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Harlem Renaissance Essay

Summary of Book

When Harlem was in Vogue, David L. Lewis’s celebrated account of the Harlem Renaissance, was published by Knopf in1981. The latest edition, a Penguin paperback with a luminous new preface added by the author, appeared in 1997. In Lewis’s view, the1919 Fifth-Avenue parade celebrating the return to Harlem from World War I of the famed 369th Regiment of the New York National Guard signaled the arrival of a black America ready for the phenomenon that became known as the Harlem Renaissance; and the bloody 1935 Harlem riot reflected the dramatic abruptness with which the Great Depression had already prematurely extinguished the Renaissance’s brief starburst. The heroic 369th – entirely black except for the18 white officers who led it in combat – had so impressed the French High Command that (contrary to the expressed wishes of senior American commanders) they chose it among all Allied forces as the regiment to lead the final march to the Rhine.

It was the only U.S. unit awarded the Croix de Guerre. Its only black commissioned officer was Jim Europe – a widely-known bandleader – who conducted the regimental band. When America entered World War I, the most influential black intellectual – W.E.B. DuBois – counseled blacks of fighting age to serve their country unstintingly despite the nation’s bitter history of racism and a succession of insulting decisions by the U.S. military demonstrating that they had little confidence that American Negroes had the courage or intelligence to serve in the armed forces in any but the most menial noncombat roles.

DuBois emerged as the guiding spirit of the Renaissance. Lewis describes him as “the senior intellectual militant of his people, a symbol of brainy, complex, arrogant rectitude,” who, although short of stature “ towered over other men, defiant, uncompromising (but maddeningly inconsistent.)” DuBois was a fervent integrationist. His older rival, Booker T. Washington, was not. Washington, a descendant of slaves who was born to poverty, had counseled American blacks to be patient, accepting, hardworking and humble. He had led Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from its founding as a one-room school to its evolution into a first-quality trade school training American Negroes for success in the kinds of jobs they could expect to find. Fisk University in Nashville was a black college more to DuBois’s taste.

Fisk’s goal was to be for blacks a liberal arts college in the finest American traditiion. Washington died in 1915. The next decade and a half belonged to DuBois and his Talented Tenth: the black intelligentsia ( novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, composers, academics and the like.) And a fascinating lot they – and those they interacted with – were. DuBois believed that if educated, enlightened whites were properly exposed to a continuing stream of first rate art from a wide array of black artists, they would come to recognize a black Talented Tenth every bit as intelligent, cultured and creative as the brightest, best educated, most cultivated whites. And that, he believed, would be the catalyst for ending racism and inequality not only for the Talented Tenth but for blacks of all classes. He would prove painfully wrong.

During the “ madcap twenties,” there was a close bond between Manhattan’s black and white bohemias : Harlem at the northern tip of the Island and Greenwich Village at the southern end. It was a time, according to Langston Hughes: when at almost every Harlem upper-crust dance or party, one would be introduced to various distinguished white celebrities there as guests. . . .when almost every Harlem Negro of any social importance at all would be likely to say casually: ‘As I was remarking the other day to Heywood’ – meaning Heywood Broun. Or: ‘As I said to George’ – referring to George Gershwin. . . . [a time] when local and visiting royalty were not uncommon in Harlem.

Not all of the artists, intellectuals and reformers comprising the Harlem Renaissance or the Lost Generation lived in Harlem or the Village. The two black authors whose fiction launched the Renaissance – Claude McKay and Jean Toomer – were “Harlem outsiders who chose to live anywhere else.” Iconoclast H.L. Mencken who set much of the intellectual tone for both bohemias lived in Baltimore. Several white writers from the South, including DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy that Gershwin adopted and adapted, were accepted as satellite members of the elite fraternity of black artists and intellectuals that black writer Zora Hurston puckishly dubbed the Niggerati. Lewis’s point is that the two bohemias, Harlem and the Village, were also places in the mind – constructs of culture to be encountered [at black colleges located elsewhere,] the Algonquin Hotel dining room or . . . the Left Bank of the Seine.

Lewis calls “intolerant, philistine America” the common adversary of the two bohemias: The black Talented Tenth and the white Lost Generation shared the common premise that arts and letters had the power to transform a society in which, until profoundly altered, there was no place for . . . [them]. He concludes, however, that the two movements drew diametrically opposite conclusions from their common premise. In the Village, bohemia was a value; in Harlem it was a strategy. [The Lost Generation] were lost in the sense that they had no wish to find themselves in a materialistic, Mammon-mad, homogenizing modern America. [The] . . . New Negroes very much wanted full acceptance by mainstream America.

