`When the Negro Was in Vogue': Guides to the Harlem Renaissance

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LANGSTON HUGHES'S eponymous essay recalled the Harlem Renaissance as a time ``When the Negro Was in Vogue'':

``I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long. (I remember the vogue for things Russian....) For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some Harlemites thought the millennium had come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley.''

Even those who were not there are likely at least to have heard of the Harlem Renaissance. But almost no one - then or now - seems to have found a completely satisfactory account of exactly what it was or how it came about.

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In his introduction to ``The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader,'' well-known scholar David Levering Lewis locates its first spontaneous glimmers in the flowering of bohemianism after World War I. Yet he also characterizes this renaissance as a ``somewhat forced phenomenon, a cultural nationalism of the parlor, institutionally encouraged ... by leaders of the national civil rights establishment for the paramount purpose of improving race relations in a time of extreme national backlash.''

Deprived of voting rights, excluded from labor unions, harassed by segregation and mob violence, African Americans of the Jazz Age (ironically) faced obstacles at every turn. The arts, however, offered an avenue for talented blacks to distinguish themselves and win the esteem of their recalcitrant white fellow Americans. Such was the reasoning of civil rights leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Alain Locke.

But, as Langston Hughes wryly reflected, it was perhaps too much to hope that ``the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude Mckay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke.''

The glamour of the Harlem arts scene in the 1920s did not materially improve the lives of most Harlemites, let alone the rest of black America. But reverberations - close and distant - of cultural explosions are no less real for being notoriously hard to track down.

Lewis's hefty ``Reader'' features memoirs, essays, political statements, criticism, poetry, and fiction from a wide array of voices, including some who were not really part of the Harlem Renaissance. Marcus Garvey, charismatic leader of the back-to-Africa movement, had little in common with the Renaissance promoters. Albert Barnes, eccentric (white) arts patron, saw ``the Negro'' as spiritually superior to the white man, because less ``tainted'' by civilization and closer to nature. Understandably, many blacks did not appreciate being admired as specimens of the Primitive, however fashionable Primitives might have been in Modernist circles.

Further conflicts and ironies abounded. Some of the older generation were alarmed at the ways in which some of the younger artists celebrated such stereotypically ``Negro'' phenomena as dialect, jazz, and street life. Free-wheeling, hard-drinking Jake Brown, hero of McKay's novel ``Home to Harlem'' (1928), did not strike worried elders as an appropriate role model - to say nothing of the languidly dissipated aesthete depicted in Richard Bruce Nugent's ``Smoke, Lillies and Jade!''

Other black intellectuals, like George Schuyler, scoffed at the very idea of a peculiarly ``black'' sensibility: ``This nonsense,'' he wrote, ``is probably the last stand of the old myth palmed off by Negrophobists ... that there are `fundamental, eternal, and inescapable differences' between white and black Americans.'' It would be a short road, Schuyler feared, from ``different'' to ``inferior.'' Langston Hughes, meanwhile, urged his fellow artists to take pride in their heritage: ``An artist must be free to choose what he does ... but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.''

There is less in the way of overt controversy in William L. Andrews's anthology, ``Classic Fiction of the Harlem Renaissance.'' Its nine selections, including two complete novels, McKay's ``Home to Harlem'' and Nella Larsen's ``Quicksand'' (1928), are from the pens of just seven writers. But these represent a great range of style, viewpoint, and subject matter, from Jean Toomer's poetic ``Cane'' to Rudolph Fisher's charming story, ``Miss Cynthie.''

The travails of Southern black folk are captured in two stories by Zora Neale Hurston, including her riveting account of an abused wife, ``Sweat.'' Nella Larsen's ``Quicksand,'' in some ways the most interesting of the selections, follows the dilemmas that confront a sophisticated and intelligent mixed-race heroine, uncomfortable in all the roles society forces on her. And Wallace Thurman's ``Infants of the Spring'' offers an insider's satiric view of the Harlem Renaissance and the many individuals who took part in it: ``One cannot make movements nor can one plot their course,'' remarks one of his characters. ``When the work of a given number of individuals during a given period is looked at in retrospect, then one can identify a movement and evaluate its distinguishing characteristics.''

These two books help bring the strands of the movement together.

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