Chapter 16: THE RADICALS CONFRONT THE JAZZ AGE:
CONSERVATIVES, RADICALS, AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
Even as insurgent Afro-Americans explored every variety of economic, social, and political radicalism, a more conservative group claimed (or hoped) that the production of great literature and art offered a relatively conflict-free escape from racist oppression. These men and women helped usher in the "Harlem Renaissance," an efflorescence of Aframerican artistic and literary creativity in the 1920s. During that decade, blacks of all political persuasions debated issues that have vexed black intellectuals ever since: the value of literature as a vehicle for racial advancement; the relative merits of art and propaganda; the relationship between a distinctively black art and universal (or American) values; the relationship of authors and their black and white audiences; and the proper literary stance toward "disreputable" aspects of African-American life.
The black literati, however, quickly found--as did contemporary advocates of proletarian literature--that "art as a weapon" proved singularly ineffectual. Their notion that art could fundamentally transform social attitudes (and hence social reality) foundered upon three insurmountable barriers: bitter divisions within the ranks of the literati themselves; the impossibility of evoking a specific form of literature by fiat; and, most importantly, the intractable social and economic structures that proved far more powerful than art. The Harlem Renaissance generated remarkable literature and art; as a solution for Afro-American problems, however, it proved a gesture of despair, a salving balm for tortured souls. Some literati temporarily fled from harsh social reality into mythical realms of the spirit and fantasized that art could overcome economic and political realities (a common delusion among powerless intellectuals.) Contrary to the picture painted by many historians, however, even the staunchest advocates of literature and art usually considered them subsidiary weapons. The Harlem Renaissance was not the main focus of black intellectual endeavor in the 1920s; rather, most Renaissance proponents retained and even sharpened the focus on the economic oppressions (and consequent need for an interracial class alliance) first advocated by the radicals.
James Weldon Johnson probably originated the Harlem Renaissance idea. Johnson was himself a classic "Renaissance man"--a poet, novelist, educator, journalist, attorney, musical composer, racial agitator, publicist, and Republican politician. Although his denunciation of U.S atrocities in Haiti in the Nation (1920) evoked widespread attention, Johnson had earlier (1912), as U.S. consul in Nicaragua, facilitated the U.S. invasion of that unhappy country--a role for which he never apologized. Although socially conservative, Johnson was a racial militant. His column in the otherwise ultra-conservative New York Age fervently denounced every racial injustice. Johnson became an NAACP official in 1916, recruited Walter White for that organization, and launched an energetic recruiting drive that resulted in massive membership gains, especially in the South. The cultivation of Afro-American literature was, therefore, only one part of Johnson's multifaceted program for racial betterment--a program that included virtually every weapon in the Afro-American arsenal, and embraced every proposal for racial betterment, with the significant exception of the fundamental social change demanded by the radicals.
Johnson began his campaign for a revitalized Aframerican art as an instrument for racial betterment in his New York Age column as early as 1915, long before the idea became important in the Afro-American ethos. "In art the Negro encounters less prejudice than in any other field of endeavor," Johnson said; blacks found securing a union job as a lowly hod carrier more difficult than "for a talented colored composer to get a hearing for his music" in prestigious concert halls. Utilizing stereotypes of blacks also employed by Du Bois, McKay, and other black intellectuals, Johnson said that blacks were "more endowed for [poetry, music, and art] than the white race. We have more heart, more soul; we are more responsive to emotional vibrations; we have a larger share of the gifts of laughter, music, and song; in a word, we are less material and we are, by nature, more artistic than white people." Afro-Americans, he said, had created every original American cultural form. In a slap at Booker T. Washington, Johnson declared that "we are prone to think of the grocer as one who is laying foundation stones in our social greatness and of the poet as doing little more than wasting his time." However, Johnson insisted, "the real pride of a people is not in its men of wealth but in its men of letters. Who," Johnson asked, "knows the names of the wealthy men of Greece?" He demanded that blacks produce a literature that could stand comparison with the world's greatest. It was not enough that a black dramatist win accolades as "a Negro Shakespeare"--an epithet which implied only comparative, rather than absolute, greatness.
There was no panacea for any human problems, Johnson declared, including those of the Negro race. Education, wealth, and political power were all necessary, but not sufficient. "There is no short cut. We must develop and practice all the common virtues and become the possessors of all the common powers" that "make a people great." While there was "no single recipe" for achieving racial greatness, there existed "a single standard by which the greatness of a race can be measured." That standard was literature.
Every race of people which is acknowledged as great has produced a literature which is great in more or less direct proportion to the acknowledged greatness of that race or people.... A great literature is both the result and the cause of greatness in a people.... Noble actions give birth to great literature, and great literature stimulates to noble actions.... Noble actions always entail hard work or sacrifice or heroism, and the doer is sustained, if not actuated, by the hope of reward of some kind.... [the best of which is] that of being held permanently in the memory of his fellows. He cannot achieve that reward if he belongs to a people, which does not or cannot make literature.
If the hero belongs to a literary race, not only does he "gain his reward, but others are inspired to like noble actions." Johnson admonished his race that "no matter how many things go to make a people great, it is acknowledged as great only when it has produced great literature."
"The world does not know that a race is great until that race produces great literature," Johnson insisted. "The production of great literature is proof that a race is great. There has never been a great race that did not produce a great literature. No race that produced a great literature has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior." But as late as 1918 Johnson lamented that blacks had produced little real literature. They had composed libraries of polemics arguing for black equality; "but one piece of pure literature is worth one hundred or one thousand pieces of that sort of writing. One thin volume of poetry by Paul Dunbar goes farther to prove the intellectual equality of the black man than nine-tenths of all the controversial literature written by American Negroes in the past seventy-five years." Had Pushkin and Dumas "written in America, the proof of the colored man's equality would be easier." Johnson said that McKay's Harlem Shadows (1922) "sheds honor upon the whole race."
Johnson's views gained national publicity with the publication of his anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1921). Johnson's long introduction contained verbatim some of his New York Age columns concerning the value of literature and art as vehicles for racial recognition. Johnson reiterated his claim that literature and art were the standard by which a people was judged, and that distinctive Afro-American artistic gifts had already enriched American folk literature, music, and dance. In a wildly idealistic and utopian vision that vastly exaggerated the literacy of the American public (and downplayed the power of terrorism and socio-economic structures) Johnson proclaimed "the status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude than of 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." Johnson extolled the creativity of the Uncle Remus stories, the Cakewalk, and Ragtime. Johnson's extolling of Ragtime foreshadowed the popular and "disreputable" Harlem Renaissance writers who combatted the prim and proper exponents of respectability. "Of course, there are those--especially Americans--who will deny that Ragtime is an artistic production," Johnson said.
This has been the course of scholasticism in every branch of art. Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-poohed; whatever is popular is regarded as not worth while. The fact is, nothing great or enduring in music has ever sprung full-fledged from the brain of any master; the best he gives the world he gathers from the hearts of the people, and runs it through the alembic of his genius....
Ragtime has not only influenced American music, it has influenced American life; indeed, it has saturated American life. It has become the popular medium for our national expression musically. And who can say that it does not express the blare and jangle and the surge, too, of our national spirit?
Johnson admitted that the Negro dances and Ragtime "may be lower forms of art," but remained confident that "they are evidence of a power that will some day be applied to the higher forms." The spirituals were already in themselves high art. "I never think of this music but that I am struck by the wonder, the miracle of its production.... There will yet come great Negro composers who will take this music and voice through it not only the soul of their race, but the soul of America." The gift of the spirituals "is the touchstone, it is the magic thing, it is that by which the Negro can bridge all chasms. No persons, however hostile, can listen to Negroes singing this wonderful music without having their hostility melted down."
A literary internationalist who compared Afro-American literature with that produced by other Africans abroad, Johnson cited Pushkin, Dumas, Coleridge-Taylor, and the Negro poets of Latin America as evidence of "the power of the Negro to suck up the national spirit from the soil and create something artistic and original, which, at the same time, possesses the note of universal appeal." The Negro possessed "a remarkable racial gift of adaptability; it is more than adaptability, it is a transfusive quality," demonstrated everywhere blacks lived. Why then, Johnson asked, had Afro-Americans produced no such representative national genius? The answer lay in the terrible affliction of race prejudice, which stymied and distorted Afro-American literature. "The Negro in the United States is consuming all of his intellectual energy in this grueling race struggle," he said. The Afro-American poet "is always on the defensive or the offensive. The pressure upon him to be propagandistic is well nigh irresistible. These conditions are suffocating to breadth and to real art in poetry. In addition he labors under the handicap of finding culture not entirely colorless in the United States." In contrast, "the colored poet of Latin America can voice the national spirit without any reservations."
The Afro-American poet must create "a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment." Blacks need not "limit themselves to Negro poetry, to racial themes"; on the contrary, "the sooner they are able to write American poetry spontaneously, the better." Nevertheless, they must utilize their distinctive individual gifts, which were shaped by racial experience and sensibility. Synge, who had done this for the Irish, was in this respect a positive model.
Johnson, therefore, insisted that African Americans remain free of any limiting demands for a strictly racial art. From the beginning, he demanded full freedom for the Afro-American literary artist. In the first issue of The Liberator (before Claude McKay became an editor) white radical Floyd Dell reviewed Johnson's Fifty Years and Other Poems. Foreshadowing the black aesthetic later promulgated by Langston Hughes, Dell championed "a peculiar racial way of writing poetry" and complained that "many of Mr. Johnson's poems might as well have been written by a white man." Dell specifically asserted that a Negro poet would feel differently about a sunset, a woman, or a battle than a white poet, and that the differences between them were racial and not individual.
I believe there is a Negro way of seeing a sunset. And I believe it is a more splendid way.... A sunset seen through Negro eyes, seen by one of a race that wore gay bandanna handkerchiefs even at work, and the most joyous colors in all the world at play, the race that has all the colors of the sunset in its heart--I think that sunset would be a sunset! I expect some time to discover that we white folk never knew what a sunset is.... I expect, moreover, to learn from a race that knows how to "laze," the secret of the butterfly's perpetual and lovely holiday.... And without going into details, I think the Negro has something to say, as yet unsaid, on the subject of love.... There is a Negro music that s different from any other music, a new thing under the sun, more irresponsibly joyous and more profoundly tragic, I think, than any other.
Dell hoped that "the Negro genius will express some of these same things in the words and rhythms of poetry.... The world is waiting for a Negro poet who can release the beauty which his people have, locked in their breasts."
Johnson, however, repudiated this view. Citing Dumas and Pushkin, he sternly told Dell that blacks need not depict specifically Negro themes or employ Negro dialect. Dell's focus on the past would categorize the Negro "as a happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more-or-less pathetic character.... Negro dialect is the natural instrument for voicing that phase of Negro life, but the poet finds it is too limited for any higher or deeper notes." Unlike the Irish, whose example Dell cited, "the Negro in the United States is thrown into the whirl of American life, and, whether he wills it or not, he must become a part of it. If he does not, he perishes." Johnson celebrated the black northward migration and predicted that it would change both blacks themselves and their white oppressors in both sections. He insisted that he did express himself and "the vanguard of the American Negro today" in his poems, and complained that what Dell wanted, "perhaps unconsciously, from the Negro poet is something not necessarily good, but something different, something strange, something novel, something new." This criticism resounded throughout the twenties as many blacks criticized Harlem Renaissance writers for titillating whites and reinforcing their stereotypes.
By 1921 Johnson's "literary Garveyism" was spreading. William Ferris, a top UNIA official writing in the Negro World, almost repeated Johnson's exact words when he exclaimed that "the history and literature of any race are the credentials on which that race is admitted to the family of civilized men and are the indication of its future possibilities. Through all ages and in all nations civilized man has justified his existence by pointing to his history and literature not only as proofs of development, but as evidence of his contribution to the total sum of human betterment and of the torch he has lent to light the path of man's outward march." Unlike Johnson, however, Ferris touted "the ancient history and literature of Negroes in Africa" rather than incipient Afro-American literary efforts. Ferris correctly noted that whites had ignored or ridiculed African cultures and African artistic achievements--a tendency that was rapidly changing even as Ferris wrote.
Johnson's own exaltation of popular art forms, his stress on the need for racial flavor, and his disdain for propaganda all foreshadowed his position in the Afro-American literary wars of the 1920s. Johnson hedged his literary optimism, however, with significant reservations, the force of which he himself did not fully realize. First, he acknowledged that economic prosperity might necessarily precede the creation of great literature, which required an audience, patrons, and artists blessed with leisure. Second, he echoed Du Bois's lament that even educated blacks were "notoriously a non-reading people," who did not provide a market for books by and about Afro-Americans. Indeed, Johnson exclaimed that an intelligent foreigner might rightly conclude "that a race which showed such a lack of interest in its own welfare did not deserve any better treatment than it received." Although Johnson established a "Poetry Corner" in his New York Age column, it was often vacant because of the abysmal quality of the submissions. Echoing other black intellectuals, Johnson attacked those cultivated blacks who assumed "a veneered imitation of white culture" and stuck up their noses at "anything in literature, music or art that is fundamentally Negro.... This class of colored people always wait to take their tip from the white people. They are unable to recognize artistic merit in anything that is purely Negro, unless they are first told by the white people that it is great." Such blacks disdained Dunbar until whites acclaimed him. Echoing conservatives of all ages, Johnson sometimes blamed the lack of a black reading public on individual moral failings rather than on the pervasive economic, social, political, and terrorist structures that constrained Afro-American life and rendered the fine arts inaccessible to or irrelevant for most blacks.
Finally, anticipating Garvey, Johnson undermined his argument that art generated respect, instead admitting that power generated recognition of artistic greatness. European civilization, he observed during the Great War, "was largely founded on force and nourished by robbery." The "wealth and power of modern Europe... may be accredited to the gun more than to anything else." Europe had plundered the entire world and enslaved all of its peoples, and thus created its brilliant cultures. "The Chinese invented gunpowder; if they had also invented the gun and used it as Europe did, China would today be the ruler of the world." England, a small island with a relatively small population which a millennium ago "had not reached the level that had long been attained by many of the tribes of Africa," today controlled "the more than three hundred million people of India, people whose civilization, philosophy, literature and industries go back five thousand years." In words characteristic of Harrison or Garvey, Johnson said that
As this modern European civilization was built up by the gun, it is being destroyed by the gun. Gun power is the thing by which it is measured. For example, Japan has had government and industries and art--an art which has recently wrought a revolution in the art of Europe--for thousands of years, but it was only when she showed gun power that she was given a place among civilized nations according to the European standard.
