyrical Left and the Marxists, Diak, S4N, Broom, and Liberator. Anderson's 1925 novel Dark Laughter bore unmistakable signs of indebtedness to Toomer, whose work, Anderson stated, had given him a true insight into the cultural energies that could be harnessed to pull America back from the abyss of fatal materialism. Celebrity in the Village brought Toomer into Waldo Frank's circle, and with it criticism from Toomer about the omission of African Americans from Frank's sprawling work Our America. After a trip with Toomer to South Carolina in the fall of 1922, Frank published Holiday the following year, a somewhat overwrought treatment of the struggle between the races in the South, "each of which … needs what the other possesses."
Claude McKay, whose volume of poetry Harlem Shadows made him a Village celebrity also (he lived on Gay Street, then entirely inhabited by nonwhites), found his niche among the Liberator group, where he soon became coeditor of the magazine with Michael Gold. The Eastmans saw the Jamaican poet as the kind of writer who would deepen the magazine's proletarian voice. McKay increased the circulation of Liberator to sixty thousand, published the first poetry of e. e. cummings (over Gold's violent objections), introduced Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and generally treated the readership to experimentation that had little to do with proletarian literature. "It was much easier to talk about real proletarians writing masterpieces than to find such masterpieces," McKay told the Eastmans and the exasperated hard-line Marxist Gold. McKay attempted to bring Harlem to the Village, as the actor Charlie Chaplin discovered when he dropped into the Liberator offices one day and found the editor deep in conversation with Hubert Harrison, Harlem's peerless soapbox orator and author of When Africa Awakes. Soon all manner of Harlem radicals began meeting at the West Thirteenth Street offices, while the Eastmans fretted about Justice Department surveillance. Richard B. Moore, Cyril Briggs, Otto Huiswood, Grace Campbell, W. A. Domingo, inter alios, represented Harlem movements ranging from Garvey's UNIA and Brigg's African Blood Brotherhood to the Communist Party, with Huiswood and Campbell. McKay also attempted to bring the Village to Harlem, in one memorable sortie taking Eastman and another Villager to Ned's, his favorite Harlem cabaret. Ned's, notoriously antiwhite, expelled them.
This was part of the background to the Talented Tenth's abrupt, enthusiastic, and programmatic embrace of the arts after World War I. In 1924, as Charles Johnson was planning his Civic Club evening, extraordinary security precautions were in place around the Broadway theater where All God's Chillun Got Wings, O'Neill's drama about miscegenation, starring Paul Robeson, was playing. With white Broadway audiences flocking to O'Neill plays and shrieking with delight at Liza, Runnin' Wild, and other imitations of Shuffle Along, the two Johnsons, Du Bois, Fauset, White, Locke, and others saw a unique opportunity to tap into the attention span of white America. If they were adroit, African-American civil rights officials and intellectuals believed, they stood a fair chance of reshaping the images and repackaging the messages out of which mainstream racial behavior emerged.
Bohemia and the Lost Generation suggested to the Talented Tenth the new approach to the old problem of race relations, but their shared premise about art and society obscured the diametrically opposite conclusions white and black intellectuals and artists drew from it. Stearns's Lost Generation révoltés were lost in the sense that they professed to have no wish to find themselves in a materialistic, Mammon-mad, homogenizing America. Locke's New Negroes very much wanted full acceptance by mainstream America, even if some—Du Bois, McKay, and the future enfant terrible of the Renaissance, Wallace Thurman—might have immediately exercised the privilege of rejecting it. For the whites, art was the means to change society before they would accept it. For the blacks, art was the means to change society in order to be accepted into it.
For this reason, many of the Harlem intellectuals found the white vogue in Afro-Americana troubling, although they usually feigned enthusiasm about the new dramatic and literary themes. Most of them clearly understood that this popularity was due to persistent stereotypes, new Freudian notions about sexual dominion over reason, and the postwar release of collective emotional and moral tensions sweeping Europe and America. Cummings, Dreiser, O'Neill, and Frank may have been well intentioned, but the African-American elite was quietly rather infuriated that Talented Tenth lives were frequently reduced to music, libido, rustic manners, and an incapacity for logic. The consummate satirist of the Renaissance, George Schuyler, denounced the insistent white portrayal of the African American in which "it is only necessary to beat a tom tom or wave a rabbit's foot and he is ready to strip off his Hart, Schaffner & Marx suit, grab a spear and ride off wild-eyed on the back of a crocodile." Despite the insensitivity, burlesquing, and calumny, however, the Talented Tenth convinced itself that the civil rights dividends of such recognition were potentially greater than the liabilities were.
Benjamin Brawley put this potential straightforwardly to James Weldon Johnson: "We have a tremendous opportunity to boost the NAACP, letters, and art, and anything else that calls attention to our development along the higher lines." Brawley knew that he was preaching to the converted. Johnson's preface to his best-selling anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) proclaimed that nothing could "do more to change the mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through his production of literature and art." Reading Stribling's Birthright, an impressed Fauset nevertheless felt that she and her peers could do better. "We reasoned," she recalled later, "'Here is an audience waiting to hear the truth about us. Let us who are better qualified to present that truth than any white writer, try to do so.'" The result was There Is Confusion, her novel about genteel life among Philadelphia's aristocrats of color. Walter Francis White, similarly troubled by Birthright and other twodimensional or symbolically gross representations of African-American life, complained loudly to H. L. Mencken, who finally silenced him with the challenge, "Why don't you do the right kind of novel. You could do it, and it would create a sensation." White did. The sensation turned out to be The Fire in the Flint (1924), the second novel of the Renaissance, which he wrote in less than a month in a borrowed country house in the Berkshires.
Meanwhile, Langston Hughes, whose genius (like Toomer's) had been immediately recognized by Fauset, published several poems in the Crisis that would later appear in his collection The Weary Blues. The euphonious "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (dedicated to Du Bois) ran in the Crisis in 1921. With the appearance of McKay's Harlem Shadows in 1922 and Toomer's Cane in 1923, the officers of the NAACP and the NUL saw how real the possibility of a theory being put into action could be. The young New York University prodigy Countee Cullen, already published in the Crisis and Opportunity, had his mainstream breakthrough in 1923 in Harper's and Century magazines. Two years later, Cullen won the prestigious Witter Bynner poetry prize, with Carl Sandburg as one of the three judges. Meanwhile, the Survey Graphic project moved apace under the editorship of Locke.
Two conditions made this unprecedented mobilization of talent and group support in the service of a racial arts and letters movement more than a conceit in the minds of its leaders: demography and repression. The Great Black Migration produced the metropolitan dynamism undergirding the Renaissance. The Red Summer of 1919 produced the trauma that led to the cultural sublimation of civil rights. In pressure-cooker fashion, the increase in Harlem's African-American population caused it to pulsate as it pushed its racial boundaries south below 135th Street to Central Park and north beyond 139th ("Strivers' Row"). Despite the real estate success of the firms of Nail and Parker and the competition given by Smalls' Paradise to the Cotton Club and Connie's (both off-limits to African-American patrons), however, this dynamic community was never able to own much of its own real estate, sustain more than a handful of small, marginal merchants, or even control the profits from the illegal policy business perfected by one of its own, the literary Caspar
Holstein. Still, both the appearance of and prospects for solid, broad-based prosperity belied the inevitable consequences of Harlem's comprador economy. The Negro Capital of the World filled up with successful bootleggers and racketeers, political and religious charlatans, cults of exotic character ("Black Jews"), street-corner pundits and health practitioners (Hubert Harrison, "Black Herman"), beauty culturists and distinguished professionals (Madame C. J. Walker, Louis T. Wright), religious and civil rights notables (Reverends Cullen and Powell, Du Bois, Johnson, White), and hard-pressed, hardworking families determined to make decent lives for their children. Memories of the nightspots in "The Jungle" (133rd Street), of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson demonstrating his footwork on Lenox Avenue, of raucous shows at the Lafayette that gave Florenz Ziegfeld some of his ideas, of the Tree of Hope outside Connie's Inn where musicians gathered as at a labor exchange, have been vividly set down by Arthur P. Davis, Regina Andrews, Arna Bontemps, and Hughes.
In the first flush of Harlem's realization and of general African-American exuberance, the Red Summer of 1919 had a cruelly decompressing impact on Harlem and Afro-America in general. The adage of peasants in Europe—"City air makes free"—was also true for sharecropping blacks, but not even the cities of the North made them equal or rich, or even physically secure. Charleston, South Carolina, erupted in riot in May, followed by Longview, Texas, and Washington, D.C., in July. Chicago exploded on July 27. Lynchings of returning African-American soldiers and expulsion of African-American workers from unions abounded. In the North, the white working classes struck out against perceived and manipulated threats to job security and unionism from blacks streaming north. In Helena, Arkansas, a pogrom was unleashed against black farmers organizing a cotton cooperative; outside Atlanta the Ku Klux Klan was reconstituted. The message of the white South to African Americans was that the racial status quo ante bellum was on again with a vengeance. Twenty-six race riots in towns, cities, and counties swept across the nation all the way to Nebraska. The "race problem" definitively became an American dilemma and no longer a remote complexity in the exotic South.
The term "New Negro" entered the vocabulary in reaction to the Red Summer, along with McKay's poetic catechism: "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack/Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!" There was a groundswell of support for Marcus Garvey's UNIA. Until his 1924 imprisonment for mail fraud, the Jamaican immigrant's message of African Zionism, antiintegrationism, working-class assertiveness, and Bookerite business enterprise increasingly threatened the hegemony of the Talented Tenth and its major organizations, the NAACP and NUL, among people of color in America (much of Garvey's support came from West Indians). The UNIA's phenomenal fund-raising success, as well as its portrayal of the civil rights leadership as alienated by class and color from the mass of black people, delivered a jolt to the integrationist elite. "Garvey," wrote Mary White Ovington, one of the NAACP's white founders, "was the first Negro in the United States to capture the imagination of the masses." The Negro World, Garvey's multilingual newspaper, circulated throughout Latin America and the African empires of Britain and France. To the established leadership, then, the UNIA was a double threat because of its mass appeal among African Americans and because "respectable" civil rights organizations feared the spillover from the alarm Garveyism caused the white power structure. While Locke wrote in his introductory remarks to the special issue of Survey Graphic that "the thinking Negro has shifted a little to the left with the world trend," he clearly had Garveyism in mind when he said of black separatism, "this cannot be—even if it were desirable." Although the movement was its own worst enemy, the Talented Tenth was pleased to help the Justice Department speed its demise.
No less an apostle of high culture than Du Bois, initially a Renaissance enthusiast, vividly expressed the farfetched nature of the arts movement as early as 1923: "How is it that an organization of this kind [the NAACP] can turn aside to talk about art? After all, what have we who are slaves and black to do with art?" Slavery's legacy of cultural parochialism, the agrarian orientation of most African Americans, systematic underfunding of primary education, the emphasis on vocationalism at the expense of liberal arts in colleges, economic marginality, the extreme insecurity of middle-class status—all strongly militated against the flourishing of African-American artists, poets, and writers. It was the brilliant insight of the men and women of the NAACP and NUL that although the road to the ballot box, the union hall, the decent neighborhood, and the office was blocked, there were two paths that had not been barred, in part because of their very implausibility, as well as their irrelevancy to most Americans: arts and letters. These people saw the small cracks in the wall of racism that could, they anticipated, be widened through the production of exemplary racial images in collaboration with liberal white philanthropy, the robust culture industry located primarily in New York, and artists from white bohemia (like themselves, marginal and in tension with the status quo).
If in retrospect, then, the New Negro Arts Movement has been interpreted as a natural phase in the cultural evolution of another American group—a band in the literary continuum running from New England, Knickerbocker New York, and Hoosier Indiana to the Village's bohemia, East Side Yiddish drama and fiction, and the southern Agrarians—such an interpretation sacrifices causation to appearance. The other group traditions emerged out of the hieratic concerns, genteel leisure, privileged alienation, or transplanted learning of critical masses of independent men and women. The Renaissance represented much less an evolutionary part of a common experience than it did a generation-skipping phenomenon in which a vanguard of the Talented Tenth elite recruited, organized, subsidized, and guided an unevenly endowed cohort of artists and writers to make statements that advanced a certain conception of the race—a cohort of whom most would never have imagined the possibility of artistic and literary careers.
