Both “Cordelia the Crude,” and the final piece in Fire! by Thurman mention certain archetypes of Harlem life that emerged from the great migration to Harlem. The character of Cordelia from Thurman’s story and the character Mary that he mentions in his review of Van Vechten’s novel seem to be polar opposites, yet they are products of the mass uprooting of African Americans after the turn of the century. Cordelia is a Southern transplant who turns to tramping in the movie theatre as a rebellion and eventually even becomes a prostitute. Mary Love is said to be a “pure, poor, virtuous, vapid” character. This stands in direct opposition to Cordelia.
This juxtapostion shows up in stories throughout “The New Negro,” and seems to be a central theme when thinking about Harlem. There are characters such as King Solomon Gillis in Fisher’s story, “The City of Refuge,”who is a naïve Southern transplant exploited by Mouse Uggam. King represents the slow, simple life of the south, while Uggam is a savvy, corupted, fast talking New Yorker. This contrast focuses on regional differences. In Fisher’s other story, “Vestiges,” other dichtomies appear. Religion is discussed in “Shepard Lead Us.” Shackleton Ealey is a con-man who takes up the cloth in order to make money off of transplanted southerners, and his character is contrasted with Ezekiel Taylor, a preacher from the south who comes up north to reclaim his parish. In “Majutah,” the title character must sneak past her grandmother in order to get out to the cabarets with her boyfriend, Harry. The contrast here is clear, the young, rebellious grand daughter and her pious grandmother, both live in Harlem, but very different versions of the same neighborhood. Finally, in “Learning,” education is given a treatment as a possible conflict between generations, as the daughter wants to become a teacher, but the father hesitates to foot the bill. There are other examples of this contrast in worlds that exists in Harlem at this time period.
Locke mentions in his introduction that “The New Negro” must live in this double world, respecting the traditions of the past: stanch religion, folk spirituals, and conservative morality, while reinventing their position in America. Locke believes that African American “hope rests in the revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, not only in his folk-art, …but in larger, though humbler and less acknowledged ways.” The pieces of art he chose to represent this movement reflects this respect for the past, while building hope for the future. Willis Richardson and Zora Hurston’s folk plays show a Southern past, complete with dialect and cultural customs. Langston Hughes’s poetry speaks for itself as a representation of free form set firmly in New York. While Locke says that he sees a cultural future for African Americans through more progressive artistic ways, his selection seems limited. Where the two works, The New Negro and Fire! differ seems to be their acceptance and usage of Richard Bruce. Bruce’s story in Fire!, with obvious homosexual themes and revolutionary style, shatters the paradigm of benign folk fiction that Locke sets forth.
There is a criticism of Locke’s editing and philosophy in the introduction of The New Negro that he completely ignores the blues. This seems symbolic of Locke’s resistance to new forms of expression amongst African Americans. He seems attached to the “folk arts,” and is particulary attached to spiritual music. How does this tendency fit into the dichtomy of Harlem mentioned earlier? Is Locke a bastion of the old world, or simply an unwilling participant in artistic rebellion? He seems open, but perhaps he is not as willing as Cordelia to get his hands dirty?



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6 responses to “

  1. Leah

    To me, the overwhelming theme throughout Fire! and The New Negro is sadness. You wrote, “Locke mentions in his introduction that “The New Negro” must live in this double world, respecting the traditions of the past: stanch religion, folk spirituals, and conservative morality, while reinventing their position in America.” However, it seems overwhelmingly apparent that “The New Negro” struggles with this concept. The idea of maintaining the past while living in the future doesn’t seem possible, at least not in the stories presented in this collection. Looking specifically at “Cordelia the Crude” and “The City of Refuge,” we see two characters who struggle to make it in the new world, struggle to find their place in this world, and end up settling for a life of the lowest sort. Cordelia doesn’t have any idea who she is in Harlem, and is forced (or, maybe chooses) to fall back on the only thing she knows how to do. Mouse Uggam, presumably, struggles to make it in Harlem, so turns to a more lucrative life of crime, dragging down an old neighbor in the process. Both characters lower themselves to the basest of existences and yet there is no mention of unhappiness, remorse, guilt. You ask, “Is Locke a bastion of the old world, or simply an unwilling participant in artistic rebellion?” I have to admit that I would have liked to see newer forms of expression and the greater successes of African Americans presented in these collections. Yet, to be fair, I think Locke does an excellent job presenting just how difficult it was to be “The New Negro.” The struggles African Americans had with remaining loyal to the old traditions while at the same time finding their place in a hard world are clearly presented. I think Locke “got his hands dirty,” maybe just not in the way we would have liked.