Art--or at least the world's recognition of art--apparently flowed out of the barrel of a gun. When Johnson repeatedly insisted that blacks must avail themselves of "all the virtues and powers that have made white people great," he did not include in those "virtues and powers" the genocide, slavery, and mass murder which provided the very foundations of Western "greatness" in military power, wealth, and education (and which in turn generated its self-proclaimed superiority in art and literature.) Johnson did acknowledge that the issue of which civilizations were superior "in the light of absolute fulfillment of human happiness" was another issue entirely.
Art's redemptive role, Johnson occasionally proclaimed, acted first upon Afro-Americans themselves by raising their self-esteem and racial consciousness: when blacks took pride in themselves and their achievements, they embodied and communicated this attitude in the larger society. After the Civil War and Emancipation, "the front ranks of the Negro race" were ashamed of the spirituals; "they revolted against everything connected with slavery, and among those things were the Spirituals. It became a sign of not being progressive or educated to sing them." This reaction, however natural, was foolish. Johnson rejoiced in the recent change whereby choirs "among the largest and richest colored churches" specialized in singing spirituals. This revaluation signaled "an entirely new phase of race consciousness" marked by "a change in the attitude of the Negro himself toward his own art material; the turning of his gaze inward upon his own cultural resources." Shame and neglect were replaced by "study and pride," which influenced "all the other artistic activities of the Negro." This new racial pride in turn changed white America's attitudes toward black culture and therefore toward its creators:
America is beginning to see the Negro in a new light, or, rather, to see something new in the Negro. It is beginning to see in him the divine spark which may glow merely for the fanning.... This change of attitude with regard to the Negro... is directly related to the Negro's change of attitude with regard to himself.
By Johnson's own account, however, the spirituals were collected only after the end of slavery, when Afro-Americans were finally (if reluctantly and incompletely) acknowledged as persons. Even the spirituals, it seems, received much of their value from the increased respect accorded their creators, rather than generating that increased respect.
In 1928, however, as the Harlem Renaissance was nearing its close, Johnson reiterated his contention that "the art approach to the Negro problem" required "a minimum of pleas, or propaganda, or philanthropy. It depends more upon what the Negro himself does than upon what someone else does for him." It allowed "great and rapid progress with least friction" and provided "a common platform upon which most people are willing to stand." Negro folk creations had "undergone a new evaluation." The spirituals generated interracial harmony because "nobody can hear Negroes sing this wonderful music in its primitive beauty without a softening of feeling toward them." The spirituals had formerly induced pity, but now generated "admiration for the creative genius of the race." Johnson admitted that individual Aframerican writers could not "produce anything comparable to the folk-art in distinctive values," but proclaimed that they could enrich American literature "from the store of their own racial genius: warmth, color, movement, rhythm, and abandon; depth and swiftness of emotion and the beauty of sensuousness." Their impact on the Aframerican's "condition and status as a man and a citizen" far surpassed their literary value. The race problem, Johnson repeated, was quickly becoming one of attitudes rather than of actual conditions. In the manner of powerless intellectuals, Johnson slighted the very real structural obstacles impeding Afro-American progress and instead emphasized ideas. Afro-American poverty, ignorance, and oppression were not the main problems; the race problem was "less a matter of dealing with what [the Negro] is and more a matter of dealing with what America thinks he is." The next year (1929) Johnson claimed that "Negro writers who have something worthwhile to say and the power and skill to say it have as fair a chance today of being published as any other writer."
Johnson did admit that the black writer confronted a racist white audience and a defensive black one, and that this impeded full and free artistic self-expression. However, he vastly underestimated the massive structural forces which impeded black equality; similarly, he exaggerated the possible impact of black literature as well as the receptivity of the white public. He also downplayed the fact that white philanthropists, publicists, and publishing houses (whom Zora Neal Hurston sardonically labelled "the Negrotarians") were essential in fostering the Harlem Renaissance. Further, his assertion that Coleridge-Taylor's compositions won the hearts and minds of whites ignored the fact that Afro-Americans were routinely excluded or segregated in balconies during performances of his music.
Johnson claimed that the key period of Afro-American achievement was not the Renaissance era of the mid-1920s, but the disillusioning war years and their immediate aftermath, in which blacks had first noticed their own poets. "The poems of the immediate postwar period were widely printed in Negro periodicals; they were committed to memory; they were recited at school exercises and public meetings; and were discussed at private gatherings." Whites, prepared by Negro folk creations, also took notice. Furthermore, "the new knowledge and opinions about the Negro in Africa--that he was not just a howling savage, that he had a culture, that he had produced a vital art--had directly affected opinion about the Negro in America." Johnson concluded that the Harlem Renaissance had been a resounding success. Through artistic production
the Negro is bringing about an entirely new national conception of himself; he has placed himself in an entirely new light before the American people. I do not think it too much to say that through artistic achievement the Negro has found a means of getting at the very core of the prejudice against him, by challenging the Nordic superiority complex.... The connotations of the very word "Negro" have been changed. A generation ago many Negroes were half or wholly ashamed of the term. Today they have every reason to be proud of it.
This was all the more amazing because "less than twenty-five Negro artists" had "chiefly done the work." A further increase in number of Negro creative artists, Johnson predicted, would help transform race relations.
When Johnson published an expanded version of The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1931, he praised the achievements of Afro-American artists, even while warning that artificial attempts at evading racial issues generated poor art. Negro poets had written good non-racial poetry; "but not in all of it do I find a single poem possessing the power and artistic finality found in the best of the poems rising out of racial conflict and contact." Artists worked best with the materials with which they were most familiar; and at the present, race "is perforce the thing the American Negro poet knows best." In time, as race relations improved, the Aframerican poet would broaden his themes; "but even now he can escape the sense of being hampered if, standing on his racial foundations," he fashions verse which "rises above mere race and reaches out to the universal in truth and beauty." Today's younger poets possessed "a greater self-sufficiency than any generation before them and are freer from sensitiveness to the approbation or deprecation of their white environment." Johnson was among the few who retained his faith in art's redemptive powers even into the depression decade.
Yet even Johnson was, for a social conservative, remarkably radical in some of his associations. A founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he was for part of the 1920s the president of the American Fund for Public Service (the Garland Fund), a philanthropic foundation which funded diverse leftist projects, including the CP-affiliated literary journal, the New Masses. Johnson's views, indeed, make one hesitate before applying the term "conservative" to any black intellectual.
If James Weldon Johnson was an avatar of the Harlem Renaissance, Charles S. Johnson (no relative) was also among its chief creators. A trained sociologist, Johnson largely wrote The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, the official publication of the Illinois governor's commission that studied the violent upheaval of 1919. Johnson accepted a position with the National Urban League, and became, in 1923, editor of its new magazine, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. As editor, Johnson, in the words of Langston Hughes, "did more to encourage and develop Negro writers during the 1920's than anyone else in America." He not only sponsored Opportunity's widely acclaimed literary contests; he also encouraged Afro-American intellectuals to migrate to New York. Johnson badly wanted Afro-American artist Aaron Douglass in New York; when initial entreaties failed, he had his secretary write Douglass "better to be a dishwasher in New York" than "head of a high school in Kansas City."
Charles S. Johnson was a moderate and a gradualist not from heartfelt conviction, but because of his hard-headed appraisal of harsh American realities. After serving in France during the Great War, Johnson personally witnessed the abuse heaped upon returning black soldiers, and was himself shot at during the Chicago pogrom of 1919. Opportunity, Johnson said in an early editorial, would approach racial problems "scientifically." Its program would be "definitely constructive" and would aim at presenting "objectively, the facts of Negro life." Johnson believed that "experiments" and a "frank and unbiased presentation of facts and views" would provide "a dependable guide to action." Cooperation, he believed, depended upon mutual understanding. Racial attitudes were, pace racist claims, highly variable; if mistaken beliefs "can be made accessible for examination, there is hope that many of them can be corrected." Opportunity's conception of the scientific method--sharply contrasting with that of the Messenger--did not include Marxist analysis. In Johnson's view, Afro-American literature and art would help illuminate the Negro's condition, aspirations, and hopes. Opportunity's policy was "one of intelligent analysis rather than fireworks; of calm analysis rather than tears"; it would make Negro life interesting partly through "the charm and vitality of the emerging group of Negro writers."
A literary efflorescence could provide much-needed cohesion and self-identity for the Afro-American group, Johnson believed, as well as inform whites about black racial sensibilities and experiences. Debunking white racist (and black nationalist) assertions about supposedly innate African traits, Opportunity said that "one of the most striking and obvious facts of Negro life in America is that they have no historical memory--no historical continuity. It is not even possible to learn from what parts of Africa individual Negroes were taken." Garveyism, Johnson said, thrived on this lack of authentic roots and culture. Garvey, indeed, invented a culture based on alleged African traditions. Garveyism was "a movement of the class lowest down to fabricate a background and a racial self-respect, to compensate for the prestige and power they have habitually lacked." Garvey's racial philosophy was "original only in the sense that it was an inversion of white standards--a typical revolt." Indeed, "one of the greatest deficiencies of Negroes in America is the absence of any well established historical background of which they can be proud. This distinguishes them in their own esteem from the humblest Pole, for example. An emphasis then is placed by the Negroes of the [Garvey] movement upon early African civilization."
Repudiating what would later be called multiculturalism, Johnson claimed that
Negroes have no more historical continuity than the millions of American whites who have blended into the American stock from an uncertain origin. This is the only culture they know or have ever been exposed to. The circumstances of their lives make it necessary for them to share it and contribute to it. They know no other in spite of the theories concerning survivals of African traits.... They have no such autonomy as makes possible the development of a special culture.... The state of affairs in our democracy that would follow the independent development of a special culture by each racial group in our population can be well imagined. Where evidences of it have appeared they have been put down with a stern hand. The program of Americanization was designed to prevent just such tendencies as are recommended [by such whites as President Harding] for the Negroes.
False beliefs about alleged Negro differences ratified themselves and drove the races further apart. "If the myths can be dissolved" and false beliefs "honestly questioned, many of our inhibitions to normal, rational and ethical conduct will be removed." Although Opportunity published numerous articles on African art and civilization--including some by Alain Locke--Johnson viewed the promotion of authentic Afro-American literature and art as a more promising contribution to interracial understanding.
In 1924 Johnson helped organize the epochal Civic Club dinner honoring the publication of Jessie Fauset's There Is Confusion, a prim-and-proper novelistic defense of refined blacks. The dinner was attended by many literati of both races, and catalyzed white sponsorship of Afro-American writers. Johnson introduced Alain Locke who, as master of ceremonies, said that Negroes "sense within their group... a spiritual wealth" which, if properly tapped, would generate "a new judgment and re-appraisal of the race." Opportunity published an effusive account of the gathering, and the full text of white writer Carl Van Doren's speech. Van Doren succinctly explained the philosophy of both Johnsons and of Lo Van Doren said. "The wrongs of their people are too close to them to be overlooked. But it happens that in this case the vulgar forms of propaganda are all unnecessary. The facts about Negroes in the United States are themselves propaganda--devastating and unanswerable. A Negro novelist who tells the simple story of any aspiring colored man or woman will call as with a bugle to the minds of all just persons, white or black, to listen to him." Blacks could also infuse American literature with desperately needed "color, music, gusto, the free expression of gay or desperate moods."
In September 1924 Opportunity introduced its first annual contest for Afro-American writers. Offering cash prizes for the best submissions in distinct genres, it announced that the judges would consist of an interracial panel of nationally famous authors. Society was now "ripe for the development of some new and perhaps distinctive contribution to art, literature and life." Negro literature would encourage "interracial goodwill as well as racial culture and American literature in interpreting the life and longings and emotional experiences of the Negro people to their shrinking and spiritually alien neighbors"; it would dispel outmoded racist stereotypes and evoke "the interest and kindred spirit of the rest of the world by the sheer force of the humanness and beauty of one's own story." The Opportunity contest would cultivate Negro literature, encourage Afro-American authors, develop a market for their work, facilitate interracial literary intercourse, and "foster a type of writing by Negroes which shakes itself free of deliberate propaganda and protest." Johnson said that "Negro life is the one unexplored sector of American life," so encrusted with taboos and slander "that it emerges now upon a world jaded and bored, with all the flaring revelations of a new country."
The Opportunity contest succeeded beyond its sponsor's wildest dreams; the magazine was so deluged with manuscripts that it postponed the announcement of the winners, who included writers who soon won national prominence. "On the quality of the manuscripts the judges have commented in terms of surprised delight," Opportunity said. After quoting many of these judgments, it said that "the work of the contest is just beginning."
Johnson did, however, venture one important criticism of many entries, complaining that they lacked authenticity. Afro-Americans, "with a background of deep toned and gorgeously colored experience all their own, have, with the characteristic self-consciousness of the parvenu, strained desperately to avoid or deny it." Negro writers "have spent the greater portion of their freedom" protesting against realistic use of the dialect, "snubbing the spirituals, genuflecting before wholly irrelevant Egyptian altars, or painting white heroes black and black villains white." Although such efforts by an oppressed and calumniated caste were understandable, "in bending all efforts to prove that they are just like other people, they have ignored perhaps the only vital differences that can give prestige, which is, incidentally, the very object of most of the effort." Johnson cited the international sensation of Jazz, which expressed "the American temperament," as exemplifying Negro distinctiveness and potential. Did not jazz express "the simple art, the spontaneity and frank intensity of Negro life, which tradition teaches us to despise?" Johnson found it an "amusing and yet profoundly significant paradox" that blacks "not only can best express the spirit of American life," but "have created the very forms of [that] expression.... The most effective instruments and improvisations are Negro, the themes are Negro, the temperament is Negro. And yet it is American life.... What an immense, even if unconscious, irony the Negroes have devised! They, who of all Americans are most limited in self-expression, least considered and most denied, have forged the key to the interpretation of the American spirit." Opportunity, therefore, awarded its prizes (except in poetry) only to Negro authors who depicted Afro-American life.