Toomer, McKay, Hughes, and Cullen possessed the rare ability combined with personal eccentricity that defined them as artists; the Renaissance needed not only more like them but a large cast of supporters and extras. American dropouts heading for seminars in garrets and cafés in Paris were invariably white and descended from an older gentry displaced by new moneyed elites. Charles Johnson and his allies were able to make the critical Renaissance mass possible. Johnson assembled files on prospective recruits throughout the country, going so far as to cajole Aaron Douglas and others into coming to Harlem, where a network staffed by his secretary, Ethel Ray Nance, and her friends Regina Anderson and Louella Tucker (assisted by the gifted Trinidadian short story writer Eric Walrond) looked after them until a salary or fellowship was secured. White, the self-important assistant secretary of the NAACP, urged Robeson to abandon law for an acting career, encouraged Nella Larsen to follow his own example as a novelist, and passed the hat for artist Hale Woodruff. Fauset continued to discover and publish short stories and verse, such as those of Wallace Thurman and Arna Bontemps.
Shortly after the Civic Club evening, both the NAACP and the NUL announced the creation of annual awards ceremonies bearing the titles of their respective publications, Crisis and Opportunity. The award of the first Opportunity prizes came in May 1925 in an elaborate ceremony at the Fifth Avenue Restaurant with some three hundred participants. Twenty-four judges in five categories had ruled on the worthiness of entries. Carl Van Doren, Zona Gale, Fannie Hurst, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and Alain Locke, among others, judged short stories. Witter Bynner, John Farrar, Clement Wood, and James Weldon Johnson read the poetry entries. Eugene O'Neill, Alexander Woollcott, Thomas M. Gregory, and Robert Benchley appraised drama. The judges for essays were Van Wyck Brooks, John Macy, Henry Goodard Leach, and L. Hollingsworth Wood. The awards ceremony was interracial, but white capital and influence were crucial to success, and the white presence in the beginning was pervasive, setting the outer boundaries for what was creatively normative. Money to start the Crisis prizes had come from Amy Spingarn, an accomplished artist and poet and the wife of Joel Spingarn, chairman of the NAACP's board of directors. The wife of the influential attorney, Fisk University trustee, and Urban League board chairman L. Hollingsworth Wood had made a similar contribution to initiate the Opportunity prizes.
These were the whites Zora Neale Hurston, one of the first Opportunity prize winners, memorably dubbed "Negrotarians." These comprised several categories: political Negrotarians such as progressive journalist Ray Stannard Baker and maverick socialist types associated with Modern Quarterly (V. F. Calverton, Max Eastman, Lewis Mumford, Scott Nearing); salon Negrotarians such as Robert Chanler, Charles Studin, Carl and Fania (Marinoff) Van Vechten, and Elinor Wylie, for whom the Harlem artists were more exotics than talents; Lost Generation Negrotarians drawn to Harlem on their way to Paris by a need for personal nourishment and confirmation of cultural health, in which their romantic or revolutionary perceptions of African Americans played a key role—Anderson, O'Neill, Georgia O'Keeffe, Zona Gale, Waldo Frank, Louise Bryant, Sinclair Lewis, Hart Crane; commercial Negrotarians such as the Knopfs, the Gershwins, Rowena Jelliffe, Liveright, V. F. Calverton, and music impresario Sol Hurok, who scouted and mined Afro-America like prospectors.
The philanthropic Negrotarians, Protestant and Jewish, encouraged the Renaissance from similar motives of principled religious and social obligation and of class hegemony. Oswald Garrison Villard (grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, heir to a vast railroad fortune, owner of the New York Evening Post and the Nation, and cofounder of the NAACP), along with foundation controllers William E. Harmon and J. G. Phelps-Stokes, and Mary White Ovington of affluent abolitionist pedigree, looked on the Harlem Renaissance as a movement it was their Christian duty to sanction, as well as an efficacious mode of encouraging social change without risking dangerous tensions. Jewish philanthropy, notably represented by the Altmans, Rosenwalds, Spingarns, Lehmans, and Otto Kahn, had an additional motivation, as did the interest of such scholars as Franz Boas and Melville Herskovits, jurists Louis Brandeis, Louis Marshall, and Arthur Spingarn, and progressive reformers Martha Gruening and Jacob Billikopf. The tremendous increase after 1900 of Jewish immigrants from Slavic Europe had provoked nativist reactions and, with the 1915 lynching of Atlanta businessman Leo Frank, both an increasingly volatile anti-Semitism and an upsurge of Zionism. Redoubled victimization of African Americans, exacerbated by the tremendous outmigration from the South, portended a climate of national intolerance that wealthy, assimilated German-American Jews foresaw as inevitably menacing to all American Jews.
The May 1925 Opportunity gala showcased the steadily augmenting talent in the Renaissance—what Hurston pungently characterized as the "Niggerati." Two laureates, Cullen and Hughes, had already won notice beyond Harlem. The latter had engineered his "discovery" as a Washington, D.C., bellhop by placing dinner and three poems on Vachel Lindsay's hotel table. Some prize winners were
barely to be heard from again: Joseph Cotter, G. D. Lipscomb, Warren MacDonald, Fidelia Ripley. Others, such as John Matheus (first prize in the short story category) and Frank Horne (honorable mention), failed to achieve first-rank standing in the Renaissance. But most of those whose talent had staying power were also introduced that night: E. Franklin Frazier, winning the first prize for an essay on social equality; Sterling Brown, taking second prize for an essay on the singer Roland Hayes; Hurston, awarded second prize for a short story, "Spunk"; and Eric Walrond, third short-story prize for "Voodoo's Revenge." James Weldon Johnson read the poem taking first prize, "The Weary Blues," Hughes's turning-point poem combining the gift of a superior artist and the enduring, music-encased spirit of the black migrant. Comments from Negrotarian judges ranged from O'Neill's advice to "be yourselves" to novelist Edna Worthley Underwood's exultant anticipation of a "new epoch in American letters," and Clement Wood's judgment that the general standard "was higher than such contests usually bring out."
Whatever their criticisms and however dubious their enthusiasms, what mattered as far as Charles Johnson and his collaborators were concerned was success in mobilizing and institutionalizing a racially empowering crusade and cementing an alliance between the wielders of influence and resources in the white and black communities, to which the caliber of literary output was a subordinate, though by no means irrelevant, concern. In the September 1924 issue of Opportunity inaugurating the magazine's departure from exclusive social-scientific concerns, Johnson had spelled out clearly the object of the prizes: they were to bring African-American writers "into contact with the general world of letters to which they have been for the most part timid and inarticulate strangers; to stimulate and foster a type of writing by Negroes which shakes itself free of deliberate propaganda and protest." The measures of Johnson's success were the announcement of a second Opportunity contest, to be underwritten by Harlem "businessman" (and numbers king) Caspar Holstein; former Times music critic Carl Van Vechten's enthusiasm over Hughes, and the subsequent arranging of a contract with Knopf for Hughes's first volume of poetry; and, one week after the awards ceremony, a prediction by the New York Herald Tribune that the country was "on the edge, if not already in the midst of, what might not improperly be called a Negro renaissance"—thereby giving the movement its name.
Priming the public for the Fifth Avenue Restaurant occasion, the special edition of Survey Graphic edited by Locke, "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro," had reached an unprecedented forty-two thousand readers in March 1925. The ideology of cultural nationalism at the heart of the Renaissance was crisply delineated in Locke's opening essay, "Harlem": "Without pretense to their political significance, Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia." A vast racial formation was under way in the relocation of the peasant masses ("they stir, they move, they are more than physically restless"), the editor announced. "The challenge of the new intellectuals among them is clear enough." The migrating peasants from the South were the soil out of which all success would come, but soil must be tilled, and the Howard University philosopher reserved that task exclusively for the Talented Tenth in liaison with its mainstream analogues—in the "carefully maintained contacts of the enlightened minorities of both race groups." There was little amiss about America that interracial elitism could not set right, Locke and the others believed. Despite historical discrimination and the Red Summer, the Rhodes scholar assured readers that the increasing radicalism among African Americans was superficial. The African American was only a "forced radical," a radical "on race matters, conservative on others." In a surfeit of mainstream reassurance, Locke concluded, "The Negro mind reaches out as yet to nothing but American events, American ideas." At year's end, Albert and Charles Boni published Locke's The New Negro, an expanded and polished edition of the poetry and prose from the Opportunity contest and the special Survey Graphic.
The course of American letters was unchanged by the offerings in The New Negro. Still, the book carried several memorable works, such as the short story "The South Lingers On," by Brown University and Howard Medical School graduate Rudolph Fisher; the acid "White House(s)" and the euphonic "The Tropics in New York," poems by McKay, now in European self-exile, and several poetic vignettes from Toomer's Cane. Hughes's "Jazzonia," previously published in the Crisis, was so poignant as to be almost tactile as it described "six long-headed jazzers" playing while a dancing woman "lifts high a dress of silken gold." In "Heritage," a poem previously unpublished, Cullen outdid himself in his grandest (if not his best) effort with its famous refrain, "What is Africa to me." The book carried distinctive silhouette drawings and Egyptian-influenced motifs by Aaron Douglas, whose work was to become the artistic signature of the Renaissance. With thirty-four African-American contributors—four were white—Locke's work included most of the Renaissance regulars. (The notable omissions were Asa Randolph, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman.) These were the gifted men and women who were to show by example what the potential of some African Americans could be and who proposed to lead their people into an era of opportunity and justice.
Deeply influenced, as were Du Bois and Fauset, by readings in German political philosophy and European nationalism (especially Herder and Fichte, Palacky and Synge, Herzl and Mazzini), Locke's notion of civil rights advancement was a "cell group" of intellectuals, artists, and writers "acting as the advance guard of the African peoples in their contact with Twentieth century civilization." By virtue of their symbolic achievements and their adroit collaboration with the philanthropic and reformminded mainstream, their augmenting influence would ameliorate the socioeconomic conditions of their race over time and from the top downward. It was a Talented Tenth conceit, Schuyler snorted in Asa Randolph's Messenger magazine, worthy of a "high priest of the intellectual snobbocracy," and he awarded Locke the magazine's "elegantly embossed and beautifully lacquered dill pickle." Yet Locke's approach seemed to work, for although the objective conditions confronting most African Americans in Harlem and elsewhere were deteriorating, optimism remained high. Harlem recoiled from Garveyism and socialism to applaud Phi Beta Kappa poets, university-trained painters, concertizing musicians, and novel-writing officers of civil rights organizations. "Everywhere we heard the sighs of wonder, amazement and sometimes admiration when it was whispered or announced that here was one of the 'New Negroes,'" Bontemps recalled.
By the summer of 1926, Renaissance titles included the novels Cane, There is Confusion, The Fire in the Flint, and Walter White's Flight (1926), and the volumes of poetry Harlem Shadows, Cullen's Color (1924), and Hughes's The Weary Blues (1926). The second Opportunity awards banquet, in April 1926, was another artistic and interracial success. Playwright Joseph Cotter was honored again, as was Hurston for a short story. Bontemps, a California-educated poet struggling in Harlem, won first prize for "Golgotha Is a Mountain," and Dorothy West, a Bostonian aspiring to make a name in fiction, made her debut, as did essayist Arthur Fauset, Jessie's able half-brother. The William E. Harmon Foundation transferred its attention at the beginning of 1926 from student loans and blind children to the Renaissance, announcing seven annual prizes for literature, music, fine arts, industry, science, education, and race relations, with George Edmund Haynes, African-American official in the Federal Council of Churches, and Locke as chief advisers. That same year, the publishers Boni & Liveright offered a $1,000 prize for the "best novel on Negro life" by an African America. Caspar Holstein contributed $1,000 that year to endow Opportunity prizes; Van Vechten made a smaller contribution to the same cause. Amy Spingarn provided $600 toward the Crisis awards. Otto Kahn underwrote two years in France for the young artist Hale Woodruff. There were the Louis Rodman Wanamaker prizes in music composition.
Both the Garland Fund (American Fund for Public Service) and the NAACP's coveted Spingarn Medal were intended to promote political and social change rather than creativity, but three of eight Spingarn Medals were awarded to artists and writers between 1924 and 1931, and the Garland Fund was similarly responsive. The first of the Guggenheim Fellowships awarded to Renaissance applicants went to Walter White in 1927, to be followed by Eric Walrond, Nella Larsen (Imes), and Zora Neale Hurston. The Talented Tenth's more academically oriented members benefited from the generosity of the new Rosenwald Fund fellowships.
