Winds Can Wake Up the Dead: An Eric Walrond Reader 
edited by Louis Parascandola.
Wayne State, 350 pp., $24.95, December 1998, 0 8143 2709 5
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Between the end of World War One and the Great Depression there occurred in Harlem such a flowering of music, dance, theatre and painting as to change white American perceptions of African American artistic expression. In a little over a decade, more books by black Americans appeared in print than had been published in the entire history of black American writing. In December 1923, Opportunity, the mouthpiece of the National Urban League, declared in its editorial: ‘There are new voices speaking from the depths and fullness of the Negro’s life, and they are harbingers of the new period into which Negroes appear to be emerging.’ Opportunity’s editor was Charles Johnson, a key figure in the New Negro movement, who thirty years later recalled the Harlem Renaissance as ‘that sudden and altogether phenomenal outburst of emotional expression, unmatched by any comparable period in American or Negro American history.’

One of the participants in the movement was still a student at the University of California when it all started to happen. Arna Bontemps later wrote in his memoir:

I had been a summer school student at UCLA and picked up a copy of [Claude] McKay’s poems in the main public library on the way home. I had not seen a review or heard any mention of the book, but the first sentence of the introduction made any such announcement unnecessary. ‘These poems have a special interest for all the races of man,’ it said, ‘because they are sung by a pure blooded Negro.’ Naturally I had to borrow the book that very minute, read it on the yellow Pacific Electric streetcar that day and second time that night, then begin telling everybody I knew about it.

  The responses of black friends were surprising. Nearly all of them stopped to listen. There was no doubt that their blood came to a boil when they heard ‘If We Must Die’.

McKay’s poem was written against a rising tide of mob lynchings in the American South. When Winston Churchill appeared before the US Congress petitioning for American support in the darkest hours of World War Two, he quoted from it without acknowledging the author:

If we must die – let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, o let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honour us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Many scholars date the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance from the original publication of ‘If We Must Die’ in the radical journal, the Liberator, in 1919.

The new racial consciousness of the 1920s coincided, of course, with the arrival of the Jazz Age. Josephine Baker was the toast of Paris. After seeing her in Chocolate Dandies, the Greenwich Village poet, e.e. cummings reported ecstatically that ‘she resembled some tall, vital, incomparably fluid nightmare which crossed its eyes, warped its limbs in a purely unearthly manner.’ The Lindy, the Charleston and blackbottom were in vogue in the dance halls and nightclubs of London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow; and W.E.B. Du Bois fed the news back to Harlem through the NAACP paper, the Crisis, as black troops arrived on ‘the cold banks of the Moselle’, one of them playing a trumpet: ‘Wild and sweet leapt the strains upon the air. French children gazed in wonder – women left their washing.’ Fitzgerald’s ‘flappers’ flocked to Harlem in droves to dance to Duke Ellington’s music at the Savoy and the Cotton Club. Carl Van Vechten, whose novel Nigger Heaven helped to launch the ‘Harlem vogue’, wrote in In the Garret: ‘How the darkies danced, sang and cavorted! Real nigger stuff ... They are delightful niggers, those inexhaustible Ethiopians.’ To the art historian, Richard Powell, the meaning of all this was obvious. He writes in Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (1996): ‘In a society that had recently suffered a war of tremendous proportions, and was increasingly changing into an urban, impersonal and industry-driven machine, black culture was viewed, interchangeably, as life-affirming, a libidinal fix, an antidote for ennui, a sanctuary for the spiritually bereft, a call back to nature, and a subway ticket to modernity.’

The origins of the New Negro Movement lay further back, in the widespread social and cultural upheaval in America at the beginning of the century. It was a ‘time of great transition,’ according to Wayne Cooper, Claude McKay’s biographer, when ‘old, fundamental assumptions that had dominated American intellectual life since the Civil War – the belief in universal morality, the inevitability of progress, and the sanctity of inherited Anglo-Saxon cultural norms – were all beginning to be questioned and undermined.’ The arrival of the ‘New Negro’ was signalled by horrendous racial bloodshed across most of the Deep South, and massive migrations of black people to the industrial cities of the North, followed almost invariably by new forms of racial conflict. At the same time, America was preparing to enter the Great War. Wood-row Wilson lay half-paralysed in the White House; the socialist leader Eugene Debs was kicking his heels in an Atlanta prison cell; and an assortment of anti-war socialists and anarchist bombers were keeping J. Edgar Hoover and the Justice Department busy. In a report on subversion A. Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General, predicted that on May Day 1920 an attempt would be made to overthrow the US Government. He had plans to deport more than a thousand people, but in the end only 249 were sent to the Soviet Union.