Johnson's demand that contest entries reflect Afro-American life and experience apparently offended some white Urban Leaguers. At the Opportunity dinner honoring the contest winners, Brenda Moryck cited "a danger... in confining a writer to certain limits." Blacks, she claimed, knew whites intimately through personal service, from reading white newspapers, and from living in a largely white world. Except for the underclass, blacks differed from whites "in externals only." When Negro writers described their authentic experience, they wrote "not of Negroes but of just people,--people no different in standards, customs, habits and culture from any other enlightened American groups." Although stories based upon racial themes must depict "the tragedies and disappointments wrought by discrimination and injustice," such tales were at best "morbid." If these themes were avoided, a Negro story "becomes at once, simply an account of individuals, not of Negroes as such." As proof, Moryck adduced the ease with which light-skinned blacks "passed" into white society; if the Negro "were inherently different, the peculiar racial characteristics supposedly his would be as apparent in the white-skinned Negro as in the black."
Moryck said that writing about blacks per se was impossible without either "stressing the unpleasant and dismal element of race prejudice and its cursed results," or emphasizing poor and isolated Negroes "who through continued lack of enlightenment and contact with refining influences have reverted or remained true to the African type, which I frankly and readily admit is peculiarly different from all other race types." Denying the distinctive experience, psychology, and sensibilities of Afro-Americans, Moryck continued:
If then, a survey of colored American life reveals the fact that people are people, white or black, the Negro prose writer with safe assurance may invade with his pen, any world he desires, for by merely knowing his own race people, he knows in addition all other people of his country not alone through study and observation but per se. Freedom of range of idea, unhampered by race consciousness or smothered by race pride, he as well as the poet must have, if the latent gift of creative art recently uncovered to the public is to reach the ripe fulfillment of its rich promise.
Only with such freedom, Moryck concluded, could Afro-American writers create a universal, rather than a merely ethnic, literature.
Johnson published Moryck's address in Opportunity with a respectful riposte. The contest's insistence that stories and essays concern Negro themes was necessary, Johnson said, because "along with the development of individual Negro writers it is important that there should be developed a body of Negro literature. Literature has always been a great liaison between races," offering "the undeniably human touch which affirms brotherhood both in likenesses and in differences. There is no contention that Negro writers should not attempt to treat anything but Negro themes; rather it is important now that Negro themes should be treated competently and that Negro writers, knowing them best, should be the ones to do it." Johnson said that Afro-America's defensiveness about specifically Negro themes explained why most literature about Negro life was written by whites, most of whom were ignorant and unsympathetic. The contest made no racial demands in poetry. But fiction must be realistic; and Negroes, excluded from much of U.S. life, knew best their own distinctive experience. Yet many Negro authors until recently had been "spurning their own environment as uninteresting and unworthy," thus ensuring that white writers profited from their (unrealistic and tendentious) depictions of it.
As if emphasizing his stress on Negro literature, Johnson offered poet Countee Cullen a regular column, "The Dark Tower," in Opportunity. But Cullen's own views diverged significantly from Johnson's. Although Cullen's verse addressed both racial and universal themes, it ignored the black lower class favored by Langston Hughes and McKay, and (like McKay's but unlike Hughes's) was strictly classical in style. Cullen also had mixed reactions to Hughes's stunning and widely acclaimed volume, The Weary Blues. Cullen highly praised the striking originality and individualism of the poems, which exuded "utter spontaneity and expression of a unique personality." Hughes "represents a transcendently emancipated spirit among a class of young writers whose particular battle cry is freedom"; he scornfully surmounted "whatever obstructions time and tradition have placed before him" in theme and form. "To him it is essential that he be himself. Essential and commendable surely; yet the thought persists that some of these poems would have been better had Mr. Hughes held himself a bit in check."
Cullen especially disdained Hughes's blues poems, his most original form. "The revival meeting excites me, cooling and flushing me with alternate chills and fevers of emotion; so do these poems. But when the storm is over, I wonder if the quiet way of communing is not more spiritual for the God-seeking heart; and in the light of reflection I wonder if jazz poems really belong to that dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expression which we call poetry." One poem in particular, "The Cat and the Saxophone," offended Cullen: "I feel that it ought never to have been done." All in all, Cullen complained, "there is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems--they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field." Cullen himself, however, had earlier admitted that race consciousness intruded itself upon his own writing, despite his ideological objections. "Although I struggle against it," he said, "it colors my writing, I fear, in spite of everything that I can do."
In June 1925, Johnson announced the second Opportunity contest (financed by gangster Casper Holstein, whom Johnson extolled as a philanthropic businessman), and added new categories such as music and constructive journalism. Although Johnson said that the second contest attracted more and better entries than the first, he also warned about excessive praise of black authors. "A Negro who is merely the best Negro doctor, or metallurgist or chemist, is in the same position of Hickville's greatest actor who goes to New York," he said. "It is a species of self-cheating which eventually injures.... The next step must be adjustment to the normal standards of American writers. Until the product of Negro writers can be measured by the same yardstick that is applied to all other writers, the Negro writer will suffer from the lack of full respect, and all that this implies."
The June 1926 Opportunity published many of the winning entries. John Macy's keynote address at the Opportunity award banquet delicately finessed the question of racial expression in art, even while expressing the exuberant optimism of the emerging literary efflorescence. Writers comprised "a great freemasonry which knows nothing of color, race, and creed, except the cult of beauty and wisdom." This group was comprised of "men and women all over the world, whose language we cannot perhaps understand but whose spirit is akin to ours. It is the most democratic and the most aristocratic society in the world. Title to membership is ability to express something beautiful or wise."
In apparent, but not essential contradiction to that universality of art, we must write intensely of ourselves and our race.... All artists in the world must express intensely their race, nation, time, family, personality.... So, sisters and brothers, though our bodies may be condemned to the earthly perdition of living in Mississippi or New Jersey, our souls and intelligences can live in the city of God, where the muses dwell, and where there are angels of light and song, where God's favorite children have wings.
Macy extolled the winning contributions as lacking both "affectation" and the "striving after artificial effect." Rather, "the prevailing attitude was neither apologetic nor hostile but simply self-respecting"--that is, authentic.
The same month that Macy's Opportunity speech appeared, two prominent black critics debated the nature and existence of a distinctively Afro-American literature and art in the Nation, a periodical edited and mostly read by whites. George S. Schuyler, a Messenger satirist and columnist, lambasted the very idea of a distinctively Afro-American literature, which was, he said, as "non-existent as the widely advertised profundity of Cal Coolidge." Schuyler admitted that Negroes had produced some distinct musical genres, but claimed that "these are contributions of a caste in a certain section of the country. They are no more expressive or characteristic of the Negro race than the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders or the Dalmatian peasantry are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race." Any group of southern peasants, Schuyler said, would have produced similar music. "As for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans--such as there is--it is identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans." Negro literati and artists graduated from top American and European universities, or studied under white masters.
"The Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon," Schulyer charged. Europeans blended into the amorphous American mass within two or three generations despite their foreign language newspapers; similarly, Negroes
have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years. Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American. Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same.... The Africamerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans. He is not living in a different world as some whites and a few Negroes would have us believe... He responds to the same political, social, moral, and economic stimuli in precisely the same manner as his white neighbor.
Schuyler listed a large number of commonalities that united the races before denouncing those writers who "have seized upon imbecilities of the Negro rustics and clowns and palmed them off as authentic and characteristic Aframerican behavior."
Enumerating a large number of Afro-American writers, Schuyler exclaimed: "their work shows the impress of nationality rather than race. They all reveal the psychology and culture of their environment--their color is incidental." Schuyler even claimed that for the last generation "education and environment were about the same for blacks and whites." Schuyler denounced "the Negro art hokum" as "probably the last stand of the old myth palmed off by Negrophobists for all these many years, and recently rehashed by the sainted Harding, that there are 'fundamental, eternal, and inescapable differences' between white and black Americans.... On this baseless premise, so flattering to the white mob, that the blackamoor is inferior and fundamentally different, is erected the postulate that he must needs be peculiar; and when he attempts to portray life through the medium of art, it must of necessity be a peculiar art. While such reasoning may seem conclusive to the majority of Americans, it must be rejected with a loud guffaw by intelligent people."
The following week Langston Hughes, whose jazz rhythms were controversial in polite Afro-American society, indirectly answered Schuyler. Although Hughes had apparently received an advance copy of Schuyler's essay, he did not explicitly condemn it. The editor of the Nation, Freda Kirchwey, had instead asked not for a direct reply to Schuyler, but rather "an independent positive statement of the case for a true Negro social art." Hughes, therefore, rather than directly confronting Schuyler, charged Cullen, author of a hostile review of The Weary Blues (without, however, naming him), with "a desire to run away spiritually from his race." For this reason, he would never achieve greatness as a poet. "But this is the 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." The typical black middle-class family, Hughes charged, disdained blackness and exalted whiteness. "And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money.... One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns." The imitation of white manners and mannerisms was specifically a middle-class vice.
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority--may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round.... They do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play a while. Sing awhile. O, let's dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him--if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.
Hughes rejoiced that the Negro artist who could "escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, [would find] a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better class with their 'white' culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work." In interracial relations "there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears."
Hughes admitted that the "present vogue of things Negro" could distort and harm the emerging Negro artist, who worked "against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites." He nevertheless extolled the emergence of an authentic Negro literature based on the realities of a distinctive black experience and sensibility, expressed most vividly in the lower classes.
Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul--the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it. The old subconscious "white is best" runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations--likewise everything else distinctly racial.... She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all Negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be.
The new generation of writers and artists, Hughes hoped, would impart to "the smug Negro middle class... a glimmer of their own beauty." He vowed that "we younger Negro artists" would "express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
To the extent that Hughes's condemnations were directed at Schuyler, they were sorely misplaced. Schuyler strongly emphasized race pride and complained that Afro-Americans lacked it. A Great War veteran himself, he opposed a monument to black veterans, demanding instead a monument commemorating black freedom fighters such as Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, who had fought for their own liberty rather than for that of the whites. He complained that "the average Negro has the same attitude towards everything, including the Negro, that the average Klansman has." Replying to Hughes in the Nation, Schuyler said that Hughes "forgets that the Negro masses he describes are no different from the white masses we are all familiar with.... The work of the artist raised and educated in this country must necessarily be American." He reminded Hughes that "it is the Aframerican masses who consume several millions' worth of hair straightener and skin whitener per annum in an effort to reach the American standard in pigmentation and hair texture." Afro-Americans, Schuyler concluded, repudiated any distinctive racial identity, "Negro propaganda-art" glorification of black "primitiveness" notwithstanding.
The Schuyler-Hughes exchange evoked widespread interest, and Johnson commented upon it shortly after it appeared. The debate, he said, evinced "a sort of mental fermentation which is in itself much more significant than the conclusions of either." He noted many paradoxes of the "Negro Art" controversy: "African Negro art is less understood by American Negroes than by Frenchmen; the middle class Negroes are closer to middle- class whites than they are to the 'levee' Negroes who created the Blues and the Charleston; the spirituals are called the only truly American music; and the English and French think jazz expresses the hectic rhythm of American life." Further, "Dumas and Pushkin, who would be classified as Negroes in America, writing about Frenchmen and Russians outrank any American artist writing about Americans, and the stories of [white authors] Du Bose Heywood and Julia Peterkin about Negro life are superior to most of the work of Negro writers about themselves."
Displaying his usual empirical good sense, Johnson suggested that "the question is still open as to whether or not there is or can be such a thing as distinctive Negro art. Certain it seems, if there could be, it would not remain distinctive for long. It is more important now that we develop artists and let the question of a distinctive art settle itself.... What is most important is that these black artists should be free, not merely to express anything they feel, but to feel the pulsations and rhythms of their own life, philosophy be hanged."
Johnson next addressed the "Negro art" idea when he assailed white writer Leon Whipple for complaining that the Afro-American was "gambling his lyre for a mess of pottage"--that is, sacrificing his native African gifts for mere equality in a moribund white American culture. Johnson replied that Negroes could not remain in their old condition and the culture that reflected it, whether that environment consisted of Africa or the Southern levee. Criticism of Afro-Americans for imitating white culture was irrelevant. "Whatever the indubitable native African gift, the present day Negroes have known no other culture save that American, into which they were born," Johnson said. Self-conscious Negro artists could not merely rehash unconscious past creations, however wonderful; "if they are to survive in this new age they must prepare for and accept the measurements applied generally to artistic accomplishment..... From the point of view of their future development it would be disastrous to rely upon any but these new standards.... And if, as Professor Whipple thinks, there is a peculiar African endowment that can enrich American art, it will show itself, whether the Negroes are conscious of it or not." However, Johnson urged that Afro-Americans acquaint themselves with African art, and declared that all peoples must perceive artistic values other than those of ancient Greece.
Johnson and other Opportunity writers expressed some disappointment with the contributions received by the third contest. Many entries, Johnson said, treated subjects far removed from the experience of their authors, and imitated the style and themes of well known artists. Johnson called for black writing "that need not at any point rely upon sheer exoticism for its acceptance." The Negro race was particularly deficient in good race dramas, Johnson said; most plays depicting Negro life were either low comedy or defensive propaganda. Negro writers "have been too ashamed of the material of their own lives to give it artistic portrayal." But the stage could interpret Negro life with "as great, if not greater, directness and power than either fiction or poetry." Interracial groups asked Opportunity for plays that would help in "softening the harsh points of racial contact," but Johnson lamented that he had few to offer them. In September 1927 Johnson suspended the Opportunity contest for the next year. Although he claimed that the third contest had evoked excellent stories and poetry, he also said that "more time for the deliberate working of manuscripts will yield vastly more valuable results." However, the Opportunity contests resumed briefly only in 1933.
In that same year Johnson published Ebony and Topaz, an anthology of Negro writing. It appeared at a pivotal moment: a year after Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro (much of which had appeared in the Survey Graphic in 1925), after the uproar over Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, and before the similar brouhaha over Claude McKay's Home to Harlem. In it, Johnson expressed his own artistic credo, which clearly resembled that of the insurgent young authors more than that of their genteel elders. Johnson found that poorer blacks exhibited "greater color and force of life" than did middle-class blacks; they lived "a life full of strong colors, of passions, deep and fierce, of struggle, disillusion,--the whole gamut of life free from the wrappings of intricate sophistication" that too often distorted the lives of the black elite. However, educated blacks had direct access to this unique material, and should utilize it in their own individual fashions.