The third Opportunity awards dinner was a vintage one for poetry, with entries by Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Hughes, Helene Johnson, and Jonathan H. Brooks. In praising their general high quality, the white literary critic Robert T. Kerlin added the revealing comment that their effect would be "hostile to lynching and to jim-crowing." Walrond's lush, impressionistic collection of short stories, Tropic Death, appeared from Boni & Liveright at the end of 1926, the most probing exploration of the psychology of cultural underdevelopment since Toomer's Cane. If Cane recaptured in a string of glowing vignettes (most of them about women) the sunset beauty and agony of a pre-industrial culture, Tropic Death did much the same for the Antilles. Hughes's second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), spiritedly portrayed the city life of ordinary men and women who had traded the hardscrabble of farming for the hardscrabble of domestic work and odd jobs. Hughes scanned the low-down pursuits of "Bad Man," "Ruby Brown," and "Beale Street," and shocked Brawley and other Talented Tenth elders with the bawdy "Red Silk Stockings." "Put on yo' red silk stockings,/Black gal," it began, urging her to show herself to white boys. It ended wickedly with "An' tomorrow's chile'll/Be a high yaller."
A melodrama of Harlem life that had opened in February 1926, Lulu Belle, produced by David Belasco, won the distinction for popularizing Harlem with masses of Jazz Age whites. But the part of Lulu Belle was played by Lenore Ulric in blackface. Drama quickened again in the fall of 1927 with Harlemite Frank Wilson (and, for one month, Robeson) in the lead role in Du Bose and Dorothy Heyward's hugely successful play Porgy. Porgy brought recognition and employment to Rose McClendon, Georgette Harvey, Evelyn Ellis, Jack Carter, Percy Verwayne, and Leigh Whipper. Richard Bruce Nugent, Harlem's most outrageous decadent, and Wallace Thurman, a Utah-born close second, newly arrived from Los Angeles, played members of the population of "Catfish Row." Frank Wilson of Porgy fame wrote a play himself, Meek Mose, which opened on Broadway in February 1928. Its distinction lay mainly in the employment it gave to Harlem actors and secondarily in an opening-night audience containing Mayor James Walker, Tuskegee principal Robert Russa Moton, Alexander Woollcott, Harry T. Burleigh, Otto Kahn, and the Joel Spingarns. There was a spectacular Carnegie Hall concert in March 1928 by the ninety-voice Hampton Institute Choir, followed shortly by W. C. Handy's Carnegie Hall lecture on the origins and development of African-American music, accompanied by choir and orchestra.
Confidence among African-American leaders in the power of the muses to heal social wrongs was the rule, rather than the exception, by 1927. Every issue of Opportunity, the gossipy Inter-State Tattler newspaper, and, frequently, even the mass-circulation Chicago Defender or the soi-disant socialist Messenger trumpeted racial salvation through artistic excellence until the early 1930s. Harper's for November 1928 carried James Weldon Johnson's article reviewing the strategies employed in the past for African-American advancement: "religion, education, politics, industrial, ethical, economic, sociological." The executive secretary of the NAACP serenely concluded that "through his artistic efforts the Negro is smashing" racial barriers to his progress "faster than he has ever done through any other method." Charles Johnson, Jessie Fauset, Alain Locke, and Walter White fully agreed. Such was their influence with foundations, publishing houses, the Algonquin Round Table, and various godfathers and godmothers of the Renaissance (such as the mysterious, tyrannical, fabulously wealthy Mrs. Osgood Mason) that McKay, viewing the scene from abroad, spoke derisively of the artistic and literary autocracy of "that NAACP crowd."
A veritable ministry of culture now presided over African America. The ministry mounted a movable feast to which the anointed were invited, sometimes to Walter and Gladys White's apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, where they might share cocktails with Sinclair Lewis or Mencken; often (after 1928) to the famous 136th Street "Dark Tower" salon maintained by beauty-culture heiress A'Lelia Walker, where guests might be Sir Osbert Sitwell, the crown prince of Sweden, or Lady Mountbatten; and very frequently to the West Side apartment of Carl and Fania Van Vechten, to imbibe the host's sidecars and listen to Robeson sing or Jim Johnson recite from "God's Trombones" or George Gershwin play the piano. Meanwhile, Harlem's appeal to white revelers inspired the young physician Rudolph Fisher to write a satiric piece in the August 1927 American Mercury called "The Caucasian Storms Harlem."
The third phase of the Harlem Renaissance began even as the second had just gotten under way. The second phase (1924 to mid-1926) was dominated by the officialdom of the two major civil rights organizations, with their ideology of the advancement of African Americans through the creation and mobilization of an artistic-literary movement. Its essence was summed up in blunt declarations by Du Bois that he didn't care "a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda," or in exalted formulations by Locke that the New Negro was "an augury of a new democracy in American culture." The third phase of the Renaissance, from mid-1926 to 1934, was marked by rebellion against the civil rights establishment on the part of many of the artists and writers whom that establishment had promoted. Three publications during 1926 formed a watershed between the genteel and the demotic Renaissance. Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," appearing in the June 1926 issue of the Nation, served as a manifesto of the breakaway from the arts and letters party line. Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, released by Knopf that August, drove much of literate Afro-America into a dichotomy of approval and apoplexy over "authentic" versus "proper" cultural expression. Wallace Thurman's Fire!!, available in November, assembled the rebels for a major assault against the civil rights ministry of culture.
Hughes's turning-point essay had been provoked by Schuyler's Nation article "The Negro Art-Hokum," which ridiculed "eager apostles from Greenwich Village, Harlem, and environs" who made claims for a special African-American artistic vision distinctly different from that of white Americans. "The Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon," Schuyler had sneered. In a famous peroration, Hughes answered that he and his fellow artists intended to express their "individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad…. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either." And there was considerable African-American displeasure. Much of the condemnation of the license for expression Hughes, Thurman, Hurston, and other artists arrogated to themselves was generational or puritanical, and usually both. "Vulgarity has been mistaken for art," Brawley spluttered after leafing the pages of Fire!! "I have just tossed the first issue of Fire!! into the fire," the book review critic for the Baltimore Afro-American snapped after reading Richard Bruce Nugent's extravagantly homoerotic short story "Smoke, Lillies and Jade." Du Bois was said to be deeply aggrieved.
But much of the condemnation stemmed from racial sensitivity, from sheer mortification at seeing uneducated, crude, and scrappy black men and women depicted without tinsel or soap. Thurman and associated editors John Davis, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, Arthur Huff Fauset, Hughes, Hurston, and Nugent took the Renaissance out of the parlor, the editorial office, and the banquet room. Fire!! featured African motifs drawn by Douglas and Nordic-featured African Americans with exaggeratedly kinky hair by Nugent, poems to an elevator boy by Hughes, jungle themes by Edward Silvera, short stories about prostitution ("Cordelia the Crude") by Thurman, gender conflict between black men and women at the bottom of the economy ("Sweat") by Hurston, and a burly boxer's hatred of white people ("Wedding Day") by Bennett; and a short play about pigment complexes within the race (Color Struck ) by Hurston, shifting the focus to Locke's "peasant matrix," to the sorrows and joys of those outside the Talented Tenth. "Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith … penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals," Hughes exhorted in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
Van Vechten's influence decidedly complicated the reactions of otherwise worldly critics such as Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, Locke, and Cullen. While his novel's title alone enraged many Harlemites who felt their trust and hospitality betrayed, the deeper objections of the sophisticated to Nigger Heaven lay in its message that the Talented Tenth's preoccupation with cultural improvement was a misguided affectation that would cost the race its vitality. It was the "archaic Negroes" who were at ease in their skins and capable of action, Van Vechten's characters demonstrated. Significantly, although Du Bois and Fauset found themselves in the majority among the Renaissance leadership (ordinary Harlemites burned Van Vechten in effigy at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue), Charles Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Schuyler, White, and Hughes praised the novel's sociological verve and veracity and the service they believed it rendered to race relations.
The younger artists embraced Van Vechten's fiction as a worthy model because of its ribald iconoclasm and its iteration that the future of African-American arts lay in the culture of the working poor, and even of the underclass—in bottom-up drama, fiction, music, poetry, and painting. Regularly convening at the notorious "267 House," Thurman's rent-free apartment on 136th Street (alternately known as "Niggerati Manor"), the group that came to produce Fire!! saw art not as politics by other means—civil rights between book covers or from a stage or an easel—but as an expression of the intrinsic conditions most people of African descent were experiencing. They spoke of the need "for a truly Negroid note," for empathy with "those elements within the race which are still too potent for easy assimilation," and they openly mocked the premise of the civil rights establishment that (as a Hughes character says in The Ways of White Folks ) "art would break down color lines, art would save the race and prevent lynchings! Bunk!" Finally, like creative agents in society from time immemorial, they were impelled to insult their patrons and to defy conventions.
To put the Renaissance back on track, Du Bois sponsored a symposium in late 1926, inviting a wide spectrum of views about the appropriate course the arts should take. His unhappiness was readily apparent, both with the overly literary tendencies of Locke and with the bottom-up school of Hughes and Thurman. The great danger was that politics was dropping out of the Renaissance, that the movement was turning into an evasion, sedulously encouraged by certain whites. "They are whispering, 'Here is a way out. Here is the real solution to the color problem. The recognition accorded Cullen, Hughes, Fauset, White, and others shows there is no real color line,'" Du Bois charged. He then announced that all Crisis literary prizes would henceforth be reserved for works encouraging "general knowledge of banking and insurance in modern life and specific knowledge of what American Negroes are doing in these fields." Neither James Weldon Johnson nor White (soon to be a Guggenheim fellow on leave from the NAACP to write another novel in France) approved of the withdrawal of the Crisis from the Renaissance, but they failed to change Du Bois's mind.
White's own effort to sustain the civil-rights-by-copyright strategy was the ambitious novel Flight, edited by his friend Sinclair Lewis and released by Knopf in 1926. A tale of near-white African Americans of unusual culture and professional accomplishment who prove their moral superiority to their oppressors, White's novel was considered somewhat flat even by kind critics. Unkind critics, such as Thurman and the young Frank Horne at Opportunity, savaged it. The reissue the following year of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (with Johnson's authorship finally acknowledged) and publication of a volume of Cullen's poetry, Copper Sun, continued the tradition of genteel, exemplary letters. In a further effort to restore direction, Du Bois's Dark Princess appeared in 1928 from Harcourt, Brace; it was a large, serious novel in which the "problem of the twentieth century" is taken in charge by a Talented Tenth International whose prime mover is a princess from India. But the momentum stayed firmly with the rebels.
Although Thurman's magazine died after one issue, respectable Afro-America was unable to ignore the novel that embodied the values of the Niggerati—the first Renaissance best-seller by a black author: McKay's Home to Harlem, released by Harper & Brothers in the spring of 1928. No graduates of Howard or Harvard discourse on literature at the Dark Tower or at Jessie Fauset's in this novel. It has no imitations of Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, or Locke—and no whites at all. Its milieu is wholly plebeian. The protagonist, Jake, is a Lenox Avenue Noble Savage who demonstrates (in marked contrast to the book-reading Ray) the superiority of the Negro mind uncorrupted by European learning. Home to Harlem finally shattered the enforced literary code of the civil rights establishment. The Defender disliked McKay's novel, and Du Bois, who confessed feeling "distinctly like needing a bath" after reading it, declared that Home to Harlem was about the "debauched tenth." Rudolph Fisher's The Walls of Jericho, appearing that year from Knopf, was a brilliant, deftly executed satire that upset Du Bois as much as it heartened Thurman. Fisher, a successful Harlem physician with solid Talented Tenth family credentials, satirized the NAACP, the Negrotarians, Harlem high society, and easily recognized Renaissance notables, while entering convincingly into the world of the working classes, organized crime, and romance across social strata.
Charles Johnson, preparing to leave the editorship of Opportunity for a professorship in sociology at Fisk University, now encouraged the young rebels. Before departing, he edited an anthology of Renaissance prose and poetry, Ebony and Topaz, in late 1927. The movement was over its birth pangs, his preface declared. Sounding the note of Hughes's manifesto, he declared that the period of extreme touchiness was behind. Renaissance artists were "now less self-conscious, less interested in proving that they are just like white people…. Relief from the stifling consciousness of being a problem has brought a certain superiority" to the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson asserted. Johnson left for Nashville in March 1928, four years to the month after his first Civic Club invitations.
Meanwhile, McKay's and Fisher's fiction inspired the Niggerati to publish an improved version of Fire!! The magazine, Harlem, appeared in November 1928. Editor Thurman announced portentously, "The time has now come when the Negro artist can be his true self and pander to the stupidities of no one, either white or black." While Brawley, Du Bois, and Fauset continued to grimace, Harlem benefited from significant defections. It won the collaboration of Locke and White; Roy de Coverly, George W. Little, and Schuyler signed on; and Hughes contributed one of his finest short stories, based on his travels down the west coast of Africa—"Luani of the Jungles," a polished genre piece on the seductions of the civilized and the primitive. Once again, Nugent was wicked, but this time more conventionally. The magazine lasted two issues.