The Harlem Renaissance may have been well underway before anyone paid any attention, but when in 1925 Alain Locke put together an anthology of the new writing with the alluring title The New Negro, it seemed to burst into life. Against all the evidence, it has sometimes seemed as if the whole thing was entirely the invention of Locke, a morbidly intelligent black man, a homosexual who astonished his Howard University colleagues at his mother’s funeral wake by serving them tea while her ‘embalmed remains ... sat in her favourite armchair’. He wrote in the introduction to The New Negro: ‘In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination. It is – or promises to be – a race capital ... Without pretence 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.’

What Locke understood very well, and what every historian of the various Modernisms has carefully documented, is the importance of the city to any form of Modernist sensibility. In the case of Harlem, one of the best recorders was the shipping heiress, Nancy Cunard, who wrote brilliantly about the ‘innumerable “skin-whitening” and “anti-kink” beauty parlours’; about the speakeasies and the Harlem Public Library ‘with its good collection of books on Negro matters’; about ‘the white gentlemen flashing by in a car’ who ‘take into their heads to bawl: “Can’t you get yourself a white man?” ’ This was something her own mother must have ‘bawled’ at her when she took up with a black American musician. They quarrelled; she wrote a pamphlet denouncing her mother’s racial prejudice. Geraldyn Dismond, a black contributor to the Interstate Tatler, reported on one of the numerous Harlem parties: ‘What a crowd! All classes and colours met face to face ... And yes, Lady Nancy Cunard was there all in black (she would) with 12 of her grand bracelets.’ Cunard made a collection of black writing, including some of the major names of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston among them, and published it under the title Negro.

But it was Charles Johnson, a sociologist trained at the University of Chicago, who synthesised the scattered, inchoate moods, sentiments and feelings of the period. He was editing Opportunity for the National Urban League at about the time that the Crisis was gaining a larger readership under Du Bois. The Crisis liked to advertise itself as ‘the most hated, most popular and most widely discussed magazine dealing with questions of race prejudice’. But it is Johnson who is remembered as the engine of the New Negro movement, organising fundraisers for literary prizes, putting writers in touch with potential publishers and providing them with a platform for their work. On 21 March 1924, under the auspices of the League, he hosted a dinner at New York’s Civic Club which brought together a group of young black writers – most of them still under 25 – with white writers, editors and publishers. Alain Locke acted as master of ceremonies. Carl Van Doren, editor of the Century, was present. So were Horace Live-right, the publisher, Frederick Allen of Harper Brothers, and Van Vechten. Paul Kellog, editor of the Survey Graphic, was ‘so impressed that night with the potential of the black literary movement’ that he decided to devote an entire issue to black literature and art the following year, with Locke as guest editor. It was this issue that Locke subsequently expanded to become The New Negro anthology.

Du Bois, meanwhile, attempted to guide the new literary productions, encouraging their authors to aim for self-improvement and the cultivation of an authentic African American identity. A radical with a New England middle-class background, and degrees from Fisk, Harvard and the University of Berlin, Du Bois is remembered primarily for his mould-breaking study of black American life and culture, The Souls of Black Folk. Published in 1903, the book has exerted an enormous influence on generations of emerging black writers, including black South Africans. ‘I do not doubt,’ Du Bois wrote, ‘that the ultimate art coming from the black folk is going to be just as beautiful ... as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.’ James Weldon Johnson, founder of the Daily American and author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, concurred. ‘The status of the Negro in the United States,’ he wrote, ‘is more a question of mental attitude toward the race than actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.’ In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, he put it more bluntly: ‘No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon as distinctly inferior.’ Presumably, most middle-class intellectuals, Du Bois’s notorious ‘Talented Tenth’, would have agreed with that dubious proposition.