"This volume, strangely enough, does not set forth to prove a thesis, nor to plead a cause, nor, stranger still, to offer a progress report on the state of Negro letters," Johnson wrote. Contributors were "much less interested in their audience than in what they are trying to say, and the life they are trying to portray. This measurable freedom from the usual burden of proof has been an aid to spontaneity, and to this quality the collection makes its most serious claim." Johnson admitted that some whites and blacks would take offense at some of the selections.
Negro writers, removed by two generations from slavery, are now much less self-conscious, less interested in proving that they are just like white people, and, in their excursions into the fields of letters and art, seem to care less about what white people think, or are likely to think about the race. Relief from the stifling consciousness of being a problem has brought a certain superiority to it. There is more candor, even in discussions of themselves, about weaknesses, and on the very sound reasoning that unless they are truthful about their faults, they will not be believed when they choose to speak about their virtues. The taboos and racial ritual are less strict; there is more overt self-criticism, less of bitterness and appeals to sympathy. The sensitiveness, which a brief decade ago, denied the existence of any but educated Negroes, bitterly opposing Negro dialect, and folk songs, and anything that revived the memory of slavery, is shading off into a sensitiveness to the hidden beauties of this life and a frank joy and pride in it. The return of the Negro writers to folk materials has proved a new emancipation.
Seemingly denying the existence of a unique Afro-American culture, Johnson concluded that "those seeking set patterns of Negro literature will in all likelihood be disappointed for there is no set pattern of Negro life." The new writers accepted "the fact of race and difference" while denying "that the difference means anything."
A year after the suspension of the Opportunity contests and the appearance of Ebony and Topaz, Johnson resigned from Opportunity to pursue a career in academia. He eventually became the first Afro-American president of prestigious Fisk College, an elite Afro-American institution. (While influential, Opportunity had a circulation only 20 percent of the Crisis, and the Carnegie Corporation had just withdrawn its subsidy.) In the September 1928 issue Johnson issued a valedictory editorial, "To Negro Youth." Johnson began by stressing the social construction of race. "Human nature is plastic.... The concept Negro is variable: It never means the same biologically, geographically, historically, nor is it the same to different people of the same race, or period, or place.... The concept Negro is a synthesis: It is color and feature, but these combined with status past and present; it is isolation, inferior circumstance, social attitudes toward both of these, and reflections of the inferior feeling of Negroes themselves. Isolation, it may be commented, magnifies differences of any sort; inferior circumstance induces scorn and pity from the outside, and indifference and hopelessness from within." Johnson emphasized that racial differences "are susceptible of reinterpretation, and through this reinterpretation can come a new a vitalizing spiritual release, a freedom from within." Young Negroes--and especially their writers, artists, and other race interpreters--could change the very nature of their race and its place in the world.
Negro youth have a right to feel that their self-expression can be more than a mere adjustment to racial policy; that it is possible to separate Negro life from the implications of Negro status; that Negro life in itself offers possibilities of the highest spiritual expression; that, in a very practical sense, it is possible to develop conscious compensations for the social disabilities of the moment; that we have in Negro life a virgin world of beauty which can yield rich satisfaction and command a new order of respect, and finally, that the freedom which these bring is a first condition of participation in world culture.
Johnson concluded, however, with an astounding statement--reminiscent of Messenger radicals and foreshadowing those of the depression decade--that "economic forces are stronger than racial forces. If this were not true, Negroes could not be used to break strikes, and there would have been no history of the use in the United States of black slaves by white slave owners for more than a hundred years to grind other and poorer white men pitilessly into the earth." Blacks, viewed as aliens and strangers in America, but were differentiating into classes, and becoming aware of their class interests. "The great majority of Negroes are either peasants or laborers and share the fate of these unprotected classes," Johnson said. "Class and race are not identical even though the angles of pressure frequently fall at the same points." Increasingly, whites and blacks were uniting "when the common interests of a class are concerned."
This was not mere rhetoric. Dependent upon powerful white foundations that supported both the National Urban League and Opportunity, Johnson undoubtedly muted his own views, much as Messenger radicals charged. Rather than selling out, however, he had spoken in Aesopian language. In early 1925, Johnson's Opportunity formed an alliance with the independent Marxist publication, the Modern Quarterly, edited by V.F. Calverton. Johnson somewhat disingenuously called the Modern Quarterly "liberal in view," and announced that it would publish articles about the race problem by prominent Afro-Americans. In turn, Opportunity would publish articles by "a new group of minds." Johnson said that "new contacts, new reactions, new influences should develop new areas of tolerance." Opportunity also reprinted an editorial from the Modern Quarterly which, while decrying the racism of white unions, claimed that the globalization of industry would inevitably erode both nationalism and racism. Opportunity advertised in the Modern Quarterly, which reciprocally advertised in Johnson's publication.
Johnson also covered the founding convention of the CP's American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) with judicious impartiality, remarking that blacks agreed with the ANLC's criticisms of racism but displayed "indifference to the ultimate measures of relief proposed." However, Johnson ridiculed the racist AFL for warning blacks away from the egalitarian ANLC. He also severely criticized Kelly Miller's advocacy of a united front between blacks and capital, exclaiming that Opportunity advocated an alliance of blacks with white labor. "It is not enough that there should be cooperation merely between Negro leaders and cultured whites," Johnson lectured Miller. "Harmonious relations depend not upon the manipulation of racial diplomats, but upon the interchange of friendly feeling, confidence and respect between all groups of both races. Professor Miller would stop precisely where the work of the future begins. To take [his proposal] seriously is to abandon the very essence of all interracial effort." All in all, it was quite a turnaround for an organization which the Messenger had previously labeled a scab-recruiting agency. Economic radicalism--at least in the sense of advocacy of interracial unionism--had indeed become conventional Afro-American wisdom by the mid-1920s.
Alain Locke was a third sponsor of the Harlem Renaissance. A Harvard Ph.D. and Rhodes scholar, Locke burst into prominence when he edited the special "Negro edition" of the Survey Graphic in 1925, and published it in a revised and expanded book form as The New Negro later that year. Locke, however, had been writing on artistic themes for many years before 1925. A refined, sophisticated admirer of high European culture who could make even Du Bois appear a bon vivant, Locke, excoriated for his reactionary aesthetic tastes by Claude McKay, became chief gatekeeper for Charlotte Mason Osgood, a wealthy white patron of Afro-American letters who stressed black primitivism. His influence over Afro-American letters, enormous by virtue of his wide-ranging, erudite essays, was thus augmented by his ready access to one of the Renaissance's wealthiest patrons.
Like James Weldon Johnson, Locke preached the gospel of literature and art. "Ultimately a people is judged by its capacity to contribute to culture," he told Howard University students in 1923. Materialism vitiated the group as well as the individual. "If, as we all know, we must look to education largely to win our way, we must look largely to culture to win our just reward and recognition." Attainment of culture, therefore, was "something more than your personal duty"; it was also "one of your most direct responsibilities to your fellows, one of your most effective opportunities for group service." Culture, Locke proclaimed, was a life-long acquisition, "the characteristic and constant reaction of a developed personality. The ideal culture is representative of the entire personality even in the slightest detail." The cultured personality confronting an unfavorable environment (as was the United States for all blacks) did not compromise with it, but "opens the treasuries of art and literature, and lives on that inheritance."
Locke also discussed traditional African art forms in articles (many profusely illustrated) for Opportunity. Explaining the traditional Afro-American indifference to Africa, Locke wrote that "only prosperity looks backward. Adversity is afraid to look over its own shoulder." However, "eventually all peoples exhibit the homing instinct and turn back physically or mentally, hopefully and helpfully, to the land of their origin. And we American Negroes cannot, will not, be an exception." Afro-Americans were "culturally the heirs of the entire continent"; and "as the physical composite of eighty-five per cent at least of the African stocks, the American Negro is in a real sense the true Pan-African, and certainly even apart from this, on the grounds of opportunity and strategic position, should be the leader in constructive Pan-African thought and endeavor." Influenced by Horace Kallen's cultural pluralism, Locke explicitly repudiated the condescension toward African culture implicitly evinced by Du Bois, Garvey, and other self-appointed champions of Afro-America's ancestral homeland:
We now see that the missionary condescension of the past generations in their attitude toward Africa was a pious but sad mistake. In taking it, we have fallen into the snare of our enemies and have given grievous offense to our brothers. We must realize that in some respects we need what Africa has to give us as much as, or even more than, Africa needs what we in turn have to give her; and that unless we approach Africa in the spirit of the finest reciprocity, our efforts will be ineffectual or harmful. We need to be the first of all Westerners to rid ourselves of the insulting prejudice, the insufferable bias of "civilizing Africa,"--for she is not only our mother but in the light of most recent science is beginning to appear as the mother of civilization in general.
"We must develop the race mind and race interest on an international basis," Locke concluded. The masses had seen the need for international racial unity more readily than the leaders, as the Garvey movement had demonstrated. Garvey's "chief service and mission" was "to have stirred the race mind to the depths with the idea of large-scale cooperation between the variously separated branches of the Negro peoples. This is without a doubt the great constructive idea in the race life during the last decade." Locke deplored the squabbling between Garvey's UNIA and Du Bois's Pan-African Congress, as well as Garvey's financial mismanagement. Although both men temporarily failed, "publicity for the idea is for the present the main thing.... In both cases the idea has survived its initial defeat."
As a race, Locke argued, "our first duty is to cultivate every opportunity for the diffusion among us of the knowledge of Africa both of today and of the past.... Instead of being reluctant, our Negro colleges should be eager to develop special scholarship in these directions; in the cultural field, here is their special and peculiar chance to enter the academic arena and justify themselves." Locke even asserted that "in the question of folk-lore and comparative study of customs, psychological rapport and entree to the groups studied" was essential; "with respect to the study of African peoples, the employment of trained colored investigators would inaugurate a new era."
Locke's views on the social importance of art as forging a rapprochement between the races was a hallmark of his New Negro contributions. Locke's hopes for art as a bridge between elites of both races evinced his bedrock political conservatism. "Mutual understanding is basic for any subsequent cooperation and adjustment," he said; but the mutual isolation of "the more intelligent and representative elements" of the two races constituted "the most unsatisfactory feature of our present stage of race relationships.... The only safeguard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully maintained contacts of the enlightened minorities of both race groups." The masses of blacks were conservative on every issue except race. Even the Afro-American militant was "radical in tone, but not in purpose"; he was a "forced" rather than a "genuine" radical. Yet unless his grievances were fairly addressed, "Harlem's quixotic radicalisms" may soon metastasize "beyond cure."
Echoing Garvey, Locked declared African Americans "the advance guard of the African peoples in their contact with Twentieth Century civilization." Internationalism and the increasing unity of Africans of the diaspora and the homeland might ultimately provide the Afro-American's "greatest rehabilitation," Locke asserted. But "more immediate hope rests in the revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective." Blacks had already greatly enriched American (especially Southern) culture with "a leaven of humor, sentiment, and tropic nonchalance." A new generation of artists might not win political and economic equality, but it would generate renewed self-respect. Locke hailed
the releasing of our talented group from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression. The especially cultural recognition they win should in turn prove the key to that revaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further betterment of race relationships. But whatever the general effect, the present generation will have added the motives of self-expression and spiritual development to the old and still unfinished task of making material headway and progress.
Even if the Negro did not win immediate equality within American society, he could nevertheless "celebrate the attainment of a significant and satisfying new phase of group development, and with it a spiritual Coming of Age".
High culture, therefore, constituted a self-achieved "spiritual emancipation" for Afro-Americans. Locke disdained propaganda disguised as literature, saying it distorted reality, destroyed beauty, and mauled the souls of black folk. In fighting racism, black writers perforce accepted--and hence perpetuated--the categories of their oppressors. In much literature, Locke complained, the Afro-American had been conceived as "more of a formula than a human being--something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be 'kept down,' or 'in his place,' or 'helped up,' to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden." The black intellectual had similarly seen himself "in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality. Through having had to appeal from the unjust stereotypes of his oppressors and traducers to those of his liberators, friends and benefactors he has had to subscribe to the traditional positions from which his case has been viewed. Little true social or self-understanding has or could come from such a situation." Locke complained that "too many of us still look to art to compensate the attitudes of prejudice, rather than merely, as is proper, to ignore them." Blacks accepted white stereotypes even in refuting them. "Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have obscured and overlaid," he said, predicting that "artistically, we shall have to fight harder for independence than for recognition." Locke, accordingly, endorsed the younger writers who emphasized folk culture, racial idiom, and the pagan sensualism of lower-class black life.
The newly emerging Afro-American art, Locke believed, was both evidence for and cause of a newly awakened racial consciousness. "In the very process of being transplanted, the Negro is becoming transformed," he said. Blacks from all over the world, and from all classes, congregated in Harlem, a unique race capital. "Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been finding one another. Proscription and prejudice have thrown these dissimilar elements into a common area of contact and interaction." Harlem, the result of segregation, had become, "as its elements mix and react, the laboratory of a great race welding. Hitherto, it must be admitted that American Negroes have been a race more in name than in fact" and "more in sentiment than in experience. The chief bond between them has been that of a common condition rather than a common consciousness; a problem in common rather than a life in common. In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination." In particular, blacks were creating a cultural infrastructure, "channels for the contact of creative minds, and most important of all, a spiritual quickening and racial leavening such as no generation has yet felt and known."
Locke realized that African Americans, as members of an oppressed group, were "permeated with a common experience" and were "emotionally welded as others cannot be. With them, even ordinary living has epic depth and lyric intensity, and this, their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage." In an era of lifeless art reflecting a desiccated existence, "the Negro artist, out of the depths of his group and personal experience, has to his hand almost the conditions of a classical art. Negro genius today relies upon the race-gift as a vast spiritual endowment from which out best developments have come and must come." The conscious expression of racial themes was "fading out of our latest art," replaced by a "truer, finer group expression." Locke insisted that "race expression does not need to be deliberate to be vital. Indeed at its best it never is." Folk art, for example, unconsciously and naturally expressed the life of the race.