  2. helenjean23

    I find it fitting that those selections from Fire!! and The New Negro unveil characters which we readers find disparate. In discovering such opposites, we see that portrayals of African Americans prove that individuals exist. After all, if we are seeking to group all members of this race together, or if we feel compelled to, at the very least, subscribe them to some overarching group or trend, then we are denying the African American artist’s ability to be original. There must be an innumerable amount of African American characters – some will inevitably fit the mold set by whites, others will perpetuate the stereotypes unwittingly embraced by African Americans, and others will lie elsewhere. Those “elsewheres” may be the product of a little-known or unknown author who is simply writing what he/she knows and lives. Because there are countless white authors, there are countless white characters that are manifestations of the authors’ unique experiences. If we are to agree that people write what they know, or should write what they know, then there is the potential for the existence of as many African American characters as there are African Americans. To attempt to pigeonhole African American authors is to put a cap on their creative abilities; however, it should be remembered their opportunity for expression was new and that the venues for publications were limited.

  3. While reading Cordelia the Crude there was the obvious rebellious theme with respect to her unwillingness to abide by her parents loose rules that they put in place for her as well as this need to go as against the grain in an effort to find self. I don’t get the sense that she wants to necessarily become a prostitute, and though the narrator paints her in such a way that she radiates this token whore motif, it seems that she is more trying to regain the love she’s forced to give up.
    It’s necessary to look at the literary fact that this illustrated to us in the narrative to see that Cordelia was merely seeking love, sure she was “wise”, experienced if you will, but she certainly didn’t orchestrate the idea of being paid for what the narrator considered services, and what seemed to her more than just that. I wouldn’t agree with the assertion that she’s forced into this life of prostitution because it’s the only thing that she knows how to do. I think that the idea is absurd because the text doesn’t give the impression that she’s unable to find work or that she is unable to learn, instead it gives this notion of adamant refusal to bind self to the social norms and constraints of her society. Consequently, it is the narrator you categorizes Cordelia as a prostitute, since he’s the first man to give her “two dollars” for sexual favors, and this is a catalyst for what she becomes by the end of the story. I almost wonder if she may have fallen in love with the narrator, because how else could he have been so informed on her private life, unless he’d spent time that’s obviously not shown in the text. I also wonder if perhaps there are 2 narrators in the piece. The first, someone who lived with her in the home town and also in her Harlem home, and then the later narrator who is responsible for shaping the idea of prostitution in her mind.

  4. Darise

    Is Locke a bastion of the old world, or simply an unwilling participant in artistic rebellion?

    I think Locke is more concerned with creating a unified framework in which black artists and writers can operate. I think he wants to have agreeable parameters around how blacks are portrayed in art and The New Negro aims to represent those parameters.

    The old world was less savvy about how to negotiate parameters within and outside of the black community and that is why Locke may not necessarily be a bastion of the old world. He is clever and innovative about how to get what he believes will advance black art.

    In Fire!!, Nugent suggests that Locke is primarily concerned with maintaining the Negro image that the golden boys and girls of the Harlem Renaissance agreed upon. Fire!! is a response to that because The New Negro fails to address the notion that black art is free flowing and does not necessarily have to be supported by philanthropists or social change agencies. In this way, Locke is unwilling to rebel against the politics of art.

  5. Sabrina

    The question of Locke’s dedication to a new African American tradition or older folk ways is further complicated by his essay “Negro Youth Speaks.” Although Locke discusses in his introduction the historical bind, or doubleness, that blacks must face, his later essay aligns himself with the specific historical tradition he would prefer that blacks ascribed to. In “Negro Youth Speaks,” Locke expresses his pleasure with the new turn that African American writers are making when he states that poets “have shaken themselves free from the minstrel tradition and the fowling-nets of dialect, and have carried the folk-gifts to the altitudes of art” (48). Of course, he understands the validity, and necessity of including dialect and “racy folk types” because their work marries the “fresh emotional endowment with the finest niceties of art” (50, 52). For Locke, modern art and high art isn’t an additional element to African American art, it is the means that raises folk art from the “undersoil of the race life” (51). He in turn creates a high/low hierarchy, in the midst of a collection that is trying to reconcile the two. Fire!! on the other hand lets each tradition stand. The editors of Fire!!! allow “Cordelia the Crude” to stand with the burgeoning intellectualism of Alex in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.” Locke may let the works reside within the same text, but has to explain away the existence of each tradition.

  6. josephtruscello

    First, sorry for responding late – had some technical difficulties, won’t happen again.

    In Fire!, Wallace Thurman’s selections have a diversity in style and content that is lacking in “The New Negro.” Locke’s choices are an artistic blueprint. In the opening essay, it is clear that Locke is concerned with delineating what negro art should be. There is a generational aspect to Locke’s decisions. He is looking to break free from the sectionalized and propagandized modes of thought that, he believed, were the driving forces for the negro in the past.

    This structure, although developing a strong focus on the new negro, results in the narrowing of content. Locke is just as concerned with what negro art should not be as he is with what it should be.

    Wallace Thurman’s selections broaden negro art. His closing essay is a reprimand to those who criticize narrowly. For Thurman, the growth of negro art requires the deletion of boundaries. Good art should not have regulations or adhere to dramatic laws. It should reflect reality in the way that the artist sees fit. The diversity of the pieces in Fire! attest to this notion.

    Locke is more prescriptive in his opinion of what the new negro should be. Thurman, on the other hand, seems to desire a negro art that is defined by its lack of definition. The critique of a critique that he provides furthers this notion.

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