In 1918, Claude McKay, who six years earlier had moved to the US from Jamaica, ostensibly to study agriculture, wrote proudly in Pearson magazine: ‘I was determined to find expression in writing ... If I would not graduate as a bachelor of arts or science, I would graduate as a poet.’ The problem was that the political weight which artists and writers were asked to bear by the Harlem Renaissance was simply too much. Nor is poetry a profitable activity. A chastened Langston Hughes recalled returning to Harlem in 1924 after his wanderings in Africa and Europe to find the Renaissance in full swing: ‘Had I not had to earn a living, I might have thought it even more wonderful than it was. But I could not eat the poems I wrote. Unlike the whites who came to spend their money in Harlem, only a few Harlemites seemed to live in even a modest degree of luxury.’ But the writers do not seem to have been deterred. Novels began to appear in print; white journals published stories and poems by contributors who would not previously have had access to them: Hughes himself, McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Bennett, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman and Rudolph Fisher. ‘The array of personalities in the literary area is startling,’ one of them wrote. ‘Few were born in New York, although we speak of the Harlem Renaissance. Claude McKay, one of the movement’s ornaments, was born in Jamaica, Eric Walrond, short story writer, in British Guiana.’

By the middle of the 1930s, when the energies of the New Negro movement had all but dissipated in the wake of the Great Depression, its influence had spread to the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. The leaders of the cultural movement known as ‘Negritude’, which challenged the assimilationist policies of French colonial culture, derived some of their most dogged insights from Harlem. Sitting in Paris and plotting their next move, Aimé Césaire, the great poet of Martinique, and Léopold Senghor of Senegal, read voraciously the poetry of the Renaissance. In the May 1967 issue of the Negro Digest Senghor reminisced about that time:

We owe a great deal to the United States. Indeed, with regard to our Negritude, we have depended largely on the teachings of our professors of ethnology, anthropology on the subject of black African civilisations. But, was it not the ‘New Negro’ movement, the movement of the ‘Negro Renaissance’, with Alain Locke and the others, was it not they who stimulated us to do as they did? In this way, I want to give to America that which is due to her, that is to say to have been, in a way, the initiator of Negritude.

The idea of the Harlem ‘Renaissance’ was not itself entirely original. White writers had already announced their own ‘renaissance’ – an attempt to fashion works in the American grain as part of a ‘coming of age’ which would entail the discovery, in Van Wyck Brooks’s memorable phrase, of America’s ‘usable past’. However, the leaders of the ‘white renaissance’ had left black Americans out of their account. ‘In Brooks’s call for cultural renaissance, and his lament that America did not possess the organic culture and folk spirit that could be seen in Ireland, France and Russia, he did not give thought to the folk life of black Americans,’ Mark Helbling argued in an essay in Phylon (1979). ‘This was a striking omission, one that Alain Locke was quick to correct.’

By and large the writers of the Harlem Renaissance did not experiment in the manner of Pound, Eliot and Stevens; in their use of the vernacular, their play with syntax and mixing of forms, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and Eric Walrond were rare exceptions. (But, of course, white writers like Dreiser and Fitzgerald, now regarded as central to American Modernism, were not particularly experimental in their approach to language or structure by comparison with Dos Passos and Faulkner.) Nevertheless, Renaissance writers succeeded in refashioning classical forms in such a way as to accommodate a new black sensibility: ‘We shall not always plant while others reap/ The golden increment of bursting fruit,’ Countee Cullen wrote in ‘From the Dark Tower’, dedicated to Charles Johnson, ‘Not always countenance, abject and mute,/ That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap.’ An accomplished sonneteer, Cullen was a devotee of Keats, but as Robert Hillyer, who taught him during his brief stay at Harvard, made clear, Cullen experimented with a range of forms and published the results in Copper Sun. In his book In Pursuit of Poetry Hillyer wrote: ‘There they all are, ballad stanzas, heroic couplets, four-stress couplets, blank verse, Spenserian stanzas ... As far as I know, the first rime-royals in America were Countee Cullen’s.’

The Harlem Renaissance has been overlooked in many accounts of American Modernism, but the new Norton Anthology of American Literature gives it a good deal of space. Some of the brightest stars are included, such as McKay, whose collection of verse Harlem Shadows caused a sensation in 1922, and Jean Toomer, who made his own debut the following year. Toomer was the grandson of Louisiana’s first black acting governor during the buoyant days of Reconstruction. He was 28 when he published Cane, a collection of lyrical stories, sketches and poems, depicting the lives and culture of black people in rural Georgia. Toomer’s friend Waldo Frank praised him for ‘creating a new phase of American literature. O there is no doubt of that my friend.’ Allen Tate wrote to him in November 1923: ‘I believe it’s the genuine thing – your new technique applied to the material for the first time, and then none of the caricatured pathos of the southern school of sentimental humours.’ After his own unsuccessful efforts to represent black life, Sherwood Anderson told him: ‘When I saw your stuff first I was thrilled to the toes. Then I thought “he may let the intense white man get him. They are going to colour his style, spoil him” ... I guess that isn’t true.’

