An UnAmerican in New York

Lewis Nkosi

  • Winds Can Wake Up the Dead: An Eric Walrond Reader edited by Louis Parascandola
    Wayne State, 350 pp, US $24.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 8143 2709 5

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 – oh, 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 deathblow!
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.’

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