The other Renaissance novel that year from Knopf, Nella Larsen's Quicksand, achieved the distinction of being praised by Du Bois, Locke, and Hughes. Larsen was born in the Danish Virgin Islands of mixed parentage. Trained in the sciences at Fisk and the University of Copenhagen, she would remain something of a mystery woman, helped in her career by Van Vechten and White but somehow always receding, and finally disappearing altogether from the Harlem scene. Quicksand was a triumph of vivid yet economical writing and rich allegory. Its very modern heroine experiences misfortunes and ultimate destruction from causes that are both racial and individual; she is not a tragic mulatto, but a mulatto who is tragic for both sociological and existential reasons. Roark Bradford, in the Herald Tribune, thought Quicksand 's first half very good, and Du Bois said it was the best fiction since Chesnutt.
There were reviews (Crisis, New Republic, New York Times ) that were as laudatory about Jessie Fauset's Plum
Bun, also a 1928 release, but they were primarily due to the novel's engrossing reconstruction of rarefied, upperclass African-American life in Philadelphia rather than to special literary merit. If Helga Crane, the protagonist of Quicksand, was the Virginia Slim of Renaissance fiction, then Angela Murray (Angele, in her white persona), Fauset's heroine in her second novel, was its Gibson Girl. Plum Bun continued the second phase of the Renaissance, as did Cullen's second volume of poetry, The Black Christ, published in 1929. Ostensibly about a lynching, the lengthy title poem lost its way in mysticism, paganism, and religious remorse. The volume also lost the sympathies of most reviewers.
Thurman's The Blacker the Berry, published by Macaulay in early 1929, although talky and awkward in spots (Thurman had hoped to write the Great African-American Novel), was a breakthrough. The reviewer for the Chicago Defender enthused, "Here at last is the book for which I have been waiting, and for which you have been waiting." Hughes praised it as a "gorgeous book," mischievously writing Thurman that it would embarrass those who bestowed the "seal-of-high-and-holy approval of Harmon awards." The ministry of culture found the novel distinctly distasteful: Opportunity judged The Blacker the Berry to be fatally flawed by "immaturity and gaucherie." For the first time, color prejudice within the race was the central theme of an African-American novel. Emma Lou, its heroine (like the author, very dark and conventionally unattractive), is obsessed with respectability as well as tortured by her pigment. Thurman makes the point on every page that Afro-America's aesthetic and spiritual center resides in the unaffected, unblended, noisome common folk and the liberated, unconventional artists.
With the unprecedented Broadway success of Harlem, Thurman's sensationalized romp through the underside of that area, the triumph of Niggerati aesthetics over civil rights arts and letters was impressively confirmed. The able theater critic for the Messenger, Theophilus Lewis, rejoiced at the "wholesome swing toward dramatic normalcy." George Jean Nathan lauded Harlem for its "sharp smell of reality." Another equally sharp smell of reality irritated establishment nostrils that same year with the publication of McKay's second novel, Banjo, appearing only weeks after The Blacker the Berry. "The Negroes are writing against themselves," lamented the reviewer for the Amsterdam News. Set among the human flotsam and jetsam of Marseilles and West Africa, McKay's novel again propounded the message that European civilization was inimical to Africans everywhere.
The stock market collapsed, but reverberations from the Harlem Renaissance seemed stronger than ever. Larsen's second novel, Passing, appeared. Its theme, like Fauset's, was the burden of mixed racial ancestry. But, although Passing was less successful than Quicksand, Larsen again evaded the trap of writing another tragic-mulatto novel by opposing the richness of African-American life to the material advantages afforded by the option of "passing." In February 1930, white playwright Marc Connelly's dramatization of Roark Bradford's book of short stories opened on Broadway as The Green Pastures. The Hall Johnson Choir sang in it, Richard Harrison played "De Lawd," and scores of Harlemites found parts during 557 performances at the Mansfield Theatre, and then on tour across the country. The demanding young critic and Howard University professor of English Sterling Brown pronounced the play a "miracle." The ministry of culture (increasingly run by White, after James Weldon Johnson followed Charles Johnson to a Fisk professorship) deemed The Green Pastures far more significant for civil rights than Thurman's Harlem and even than King Vidor's talking film Hallelujah! The NAACP's Spingarn Medal for 1930 was presented to Harrison by New York's lieutenant governor, Herbert Lehman.
After The Green Pastures came Not Without Laughter, Hughes's glowing novel from Knopf. Financed by Charlotte Osgood Mason ("Godmother") and Amy Spingarn, Hughes had resumed his college education at Lincoln University and completed Not Without Laughter his senior year. The beleaguered family at the center of the novel represents Afro-Americans in transition within white America. Hughes's young male protagonist learns that proving his equality means affirming his distinctive racial characteristics. Not only did Locke admire Not Without Laughter, the New Masses reviewer embraced it as "our novel." The ministry of culture decreed Hughes worthy of the Harmon gold medal for 1930. The year ended with Schuyler's ribald, sprawling satire Black No More, an unsparing demolition of every personality and institution in Afro-America. Little wonder that Locke titled his retrospective piece in the February 1931 Opportunity "The Year of Grace." Depression notwithstanding, the Renaissance appeared to be more robust than ever.
The first Rosenwald fellowships for African Americans had been secured, largely due to James Weldon Johnson's influence, the previous year. Beginning with Johnson himself in 1930, most of the African Americans who pursued cutting-edge postgraduate studies in the United States over the next fifteen years would be recipients of annual Rosenwald fellowships. Since 1928 the Harmon Foundation, advised by Locke, had mounted an annual traveling exhibition of drawings, paintings, and sculpture by African Americans. The 1930 installment introduced the generally unsuspected talent and genius of Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Jr., James A. Porter, and Laura Wheeler Waring in painting. Sargent Johnson, Elizabeth Prophet, and Augusta Savage were the outstanding sculptors of the show. Both Aaron Douglas and Romare Bearden came to feel that the standards of the foundation were somewhat indulgent and therefore injurious to many young artists, which was undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, the Harmon made it possible for African-American artists to find markets previously wholly closed to them. In 1931 more than two hundred works of art formed the Harmon Travelling Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists, to be seen by more than 150,000 people.
Superficially, Harlem itself appeared to be in fair health well into 1931. James Weldon Johnson's celebration of the community's strengths, Black Manhattan, was published near the end of 1930. "Harlem is still in the process of making," the book proclaimed, and the author's confidence in the power of the "recent literary and artistic emergence" to ameliorate race relations was unshaken. In Johnson's Harlem, redcaps and cooks cheered when Renaissance talents won Guggenheim and Rosenwald fellowships; they rushed to newsstands whenever the American Mercury or New Republic mentioned activities above Central Park. In this Harlem, dramatic productions unfolded weekly at the YMCA; poetry readings were held regularly at Ernestine Rose's 135th Street Public Library (today's Schomburg Center); and people came after work to try out for Du Bois's Krigwa Players in the library's basement. It was the Harlem of amateur historians such as J. A. Rogers, who made extraordinary claims about the achievements of persons of color, and of dogged bibliophiles such as Arthur Schomburg, who documented extraordinary claims. It was much too easy for Talented Tenth notables Johnson, White, and Locke not to notice in the second year of the Great Depression that for the vast majority of the population, Harlem was in the process of unmaking. Still, there was a definite prefiguration of its mortality when A'Lelia Walker suddenly died in August 1931, a doleful occurrence shortly followed by the sale of Villa Lewaro, her Hudson mansion, at public auction.
Meanwhile, the much-decorated Fifteenth Infantry Regiment (the 369th during World War I) took possession of a new headquarters, the largest National Guard armory in the state. The monopoly of white doctors and nurses at Harlem General Hospital had been effectively challenged by the NAACP and the brilliant young surgeon Louis T. Wright. There were two well-equipped private sanitariums in Harlem by the end of the 1920s: the Vincent, financed by numbers king Caspar Holstein, and the Wiley Wilson, equipped with divorce settlement funds by one of A'Lelia Walker's husbands. Rudolph Fisher's X-ray laboratory was one of the most photographed facilities in Harlem.
Decent housing was becoming increasingly scarce for most families; the affluent, however, had access to excellent accommodations. Talented Tenth visitors availed themselves of the Dumas or the Olga, two well-appointed hotels. By the end of 1929 African Americans lived in the 500 block of Edgecombe Avenue, known as "Sugar Hill." The famous "409" overlooking the Polo Grounds was home at one time or another to the Du Boises, the Fishers, and the Whites. Below Sugar Hill was the five-acre, Rockefeller-financed Dunbar Apartments complex, its 511 units fully occupied in mid-1928. The Dunbar eventually became home for the Du Boises, E. Simms Campbell (illustrator and cartoonist), Fletcher Henderson, the A. Philip Randolphs, Leigh Whipper (actor), and, briefly, Paul and Essie Robeson. The complex published its own weekly bulletin, the Dunbar News, an even more valuable record of Talented Tenth activities during the Renaissance than the Inter-State Tattler.
The 1931 Report on Negro Housing, presented to President Hoover, was a document starkly in contrast to the optimism found in Black Manhattan. Nearly 50 percent of Harlem's families would be unemployed by the end of 1932. The syphilis rate was nine times higher than white Manhattan's; the tuberculosis rate was five times greater; those for pneumonia and typhoid were twice those of whites. Two African-American mothers and two babies died for every white mother and child. Harlem General Hospital, the area's single public facility, served 200,000 people with 273 beds. Twice as much of the income of a Harlem family went for rent as a white family's. Meanwhile, median family income in Harlem dropped 43.6 percent in two years by 1932. The ending of Prohibition would devastate scores of marginal speakeasies, as well as prove fatal to theaters such as the Lafayette. Connie's Inn would eventually migrate downtown. Until then, however, the clubs in "The Jungle," as 133rd Street was called (Bamville, Connor's, the Clam House, the Nest Club), and elsewhere (Pod's and Jerry's, Smalls' Paradise) continued to do a land-office business.
Because economic power was the Achilles' heel of the community, real political power also eluded Harlem. Harlem's Republican congressional candidates made unsuccessful runs in 1924 and 1928. Until the Twenty-first Congressional District was redrawn after the Second World War, African Americans were unable to overcome Irish, Italian, and Jewish voting patterns in order to elect one of their own. In state and city elections, black Harlem fared better. African-American aldermen had served on the city council since 1919; black state assemblymen were first elected in 1917. Republican Party patronage was funneled through the capable but aged Charles W. ("Charlie") Anderson, collector of Internal Revenue for the Third District. Although African Americans voted overwhelmingly for the Republican ticket at the national level, Harlemites readily voted for Democrats in city matters. Democratic patronage for Harlem was handled by Harvard-educated Ferdinand Q. Morton, chairman of the Municipal Civil Service Commission and head of the United Colored Democracy—"Black Tammany." In 1933 Morton would bolt the Democrats to help elect Fusion candidate Fiorello La Guardia mayor. Despite a growing sense of political consciousness, greatly intensified by the exigencies of the depression, Harlem continued to be treated by City Hall and the municipal bureaucracies as though it were a colony.
The thin base of its economy and politics eventually began to undermine the Renaissance. Mainstream sponsorship, direct and indirect, was indispensable to the movement's momentum, and as white foundations, publishers, producers, readers, and audiences found their economic resources drastically curtailed (the reduced value of Sears, Roebuck stock chilled Rosenwald Fund philanthropy), interest in African Americans evaporated. With the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, ending Prohibition, honorary Harlemites such as Van Vechten sobered up and turned to other pursuits. Locke's letters to Charlotte Osgood Mason turned increasingly pessimistic in the winter of 1931. In June 1932 he perked up a bit to praise the choral ballet presented at the Eastman School of Music, Sahdji, with music by William Grant Still and scenario by Richard Bruce Nugent, but most of Locke's news was distinctly downbeat. The writing partnership of two of his protégés, Hughes and Hurston, their material needs underwritten in a New Jersey township by "Godmother," collapsed in acrimonious dispute. Each claimed principal authorship of the only dramatic comedy written during the Renaissance, Mule Bone, a three-act folk play that went unperformed (as a result of the dispute) until 1991. Locke took the side of Hurston, undermining the affective tie between Godmother and Hughes and essentially ending his relationship with the latter. The part played in this controversy by their brilliant secretary, Louise Thompson, the strong-willed, estranged wife of Wallace Thurman, remains murky, but it seems clear that Thompson's Marxism had a deep influence on Hughes in the aftermath of his painful breakup with Godmother, Locke, and Hurston.
