George Schuyler maintains that it is impossible for the voice of the Harlem Renaissance to be a unified one because these recent migrants to the North come from different regions and have different experiences. He offers that the reason for the current, but now obsolete representation of African Americans as downtrodden (as found in the blues) and bizarre (as evidenced by the popularity of the Charleston dance) is universal because they emanated in the south. I believe Schuyler could agree that a representative style could originate in Harlem, but it would take years and years to develop. Schulyer also states that the model African American artists are more or less white artists because they have been educated in Europe and have those same sensibilities. He assumes that this is why W. E. B DuBois and the like are the most exalted of the African American artists because they’re basically in the same vein as whites. Schulyer explains that, “Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American.” Just like the melding of European immigrants into the American existence after years of settlement, African American have also been altered by their surroundings, becoming American. Schulyer is more of a proponent for classification by nation, not race.
Langston Hughes is diametrically opposed to this classification. He believes that African American poets must be spiritually connected to their race in order to be successful and true. He writes, “But this mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” Hughes acknowledges that African American artists often need acceptance and funding by whites in order to make it onto the scene, but in doing so, they squash reality. In trying to please whites, they write about stereotypes, and in trying to make their own people happy, they are asked to hype up how respectable their people are – never do they write about what they know. The end goal of African American art, according to Hughes is to express individuality. He concludes, “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
Alain Locke is also an advocate for what the individual can create and he asserts that the individual can only flourish once the propaganda has vanished. He writes that propaganda, “perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it.” This argument is similar to Hughes’ recognition of the fact that African Americans want acceptance and choose to write in a manner that promotes their people but doesn’t lend itself to exposing the varied shining stars.
DuBois states that African Americans cannot write what they know because it will not be accepted. He backs this up with an anecdote about how one of his works was denied when the characters were black, but accepted and embraced by the same editor when the color of the characters and the location were changed. To me, the implications of DuBois’ tale show that the experiences of whites and African Americans are unified enough so that they can be used to represent either race when fitting. Wouldn’t this tie into Schulyer’s desire to classify according to nation, not race?
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?
The link to the Survey Graphic is broken. I am not sure if this is a permanent state of affairs or if there is a temporary problem at the University of Virginia Library website. Please bring The New Negro instead. Many of the pieces are the same. I will bring a copy of the Survey Graphic. Also, please bring Fire!!.
For the Survey Graphic/New Negro, focus on pieces by Alain Locke. For Fire!!, make sure you read Cordelia the Crude and Wallace Thurman’s final piece. Also, pay attention to the material aspects of all of the publications.
See you Thursday.
I have posted a revised syllabus.
Also, I would like to start the work on the blog. This is what we are going to do . Each week, one person will be responsible for kicking off discussion with a 1-2 page response paper. Every person has to respond to this post with at least 1/2-1 pages. We will proceed in alphabetical order, beginning with this weeks reading. Here is the list:
Jonathan, you are starting us off.
See you all on Thursday.