Although recent Negro art had been "stiltedly self-conscious, and racially rhetorical rather than racially expressive," the new poets had "stopped speaking for the Negro--they speak as Negroes. Where formerly they spoke to others and tried to interpret, they now speak to their own and try to express." The younger generation of writers viewed race not as a totalizing form of imposed identity which determined one's fate, but merely "an idiom of experience, a sort of added enriching adventure and discipline, giving subtler overtones to life, making it more beautiful and interesting, even if more poignantly so. So experienced, it affords a deepening rather than a narrowing of social vision. The artistic problem of the Young Negro has not been so much that of acquiring the outer mastery of form and technique as that of achieving an inner mastery of mood and spirit." Such artists eschewed stridency, self-pity, the "setting of artistic values with primary regard for moral effect--all those pathetic over-compensations of a group inferiority complex which out social dilemmas inflicted upon several unhappy generations." Poets now "seek and find art's intrinsic values and satisfactions--and if America were deaf, they would still sing."
Young Negro artists, Locked declared, "have declared for a lusty vigorous realism" and put themselves into "alignment with contemporary artistic thought, mood, and style." They had liberated themselves from a defensive and constraining Puritanism and the demands that "art must fight social battles and compensate social wrongs.... [and] put the better foot foremost." Although this new note generated intense controversy, the best new writers "take their material objectively with detached artistic vision; they have no thought of their racy folk types as typical of anything but themselves or of their being taken or mistaken as racially representative..... The newer motive, then, in being racial is to be so purely for the sake of art." African Americans were evolving new forms, styles, and tones which would "make a distinctive contribution" to world culture and consummate "the marriage of a fresh emotional endowment with the finest niceties of art." Demonstrating that such art still retained a social purpose, Locke insisted that "Art must accept such gifts, and revaluate the giver."
Locke conceded that "not all the new art is in the field of pure art values. There is poetry of sturdy social protest, and fiction of calm, dispassionate social analysis." But this new art was much improved in style, content, and tone from the old shrill propaganda. "The social promise of our recent art is as great as the artistic" because it cultivated the "welcome virtue of finding beauty in oneself." Younger artists had "instinctive love and pride of race, and, spiritually compensating for the present lacks of America, ardent respect and love for Africa, the motherland. Gradually, too, under some spiritualizing reaction, the brands and wounds of social persecution are becoming the proud stigmata of spiritual immunity and moral victory." Afro-Americans were no longer so overwhelmed and disabled that they could not create detached art. "Indeed, by the evidence and promise of the cultured few, we are at last spiritually free, and offer through art an emancipating vision to America."
Locke's discussion of the relationships between Afro-American and African art stressed that environmental forces, rather than allegedly inherent racial characteristics, shaped black expression. "Music, poetry, and to an extent the dance, have been the predominant arts of the American Negro," Locke reminded his readers, whereas Africa had excelled in crafts and the plastic arts. Locke found "little evidence of any direct connection of the American Negro with his ancestral arts" except for "a deep-seated aesthetic endowment," which was in fact universally human. Transplantation and slavery had generated
more than a change of art-forms and an exchange of cultural patterns; there was a curious reversal of emotional temper and attitude. The characteristic African art expressions are rigid, controlled, disciplined, abstract, heavily conventionalized; those of the Aframerican,--free, exuberant, emotional, sentimental and human... The emotional temper of the American Negro is exactly opposite [that of Africans]. What we have thought primitive in the American Negro... are then neither characteristically African nor to be explained as an ancestral heritage. They are the result of his peculiar experience in America and the emotional upheaval of its trials and ordeals.... They represent essentially the workings of environmental forces rather than the outcropping of a race psychology; they are really the acquired and not the original artistic temperament.
The Afro-American misunderstood African art just as whites did; "Christianity and all the other European conventions operate to make this inevitable." However, the impact of African art on European art was affecting Afro-Americans; African art "has been the most influential exotic art of our era." An exhausted, decrepit European art had been renewed by the revelations of African art; suddenly "the African representation of form, previously regarded as ridiculously crude and inadequate, appeared cunningly sophisticated and masterful." This had reminded blacks of their lasting artistic greatness, and taught them that "the Negro is not a cultural foundling without his own inheritance." It could also cause a revaluation of "the Negro physiognomy," a rediscovery of "the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid."
Locke complained, however, that defensiveness and "the timid conventionalism which racial disparagement has forced upon the Negro mind in America" had inhibited black artists from claiming African art as their own, and using it as the basis for their "natural ambition... for a racial idiom in their art expression." Afro-American artists had "too long been the victims of the academy tradition and shared the conventional blindness of the Caucasian eye with respect to the racial material at their immediate disposal. Thus there have been notably successful Negro artists, but no development of a school of Negro art." The Afro-American critic could not demand that any particular black artist depict Negro themes, but from the perspective of Afro-American artists as a group it was "a different matter. We ought and must have a school of Negro art, a local and a racially representative tradition." This would not mainly consist of portraiture, but rather in African art's "almost limitless wealth of decorative and purely symbolic material." For Afro-American artists, the ancestral legacy "ought still to have the import and influence of classics in whatever art expression is consciously and representatively racial." European artists who studied African techniques and represented African motifs must become "the inspiration and guide-posts of a younger school of American Negro artists" who shared a blood kinship with their African ancestors.
Despite emphasizing racial folkways and experience, Locke also asserted that blacks were the most quintessential Americans, both shaped by the modern, urban cauldron and expressing fundamental American values. "The problems of adjustment are new, practical, local and not peculiarly racial," he claimed. "Rather they are an integral part of the large industrial and social problems of our present-day democracy." Class differentiation was making the traditional stereotype of blacks as one undifferentiated mass "every day less possible, more unjust and more ridiculous." The public ideals of the Afro-American were "none other than the ideals of American institutions and democracy.... The Negro mind reaches out as yet to nothing but American wants, American ideals." Success for the race was
impossible except through the fullest sharing of American culture and institutions.... The choice is not between one way for the Negro and another way for the rest, but between American institutions frustrated on the one hand and American ideals progressively fulfilled and realized on the other. There is, of course, a warrantable comfortable feeling in being on the right side of the country's professed ideals. We realize that we cannot be undone without America's undoing....
Locke's views on the Negro Spirituals epitomized his belief that art must be at once specifically racial, more generally national, and universally human. "The Spirituals are really the most characteristic product of the race genius as yet in America..." he said. "As unique spiritual products of American life, they become nationally as well as racially characteristic." However, ultimately "they are not so much "typical of a group or representative of a period" as "fundamentally and everlastingly human. This universality of the Spirituals looms more and more as they stand the test of time. They have outlived the particular generation and the peculiar conditions which produced them; they have survived in turn the contempt of the slave owners, the conventionalizations of formal religion, the repressions of Puritanism, the corruptions of sentimental balladry, and the neglect and disdain of second-generation respectability.... Only classics survive such things." African-Americans must not only study and preserve this rich and complex genre, but develop it "and welcome its contribution to the music of tomorrow."
Locke refined and developed the insights of his New Negro essays in subsequent years. Introducing an anthology of four Afro-American poets in 1927, Locke said that "race is often a closer spiritual bond than nationality and group experience deeper than an individual's; here we have beauty that is born of long suffering, truth that is derived from mass emotion and founded on collective vision. The spiritual search and discovery which is every artist's is in this case more than personal; it is the epic reach and surge of a people seeking their group character through art." Locke selected the distinctly racial poetry of the four bards, even though each also wrote of more general themes, because the contemporary Negro poet "regards his racial heritage as a more precious endowment than his own personal genius, and to the common legacy of his art adds the peculiar experiences and emotions of his folk." The four black poets, however, "with all their racial representativeness," were "of their time and nation.... They are modernists among the moderns, and reflectors of common trends and current tendencies. McKay's proud spirit links our newly insurgent race pride and consciousness with the rebel poetry of radical thought and social criticism." Black artists would not only enrich American art, but clarify "our common vision of the social tasks ahead.... Surely the conditions that are molding a New Negro are molding a new American attitude."
Locke saw the Afro-American stage as the most potent force for forging racial self-consciousness and group identity. First, however, it must liberate itself from "blind imitation and stagnant conventionalism," from "the handicaps of external disparagement" and from "its self-imposed limitations." It must summon "the courage to be original, to break with established dramatic conventions of all sorts." It must "develop its own idiom," experiment, and "pour itself into new modes.... More and more the art of the Negro actor will seek its materials in the rich native soil of Negro life, and not in the threadbare tradition of the Caucasian stage." Negro playwrights must also eschew the propagandistic "problem play." At present, however, blacks lacked the requisite leisure and detachment necessary for artistic depiction of racial oppression's nuances and complexities. "Eventually the Negro dramatist must achieve mastery of a detached, artistic point of view, and reveal the inner stresses and dilemmas of these situations as from the psychological point of view he alone can," Locke argued. The folk play, unlike propaganda, was "the drama of free self-expression and imaginative release, and has no objective but to express beautifully and colorfully the folk life of the race." Plays based on such folk material would eventually achieve the distinction of the Irish and Yiddish theatre.
Locke perceived African themes as a wellspring of fresh material for the Afro-American dramatist. "One can scarcely think of a complete development of Negro dramatic art without some significant artistic re-expression of African life and the tradition associated with it," he proclaimed. Afro-American art and artists "have no mysterious affinity with African themes or scenes, but they have for any life that is more primitive and poetic in substance.... Especially with its inherent color and emotionalism, its freedom from body-hampering dress, its odd and tragic and mysterious overtones, African life and themes, apart from any sentimental attachment, offer a wonderfully new field and province for dramatic treatment." Locke hailed "the deliberate turning back for dramatic material to the ancestral sources of African life and tradition" and said that "no one with a sense for dramatic values will underestimate the rich resources of African material.... Not through a literal transposing, but in some adaptations of its folklore, art-idioms and symbols, African material seems as likely to influence the art of drama as much as or more than it has already influenced some of its sister arts. Certainly the logic of the development of a thoroughly racial drama points independently to its use just as soon as the Negro drama rises to the courage of distinctiveness and achieves creative independence."
Locke also reiterated his belief that art was the most immediate and promising salve for racial misunderstandings. And although he pressed for racial themes in Afro-American art, he insisted that such themes only mirrored America's own quest for self-identity and reflected the modernism generated by America's pulsating urban cauldrons. "The movement of Negro art towards racialism has been [very] similar to that of American art at large in search of its national soul," he said. Implicitly endorsing the "primitivism" that his entire life repudiated, Locke rejoiced that the parallel trajectories of American and Afro-American art had generated a "cultural rapprochement of the races in and through art" founded not upon "sentiment but upon common interests."
The modern recoil from the machine has deepened the appreciation of hitherto despised qualities in the Negro temperament, its hedonism, its nonchalance, its spontaneity; the reaction against oversophistication has opened our eyes to the values of the primitive and the importance of the man of emotions and untarnished instincts; and finally the revolt against conventionality, against Puritanism, has found a strong ally in the half-submerged paganism of the Negro.... Especially in the rediscovery of the senses and the instincts, and in the equally important movement for re-rooting art in the soil of everyday life and emotion, Negro elements, culturally transplanted, have, I think, an important contribution to make to the working out of our national culture.
The self-aware Negro artist could "make a unique contribution in the portrayal of American life, for his own life situations penetrate to the deepest complications possible in our society. For the folk temperament raised to the levels of conscious art promises more originality and beauty" than any imitative art. "That inner vision cannot be doubted or denied for a group temperament that, instead of souring under oppression and becoming materialistic and sordid under poverty, has almost invariably [given] America honey for gall and create[d] beauty out of the ashes."
Locke sometimes doubted and at other times asserted that art could foment social change. He conceded that "except in a few outstanding instances, literature has merely registered rather than molded public sentiment" on racial issues. At the same time, however, he declared that "the Page-Cable school of fiction," which populated its novels with the "devoted, dependent, happy, carefree Negro whom the South had always loved and protected," constituted "powerful Southern propaganda. In terms of popular feeling it almost recouped the reverses of the war.... The Southern version of the Negro came to be accepted by the Northern reading public, along with the dictum that the South knows the Negro." The current fascination with the Negro, Locke said, was caused not by Afro-American self-activity or even by conscious white efforts. Rather, "the revolt against Puritanism" explained "why current literature and art are for the moment so preoccupied with the primitive and pagan and emotional aspects of Negro life and character." According to this view, vast, impersonal social forces shaped both literature and race relations. Literature, it implied, was not an autonomous force for either good or evil.
In 1928 Locke reiterated his contention that "artistically, it is the one fundamental question for us today--Art or Propaganda, Which?" Blacks could either exhort or sing, but could not do both simultaneously. "We have had too many Jeremiahs, major and minor," he said. Propaganda suffered from "monotony and disproportion" and "perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it." Propaganda was shaped by the "dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained. In our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression,--in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda." Art served as "a tap root of vigorous, flourishing living"; it would "supply an imaginative channel of escape and spiritual release" and "cover life with the illusion of happiness and spiritual freedom."
But Locke was always realistic about the possibilities that the Harlem Renaissance would promote social change. As early as 1928, while still attacking propaganda, he complained that some of the younger writers (whose works he generally championed) were "pot plants seeking a forced growth according to the exotic tastes of a pampered and decadent public. It is the art of the people that needs to be cultivated, not the art of the coteries. Propaganda itself is preferable to shallow, truckling imitation. Negro things may reasonably be a fad for others; for us they must be a religion. Beauty, however, is its best priest and psalms will be more effective than sermons." This was not a condemnation of the younger artists; in fact, this essay appeared in Harlem, a short-lived, experimental journal started by Wallace Thurman.
In January 1929 Locke guessed that "the year 1928 represents probably the flood-tide of the present Negrophile movement." The whites would soon tire of Negro literature; but "the movement for the vital expression of Negro life can only truly begin as the fad breaks off. There is inevitable distortion under the hectic interest and forcing of the present vogue for Negro idioms. An introspective calm, a spiritually poised approach, a deeply matured understanding are finally necessary.... To get above ground, much forcing has had to be endured; to win a hearing much exploitation has had to be tolerated. There is as much spiritual bondage in these things as there ever was material bondage in slavery." A year later, his prediction vindicated, he said that "the much exploited Negro renaissance was after all a product of the expansive period we are now willing to call the period of inflation and overproduction; perhaps there was much in it that was unsound, and perhaps our aesthetic gods are turning their backs only a little more gracefully than the gods of the marketplace.... The second and truly sound phase of the cultural development of the Negro in American literature and art cannot begin without a collapse of the boom, a change to more responsible leadership, a revision of basic values, and along with a penitential purgation of spirit, a wholesale expulsion of the money changers from the temple of art."