In any case, beginning with "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria," published in the December 1931 New Masses, Hughes's poetry became markedly political. "Elderly Race Leaders" and "Goodbye Christ," as well as the play Scottsboro, Limited, were irreverent, staccato offerings to the coming triumph of the proletariat. The poet's departure in June 1932 for Moscow, along with Louise Thompson, Mollie Lewis, Henry Moon, Loren Miller, Theodore Poston, and thirteen others, ostensibly to act in a Soviet film about American race relations, Black and White, symbolized the shift in patronage and the accompanying politicization of Renaissance artists. If F. Scott Fitzgerald, golden boy of the Lost Generation, could predict that "it may be necessary to work inside the Communist party" to put things right again in America, no one should have been surprised that Cullen and Hughes united in 1932 to endorse the Communist Party candidacy of William Z. Foster and the African American James W. Ford for president and vice-president of the United States, respectively. One Way to Heaven, Cullen's first novel—badly flawed and clearly influenced by Nigger Heaven —appeared in 1932, but it seemed already a baroque anachronism with its knife-wielding Lotharios and elaborately educated types. An impatient Du Bois, deeply alienated from the Renaissance, called for a second Amenia Conference to radicalize the ideology and renew the personnel of the organization.
Jessie Fauset remained oblivious to the profound artistic and political changes under way. Her final novel, Comedy: American Style (1933), was technically much the same as Plum Bun. Once again, her subject was skin pigment and the neuroses of those who had just enough of it to spend their lives obsessed by it. James Weldon Johnson's autobiography, Along This Way, was the publishing event of the year, an elegantly written review of his sui generis public career as archetypal Renaissance man in both meanings of the word. McKay's final novel also appeared that year. He worried familiar themes, but Banana Bottom represented a philosophical advance over Home to Harlem and Banjo in its reconciliation through the protagonist, Bita Plant, of the previously destructive tension in McKay's work between the natural and the artificial, soul and civilization.
The publication at the beginning of 1932 of Thurman's last novel, Infants of the Spring, had already announced the end of the Harlem Renaissance. The action of the book is in the characters' ideas, in their incessant talk about themselves, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, racism, and the destiny of the race. Its prose is generally disappointing, but the ending is conceptually poignant. Paul Arbian (a stand-in for Richard Bruce Nugent) commits suicide in a full tub of water, which splashes over and obliterates the pages of Arbian's unfinished novel on the bathroom floor. A still legible page, however, contains this paragraph that was in effect an epitaph:
He had drawn a distorted, inky black skyscraper, modeled after Niggerati Manor, and on which were focused an array of blindingly white beams of light. The foundation of this building was composed of crumbling stone. At first glance it could be ascertained that the skyscraper would soon crumple and fall, leaving the dominating white lights in full possession of the sky.
The literary energies of the Renaissance finally slumped. McKay returned to Harlem in February 1934 after a twelve-year sojourn abroad, but his creative powers were spent. The last novel of the movement, Hurston's beautifully written Jonah's Gourd Vine, went on sale in May 1934. Charles Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and Locke applauded Hurston's allegorical story of her immediate family (especially her father) and the mores of an African-American town in Florida called Eatonville. Fisher and Thurman could have been expected to continue to write, but their fates were sealed by the former's professional carelessness and the latter's neurotic alcoholism. A few days before Christmas 1934, Thurman died, soon after his return from an abortive Hollywood film project. Ignoring his physician's strictures, he hemorrhaged after drinking to excess while hosting a party in the infamous house at 267 West 136th Street. Four days later, Fisher expired from intestinal cancer caused by repeated exposure to his own X-ray equipment. A grieving Locke wrote Charlotte Mason from Howard University, "It is hard to see the collapse of things you have labored to raise on a sound base."
Locke's anthology had been crucial to the formation of the Renaissance. As the movement ran down, another anthology, English heiress Nancy Cunard's Negro, far more massive in scope, recharged the Renaissance for a brief period. Enlisting the contributions of most of the principals (though McKay and Walrond refused, and Toomer no longer acknowledged his African-American roots), Cunard captured its essence, in the manner of expert taxidermy.
Arthur Fauset attempted to explain the collapse to Locke and the readers of Opportunity at the beginning of 1934. He foresaw "a socio-political-economic setback from which it may take decades to recover." The Renaissance had left the race unprepared, Fauset charged, because of its unrealistic belief "that social and economic recognition will be inevitable when once the race has produced a sufficiently large number of persons who have properly qualified themselves in the arts." James Weldon Johnson's philosophical tour d'horizon appearing that year, Negro Americans, What Now?, asked precisely the question of the decade. Most Harlemites were certain that the riot exploding on the evening of March 19, 1935, taking three lives and causing $2 million in property damage, was not an answer. By then, the Works Progress Administration had become the major patron of African-American artists and writers. Writers like William Attaway, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, and Frank Yerby would emerge under its aegis, as would painters Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Sebree, Lois Maillou Jones, and Charles White. The Communist Party was another patron, notably for Richard Wright, whose 1937 essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing" would materially contribute to the premise of Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." And for thousands of ordinary Harlemites who had looked to Garvey's UNIA for inspiration, then to the Renaissance, there was now Father Divine and his "heavens."
In the ensuing years much was renounced, more was lost or forgotten; yet the Renaissance, however artificial and overreaching, left a positive mark. Locke's New Negro anthology featured thirty of the movement's thirty-five stars. They and a small number of less gifted collaborators generated twenty-six novels, tne volumes of poetry, five Broadway plays, countless essays and short stories, three performed ballets and concerti, and a considerable output of canvas and sculpture. If the achievement was less than the titanic expectations of the ministry of culture, it was an artistic legacy, nevertheless, of and by which a beleaguered Afro-America could be both proud and sustained. Though more by osmosis than by conscious attention, mainstream America was also richer for the color, emotion, humanity, and cautionary vision produced by Harlem during its Golden Age. "If I had supposed that all Negroes were illiterate brutes, I might be astonished to discover that they can write good third-rate poetry, readable and unreadable magazine fiction," was the flinty judgment of a contemporary white Marxist. That judgment was soon beyond controversy largely because the Harlem Renaissance finally, irrefutably, proved the once-controversial point during slightly more than a single decade.
See also Abyssinian Baptist Church; Cullen, Countee; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Garvey, Marcus; Harlem, New York; Hughes, Langston; Jim Crow; Johnson, James Weldon; Joplin, Scott; National Urban League; Niagara Movement; Spingarn Medal; Universal Negro Improvement Association; White, Walter Francis
Beckman, Wendy Hart. Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2002.
Bloom, Harold, ed. The Harlem Renaissance. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Bontemps, Arna, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays Edited with a Memoir. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.
Egar, Emmanuel E. Black Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2003.
Huggins, Nathan I. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Huggins, Nathan I, ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Lewis, David L. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Vintage, 1981.
Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2003.
Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
david levering lewis (1996)
The Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–1935) was a blossoming of African American creative arts associated with the larger New Negro movement, a multifaceted phenomenon that helped set the directions African American writers and artists would pursue throughout the twentieth century. The social foundations of the movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North, dramatically rising levels of literacy, and the development of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights (the NAACP), “uplifting” the race and opening up socioeconomic opportunities (the National Urban League), and developing race pride, including Pan-African sensibilities and programs (the United Negro Improvement Association and the Pan-African conferences). Black exiles and expatriates from the Caribbean and Africa crossed paths in metropoles like New York and Paris following World War I (1914–1918) and had an invigorating influence on each other that gave the broader “Negro renaissance” (as it was then known) a profoundly important international cast.
The term Harlem Renaissance, which became popular in later years, particularly after the term Negro lost currency, derives from the fact that Harlem served as a symbolic capital of the cultural awakening, a dynamic crucible of cultural cross-fertilization, and a highly popular nightlife destination. Harlem was a relatively new black neighborhood becoming virtually a black city just north of Central Park, and it attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent. More “liberal” in matters of race than most American cities (although, of course, racism was rampant), New York had an extraordinarily diverse and decentered black social world in which no one group could monopolize cultural authority, making it a particularly fertile place for cultural experimentation. Moreover, being situated in New York—the publishing capital of the Western Hemisphere, one of the world’s great ports, and the financial as well as cultural capital of the United States—put Harlem in a strategic position for developing black arts and sending them out to the world. Few of the well-known black writers or artists were born in Harlem, but almost all of them passed through it, were inspired by it, or achieved their reputations in part because of what happened there.
The Harlem Renaissance took place at a time when European and white American writers and artists were particularly interested in African American artistic production, in part because of their interest in the “primitive.” Modernist primitivism was a multifaceted phenomenon partly inspired by Freudian psychology, but it tended to extol so-called “primitive” peoples as enjoying a more direct and authentic relationship to the natural world and to simple human feeling than so-called “over-civilized” whites. They therefore were presumed by some to hold the key to the renovation of the arts. Early in the twentieth century, European avant-garde artists including Pablo Picasso (1881–1974) had been inspired in part by African masks to break from earlier representational styles toward abstraction in painting and sculpture. The prestige of these revolutionary experiments caused African American intellectuals to look on African artistic traditions with new appreciation and to imagine new forms of self-representation, a desire reinforced by rising interest in black history. Black History Week, now Black History Month, was first celebrated in 1928 at the instigation of the historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950).
The interest in black heritage coincided with a general interest, among American intellectuals and artists generally, in defining an “American” culture distinct from that of Europe and characterized by ethnic pluralism as well as a democratic ethos. Thus the concept of cultural pluralism inspired notions of the United States as the first “transnational” nation, in which diverse heritages should develop side-by-side in harmony rather than be “melted” together or ranked on a scale of evolving “civilization.” W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), the dominant black intellectual of the day, had already advocated something like this position in his famous book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a defining text of the New Negro movement because of its profound effect on an entire generation that formed the core of the Harlem Renaissance.
According to Du Bois and his colleague at the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), the only uniquely “American” expressive traditions in the United States had been developed by African Americans because they, more than any other group, had been forced to remake themselves in the New World, while whites continued to look to Europe, or sacrificed artistic values to commercial ones. The very oppression that African Americans had suffered had made them the prophets and artistic vanguard of “American” culture. This judgment was reinforced by the immense popularity of African American music, especially jazz, worldwide. The popularity of jazz among whites was shaped in part by interest in the “primitive and exotic” and helped spark a “Negro Vogue” in cities like New York and Paris in the mid to late 1920s. Simultaneously, European dramatists extolled the body language of African American dance and stage humor (descended from blackface minstrelsy, America’s most popular and original form of theatrical comedy). The most well-known white man to bring attention to the “Harlem” Renaissance was undoubtedly Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), whose music criticism extolled jazz and blues and whose provocatively titled novel Nigger Heaven (1926) helped spread the Negro Vogue, serving virtually as a tourist guide to Harlem and capitalizing on the supposed “exotic” aspects of black urban life, even while focusing, primarily, on the frustrations of black urban professionals and aspiring writers. Vilified by many but defended by the likes of Langston Hughes (1902–1967), James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen (1893–1963), Van Vechten became a key contact for several black artists and authors because of his interracial parties and publishing connections.
In addition to primitivism, the tendencies to press for “authentic” American art forms, and to find them in black America, led black writers to “the folk” at a time when American anthropologists led by Franz Boas (1858–1942) were revolutionizing their discipline with arguments against the racist paradigms of the past. The “folk”— people of the rural South particularly, but also the new migrants to northern cities—were presumed to carry the seeds of black artistic development with relative autonomy from “white” traditions. Thus James Weldon Johnson, in God’s Trombones (1927), set traditional African American sermons in free-verse poetic forms modeled on the techniques of black preachers. Jean Toomer (1894–1967) was inspired by southern folk songs and jazz to lyrical modifications of prose form. Most famously, Langston Hughes turned to the blues for a poetic form derived from and answering to the desires, needs, and aesthetic sensibilities of the black working class. Sterling Brown (1901–1989) followed Hughes in a similar spirit with ballads and other poetic forms, attempting to catch the spirit of the folk heritage without merely imitating “folk” performance.