Langston Hughes, sometimes called the ‘poet laureate’ of the Renaissance, is of course included, as is Zora Neale Hurston, rescued from later obscurity by Alice Walker and a generation of younger women novelists who now claim her as the ‘mother’ of black women writing, though she was more the pampered child of the Renaissance. Born in Eatonville, Florida, in 1891, Hurston arrived in New York City, to the best of her memory, which was sometimes faulty, with only ‘$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope’. She had already come under the guidance of Alain Locke at Howard University and was encouraged to move to Manhattan by Charles Johnson, who was eager to publish her stories in Opportunity. Robert Hemenway, her biographer, describes her as ‘a brilliant raconteur, a delightful if sometimes eccentric companion’. And in his cheerful autobiography, Hughes remembers her as ‘full of side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales and tragi-comic stories’, one of which depicts a temporarily impoverished Hurston in need of a nickel to go downtown.

As she approached the subway, she was stopped by a blind beggar holding out his cup.

  ‘Please help the blind! Help the blind! A nickel for the blind!’

  ‘I need money worse than you today,’ said Miss Hurston, taking five cents out of his cup. ‘Lend me this! Next time, I’ll give it back.’

The Renaissance was characterised by the endless migration, travel and foreign sojourn of its members. McKay and Walrond were among the most restless of the writers. McKay lived in England, France, Spain, Germany, Morocco and the Soviet Union. He knew a great many people, including Shaw and Trotsky. In the US he worked on the New Masses under Max Eastman and caused a scandal when he was photographed dancing with Crystal Eastman; in England he worked with Sylvia Pankhurst on Workers’ Dreadnought. Walrond, too, was a bird of passage. He arrived in New York City via Panama in 1918 at the age of 20, just as the Renaissance was getting into its stride, and quickly became one of its most valuable members. For three years he studied at the City College of New York and for a further year took courses in creative writing at Columbia, but his real training had probably already begun in the tropics, in the village in Barbados, where he lived with his abandoned mother, and later in the Canal Zone, where he worked as a reporter on the Panama Star and Herald, covering the Colón shantytown. In New York Walrond resumed his career as a journalist when he became co-owner and editor of the Negro weekly, the Brooklyn and Long Island Informer. Later he joined the staff of Opportunity, on which he also served as business manager. For a short while he flirted with Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement. He was the recipient of two major awards, a Harmon and a Guggenheim, which he used to travel widely in Panama, Barbados, Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, collecting material for a book which was never completed.

McKay and Walrond’s uneasy relation to the Renaissance is symptomatic of broader problems that bedevilled contact between West Indians and native black Americans at the turn of the century. McKay was too important for the movement to ignore, but after the appearance of his bestselling novel Home to Harlem, a florid account of the carnal side of life there, Du Bois and other senior leaders in the Civil Rights establishment seem to have decided it was time to jump on him. Reviewing the novel in the Crisis, Du Bois said that after reading it he felt in need of a bath. Recent criticism has not let up. P.S. Chauhan, whose sensitive ‘rereading’ of McKay was presented at a conference in Mysore and published in 1992, sees him as ‘a colonial writer who happened to stop over in Harlem on his life-long quest for a spiritual home’.

Walround’s status is less controversial, and less assured. Though his collection of short stories, Tropic Death (1926), helped to set the tone for the new writing and added a dimension of ruthless realism, he is frequently ignored by anthologists, sometimes for the simple reason that most of his fiction is set in the Caribbean or in South America. You would think, then, that he would qualify as a Caribbean author, but he is not included in the Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature.

In bringing together 46 of Walrond’s stories, sketches and journalistic pieces, Louis Parascandola allows the patient reader to confront the work of a neglected but talented writer. The introduction, glossary and notes ease what would otherwise be a thorny passage through Walrond’s creolised languages and dialects. As if to underline the difficulty the reader is bound to encounter, one of Walrond’s own characters cries out in anguish during a quarrel: ‘Why yo’ don’t talk plain so dat a body can understand, yo?’ She refers to her antagonist’s language as ‘gibberish tahlk dey whe’ unna come from’. Although, as his editor remarks, Walrond’s themes of ‘migration, discrimination, and racial pride are still relevant to present-day readers’, his linguistic pyrotechnics are the real source of fascination.