By the mid-1930s, Locke--like virtually every other Afro-American intellectual of the depression decade--was calling for a black literature which was both class-conscious and racially self-expressive. Commenting on the general social conservatism of the black intelligentsia, which rendered even those most radical on racial concerns tepid and conventional on most other issues, Locke complained
It is this flaming dilemma [of race] that has narrowed and monopolized the social vision of the Negro artist. Race has been an obsession with him, and has both helped and hampered his spiritual progress. However, it is absurd to expect him to ignore it and cast it aside. Any larger social vision must be generated from within the Negro's race consciousness, like the adding of another dimension to this necessary plane of his experience.
Locke attacked proletarian poetry as self-consciously "drab, prosy and inartistic, as though the regard for style were a bourgeois taint and an act of social treason." He heralded "the rise of [a] quieter, more indigenous radicalism.... because along with a leftist turn of thought goes a real enlargement of native social consciousness and a more authentic folk spokesmanship." Locke called for "a true spokesman for the black masses, an authentic voice of the people.... the poetry that can fuse class consciousness with racial protest, and express proletarian sentiment in the genuine Negro folk idiom..... In such a mould poetic and artistic expression can be universal at the same time that it is racial without being partial and provincial." Attacking the doctrinaire Marxists who denied the compatibility of a genuine racialism with class consciousness, Locke perceived "a high compatibility between race-conscious and class-conscious thought. The task of this younger literary generation is not to ignore or eliminate the race problem, but to broaden its social dimensions and deepen its universal human implications. And on the whole, at least so far, the more moving expression seems to have come from the side of the racial approach broadened to universality than from the poetry conceived in doctrinaire Marxist formulae and applied, like a stencil, to the racial problem and situation. The one has the flow and force of reality and the vital tang of life itself; the other, the clank and clatter of propaganda, and for all its seriousness, the hollow echoes of rhetoric. The Negro poet has not so long outgrown the stage of rhetoric; let us hope that the new social philosophy will not stampede our artists into such a relapse." In other words, Locke retained his aversion for propaganda and his emphasis on genuine folk art, even while acknowledging the necessity of class as well as racial expression in Afro-American literature.
Du Bois, like Charles S. (and James Weldon) Johnson championed the Harlem Renaissance as part of a broad program of racial advancement. However, Du Bois had become somewhat disillusioned with its trajectory by 1928. Although Du Bois was himself a world-class writer who published novels, essays, autobiographies, and historical and sociological masterpieces throughout his life, even before the Great Depression he was urging that blacks reemphasize the basic economic concerns appropriate for a proletarian race. Long before anyone had conceived the idea of a Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois recognized the necessity of a distinctive Afro-American literature. He believed that "the Negro is primarily an artist," gifted with "a sense of beauty, particularly for sound and color." Yet in 1913 he lamented that "the economic stress is too great and the racial persecution too bitter to allow the leisure and poise for which literature calls. On the other hand, never in the world has a richer mass of material been accumulated by a people than that which Negroes possess today." The black writer would soon develop this material, but as yet he "had little or no chance in a world determined to make him a menial." In 1915 Du Bois proclaimed that the Crisis "has conceived its greatest mission" as "the discovery of literary talent in the Negro race. During the last five years it has published more manuscripts from unknown colored writers than any periodical in the world." But he admitted that his magazine was specially inadequate in its literature and essay departments.
After the Great War, Du Bois--in an essay he must have ruefully regretted after the later controversies over Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven and McKay's Home to Harlem--lamented that "we shrink at the portrayal of the truth about ourselves. We are so used to seeing the truth distorted to our despite, that whenever we are portrayed on canvas, in story or on the stage, as simply human with human frailties, we rebel. We want everything that is said about us to tell of the best and highest and noblest in us. We insist that our Art and Propaganda be one." All races included disreputable characters, and these must be portrayed in any realistic literature. But "we fear that evil in us will be called racial, while in others it is viewed as individual."
Du Bois lamented that such sensitivity, however explicable, devastated Afro-American art. "The results are not merely negative," he said, "they are positively bad. With a vast wealth of human material about us, our own writers and artists fear to paint the truth lest they criticize their own and be in turn criticized for it. They fail to see the Eternal Beauty that shines through all Truth, and try to portray a world of stilted artificial black folk such as never were on land or sea." Discerning white artists "often see the beauty, tragedy and comedy [of Negro life] more truly than we dare"; Sheldon's play "The Nigger" had been "repeatedly driven from the stage by ill-advised Negroes who objected to its name." Du Bois asserted that blacks "stand today secure enough in our accomplishment and self-confidence to lend the whole stern human truth about ourselves to the transforming hand and seeing eye of the Artist, white and black." White artists, often maligned by misguided blacks, were "our great benefactors--forerunners of artists who will yet arise in Ethiopia of the Outstretched Arm."
In June 1924 Du Bois reiterated his contention that the Afro-American "is afraid to be painted as he is lest his human foibles and shortcomings be seized by his enemies for the purposes of the ancient and hateful propaganda.... But it is work that must be done. No greater mine of dramatic material ever lay ready for the great artist's hands than the situation of men of Negro blood in modern America." A few months later he announced that the Crisis would award The Amy Spingarn Prizes in Literature and Art. Any "persons of Negro descent" who depicted "some aspect of Negro history and experience" were eligible. Like the Opportunity contest, announced almost simultaneously, the Crisis contest accepted Afro-American poetry on any subject. In May 1925, when the Crisis announced its new priorities, the creative arts were among them, even if they lagged behind a trans-race economic alliance of working people, independence from the two capitalist parties, and black education. "We shall stress Beauty--all Beauty, but especially the beauty of Negro life and character; its music, its dancing, its drawing and painting and the new birth of its literature." The Crisis would maintain "a high standard of merit" and avoid "cheap flattery and misspent kindness."
The Crisis contest, sponsored by Afro-America's largest national civil rights organization and its widely circulated magazine, was one of the prime catalysts of the Harlem Renaissance. Du Bois, however, expressed ambivalence about its purpose and wondered if the new generation of writers felt pressured into emphasizing the more sordid aspects of Afro-American life. In an early 1926 editorial addressing writers submitting manuscripts for that year's contest he wrote
While we believe in Negro art we do not believe in any art simply for art's sake. We want the earth beautiful but we are primarily interested in the earth.... It is Life and Truth that are important and Beauty comes to make their importance visible and tolerable. Even this as we say it is not altogether true.
Write then about things as you know them; be honest and sincere. In THE CRISIS at least, you do not have to confine your writings to the portrayal of beggars, scoundrels and prostitutes; you can write about ordinary decent colored people if you want. On the other hand do not fear the Truth. Plumb the depths. If you want to paint Crime and Destitution and Evil paint it. Do not try to be simply respectable, smug, conventional. Use propaganda if you want. Discard it and laugh if you will. But be true, be sincere, be thorough, and do a beautiful job.
Meanwhile, Du Bois was planning a Crisis symposium on the nature and purposes of Afro-American art. In October 1925 he had received a letter from Carl Van Vechten, a preeminent white patron of black writers, criticizing a negative Crisis review of a novel containing Negro characters. Van Vechten's complaint that many a black regarded "even the fiction in which he plays a role in the light of propaganda" echoed many of Du Bois's own concerns. Van Vechten said that although black sensitivity had a sound historic basis, it would cripple Afro-American art by inhibiting "Negro writers from speaking any truth which might be considered unpleasant." Van Vechten declared that "there are plenty of unpleasant truths to be spoken about any race. The true artist speaks out fearlessly. The critic judges the artistic results; nor should he be concerned with anything else." Unless blacks judged literature on purely artistic grounds, he concluded, "I see little hope ahead for the new school of Negro authors." Du Bois agreed with Van Vechten, reminding him only that "the reason for this is that [the disreputable] side of the Negro's life has been overdone and there is almost no corresponding work on the other side." Du Bois replied that "I want to make a fight for art freedom in the work of Negroes and work about Negroes and at the same time show the basis of the ordinary, unintelligent criticism." The Crisis would publish a multi-issue symposium on Negro art, and invited Van Vechten's contribution.
In the February 1926 Crisis, Du Bois announced a symposium on black art that would run over the course of a year and described the long controversy over the Negro's depiction in literature. "Most writers have said naturally that any portrayal of any kind of Negro was permissible so long as the work was pleasing and the artist sincere," Du Bois said. "But the Negro has objected vehemently" to the vast overrepresentation of low-life and clownish blacks in American fiction. Blacks asserted that while in any particular case "the individual portrayal may be true and artistic, the net result to American literature to date is to picture twelve million Americans as prostitutes, thieves and fools and that such 'freedom' in art is miserably unfair." Du Bois quoted Van Vechten's assertion that such attitudes, however understandable, devastated Afro-American literature and discouraged black writers.
Du Bois then asked a series of questions: Is the artist under any obligation or limitation concerning theme or treatment; can he be legitimately criticized for portraying mainly the worst or best of any group; should blacks criticize white rejection of novels about respectable Negroes on the grounds that educated blacks did not differ from similar whites; how should blacks counteract white literary contumely; and finally--and portentously--"Is there not a real danger that young colored writers will be tempted to follow the popular trend in portraying Negro character in the underworld rather than seeking to paint the truth about themselves and their own social class?"
For the rest of 1926, Du Bois printed responses both from prominent white authors known for their sympathy for black aspirations and from leading Afro-American poets and novelists. Predictably, the white responses were often simplistic and lacked the intimate understanding evinced by most blacks. As Countee Cullen said, the white writer, "as a member of a group with a vast heritage of sound literature behind it," could not "quite rise to an understanding of what seems to him an oversensitiveness on our part; he cannot quite understand our disinclination as a people toward our racial defamation, even for art's sake." As if proving Cullen's point, H.L. Mencken, a strong supporter of black writers, demonstrated an astounding obliviousness to the horrors of white racism and to the difficulties confronting black writers seeking a white audience. Mencken said that "the remedy of the Negro novelist is to depict the white man at his worst. Walter White has already done it, and very effectively.... The white man, it seems to me, is extremely ridiculous. He looks ridiculous even to me, a white man myself. To a Negro he must be an hilarious spectacle indeed."
Most Afro-Americans, however, were not laughing. Vachel Lindsay, in fact, complained that "an ingrained bitterness tinges [Negro] work otherwise clearly and beautifully carried out." Sinclair Lewis--ignoring the commonplace dictum that most novels resolve themselves into variations on a dozen main plots--petulantly warned that black preoccupation with white oppression created "the greatest danger that all of your novels will be fundamentally alike.... You cannot, all of you, go on repeating the same novel (however important, however poignant, however magnificently dramatic) about the well-bred, literate and delightful Negro intellectual finding himself or herself blocked by the groundless and infuriating... superiority assumed by white men frequently less white than people technically known as Negroes."
Some whites made more sensible observations. Mary White Ovington reasonably, if evasively, said that the best publishers demanded "art, not propaganda. They don't want to know what the writer thinks on the Negro question, they want to know about Negroes." Robert Kerlin, an anthologist of black writers, said that the artist must sympathize with his characters of whatever group or station; "if he is in sympathy with them he has nothing to fear regarding the effect of his work. His art will justify itself." White "artists" who wrote about what they have not experienced "must be flayed," while blacks must counter white travesties. The true Negro artist "will show the 'sordid', the 'foolish', and the 'criminal' Negro in the environment and conditions--of white creation, of course--which have made him what he is. Let the black artist not hesitate to show what white 'civilization' is doing to both races."
Joel Spingarn, a white NAACP official, misconstrued the question as asking whether publishers should accept mediocre Afro-American literature. Nevertheless, he raised an interesting issue. Each novel, he pointed out, contributed to world literature but also to race culture. From the standpoint of art, mediocre Negro books must be rejected, "but from the standpoint of Negro culture it may be important that some writers should get a hearing, even if their books are comparatively poor. The culture of a race must have a beginning, however simple; and imperfect books are infinitely better than a long era of silence." If white publishers rejected Negro books, Negro houses should sponsor them. "The world will not close its ears to the voice of a great writer merely because of the imprint on the title page," Spingarn optimistically proclaimed. Negro authors "must understand that a book may be of high value to a race's culture without being of high rank in the world's literature... The Negro race should not sniff at the Uncle Tom's Cabins and The Jungles of its own writers, which are the instruments of progress as real as the ballot box, the school-house, or a stick of dynamite."
The most controversial white response was that of Carl Van Vechten, who made the inflammatory claim that writers, white and black, overemphasized the disreputable side of Afro-American life "for a very excellent reason. The squalor of Negro life, the vice of Negro life, offer a wealth of novel, exotic, picturesque material to the artist. On the other hand, there is very little difference if any between the life of a wealthy or cultured Negro and that of a white man of the same class. The question is: Are Negro writers going to write about this exotic material while it is still fresh or will they continue to make a free gift of it to white authors who will exploit it until not a drop of vitality remains?"
Many of the Afro-American respondents implicitly attacked Van Vechten's assertion. Walter White assailed the idea that respectable blacks were just like their white counterparts. "Like other people who have struggled against odds, upper-class Negroes have through that very struggle sharpened their sensitiveness to the intense drama of race life in the United States," he said. "They never come into contact with the outside world but there is potential drama, whether of comedy or tragedy, in each of those contacts.... This sensitiveness to pain and insult and tragedy has its compensation in a keener awareness and appreciation of the rhythmic beauty and color and joyousness which is so valuable a part of Negro life.... Life for any Negro in America has so many different aspects that there is unlimited material for the novelist or short story writer." If blacks should not write of their respectable fellows because their lives were as uninteresting as those of respectable whites, than no one should write of respectable whites either. Hedging his bets in the manner of Du Bois, White added that the subject of a work was of no import if the writer "has the gift of perception, of dramatic and human material and the ability to write about it." Writers should portray what they know and feel the impulse to depict; they should have full freedom, yet could be criticized if they depict only the worst or best of any group. When whites depict Negroes only at their worst, White said, "Negroes must write stories revealing the other side and make these stories of such excellence that they command attention." (White's own anti-lynching novel, The Fire in the Flint, had attempted exactly this.) Like Du Bois, White said that "more Negroes must buy books by Negro writers." Jessie Fauset echoed White's concerns, while Georgia Douglas Johnson advocated portraying "the few who do break through the hell-crust of prevalent conditions to high ground [and who should] be crowned, extolled and emulated."