The Jamaican-born author and radical socialist Claude McKay (1889–1948) produced “proletarian” novels extolling the primitive authenticity and vitality of the black working class in Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), a Pan-Africanist novel set in Marseilles, France. More influentially, Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)— an anthropologist and folklorist partly trained by Franz Boas—developed a new language and approach to narrative fiction inspired by black “folk” expressive traditions, most famously and successfully in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
In a completely different register, Nella Larsen explored the psychology of urban sophisticates in her novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), analyzing the psychological intricacies of race consciousness, and exposing the massive pressures to subordinate women’s sexuality to the rules of “race” and class. The daughter of a white immigrant from Denmark and a black West Indian cook, Larsen knew intimately the price that color-line culture exacted of those who transgressed its most fundamental rules, and her fiction remains unequaled for the originality and incisiveness with which it exposes the contradictions of identities founded on the assertion of absolute difference between “black” and “white.” Hers was a unique achievement at a time when de facto and de jure segregation were becoming ever more entrenched features of American society.
By the mid-1930s, the optimism of the “renaissance” was wearing thin as the Great Depression clamped down and Marxist orientations (never absent from the renaissance) gained dominance. Black writers—above all, Langston Hughes, who had emerged as one of the stars of the “renaissance” and began working in numerous genres—began defining their new directions in contrast to the renaissance of the 1920s, describing the work of the earlier decade as too “racialist” in orientation (as opposed to Marxist and class-conscious) and as too dependent on wealthy white “patrons.” The characterization was reductive, as most such attempts at generational self-definition tend to be. Today it is clear that the Harlem Renaissance marked a turning point in black cultural history and helped establish the authority of black artists over the representation of black culture and experience, while creating a semiautonomous aesthetic field in the realm of “high culture” that has continuously expanded.
SEE ALSO Du Bois, W. E. B.; Hurston, Zora Neale; Pan–Africanism
Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. 1971. Harlem Renaissance. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hutchinson, George. 1995. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lewis, David Levering. 1981. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Random House.
The Harlem Renaissance acquired its name in reference to the urban neighborhood of Harlem, New York, where during the 1920s an unprecedented moment of black literary, intellectual, cultural, and artistic production occurred. That moment arose out of a set of overlapping historical and social forces, primarily the tremendous northern urban migration of blacks fleeing the South's broken Reconstruction promises and responding to national labor demands before, during, and after World War I. The Harlem Renaissance period (roughly from 1920 to 1935) witnessed a torrent of political essays, poems, novels, biographies, histories, paintings, sculptures, plays, musicals, dances, and blues and jazz compositions and performances, areas of black American cultural production that had the greatest influence on twentieth-century American popular culture and style. Indeed, this influence extended beyond the United States as the black American renaissance was linked to an international African diaspora. For example the birth of the Negritude movement in late 1920s Paris was heavily influenced by black American expatriates and the enthusiastic example of black American artists, who reinvented Western traditions of form and content and included racial protest as a formal aesthetic. In Senegal, Léopold
Sédar Senghor embraced the term Negritude and later refined its interpretation. Senghor's concept of the term served to reverse the system of ideologies set in place by colonial rule. In the United States and the Caribbean Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement and Universal Negro Improvement Association formed in New York during the Harlem Renaissance in turn influenced both the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica and the Nation of Islam movement in the U.S.
Traditional canonical interpretations of the Renaissance often emphasize the internationally well-received black intellectual and literary luminaries, high-profile public figures who fore-grounded questions of racism and poverty in a consistently uplifting manner. Intellectual, sociologist, philosopher, and activist W. E. B. Dubois was the editor of Crisis , the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he had helped found. Sociologist Charles Johnson was one of the originators of the idea of artistic production as a cultural arena in which African Americans could claim equal rights. Poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes were responsible for demonstrating the capacity of blacks to compose in sonnet form and to originate new American poetry forms out of the blues. Sculptural artists Roland Barthes and Augusta Savage used African aesthetics to international acclaim. Civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson was also a poet, novelist, and Broadway composer. Anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote novels, essays, and plays and was a "New Woman" model, illuminated the power of rural southern black culture. Writers Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Angelina W. Grimké addressed issues that affected African American women of their time. These were just a few of the canonically recognized Renaissance artists who contributed to the project of "racial uplift," the primary goal of Renaissance originators and forefathers DuBois and Johnson.
The Queer Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was also a period that witnessed the presence, survival, and growth of a thriving black queer community in urban America. While history demonstrates the yearning of African Americans to find financial and physical security in the promised land of the North when it was brutally denied to them in the South, a less emphasized historical narrative suggests that escape to urban anonymity and a diverse milieu also motivated black queers. For example, infamous blues singer Gladys Bentley escaped to Harlem as a teenage runaway when her family placed too much scrutiny on her masculine desires and traits. There was also the eloquent youthful poet Mae Cowdery who won various Crisis poetry competitions and produced verse suggestive of queer lesbian desire; she engaged in her own version of gender-bending when she appeared in a 1927 Crisis photo sporting slicked back hair, a bow tie, and a tailored man's suit. However, despite the relative tolerance of homosexuality in black communities of the North, African Americans had the same difficulties as their white counterparts: Mable Hampton, a newcomer to Harlem from North Carolina, was arrested on prostitution charges in 1920 and the career of Augustus Granvill Dill, business editor of the Crisis and protégé of W. E. B. Du Bois, was destroyed when he was arrested for soliciting sex in a public restroom. Despite these difficulties LGBT African Americans were able to forge a thriving community.
The success of the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural movement seeking civil rights for black Americans and challenging white supremacy was predicated upon the coming together of a collection of unlikely, queer social acquaintances: a homoerotic camaraderie of elite black
male intellectuals and writers; an elite cadre of white male and female intellectuals, writers, and philanthropists; a black female artistic and intellectual network that resisted traditional gender roles; and a small but flamboyant group of black and white artists, socialites, performers, and heiresses whose public personas, genders, and sexualities were always under scrutiny in gossip columns or other forms of social observation.
One highly visible example of this unprecedented type of alliance can be found in the otherwise socially impossible friendship that the Harlem Renaissance produced between Carl Van Vechten, the sophisticated gay white heir and music critic, and Gladys Bentley, the transgendered, dispossessed lesbian blues performer. Their friendship, which arose out of social mixing across class and race boundaries in a modern urban milieu, was founded on the recognition of queer camaraderie. Van Vechten's power of generous, self-gratifying white male patronage and Bentley's charismatic cross-dressing blues persona contributed to a friendship that highlights the social dynamics of the Harlem Renaissance. In this remarkable, brief, yet spectacular eruption of black cosmopolitan urbanity, the coming together in a mutually productive and pleasurable relationship of such previously apparently unrelated figures as Van Vechten and Bentley exemplifies some of the central dynamics of the queer Harlem Renaissance.
From Richard Bruce Nugent, who was renowned in Renaissance circles for his flaming manner and bohemian attire and who published what may be the first openly gay black male piece of short fiction in the twentieth century, Smoke, Lilies, and Jade (1925), to millionaire heiress A'Lelia Walker, who showered what may be characterized as "fag-hag" affections on black male social circles through extravagant parties and literary salon fundraisers, the Harlem Renaissance was profoundly queer.
Private parties and gatherings such as Walker's became the best place for LGBT Harlem to socialize. "Rent parties," invented in the South and held to raise rent money, were the most common type of party. Alexander Gumby, a postal clerk, held popular literary gatherings at his studio on Fifth Avenue and 131st street. Another form of social gathering was the "buffet flat" which also originated in the South. This was usually a place where one could go after hours for drink and possibly a place to sleep.
Beyond the black queer spectacles found between the lines of fictional texts and gossip columns, there is a list of Harlem Renaissance artists whose sexual identities have been the subject of much speculation and debate. On the list are Alain Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar and in many respects the leader of the Renaissance; blues poet Langston Hughes; English sonnet poet Countee Cullen and his longtime lover Harold Jackman; novelist and provocateur Wallace Thurman; West Indian novelist and Marxist Claude McKay; prolific poet Georgia Douglas Johnson; and poet and playwright Angelina Grimké.
The Harlem Renaissance, understood as both a civil rights movement and a movement of black urban modernity imbued with expressions of sexual difference, offers an historical opportunity to recognize the queer lives of black artists and intellectuals and to draw out the theoretical implications that this cultural moment offers black queer studies as it contributes further insights into North American histories of race and sexuality.
In discussing queer sexuality in the Renaissance, a useful rubric is that of invisibility, recognizing a private Harlem black queer space that existed beyond Harlem's public representations. This can be seen in novels containing representations of ambivalent sexual alterity, in cultural insider narratives of queerness, and in the performances of Gladys Bentley, who like her famous counterparts Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith was a pioneer in the rise of the black female blues singer during the 1920s. However, unlike Rainey and Smith, Bentley built her career as a notorious Harlem performer, a well-known queer "secret" of the in-crowd of Harlemites and white patrons such as Van Vechten who attended her show. Bentley's success as a blues singer was linked with her overtly classed public lesbian persona—one that proudly displayed the "bull dagger" image. Eric Garber writes that this image was "the one identifiable black lesbian stereo-type of this period: the tough-talking, masculine acting, cross-dressing, and sexually worldly 'bulldagger.'" (Garber p. 58). Bentley's blues artistry entailed a gender performance that was strongly connected to the active LGBT subculture of the Harlem Renaissance period and to a black working-class social milieu.
As an example of this type of theoretical thrust, Bentley's "open secret" importantly served to both transgress and produce the racial and sexual identity dictates of the Renaissance, namely that of black middle-class heterosexuality. Public heteronormative space was defined in opposition to the open secret of queer private space in public. In the case of Bentley's persona and Harlem's image, what made the space and its subjects nominally "straight" and "middle-class" was its opposition to a circulating public narrative, the "open secret," of black queerness and working-class identity. Garber notes that while Bessie Smith sang about "mannish acting women," and Ma Rainey enjoyed "wearing a collar and a tie" in "Prove It On Me Blues," Bentley made the black bulldagger role that Lucille Bogan sang about in her 1935 "B.D. Women Blues" the center of her performance. Bentley performed in tuxedos and top hats, sang to women in the audience, exulted in being the object of sexually suggestive queer gossip, and married her female lover in a highly publicized wedding. So compelling was Bentley's gender performance that decades later artist Romare Bearden mistook her for a cross-dressing male when he identified her as a male-to-female impersonator called Gladys Bentley who sang at the Clam House. This exemplifies the queer readings and misreadings that have been generated by the Harlem Renaissance.
Bernard, Emily, ed. Remember Me to Harlem, The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 2002.
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Constantine-Simms, Delroy, ed. The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities, Volume 1. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2001.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism . New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
DuCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction . New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Garber, Eric. "Gladys Bentley: The Bulldagger Who Sang the Blues," Outlook 1 (Spring 1988): 52-61.
——. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Sub-culture of Jazz Age Harlem." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. New York: Meridian, 1989.
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
McDowell, Deborah E."Introduction." Quicksand and Passing . New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930 . New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Laura A. Harris
see alsobaker, josephine; bentley, gladys; bisexuality, bisexuals, and bisexual movements; dunbar-nelson, alice; countee, cullen; grimkÉ angelina weld; hughes, langston; literature; locke, alain; mckay, claude; nugent, richard bruce; niles, blair; thurman, wallace; van vechten, carl; walker, a'lelia.
Post-World War I Harlem was the undisputed center of a complex cultural movement out of which emerged a proliferation of black intellectuals, writers, musicians, actors, and visual artists. Variously called the Harlem Renaissance, the Negro Renaissance, and the New Negro Movement, it was an artistic flowering that coincided with socio-political expressions of black pride—the rise of the "New Negro" and Garveyism—in much the same way as the Black Arts and Black Power Movements emerged simultaneously in the 1960s. Although scholars posit differing views on when it began and ended, most agree that the movement was at its height between the dawning of the Jazz Age in 1919 and the stock market crash in 1929.
Harlem, the area James Weldon Johnson dubbed the Black "culture capital," was appropriately the center of this outpouring of black creativity, in part because it held one of the largest settlements of blacks in any area outside the south and, in part, because of the prevailing zeitgeist of racial affirmation. Intellectuals such as Johnson and Alain Locke saw Harlem as a place of great opportunity where blacks could, according to Locke, shed the "chrysalis of the Negro problem." Locke's 1925 landmark essay "The New Negro" announced the demise of the "Old Negro" and became a kind of cultural manifesto for artists then and for, at least, the next generation.
