Author Archives: jbaxter82

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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