Walrond is often described as an impressionist but some of his most powerful images – ‘The bow of the ship jammed against a brilliant Barbadian sunset’ – have a more surreal coloration. He is truly ‘the child of the tropics’, but the luxuriating jungle his stories so powerfully evoke exists both internally and externally, within and beyond the psyche of his characters. What good does it do to complain of the verbal excess of phrases like ‘tear-drenching ordeal’, when Walrond’s fiction is constituted from this very excess? In these stories nature itself writes in the language of excess and Walrond only seeks to match it: ‘It was a fluid, lustrous sun. It created a Garden of the roof. It recaptured the essence of that first jungle scene ... Fruit – mellow, hanging, tempting – peeped-between foliage of coffee and mango and pear.’ But the idyll is tarnished by the dramatis personae: ‘Her fat, squat arms were loaded with bangles. Her gaping stomach shimmered in a sea of rich white silk. Walking, it rolled, and dazzled, and shimmered.’

The collection is divided into four sections: ‘Apprentice Work’; ‘The Making of the New Negro’; selections from Tropic Death; and ‘British Perspectives’ – Walrond died in England in 1966. With the exception of ‘The Godless City’, which is set in the Caribbean, the three stories in the ‘New Negro’ section deal with black life in New York City, and they remind us once again that satire was Walrond’s chosen mode. In ‘City Love’, Primus, the hapless protagonist, is trying to find a hotel room where he can make love to an unconvinced, streetwise woman named Nicey, only to be thwarted by scrupulous black landlords of ‘the late plantation class’. One of them demands to see his bags: ‘Ain’t yo’ know that yo can’t register at no hotel without bags. Go git yo’self a armful o’ bags!’ Another, talking with a ‘disarming felicity’, observes to Primus: ‘Now take the lady ... Why – why don’t she wear a hat?’ In the end, Primus drags an unwilling Nicey to a ‘Hebrew hat shop on the Avenue’ and when they come out, ‘Nicey was none the worse for a prim little bonnet with bluebells galloping wildly over it.’

Writing for the September 1925 issue of Brentano’s Book Chat, Walrond set down what may be taken as a personal manifesto. The piece is called ‘The Negro Literati’ and purports to be an analysis of the problems facing black writers in the 1920s. It attacks the self-censorship of black American writers anxious to create the right impression before a contemptuous white public. ‘Always conscious of the colour problem, the Negro writer in the United States is vigilantly censorious of anything in his work or expression which may put the black race in a disparaging light.’ Understandable enough, Walrond says, but adds that when this kind of writer ‘begins to write about his own people he lies miserably ... He dishes up yarns about blacks who go to Harvard.’ Playing the ultimate iconoclast, he mocks the so-called ‘Civil Rights establishment’ for the kind of fiction they approved: ‘Every yellow girl is a virgin who’s got a devil of a time fighting off the white, lustful pack.’ So, in ‘Miss Kenny’s Wedding’, which first appeared in the September 1923 issue of The Smart Set, instead of a ‘yellow virgin’ Walrond gave us the snobbish, gold-digging Miss Kenny with her ‘big wolfish eyes’, the owner of a beauty parlour who wants to land a husband of substance – $9586 a year to be exact – from one of Brooklyn’s oldest black families. We know this won’t end well. And sure enough, the bridegroom runs off with Miss Kenny’s life’s savings.

Even in the 1920s, Walrond was courting trouble with his determination to call a spade a spade. When Kit and Mistah Beauty cut through ‘the frosty night up to the brilliantly illumined façade of the Cotton Club’, Kit cries out: ‘Who’s dat nigger all dressed up like Mrs Astor’s horse?’ In ‘The Palm Porch’, set in Panama, the desire of the light-skinned to pass for white breeds such a strong antipathy towards blacks that Miss Buchner, the keeper of a brothel, is astonished when her light-skinned daughter takes up with a ‘willing young mulatto’. He is ‘an able young man, strong and honest’, who ‘wore shoes’. But she is unappeased: ‘He was not, alas! white. Which hurt, left Miss Buchner cold; caused her nights of sleepless despair. “Wretch! To t’ink a handsam gal like dat would-ah tek up wi’ a dam black neygah man like him, he, w’en she could a stay wit’ me ’n do bettah.” ’ ‘Were Walrond to shift his focus from the West Indies to America,’ Wallace Thurman, one of the radical younger writers of the Harlem Renaissance, observed, ‘he would be blacklisted in polite coloured circles.’ Yet it is fair to say that whatever suspicions he aroused among the more conservative keepers of the flame, he was criticised more often for experimenting with dialect and for his delirious ways with language than for damaging the image of black people.