The creation of a "Negro" Harlem was indeed remarkable, a curious admixture of affluence and poverty, of black creativity and black exploitation. On the one hand, music, literature, plays, and paintings depicting black life flourished; black entrepreneurship thrived; on the political front, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) continued its work as the largest civil rights organization in the United States, alongside the National Urban League (1911) and the more controversial politics of Marcus Garvey, who was laying the groundwork for his project of African colonization. On the other hand, even well-intentioned white patrons helped to perpetuate stereotypes of black life that resulted in the paradoxical "Negro vogue" of the 1920s when white spectators went "slumming" in Harlem to see blacks perform in Jim Crow night clubs. They patronized small bars and cabarets formerly frequented only by blacks and, according to Langston Hughes in his autobiography The Big Sea, were given "ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in the zoo."
Yet these very contradictions helped to make Harlem the exciting city within a city that it was then and the cultural icon it has since become, in terms of both the place itself and the artists associated with it. It was a place and a time of burgeoning African American music—notably the blues and jazz—and a long list of black performers were recording their own compositions and appearing in black musicals, in concerts, and on radio programs. Classic jazz composers and performers all over the United States were increasingly drawn to New York as the nation's music center. Articles and books devoted exclusively to jazz were being published, and recording companies specializing in jazz were established. Black female blues and jazz singers, while held in high regard by their fans, were often considered "unrespectable" and their music "low culture" by some members of the black bourgeoisie. The blues revivals of the 1960s and 1980s reflected a major shift in that thinking. Both popular and lesser-known performers of the 1920s were rediscovered through new releases of their recordings that reached broader audiences. Angela Davis, in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, notes that "with the globalization of music distribution … the scope of black music and its historically broad cultural implications can no longer be confined to African American communities." Indeed, in 1987, Congress passed a resolution declaring jazz "a rare and valuable national treasure."
Writers such as Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer appeared on the literary scene, forming a kind of literati that they themselves jokingly referred to as the "Niggerati." Publishers clamored for anything "Negro," as Nella Larsen observed, and white patrons such as Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason (self-proclaimed the "Godmother" because of her financial support of artists) saw to it that they got what they wanted. Indeed, the overwhelming popularity of Van Vechten's own controversial novel Nigger Heaven (1926), depicting a seamy side of black life in Harlem, epitomized what publishers believed "Negro" actually meant. Similarly, early productions of work by white playwrights Eugene O'Neill and Frederick Ridgely Torrence were instrumental in creating interest in the plays of black writers, and also in bringing talented young black actors, singers, and dancers to the stage. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's 1921 musical comedy Shuffle Along was the first black Broadway show of the decade, and Hughes cites it as the show that gave a "scintillating send-off to the Negro vogue." At various points during its first run, it showcased the talents of Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, and the exotic, controversial entertainer Josephine Baker. Aaron Douglas designed posters advertising the work of various writers and entertainers but is best known for his contributions to major periodicals, including The Crisis and Opportunity, official publications of the NAACP and The National Urban League, respectively. The simultaneity of art and politics is vividly represented in the use of these two magazines, devoted in part to socio-political reporting of black experience but also to the artistic endeavors of the young black literati.
Clearly, a black cultural flowering was taking place in other major cities at the same time. However, despite the ongoing debates about whether or not the Harlem Renaissance is a misnomer, whether or not it was a successful movement or any kind of movement at all, black Harlem of the 1920s has become a symbolic "figure" that resonates across time and space, as well as across gender, racial, and cultural boundaries. According to James De Jongh, in the epilogue of Vicious Modernisms: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination, "many writers of European and Asian as well as African descent have found the idea of Harlem to be relevant to their preoccupations and employed the figure of black Harlem in significant ways." Striking examples are the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s where Harlem is seen as a haven for drug dealing and other illicit operations, teeming with violence. Black filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s, especially males, have modeled their notions of the "Hood"—any black poor and working-class urban community—on a symbolic figuration of Harlem. Some of the most popular films, although not necessarily set in Harlem, for example Boyz N the Hood (1991), attempt to reinterpret the concept of the black urban environment promulgated by earlier popular movies such as Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972) with images of racially self-aware men who are connected to, rather than alienated from, family and community. Harlem, reinterpreted, provides the actual setting for one of Spike Lee's major films, Jungle Fever (1991); and the opening of She's Gotta Have It (1986) pays homage to Zora Neale Hurston, a writer rediscovered, indeed reclaimed, by black feminists and co-opted by a host of academicians in a wide range of disciplines. Similarly, novels and short stories set in Harlem continued to be published into the 1990s, and The Music of Black Americans: A History cites Quincy Jones' Back on the Block as the album that "took his listeners back to the old inner-city neighborhood" to learn the history of black music.
In many ways, this idea of Harlem has shaped later generations' views of individual Renaissance artists, thereby determining who emerges as most representative of the place and the period. At the time, however, the issue of representation was hotly debated. Many of the black intelligentsia believed that the cultural arts were a means to correct the distorted images of blacks and to advance their political agendas. Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity, set strict guidelines for literary submissions to the magazine. Marcus Garvey was critical of those he believed "prostituted" their intelligence and art by succumbing to the demands of white audiences. W. E. B. Du Bois espoused the idea that "all Art is propaganda and ever must be." While some tried in various ways to escape the stigma of "blackness," others, such as Langston Hughes, one of the chief poets of the period, turned to the folk as a source of material for their work. Hughes proclaimed that the younger black artists were determined to portray their "dark-skinned selves without fear or shame" regardless of what audiences, black or white, thought. This is the attitude that has had the most profound effect on a hip-hop generation of youths who have both reclaimed and reinvented black cultural traditions in their language, music, and dress.
With the stock market crash came the end of an era and, as Hughes put it, the end of the gay times. By then, some of its most enthusiastic proponents were growing disillusioned with the concept of the "New Negro." Some had simply moved on to take up their careers elsewhere. Garvey had been convicted of mail fraud, spent two years in an Atlanta prison, and been deported in 1927. However, though the "Negro vogue" ended, art and activism did not. Renewed interest in the Harlem Renaissance and in individual artists has prompted a plethora of scholarship, biographies, docu-dramas, plays, and personal sojourns into the past, such as Alice Walker's search for Zora Neale Hurston's resting place. Black American music has helped to lessen the gap between "high" and "low" culture. A shift in views about paintings depicting black life might best be exempli-fied by the current respect for Palmer Hayden, whose work was dismissed during his own day as simplistic and naive, but who notable black artists such as Romare Bearden later extolled as the "leading folklorist" among them. This revival of interest focuses on the Renaissance as a pivotal period in African American culture that intersects with a rich cultural past and a promising future. Through their music, drama, art, and literature, blacks in Harlem's heyday confronted blackness head-on in a profound desire for self-discovery and, in so doing, left Harlem its most enduring cultural legacy.
—Jacquelyn Y. McLendon
Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists From 1792 to the Present. New York, Pantheon Books, 1993.
De Jongh, James. Vicious Modernisms: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York, Hill and Wang, 1940.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd edition. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
HARLEM RENAISSANCE. Known also by the names Black Renaissance or New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance represented a cultural movement among African Americans roughly between the end of World War I (1918) and the beginning of the Great Depression (1929). The names given to this movement reveal its essential features. Certainly the words "black" and "Negro" mean that this movement centered on African Americans, and the term "renaissance" indicates that something new was born or, more accurately, that a cultural spirit was reawakened in African American cultural life. Although most historians remember the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement, in fact, African Americans during the 1920s also made great strides in musical and visual arts, as well as science. Finally, the focus on Harlem—an old Dutch-built neighborhood of New York City—indicates that this "renaissance" was something of an urban phenomenon. In fact, the exciting developments in African American cultural life of the 1920s were not limited to Harlem, but also had roots in other urban communities where black Americans migrated in great numbers: East St. Louis, Illinois; Chicago's south side; and Washington, D.C.
The artists of the Harlem Renaissance forwarded two goals. Like the journalists and other "crusaders" of the Progressive era, black authors tried to point out the injustices of racism in American life. Second, newspaper editors, activists, authors, and other artists began to promote a more unified and positive culture among African Americans. Early efforts to publicize a more unified consciousness among African Americans included two publications in 1919: Robert Kerlin's collection of editorial material in Voice of the Negro and Emmett Scott's Letters from Negro Migrants. On the political front, leaders such as Marcus Garvey began to put forth plans for black economic self-sufficiency, political separatism, and the creation of a cross-national African consciousness.
Several important developments during the World War I era gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance. First, black southerners since the turn of the century had been moving in large numbers to the North's industrial cities. As a result, southern blacks who had been denied their political rights and had resorted to sharecropping as a
means of livelihood came into contact with northern African Americans who were more often the descendants of free blacks and, therefore, had better access to education and employment. Additionally, black Americans moving to the cities had much to complain about. World War I, the so-called war to make the world safe for democracy, had been a bitter experience for most African Americans. The U.S. Army was rigidly segregated, race riots broke out in many American cities during or immediately after the war, and the North was residentially and economically segregated like the South, despite the absence of Jim Crow laws.
Not all of the forces driving the Harlem Renaissance were negative, however. An influential anthropologist of the time, Zora Neale Hurston, observed that many white American artists began to employ aspects of African American culture in their works; she called these people "Negrotarians." Significant among these were Frank Tannenbaum, author of Darker Phases of the South (1924), and Paul Green, whose 1926 production of In Abraham's Bosom with a mostly black cast won the Pulitzer Prize.
The literary works of the Harlem Renaissance were products of their writers' racial consciousness but also demonstrated
a profundity and beauty that placed many of these writers among the great literary figures of the century. An important originator of the movement, James Weldon Johnson, gave impetus to other black writers in 1922 by publishing the work of contemporary black poets in a volume entitled The Book of American Negro Poetry. Writing throughout the 1920s, Johnson published his re-flections on the decade of black artistic creation in his auto-biographical Black Manhattan (1930). Johnson was joined by another early and influential writer, Jamaican-born Claude McKay. McKay gained notoriety with awareness-raising poems such as "The Lynching." McKay, like fellow Caribbean native Marcus Garvey, displayed the defiance and anger felt by black Americans in the wake of World War I.
The most influential African American poet of the 1920s would prove to be the eloquent Langston Hughes, called the Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Early Hughes's poetry such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "Mother to Son" reflected his roots in African American culture; these poems were published in The Weary Blues (1926). Later Hughes's work—four poems on the infamous (mis)trial of nine black men accused of rape in Alabama—revealed his heightened political consciousness and were published as Scottsboro Limited (1932). In the waning years of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes turned to satirical short stories on black life with a collection entitled The Ways of White Folks (1934).
Perhaps one of the best fiction writers of the Harlem Renaissance was Jessie Redmon Fauset. Well educated at Ivy League schools, Fauset represented the "talented tenth" of African Americans that W. E. B. Du Bois hoped would excel to the point of proving blacks' value to American society. Fittingly, Fauset represented blacks in her novels as mainstream Americans, choosing to weave race issues within her wider interest in cultural problems such as social status and economic well-being. Her most important works included There Is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun (1928), and Comedy: American Style (1933). Other writers—E. Franklin Frazier and Alain Locke, for example—hoped to advance the position of African Americans through scholarship by exposing the problems facing black Americans to induce change, as progressive journalists and novelists had done with health and safety issues before.
Black Americans during the 1920s excelled in fields other than literature. We often remember jazz as the product of black migration to New Orleans, but the other cities that black artists called home—New York, Chicago, St. Louis, for example—witnessed the development of jazz music as well. Important jazz pianists such as the unofficial "mayor" of Harlem, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum played music at house parties and other gatherings in Manhattan, making music an integral part of the black experience in the urban North. African American band-leaders—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson—and vaudeville blues singers—Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith—performed for black and white audiences, thereby influencing popular music in general.
Like Jessie Fauset, composer William Grant Still brought to the Harlem Renaissance a background in American higher education. Trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Still used traditional African American musical idioms to create European-style symphonic music. He was the first black composer to have a symphony played by a major orchestra, the first to conduct a major orchestra, and the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company. In 1931, Still legitimized Afro-inspired aesthetics in Western musical forms in premiering a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance aptly entitled the Afro-American Symphony.
In the world of visual art, the leading graphic artist, and illustrator for many of James Weldon Johnson's works, was Aaron Douglas. In northern cities, black artists such as Douglas wanted to capture their people's movement, energy, and soul as jazz musicians had. One of the most successful artists to do this was Archibald J. Motley Jr. Using vibrant color and flowing shapes, Motley reflected in his work the fast-paced urban life he observed in Chicago.
The Harlem Renaissance as a movement represented a rebirth of African American culture in the United States. As a product of black urban migration and black Americans' disappointment with racism in the United States, the renaissance was aimed at revitalizing black culture with pride. In political life, literature, music, visual art, and other cultural areas, African Americans in the 1920s put forth their individual and collective sense of dignity in the face of an American culture that often considered them second-class citizens.
Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. See chapter eighteen, 400–417. Classic, and still excellent, account of the Harlem Renaissance, balancing narrative with interpretation of primary evidence.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Standard monograph on the movement.
———, ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Vast collection of primary documents from the period.
Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. A useful reference tool on people, places, and a variety of other subjects pertaining to the movement.
Kramer, Victor. The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined. New York: AMS, 1987. A large volume of scholarly essays on a wide range of topics within the movement.
Perry, Margaret. The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982. A wonderful research tool on nineteen influential period authors, complete with citations of published works.
Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923–1933. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. Literary study of wide cross-section of black authors.
Waldron, Edward E. Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978. A mono-graph on the influential civic leader's role during the period.
The Harlem (New Negro) Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement between the World War I (1914–1919) and World War II (1939–1945) that saw a flourishing of black literature, drama, dance, art, and music. Shaped by a multiplicity of beliefs and motives, the Harlem Renaissance was a complex and often contradictory movement that was unified by a shared sense of racial self-determination and self-definition. With institutional support from black journals such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Crisis and the Urban League's Opportunity and white philanthropists and publishing houses, the Renaissance encouraged literary and artistic works that would reshape notions of blackness in American popular consciousness and counter dominant stereotypes of black inferiority.
A MIDDLE-CLASS MOVEMENT
Harlem Renaissance leaders envisioned an educated, middle-class cultural vanguard that would lead the race in the twentieth century and bring about social change. The most exceptional and educated fraction of the race, those the black national leader W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963) called the Talented Tenth, were called upon to set an example for the rest of the race by producing morally and racially validating art and demonstrating high cultural achievement to the rest of the nation. This vision of the movement privileged middle-class norms and advocated a politics of respectability that insisted on positive representations of black life: exemplary racial characters who exhibited middle-class aspirations and proper sexual and gender comportment. Yet at the same time, this guiding ideology was constantly challenged by writers who produced literature that reflected the experiences and values of the black working classes and those others left out of the talented tenth's normalizing program, including sexual and gender dissidents. The Harlem Renaissance thus constituted a field where the very meanings of blackness were contested in the literary public sphere.
WOMEN WRITERS OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
Most of the prominent women writers of the Renaissance came from the educated middle classes, and their literature reflected their worldview. Jessie Redmon Fauset, for example, published a number of poems, essays, and novels during the Renaissance. Each of her four novels (There is Confusion, 1924; Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral, 1929; The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life, 1931; and Comedy: American Style, 1933) depicts professional men and women of Negro society as they struggle against race prejudice. Highly conventional in style, they primarily advanced the politics of respectability and substantiated middle-class values. The novelist Nella Larsen similarly set her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), in the environments of the educated black elite, though her depictions are more critical of normative constructions of gender, race, and class than are Fauset's. Focusing more on self-alienation than on self-determination, Larsen's novels draw from the author's experiences as a biracial woman to explore how the color line limited black women's subjectivities. The poet and playwright Georgia Douglas Johnson was the only woman poet of the movement to publish her own poetry collections (The Hearts of a Woman and Other Poems, 1918; Bronze: A Collection of Verse, 1922; and An Autumn Love Cycle, 1928). The role of women in the literary public sphere was expanded by a number of other poets, playwrights, and short story writers, including Marita O. Bonner, Anne Spenser, Helene Johnson Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Angelina Weld Grimké.
In addition to their literary work, many of those women played a central role in shaping the direction of the Harlem Renaissance. As the literary editor of Crisis magazine, Fauset was an important mentor to aspiring writers. Georgia Douglas Johnson also mentored new writers and hosted a well-known literary salon at her Washington, DC, home that provided creative support and literary networking between Harlem and Washington. The poet Gwendolyn Bennett's regular column in Opportunity, "Ebony Flute," chronicled and publicized the literary works of younger writers. Through such contributions middle-class women were able to influence emerging work and guide the Renaissance to reflect the values of the Talented Tenth. Although their literary works often enforced racialized class, gender, and sexual norms, they also challenged existing stereotypes by enunciating the experiences and desires of a black economic and social class that rarely was represented in popular or literary culture.
CHALLENGES TO MIDDLE-CLASS VALUES
A number of other artists challenged those racial, sexual, and gender norms in their work and repudiated the elitism of the Talented Tenth. Drawing from blues culture, folk culture, and black working-class culture, writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Bruce Nugent were praised for their racial consciousness, but their refusal to affirm the values of the black middle-class and the patriarchal order of family in their prose and poetry—not to mention their personal lives—earned them dissaprobation and criticism. Hurston, one of the most significant artists of the movement, took up the practices of the rural folk rather than the black bourgeoisie, in her writings. A novelist, essayist, dramatist, and anthropologist, Hurston spent much of the Renaissance years traveling through the South, Haiti, and Jamaica, documenting folk cultures. In addition to numerous stories and plays, she published two collections of folk tales (Mules and Men, 1935; Tell My Horse, 1938), several novels (including Jonah's Vine Gourd, 1934, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937), and an autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road, 1942). Writers such as McKay, Thurman, and Nugent, meanwhile, all wrote works with significant queer content that explored the less respectable terrain of the urban underworld.
Although the individual poems, novels, and short stories of those writers articulated new possibilities of black masculinity, femininity, and sexuality in the public sphere, their collective rebellion of this other Harlem Renaissance can be seen best in the avant-garde literary journal Fire!! (1926), which was edited collaboratively by Thurman, Hughes, Nugent, Hurston, Bennett, Aaron Douglas, and John Davis. Fire!! offered a counterpoint to the literary politics espoused by magazines such as Crisis and Opportunity. Although only one issue was published, it included fiction about prostitution, internalized color prejudice, and homosexuality and poetic and prose explorations of folk and blues culture. The importance of blues and jazz to those writers requires that they be considered in relation to blues performers such as Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters. In songs about extramarital relationships, domestic disillusionment, bisexuality and lesbian relations, and women's social oppression, blues performers articulated working-class black women's experiences and enunciated queer possibilities.
Many of the contributions of women and sexual minorities to the Harlem Renaissance were overlooked, minimized, or forgotten in the decades after the movement. The recovery of those histories, begun in the 1970s by black feminist scholars and writers, continues to be performed. For example, lesbian feminist critics have read queer meanings in the works of women authors such as Grimké and Larsen, and Hughes's poetry has been taken up by queer critics to explore the construction of black sexuality. Similarly, as films such as the black British filmmaker Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston (1989) and the African-American filmmaker Rodney Evans's Brother to Brother (2004) demonstrate, the Harlem Renaissance remains an important resource for cotemporary queer of color history and identity formation in the United States and Europe.
Garber, Eric. 1989. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: New American Library.
Hull, Gloria T. 1987. Color, Sex & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hutchinson, George. 1995. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Lewis, David Levering. 1997. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin.
Nugent, Richard Bruce. 2002. Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, ed. Thomas H. Wirth. Durham: Duke University Press.
Patton, Venetria K., and Maureen Honey, eds. 2001. Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Schwartz, A. B. Christa. 2003. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wall, Cheryl A. 1995. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Watson, Steven. 1995. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920–1930. New York: Pantheon.
The Harlem Renaissance refers to a time period that spanned the 1920s and early 1930s when African American artists and their work flourished. Though largely considered a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance actually included philosophers, intellectuals, photographers, musicians, and other performance artists as well as those involved in the visual arts. During its heyday, the movement was referred to as the New Negro Movement. The alternate name was eventually given because the African American migration to northern cities in the early 1920s brought many blacks to Harlem, or upper Manhattan, New York . As a result, the two square miles between 114th and 156th Streets of Harlem
became known throughout the world as a cultural metropolis.
For white America, the Harlem Renaissance provided the gateway into an unfamiliar culture that was a major ingredient of the country's “melting pot” (society of many and various cultures and ethnicities). The movement introduced millions of Americans to literature, music, and art that had never before been seen, much less understood. In limited scope, the era helped erase some of the stereotypes assigned to the African American community. White Americans were able to recognize the talent, ability, and giftedness of the Harlem Renaissance's key figures, who in turn stepped forward to represent an entire race.
The movement was arguably more important to African Americans in that it allowed them to claim their heritage and develop their cultural and ethnic identity without feeling the need to hide who they were. For the first time in American history, African Americans were being celebrated for their contributions to society.
Culture and politics entwine
What sets the Harlem Renaissance apart from other cultural movements throughout American history is the fact that at the same time, major political changes were taking place.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established in 1909, and it remained in the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) added to the political mix when he began advocating for African colonization and encouraged all African Americans to unite and form their own nation and government. Garvey's politics were controversial, yet the organization he founded in 1914, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, grew to include four million members by 1920. Black nationalism (strong allegiance to and identification with the African American culture, to the exclusion of all other races) was a major influence on the Harlem Renaissance.
Given the tumultuous state of politics, much of the art—particularly the literature—generated throughout the Harlem Renaissance was political in nature. Other participants used their art in an attempt to correct unflattering or distorted ideas of their race and heritage. Garvey himself publicly criticized those African Americans who he felt exploited (used at their own expense) their intelligence and art by giving in to the demands of white audiences. In his eyes, these people betrayed their roots and identity in exchange for fame.
Key figures in the Renaissance
There are many influential figures from the Harlem Renaissance. Considered by many historians and experts to be the inspiration for the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) secured a seat for himself at the forefront of early twentieth-century philosophical thought. The African American community embraced Du Bois as its intellectual leader, and as editor-in-chief for twenty-five years of the NAACPs journal the Crisis, he single-handedly was responsible for publishing some of the movement’ most gifted and respected writers. Among them were poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967) and writer/philosopher Jean Toomer (1894–1967). Both men wrote of their experiences as African Americans in a white society. Du Bois himself was a talented writer, though his philosophy known as the Talented Tenth made him a somewhat controversial figure. According to his theory, the Negro race would be saved only by its exceptional men, who would pull the entire race into equality with whites. This small, elite group of literary and intellectual geniuses, he believed, had to be groomed and supported by the less-intelligent masses.
Other key authors of the Harlem Renaissance included Countee Cullen (1903–1946), Claude McKay (1890–1948), Alain Locke (1886–1954), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938).
Beyond the writers
Blues and jazz were the musical genres of the Harlem Renaissance, and both had their roots in the black South. Although many African American musicians had been performing for years in small venues, they found themselves suddenly famous after the founding of Okeh's Original Race Records label in 1921. Popular performers included Bessie Smith
(c. 1894–1937), Ma Rainey (1886–1939), and Mamie Smith (1883–1946). These women used their cultural experiences to infuse meaning into songs. The blues tunes were all about loss of love, personal disaster, and the hardships of life in general.
Jazz followed closely on the heels of the blues, and the first big band (jazz orchestra) was organized in New York City in the early 1920s. The first great jazz soloist was Louis Armstrong (1901–1971), who blew his trumpet first for a smaller band in Chicago, Illinois , and then for Fletcher Henderson's (1898–1952) big band in New York in 1924. Other famous jazz musicians included Cab Calloway (1907–1994) and Duke Ellington (1899–1974).
There were fewer visual artists in the Harlem Renaissance, and even those who seized the opportunity for growth remain less well known. James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) was a Harlem photographer who had moved from Massachusetts in 1905. He was a bold artist and one of the first photographers to consider photography as a form of art. By the 1920s, he had built a successful portrait photography business. It is his work that gives the modern American a glimpse into the African American culture of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sculpture and painting were other artistic mediums that African American artists embraced. Meta Warrick Fuller (1877–1968) became famous for her 1914 sculpture Ethiopia Awakening. The piece depicts an African American woman wrapped like a mummy from the waist down, but whose upper torso is living and reaching upward. On her head she wears an Egyptian queen's headdress. The sculpture became a nationalist symbol for African Americans. This and other similar artistic works that reflected African heritage and identity played into white America's sudden interest in black folklore.
Archibald Motley (1891–1981) was an artist who favored oil paints as his medium. Unlike most other important figures of the Harlem Renaissance, he never actually lived in Harlem but claimed Chicago for his home. Motley's paintings documented the African American urban experience, particularly the club scene and nightlife as influenced by the Roaring Twenties , or Jazz Age (a period in U.S. history between World War I and the Great Depression when new forms of social, cultural, and artistic expression were emerging).
Other significant contributions were made in the field of visual arts by painter Aaron Douglas (1898–1979), sculptor Sargent Claude Johnson (1887–1967), and painter Palmer Hayden (1890–1973).
In all art forms, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of development for African American artists. They used their art to express who and what they were as well as were not, where they came from, and where they were going.