Cullen's response was likewise appropriately ambivalent and nuanced, and intriguingly commented upon the contemporary white reconstruction of black identity. Afro-American writers and artists must embrace artistic freedom as "the one inalienable right" whose possession partly compensated for the denial of all others. However, the Negro lacked enough "sound, healthy race literature" to allow the creation of "abortions and aberrations" which whites would view as typical Negroes. Cullen decried "a fictional type of Negro, an ignorant, burly, bestial person, changing somewhat today, though not for the better, to the sensual habitué of dives and loose living, who represents to the mass of white readers the be all and end all of what constitutes a Negro. What would be taken as a type in other literatures is, where it touches us, seized upon as representative so long as it adheres to this old pattern." Blacks could not effectively contest these white stereotypes unless their artists truly represented the magnificent diversity and health of Afro-American life. "Negro artists have a definite duty to perform in this matter, one which should supersede their individual prerogatives, without denying those rights. We must create types that are truly representative of us as a people" without abandoning "true art."
Cullen also said that if white publishers rejected "a treatment of educated and accomplished Negroes for the avowed reason that they do not differ from white folk of the same sort, they should reject those about lower class Negroes for the reason that they do not differ essentially from white folk of the same sort; unless they feel that, difference or no difference, the only time a Negro is interesting is when he is at his worst." He added that "there are as fine characters and as bright dream material [in the Negro slums] as in the best strata of Negro society, and that is as it should be. Let the young Negro writer, like any artist, find his treasure where his heart lies.... Only let him not pander to the popular trend of seeing no cleanliness in their squalor, no nobleness in their meanness, and no commonsense in their ignorance."
Charles Chesnutt also responded ambivalently, demanding full freedom for the Afro-American writer while retaining his own distinct preferences. According to Chesnutt, "the realm of art is almost the only territory in which the mind is free, and of all the arts that of creative fiction is the freest.... I see no possible reason why a colored writer should not have the same freedom. We want no color line in literature." Treatment, not subject, was vital; however, depicting "the ideal" of both races was "the highest privilege of art." Chesnutt, however, denied that cultured, educated, and refined blacks were necessarily interesting subjects for art. Incredibly, he questioned whether Negro high society was sufficiently varied and pedigreed for good social fiction. "Pride of caste is hardly convincing in a people where the same family, in the same generation, may produce a bishop and a butler, a lawyer and a lackey, not as an accident or a rarity but almost as a matter of course. On the other hand it can be argued that at the hand of a master these sharp contrasts could be made highly dramatic. But there is no formula for those things, and the discerning writer will make his own rules." He also complained that the black writer was too race conscious and propagandistic, thinking of himself "first as a Negro, burdened with the responsibility of defending and uplifting his race. Such a frame of mind, however praiseworthy from a moral standpoint, is bad for art. Tell your story, and if it is on a vital subject, well told, with an outcome that commends itself to right-thinking people, it will, if interesting, be an effective brief for whatever cause it incidentally may postulate." He added that scurrilous and commercial motives were not confined to whites; "my most popular novel was distorted and mangled by a colored moving picture producer to make it appeal to Negro race prejudice."
Langston Hughes's contribution displayed his typical insouciance. "What's the use of saying anything," he asked; "the true literary artist is going to write about what he chooses anyway regardless of outside opinions." Both those who depicted respectables and those who wandered among the riff-raff of any race were both "worth reading. It's the way people look at things, not what they look at, that needs to be changed." However, an anonymous black contributor wrote that he had sent white magazines stories about ordinary, respectable blacks who confronted universal human problems, but had suffered constant rebuff. "There is a great deal of prejudice against Negro writers, even if the best authorities do persist in claiming that Art knows no color line," the anonymous author wrote. "For myself I have solved the problem. In writing my stories I never give my characters color, nor do I use themes that are racial. The things that I write about are things that could and do happen to [persons of] any race, irrespective of color. They are also things that I am familiar with." The author promised that when famous and able to "follow my own inclinations" he would "write great stories about Negroes with great racial themes."
Du Bois weighed in with his own contribution toward the end of the symposium. Du Bois's 1926 NAACP Conference speech, "Criteria of Negro Art," printed in the Crisis in August of that year, remains one of his most profound and moving statements. Writing shortly before Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven rocked the Afro-American world, Du Bois, growing increasingly uneasy over the tone and tenor of some Harlem Renaissance authors, straddled the sharp divide between Art and Propaganda.
Du Bois first addressed militants who wondered how the NAACP, "a group of radicals trying to bring new things into the world, a fighting organization which has come up out of the blood and dust of battle," could "turn aside to talk about Art? After all, what have we who are slaves and black to do with ART?" Others, he worried (perhaps thinking of Locke's introduction to The New Negro) felt that "it is rather satisfactory after all this talk about rights and fighting to sit and dream of something which leaves a nice taste in the mouth." Du Bois declared that "neither of these groups is right." Art was "part of the great fight we are carrying on" and "represents a forward and an upward look--a pushing onward."
Blacks demanded "all the rights of other American citizens," but because "we who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans can not," Afro-Americans offered their country revivifying ideals and values in both life and art. Beauty was infinite, Du Bois wrote; "all may have it and have it yet again. The world is full of it; and yet today the mass of human beings are choked away from it, and their lives distorted and made ugly." Some people claimed that Beauty was completely distinct from Goodness and Truth. But "I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable...." Others claimed that Negro art, rather than racial agitation, would solve the problems afflicting Afro-Americans; yet Negroes were excluded from most art schools and similar opportunities, so most Afro-American genius was throttled. Negroes in art could only clown and play the parts Nordics allowed; "but for anything else there is still small place for us." Therefore, "the Beauty of Truth and Freedom which shall some day be our heritage and the heritage of all civilized men is not in our hands yet."
Afro-Americans, Du Bois continued, must utilize all the tools of humanity--especially Truth--for the creation of Beauty. Artists used Truth "as the highest handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding... [and] as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest." Du Bois said that "the apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion.... Slavery dogs him only when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice." This right, however, was constricted both by white and colored audiences:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.... The white public today demands from its artists, literary and pictorial, racial prejudgment which deliberately distorts Truth and Justice as far as colored races are concerned, and it will pay for no other.
On the other hand, the young and slowly gaining black public still wants its prophets equally unfree. We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as secondhand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people will talk of it. Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.
Du Bois argued that blacks, unlike whites, could "afford the Truth." However, blacks suffered from white ownership of most publishing houses and newspapers, which greatly restricted how either race could be portrayed in literature. White hegemony over aesthetic judgment also devastated blacks, who would not recognize genius in their own artists until whites had first proclaimed their greatness. Du Bois said that "we must come to the place where the work of art when it appears is reviewed and acclaimed by our own free and unfettered judgment. And we are going to have a real and valuable and eternal judgment only as we make ourselves free of mind, proud of body and just of soul to all men." When blacks created great art whites would claim that it was not Negro but rather American art; but "until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human."
Du Bois had no sooner proclaimed the inextricable union of art and propaganda when Carl Van Vechten's explosive novel, Nigger Heaven, shocked and galvanized Afro-American literary society. Van Vechten was a patron of Afro-American arts. In one way or another he helped or encouraged James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Walter White (all close friends of Van Vechten's), as well as Nella Larsen, Paul Robeson, and Rudolph Fisher. "You have been one of the most vital forces in bringing about the artistic emergence of the Negro in America," James Weldon Johnson wrote his friend shortly after his controversial novel appeared. Van Vechten, a welcome figure in Harlem cabarets and homes, shepherded famous whites through the exotic Harlem milieu; his own interracial parties became legendary, and received widespread coverage in the Afro-American press. Although Hughes, White, and Wallace Thurman apparently warned Van Vechten about the uproar his title would generate, White and James Weldon Johnson enthusiastically approved drafts of Nigger Heaven before publication. Hughes provided an even more essential service: When Van Vechten and his publisher were slapped with a copyright suit over their careless and unauthorized use of published song lyrics, Hughes quickly composed substitute verses of the same length, which were quickly inserted into subsequent editions. Although most of Van Vechten's novel flatteringly portrayed the Harlem elite, it also included racy scenes from Harlem cabaret life that offended many Afro-American intellectuals. "No recent book," Charles Johnson said shortly after publication, "has stirred the thought and emotions of Negroes to greater depths and variety than has Carl Van Vechten's novel of Negro life in Harlem." Indeed, the widely divergent reactions of Afro-American intellectuals clearly demonstrated that there would be no "united front" on black uplift through literature.
The most immediate cause of the firestorm, of course, was the title, which Van Vechten meant as a condemnation of white racism. "Nigger Heaven" was a colloquial racist epithet for the balcony in which Afro-Americans were segregated in most theatres and cinemas. The hero of the novel, Byron Kasson, bitterly exclaimed that
We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting down below in the good seats in the orchestra. Occasionally they turn their faces up towards us, their hard, cruel faces, to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon. It doesn't seem to occur to them that Nigger Heaven is crowded, that there isn't another seat, that something has to be done.
Harrison immediately reviewed Van Vechten's novel, and soon thereafter analyzed its reception in the African-American community. Harrison denounced the title as flamboyantly offense "to all self-respecting Negroes" and as "the deadliest insult when used by a white man.... Van Vechten knew just what he was doing when he used the title--and he took pains to serve notice on the Negro boobs that he knew." The novel itself was a "breach of the peace.... garnished with a vicious 'nigger dialect' whose sole source must be the author's mind at 4 a.m. after supping--and something else... This piece of cheap shoddy has neither atmosphere, depth nor character." Nigger Heaven was "a poor specimen of literary craftsmanship" and "a viciously false picture of the life which [Van Vechten] pretends to depict."
Harrison, however, used the novel as a springboard for his own sociological analysis of African-American life--especially that of the "guardians of the gate" who controlled Harlem literary and social life. In a direct attack on the Harlem elite, Harrison denounced Van Vechten's "dusky hosts--and hostesses--over whose bottles he imbibed [his] conception of Harlem." While attacking Nigger Heaven as "a brutal and bungling book," Harrison simultaneously crowed that Van Vechten did "show up the present worthlessness of what passes for colored 'society' in Harlem. Its cheap and tawdry assumptions of aristocracy, its reeking but camouflaged color prejudice and its collective crab-barrel tactics are revealed quite as effectively by Van Vechten's lay-figures as they would be by genuine characters." The shoddiness of the book, he argued, reflected that of its characters; Van Vechten's black cronies accurately perceived in it merely "the monkeyfied reflection of themselves." Their praise for the book (James Weldon Johnson, whose earlier Book of American Negro Poetry Harrison had savaged, was singled out for particular abuse) was merely "raucous rhetoric, inept opinion, and juvenile sentimentalities."
Harrison reiterated his old complaints: the dearth of Afro-American fiction left Harlem's authentic life susceptible to misappropriation by white authors; the African-American literati lacked critical judgment and merely aped white opinion. Harrison also charged that whites projected their own fantasies unto blacks, and voyeuristically slummed in Harlem, searching for the exotic and the bizarre, which encapsulated "the present ephemeral jazz idea of what 'the Negro' is." Nigger Heaven viewed life from the perspective of "blase neurotics whose Caucasian culture has petered out and who come to this corner of Manhattan for pungent doses of unreality." This observation has become a staple of Harlem Renaissance criticism.
Charles Chesnutt (whose books Van Vechten's elite Afro-Saxons devoured in large numbers), was initially disconcerted by the title but agreed that the characters "are true to life, [and] that is all that can be asked of the artist." Charles Johnson reminded Afro-Americans that they themselves disagreed about the appropriate term for their group and said that although the epithet "nigger" was usually meant as an insult, it humiliated or outraged only the insecure. "The truly emancipated ones who are more certain of their superior absolute status refused to see or feel a sting in the use of the word," he said. "The sting of it can be removed by refusing to feel inferior and hurt... by refusing to be a 'nigger,' whatever that is." Many derogatory epithets had been appropriated by their victims and turned into appellations of honor.
Charles Johnson broached another problem when he wrote Van Vechten that he had revealed many Negro "family secrets," such as class, color, and ideological divisions within the race. Nella Larsen agreed. Although she wished that an Afro-American had written Nigger Heaven, she characterized it as "too close, too true, as if you had undressed the lot of us and turned on a strong light." When James Weldon Johnson's secretary denounced the book, Johnson replied "it is truth, and it is life as you and I know it to be. We could find a counterpart in Harlem life for everything Mr. Van Vechten has pictured in his book." Johnson told Van Vechten that "it's all so fine, and so much in fulfillment of what my hopes and wishes were." Later, Johnson declared that "Negro objectors declared that the book was a libel on the race, that the dissolute life and characters depicted by the author were non-existent.... [But] Negro readers of the book who knew anything knew that dissolute modes of life and dissolute characters existed in Harlem; their objections were really based upon chagrin and resentment at the disclosures to a white public."
James Weldon Johnson's Opportunity review, which evinced his won conservatism and unrealistic optimism, was probably the most effusive Afro-American evaluation of Van Vechten's succès de scandale. Van Vechten, Johnson enthused, was
the only white novelist I can now think of who has not viewed the Negro as a type, who has not treated the race as a unit, either good or bad. In NIGGER HEAVEN the author has chosen as his scene Harlem, where Negro life is at its highest point of urbanity and sophistication, and there the entire action of the story is played out.... The story comprehends nearly every phase of life in the Negro metropolis. It draws on the components of that life from the dregs to the froth.....
The white characters are less than incidental. The story works itself out through the clashes and reaction of Negro character upon Negro character. Its factors are the loves, the hates, the envies, the ambitions, the pride, the shamelessness, the intelligence, the ignorance, the goodness and wickedness of Negro characters. In this the author pays colored people the rare tribute of writing about them as people rather than as puppets. This representation of Negro characters in a novel as happy or unhappy, successful or unsuccessful, great or mean, not because of the fortuitous attitudes of white characters in the book but because of the way in which they themselves meet and master their environment--a task imposed upon every group--is new, and in close accord with the present psychology of the intelligent element of the race.... It is a scheme for the interpretation of Negro life in America that opens up a new world for colored writers.