It is now received wisdom that Caribbean immigrants were often more thrifty and business-minded than native black Americans. In ‘The Tropics of New York’, an essay published in the Graphic Survey (1925), W.A. Domingo wrote that ‘like the Jew’ they were ‘forever launching out into business, and such retail businesses as are in the hands of Negroes in Harlem are largely in the control of the foreign-born’. Certainly there was no shortage of prejudice and resentment on the part of African Americans against the West Indians who arrived in large numbers in the early 1920s. A character in one of Rudolph Fisher’s stories describes West Indians as ‘too aggressive. They talk funny. They look funny.’ Between Du Bois and the West Indians the distrust was mutual. Walrond dismissed Du Bois as ‘arrogant’, a man ‘suffering from a superiority complex’, and claimed unjustly that Du Bois’s book Darkwater revealed ‘the soul of a man who is sorry and ashamed he is not black’. Though criticism of the Back-to-Africa movement was often justified, Garvey was dismissed by one black American as ‘a black, pig-eyed, corpulent West Indian’.

Walrond’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was mostly through his managerial skills and as a talent scout for Opportunity. His stories, which treated black religion in the Caribbean, inter-tribal strife between light and black-skinned West Indians and a range of experiences rendered in patois, were accessible only to the most patient reader. During the Renaissance the nativist writers divided their work into ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Walrond’s heteroglossia broke down the walls between the two, but it was thoroughly perplexing. The white critic Waldo Frank who had been so ecstatic about Jean Toomer’s Cane, said: ‘The superficial elements in this book Tropic Death strike me as not American. Everything I do not like about it strikes me as not American.’ In Frank’s view, Walrond was an over-reacher. ‘Having cavalierly made him my brother, I claim the right to scold him. I don’t like your sophistication, brother Walrond. I wish you’d realise that you’ll wield your noble youthful language better if you’ll take it easier.’ An example of what Frank was complaining about can be found in Walrond’s ‘Adventures of Kit Skyhead and Mistah Beauty’: ‘And on swept the dance. Swift as the pelting rain, the dusky revue, the clang of song and dance, of beauty and colour, whirl madly by – yellow girls, tight-less, supple, deep-coloured, aflame, their eyes affluent of emotion, laugh – dance – sing – comedians crack jokes; figures glide on floor of marble, floor of gold.’ This is not so much un-American prose as the prose of the Jazz Age, and one is tempted to agree with Carl Van Vechten – ‘how the darkies danced!’

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Vol. 22 No. 17 · 7 September 2000

In his overview of the Harlem Renaissance (LRB, 24 August), Lewis Nkosi says that Claude McKay ‘knew a great many people, including Shaw and Trotsky’. As far as I know, McKay had one unsatisfactory meeting with Shaw in London in 1919, when he arrived at his door with a letter of introduction from Frank Harris. Shaw was evidently bored, gave McKay a lecture on cathedrals, and told him to put aside poetry and take up boxing. Likewise, McKay had one interview with Trotsky: at the end of a discussion of the problems of African Americans, Trotsky, sublimely, suggested training a cadre of black officers in the Red Army as the way forward. McKay went to Moscow in 1922 as an unofficial delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. He apparently went to raise the race issue because he did not believe the official delegation wanted to do it. Although he later denied it and muddied the traces in his past, it is fairly certain that McKay was a member of the newly formed Communist Party in the United States, as were other prominent Harlem figures, such as Cyril Briggs and Richard Moore. The Party was a significant presence in Harlem in the 1920s, whether it was mobilising activity on its own account, or forcing black organisations to consider where they stood. Sadly, the absence of any mention of this in Nkosi’s panorama is another sign of how completely the Communist Party is being erased from the history it helped to shape.

Leonard Pepper

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