Many of the movers and shakers who led the Renaissance were among the very most elegantly educated Americans – white or black. DuBois was an early black graduate of Harvard. His protegé, Howard Professor Alain Locke, graduated from Harvard Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude and went on to Oxford as the first (and, for 60 years, the only) African-American Rhodes Scholar. Locke, according to Lewis, “was fanatic on culture, and by ‘culture’ [Locke]. . . meant all that was not common, vulgar or racially distasteful.” Locke annually told Howard freshmen that “the highest intellectual duty is the duty to be cultured.”

Charles Johnson, a consummate promoter of African American writers, was a grad student at the University of Chicago when he emerged into public view by authoring a 700-page report for a blue-ribbon Commission appointed to study the violent 1919 Chicago race riot which had left 38 dead, 537 wounded and more than 1,000 homeless. The National Urban League hired Johnson as editor of Opportunity, the League’s new monthly. Johnson’s goal for Opportunity was to “redeem through art the standing of his people.” In Lewis’s view, although Johnson had considerable ego, it was his nature – and passion – to work secretly and patiently behind the scenes, recruiting and guiding others into the spotlight.

It was Johnson who orchestrated the 1924 dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine that resulted in the Harlem Renaissance being first recognized as a movement and receiving its name. Johnson chose as venue for the dinner Manhattan’s Civic Club. The only upper-crust New York club without color or gender restrictions, the Civic Club had become an important meeting ground for black and white liberals. The ostensible reason for the dinner was to celebrate the publication of There Is Confusion, a novel by Jesse Fauset, a young African-American woman who was assistant editor to DuBois of The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly magazine. Fauset, like Locke from an established “old-Philadelphia” black family, chose as her subjects for the novel educated, upper class blacks.

Johnson’s plan for the gala, however, extended well beyond honoring Fauset. He asked Frederick Allen, then Harper and Brothers editor, to select and invite a representative group of notable white writers and intellectuals, including Mencken, Eugene O’Neill and Carl Van Doren. Johnson himself invited not only the best known black writers and intellectuals, including DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Locke, McKay and Toomer, but also a wide array of talented but still obscure black writers, including Hughes. The event was a huge success. The winners of Opportunity’s first literary contest received money prizes. Carl Van Doren forecast a sparkling future for African-American writers who, he thought, would bring sorely needed energy and vitality to a somewhat pallid American literary landscape.

Concluding the evening’s festivities, Johnson announced that Opportunity would sponsor another contest and banquet the following year. After the program , the editor of Survey Graphic magazine offered to devote an entire issue to the work of talented black writers. Survey Graphic’s special edition entitled : “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” appeared the next year to rave reviews. Sales exceeded twice the magazine’s normal circulation. Opportunity’s second banquet was even more successful than the Civic Club affair. 316 guests attended.

At the banquet’s end, Johnson announced that funding for the following year’s contest and banquet was already in hand from a “man of business:” Casper Holstein. Holstein’s business was the numbers racket, a business he had invented in New York and would exclusively control until the ‘30s when Dutch Schultz shouldered him to the side. During the four years following the Civic Club dinner, there was an avalanche of black creativity: novels, poetry, plays, painting, sculpture, music, the performing arts and criticism, DuBois, Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Fauset, Walter White (the NAACP’s Assistant Executive Secretary) and a host of others – white as well as black – provided advice, and leadership and led the cheers. The magazines of the two civil rights organizations, Opportunity and The Crisis, played central roles, publishing poetry, short stories, essays and photographs of paintings and sculptures as well as critics’ pieces evaluating the literary, performing and other artistic work of Renaissance artists.

When the work of a writer or other artist appeared in The Crisis, that work received wide circulation. DuBois’s editorship of The Crisis had been so successful that, by 1919, it was selling 100,000 copies monthly. Lewis notes that during a time of “rampant illiteracy” when “harsh demands on their laboring hours left black workers little time,” the magazine somehow “found its way into sharecroppers’ cabins and cramped factory workers’ tenements, often lying next to the family bible.” Among the many white writers who gave support to the Negro Renaissance were Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, Lewis Mumford, Lincoln Steffens, Robert Benchley and Fanny Hurst.

Generous funding and sponsorship for Renaissance artists and for the civil rights organizations as well, came from a number of foundations and also from wealthy individuals. Chicago business leader Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Foundation were among the most generous. The Garland Foundation did much to encourage African-American artistic achievement, sponsoring awards contests, making money grants and conferring endowments, among other things. Another foundation, the Harmon, sponsored a “Traveling Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists,” which shipped a large collection of paintings and sculpture to 50 cities, accompanied by many copies of a “thick expensively illustrated catalog” with text by Locke. More than 150,000 viewed the Exhibition.

The most colorful of the individual patrons was Charlotte Mason Osgood, a hugely wealthy Park Avenue socialite dowager fascinated by the primitive and exotic in art. Among her many black proteges were Locke (whom she called her “precious brown boy” and was her emissary to the Talented Tenth); Langston Hughes (whom she called “her most precious child”); the young novelist, Zora Hurston; and painter Aaron Douglas. Encouraging them to call her “Godmother,” she generously subsidized their daily lives with monthly stipends, cars and the like and richly rewarded their artistic achievements. She thought this entitled her to give direction to their work.

She repeatedly instructed Langston Hughes to “be primitive” in more of his writing. Eventually he demurred, asking her to “release him from her empire [and] try to accept his new ideas, and expressing the hope that her friendship “that had been so dear to him” would continue. With bitter imprecations, the old lady “cast him for all time from her Park Avenue Eden.” From the outset DuBois, Charles Johnson, patrician James Weldon Johnson and other civil rights organization leaders sought to encourage black artists to take as their subjects educated, upper class blacks and to avoid depicting Negro life as primitive, exotic, sensual or erotic – attributes often associated with the poorly-educated African-American underclass living in extreme poverty.

They were not particularly successful in this endeavor, although they themselves limited their own creative writing to the portrayal of decorous upper class African-American life. Lewis captures the ultimate outcome of this contretemps in his discussion of painter Palmer Hayden’s still life, Fetich et Fleurs: “It gave back perfectly the ethos of the Renaissance – natural seeming juxtapositions if not perfect union of refined sensibility and dark powers.”

One of the more extreme efforts to sensationalize the “underbelly” of African-American life was the novel Nigger Heaven by white writer, Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten, who had earlier been the New York Times music critic, had famously played a key role as an important white liaison between Harlem writers and Greenwich Village elite. On innumerable occasions, he had introduced talented young black artists to publishers, prestigious artists and other movers and shakers in the white community who could be helpful toward advancing their careers. He and his wife, poet Fania Marinoff, hosted numerous parties to which they invited both Harlem Renaissance and white artists and intellectuals. They also attended countless black-hosted, mixed-race parties in Harlem and were familiar figures at the Harlem clubs and speakeasies that white New Yorkers were increasingly frequenting.

In consequence, Van Vechten, prior to authoring Nigger Heaven, had been warmly welcomed into the coterie of elite blacks and their special white intimates that young black novelist Hurston had dubbed the Niggerati. Nigger Heaven’s frank depiction of the Negro underclass made it distinctly controversial for the black intelligentsia. However, in a parallel story line, the novel also portrayed the refined lifestyle of the urbane, sophisticated black intelligentsia. Many leading Harlem Renaissance figures could easily identify themselves among the book’s characters. On the whole, they were depicted quite sympathetically, which probably persuaded many of them, including Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, to praise the book. Other blacks, including more than a few Renaissance intellectuals, thought the book repugnant.

Mischievous iconoclast George Schuyler, Harlem’s counterpart to Mencken, deplored the “ever-present need” of white writers in portraying the Negro, to show that “even when he appears to be civilized, 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 and ride off wild-eyed on the back of a crocodile.” Renaissance writers repeatedly visited the matter of black identity – particularly as impacted by the forced miscegenation all too common to slavery and the resultant choice facing light-skinned African-Americans of whether to cross over and pass as white.

The writer’s own skin color could profoundly impact his perspective on these matters. Although Lewis does not expressly say so, perhaps largely unspoken, but constantly hovering on the periphery, was an overarching paradox. Expressed at its most extreme: Is a person – all of whose ancestors are white save one octoroon grandfather – black? If so – by that definition – are virtually all of us who consider ourselves white, in fact black.

Another common thread running through much Renaissance writing was the view that slavery-era crossbreeding and other aspects of the Negro’s problematic history in the U.S. had become insuperable obstacles to any meaningful continuing connection to African blacks. In Hughes’s short story, “Burutu Moon,” the narrator, an African-American visiting Africa in search of his roots, asks his African host to see a Ju-Ju dance. “No, him too awful! White man never go.” “But I’m not a white man,” the narrator objected. “You no black man neither.” Lewis provides a treasure trove of fascinating detail about Harlem life in the ‘20s. Did you know, for example, that Harlem’s famous Cotton Club did not admit blacks as guests, but only as performers? Particularly enjoyable is Lewis’s colorful description of the “rent parties” that apartment tenants threw to raise money for their monthly rent: Saturday nights were terrific in Harlem, but rent parties every night were the special passion of the community.

Their very existence was avoided or barely acknowledged by most Harlem writers, like that other rare and intriguing institution, the buffet flat where varied and often perverse sexual pleasures were offered cafeteria -style. With the exception of Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, almost noone . . . admitted attending a rent party. “These were times, Willie (‘the Lion) Smith recalls, when ‘the average Negro family did not allow the blues, or even raggedy music, played in their homes.” In fact, though, it frequently came about that, after a sedate parlor gathering and after the cabarets closed, poets and writers (and even an NAACP official) would follow musicians to one of these nightly rent-paying rites. “If sweet mama is running wild, and you are looking for a Do-right child, just come around and linger” – crooned a printed invitation preserved by Langston Hughes to one of the more elaborate affairs. Or Cora Jones’s at 187 West 148th Street: “Let your papa drink the whiskey/Let your mama drink the wine/ But you come to Cora’s/And do the Georgia grind. . . .”

Rent parties began anytime after midnight, howling and stomping sometimes well into dawn in a miasma of smoke, booze, collard greens, and hot music. Willie “the Lion” Smith called them ‘jumps,’ ‘shouts,’ or ‘struts,’ where, for a quarter, “you would see all kinds of people making the party scene; formally dressed society folks from down- town, policemen, painters, carpenters, mechanics, truckmen in their workingmen’s clothes, gamblers, lesbians, and entertainers of all kinds . . . .”At the more elaborate struts, along about 3 a.m. tempo would quicken when Willie “the Lion,” James P. Johnson, Claude Hopkins, Fats Waller, or “Corky” Williams – and even Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) Ellington – arrived palm-slapping and tuning up.

The Great Depression blew out the lights of the Harlem Renaissance. The awards contests, grants and endowments dried up. Circulation of The Crisis and Opportunity turned sharply down, their budgets were reduced and they struggled to survive. The two Johnsons left the civil rights organizations for professorships at all-black Fisk University in Nashville. The output of Talented Tenth writers and other artists declined to a trickle. And the proposition that racial prejudice in America could be extinguished by dazzling literature and art produced by the Talented Tenth “was exposed as the myth it had always been.” Lynchings increased – reaching a total of 28 in 1934.

Lesser acts of bigotry appeared to be spreading, not diminishing. As the White House made arrangements to implement a Congressional grant to pave the way for World War I gold-star mothers to travel by ocean liner to Europe for a cemetery tour, angry letters from white mothers poured in objecting to its plan to have white and black women travel on the same vessel. The administration reversed course. The white mothers sailed away promptly in dignity on a first-class ship. The black mothers followed substantially later in a second-class vessel. The Renaissance had not even improved the lot of the Talented Tenth.

Paul Robeson and his wife “were turned away from the Guild Room of London’s Savoy Hotel after protests by other American tourists. The Robesons had frequently gone there in the past, and he was about to return to America for a concert tour beginning in Carnegie Hall. On this evening, however, the management informed Robeson that ‘the Hotel did not permit Negroes to enter the rooms any longer.’ ” Similarly, the founder-publisher of Chicago’s Defender and his wife “ were asked to leave their London hotel after one day because other American guests had protested their presence and threatened to blacklist the hotel by word of mouth. They finally found lodging in a private home.”

Carl Van Vechten’s wife, Fania Marinoff, was quoted as saying that after “tast[ing] all the drinks in all the speakeasies” and going to “hundreds of parties in apartments, night clubs, honky tonks and speakeasies” in Harlem and the Village, it all seemed “very hollow.” “I never liked it,” she observed, noting more significantly that Van Vechten was “equally weary of that life.” Responding in anger, The Pittsburg Courier, a newspaper widely circulated to the black community, announced: “Let that be a warning to Negroes who bow and scrape to patronizing whites.” Most striking, perhaps, was the case of W.E.B. DuBois.

DuBois outraged his Talented-Tenth disciples by publishing essays in The Crisis, advocating what he provocatively called “segregation,” which he described more specifically as “voluntary action to increase our separation from our fellow men.” He advocated it as a “step toward the ultimate breaking down of barriers.” For Walter White, then the NAACP’s Executive Secretary, this was the last straw. He demanded that DuBois recant or leave the NAACP. DuBois left. On March 19, 1935, Lewis concludes, “the riot awaiting its immediate cause swept down Lenox Avenue with ten thousand angry Harlemites destroying two million dollars in white-owned commercial property.” By the next morning, three blacks had died, 30 people were hospitalized and one hundred were in jail.


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