Johnson allowed that some would "prejudice the book unfavorably on account of its title"; but "one gauge of the Negro's rise and development may be found in the degree to which a race epithet loses its power to sting and hurt him." At any rate, "the book and not the title is the thing.... There are characters and incidents in the book which many will regard as worse than unpleasant, but always the author handles them with sincerity and fidelity.... It is all life. It is all reality. And Mr. Van Vechten has taken these various manifestations of life and, as a true artist, depicted them as he sees them rather than as he might wish them to be.... The scenes of gay life, of night life, the glimpses of the underworld, with all their tinsel, their licentiousness, their depravity serve actually to set off in sharper relief the decent, cultured, intellectual life of Negro Harlem." Byron Kasson's tragedy was "the story of talent and brilliancy without stamina and patience," not a specifically racial theme.
And, yet--Mr. van Vechten would doubtless count this a defect--the book is packed full of propaganda. Every phase of the race question, from Jim Crow discriminations to miscegenation, is frankly discussed..... If the book has a thesis it is: Negroes are people; they have the same emotions, the same passions, the same shortcomings, the same aspirations, the same graduations as other people. It will be a revelation, perhaps, a shock to those familiar only with the Negro characters of Thomas Nelson Page, Thomas Dixon and Octavius Cohen.... NIGGER HEAVEN is a book which is bound to be widely read and one which is bound to arouse much diverse discussion. This reviewer would suggest reading the book before discussing it.
Johnson later claimed that "most of the Negroes who condemned Nigger Heaven did not read it; they were stopped by the title." Opportunity, meanwhile, remained on excellent terms with Van Vechten. After Charles Johnson suspended the Opportunity contests, Van Vechten offered $200 for the best signed Opportunity article for 1927 (an award continued in successive years). Interestingly enough, the first award went to Dante Bellegarde for his "Haiti Under the Rule of the United States," an exposé of American imperialism. Opportunity, which never published full-page pictures of anyone, featured a full-page, idealized portrait of Van Vechten in its December 1928 issue.
Du Bois, however, vociferously disagreed with the praise for Van Vechten and his novel. Although written by a white, Nigger Heaven realized Du Bois's worst fears about the tendency of recent novels by and about Afro-Americans. Du Bois called it "a blow in the face" and "an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white." The title was not offensive in itself; but it did not mean, as Van Vechten intimated, "a haven for Negroes--a city of refuge for dark and tired souls; it means in common parlance, a nasty, sordid corner into which black folk are herded, and yet a place which they in crass ignorance are fools enough to enjoy. Harlem is no such place as that, and no one knows this better than Carl Van Vechten."
But after all, a title is only a title, and a book must be judged eventually by its fidelity to truth and its artistic merit. I find this novel neither truthful nor artistic. It is not a true picture of Harlem life, even allowing for some justifiable impressionistic exaggeration. It is a caricature. It is worse than untruth because it is a mass of half-truths. Probably some time and somewhere in Harlem every incident of the book has happened; and yet the resultant picture built out of these parts is ludicrously out of focus and undeniably misleading....
[To Van Vechten] the black cabaret is Harlem; around it all his characters gravitate. Here is their stage of action. Such a theory of Harlem is nonsense. The overwhelming majority of black folk there never go to cabarets. The average colored man in Harlem is an everyday laborer, attending church, lodge, and movie and as conservative and conventional as ordinary working folk everywhere.
Blacks undoubtedly harbored specifically racial traits, "something distinctively Negroid... but it is expressed by subtle, almost delicate nuance, and not by the wildly, barbaric drunken orgy in whose details Van Vechten revels." The racial spontaneity of Harlem life was crushed by white financing and patronage; "no one but a fool could mistake [Harlem cabaret life] for... the genuine spirit of the
"I am one who likes stories and I do not insist that they be written solely [from] my point of view," Du Bois wrote. But Nigger Heaven did not entertain; rather, it was "an astonishing and wearisome hodgepodge of laboriously stated facts, quotations and expressions," at times approaching "cheap melodrama. Real human feelings are laughed at. Love is degraded." The novel contains "not a single loveable character. There is scarcely a generous impulse or a beautiful ideal. The characters are singularly wooden and inhuman. Van Vechten is not the great artist who with remorseless scalpel probes the awful depths of life. To him there are no depths. It is the surface mud he slops about in. His women's bodies have no souls; no children palpitate upon his hands; he has never looked upon his dead with bitter tears. Life to him is just one damned orgy after another, with hate, hurt, gin and sadism." Du Bois deemed the novel's conclusion ludicrous. "I cannot for the life of me see in this work either sincerity or art, deep thought, or truthful industry.... I read Nigger Heaven and read it through because I had to. But I advise others who are impelled by a sense of duty or curiosity to drop the book gently in the grate and to try the Police Gazette."
Afro-American novelist and critic Wallace Thurman laconically reviewed Van Vechten's sensation for the Messenger. He praised the realism of the characters, even if they were (in Thurman's eccentric view) uniformly depicted as suffering martyrs and as victims of white racism. Thurman believed the novel in fact constituted pro-Negro propaganda. A few months later, in his own short-lived magazine, Fire!!, Thurman advocated the erection of a statute of Van Vechten at the very street corner where he would most likely be lynched in effigy. Thurman mused that "Harlem cabarets have received another public boost and are wearing out cash register keys, and entertainers' throats and orchestra instruments. The so-called intelligentsia of Harlem has exposed its inherent stupidity. And Nigger Heaven is a best seller." Thurman said that "group criticism of current writings, morals, life, politics, or religion, is always ridiculous," and claimed that very few critics of Van Vechten's novel had even read it. "He did not tell, say his critics, of our well bred, well behaved church going majorities, nor of our night schools filled wit eager elders, nor of our brilliant college youth being trained in the approved contemporary manner, nor of our quiet, home loving thousands who hardly know what the word cabaret connotes"; therefore whites would believe that all Afro-Americans resembled Van Vechten's racy characters. Thurman responded that any whites who would believe such nonsense would believe it without Van Vechten's help, and would disdain Fauset's counter-novel, which highlighted the refined black elite.
Thurman, therefore, discounted the propaganda effects, good or bad, of literature. "It really makes no difference to the race's welfare what such ignoramuses think," he said; a writer "should take whatever phases of [his] life that seem the most interesting to him, and develop them as he pleases." No writer would "write what Negroes think he ought to write about them"; blacks should in any event "shy away from being pigeon-holed, so long have they been the rather lamentable victims of such a typically American practice." Surprisingly, James Weldon Johnson--who normally touted the enormous propaganda value of literature--later agreed that whites did not change their racial attitudes on account of fictional renderings of Afro-American experience. "White objectors declared that the story was a Van Vechten fantasy; that they could not be expected to believe that there were intelligent, well-to-do Negroes in Harlem who lived their lives on the cultural level he described, or a fast set that gave at least a very good imitation of life in sophisticated white circles."
Du Bois, however, remained upset at Nigger Heaven and its impact on white opinion and on Afro-American writers. In late 1927 he complained that white publishers would not accept Afro-American work on the subjects that most concerned blacks: racial discrimination and the struggle for freedom. "These are themes which white readers are tired of or do not wish to hear.... Consequently the chief reading public in America will not buy precisely the sort of thing that Negroes must write about if they are sincere and honest." Du Bois lamented that "white Americans are willing to read about Negroes, but they prefer to read about Negroes who are fools, clowns, prostitutes, or, at any rate, in despair and contemplating suicide. Other sorts of Negroes do not interest them because, as they say, they are 'just like white folks.' But their interest in white folks, we notice, continues." Turning the tables on literati who accused him of confusing art with sociology, Du Bois argued that books such as Nigger Heaven only made solution of Harlem's very real problems impossible. Du Bois demanded that white writers and pleasure seekers remember that "Harlem is not merely exotic, it is human; it is not a spectacle and an entertainment, it is life; it is not chiefly cabarets, it is chiefly homes; it is not all color, song and dance, it is work, thrift and sacrifice.... But bribed and bought by white wastrels, distorted by unfair novelists and lied about by sensationalists, it will lose sight of its own soul and wander bewildered in a scoffing world." Kelly Miller, meanwhile, argued that the District of Columbia, not Harlem, was the true capital of Afro-America and that "so-called Negro art is merely the Negro soul turning itself wrong side out for white people to weep over and laugh at." He added that "if every Negro should withdraw overnight from greater New York, nothing would be missed except the jazz and the blues."
Du Bois, however, asserted in late 1927 that "we Negroes are quite well satisfied with our Renaissance. And we have not yet finished." Despite occasional optimism, however, Du Bois grew more and more disillusioned with the tone of Harlem Renaissance literature. After 1927 the Crisis de-emphasized literature and discontinued its literary contests. (The departure of Jessie Fauset as literary editor in 1926 probably initiated this change.) In January 1928, when Amy Spingarn urged further promotion of Afro-American literature and art, Du Bois responded that although the opportunities for young black writers were expanding, "if the young colored writer writes naturally, expressing his own life and his own reaction to the environment about him, it is still hard for him to get his work published. He is therefore tempted to follow the lead of Carl Van Vechten... and cater to what white America thinks that it wants to hear from Negroes." One "fundamental difficulty"--over which he and others had agonized for decades--was that "American Negroes are not buying books and supporting literature in the way that they ought." Afro-Americans needed a book club whereby a reasonable number of blacks (somewhere between two and five thousand) would purchase three or four books each year. This would encourage white publishers to sponsor Afro-American literature, and thus spur black authors. While nothing came of this idea, Du Bois did discontinue the Crisis prizes (revived as the Du Bois prize in the 1930s), and instead paid $50 each month for the best signed contribution in the Crisis.
Harrison's denunciation of the Harlem Renaissance was, unlike Du Bois's, unqualified. Indeed, Harrison denied that the 1920s were exceptionally creative. "The matter of a Negro literary renaissance is like that of the snakes of Ireland--there aren't any." African-American writers, Harrison insisted, inherited a long and illustrious tradition; many previous decades boasted more resplendent literature than did the 1920s. The custodians of Afro-American culture, however, remained ignorant of this tradition, and instead babbled on about whatever new fad obsessed trendy whites. "Negro society, especially in its upper reaches, takes its standards of value ready-made from white society whose changes of taste, amusements, and ideals will be found reflected more or less faithfully in the practices of Negro people." Meanwhile, serious black scholars and writers (among whom Harrison correctly numbered himself) suffered neglect.
Harrison charged that the so-called Harlem Renaissance (which he dubbed "the Cabaret School of Negro Literature and Art") originated "in the noxious night life of Greenwich Village neurotics who invented it, not for the black brothers' profit but their own." Among the prime architects of the "New Negro" concept and movement, Harrison resented its appropriation by white and black dilettantes and poseurs.
Whatever about [the Negro] was quaint, queer, odd, bizarre and different was seized upon as the essential he, the "real" Negro, the thing for which white editors, publishers, readers had been waiting all these years. The cabaret, of course, was the earliest and easiest point of contact for these discoverers of "The New Negro." There they could find not only a great variety of "types" as conceived by them; but, under the influence of post-war gin and Volstead whiskey they could revel in an "atmosphere" which was to them "realistic" and redolent of the "genuine" Negro."
Blacks, Harrison lamented, imitated the whites' imitations of the blacks, and thus severed themselves from authentic Negro life and culture. Harrison had previously indicated that mass commercial culture could, despite its vulgarity and stereotyping, communicate vital spiritual truths. Now, however, he saw mass popular culture as parasitical upon genuine folk culture. Printed music, vaudevilles, phonograph records, and now the radio "more readily and rapidly ruin the spontaneous artistic impulses of millions of people" and "enthrone in their simple souls art-forms that bear no necessary relation to their own lives--or to any other." Meanwhile, "the colored cognoscenti, Harlem's high intelligentsia, flocked to the new centers of cultural exposition like a swarm of bees" and manufactured doggerel lacking "rhythm, cadence and idea" for greedy and gullible whites. Harlem prose, likewise, was a "turgid tide of trumpery pish-posh" and a "babel of callow cackling." Even good writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Helene Johnson, "were soon swimming with the tide, nibbling at the fleshpots of Egypt, and headed for oblivion." Under the pretense of "representing the humbler elements of society," pretentious writers used "coarse vulgarity and indelicate expression"; they "often mistake the language of the gutter for the language of the common people." Such productions intensified the tendency of vaudeville and raunchy songs "to identify Negro-ness with nastiness" and give "the whole race a bad name." Harrison ended by asserting that "nine-tenths of Negro life is still unrepresented by the artists of the Cabaret School.... The opportunity, thank goodness, is still open for true creative artists from the younger generation of Negroes." According to Harrison's own analysis, however, those writers would remain unrecognized by African-American society.
Harrison's strictures contained another irony: his own depiction of Afro-American life was dyspeptic and scathing. Had any novel depicted the realities Harrison himself described, many Negroes would have regarded it as a slander against the race. For one, Harrison lamented widespread "mutual envy, jealousy and hatred" and quoted a widespread saying that "Harlem Negroes hate each other harder than any other Negroes in the country." Blacks, Harrison charged, loafed their lives away in idle dissipation, while other oppressed groups (especially Jews) worked hard, studied, and improved themselves and their neighborhoods. Instead of attending New York's free schools, colleges, and concerts, "the young Harlem Negro" made a spectacle of himself. "You can see him on any summer's night out on the sidewalk gyrating and contorting himself like a pet monkey, doing the 'Charleston' or the 'black bottom.'" Negro business was beneath contempt. Mostly "bluff and bluster," it was aptly represented by "the undertaker, the barber, and perhaps the realtor, who is generally the economic jackal for the white real estate lion." While large-scale Negro business ventures repeatedly failed, "the business that panders to ephemeral pleasure flourishes in our faces. They are the poolrooms, the night clubs and cabarets, the dance halls, the numbers, the Italian rum shops--all these make money for their proprietors." Harrison wickedly concluded his denunciation of Harlem with bitter sarcasm: "The total picture is not, of course, all black. I am merely giving here the darker side of a civic reality."
It was perhaps a blessing that Harrison died just before the appearance of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, a cabaret novel widely compared with Van Vechten's. Harrison had long admired McKay's poetry, and had sadly remarked that blacks discovered McKay only after he had published three volumes of verse abroad. However, the uproar over Nigger Heaven had scarcely subsided when Claude Mckay's Home to Harlem generated renewed outrage--and admiration. McKay's trajectory, indeed, symbolized that of other Afro-American insurgents during the 1920s.
McKay had left Petrograd armed with advice from Trotsky and Zinoviev about spreading the Communist message among Afro-Americans. McKay's Crisis articles--personal, impressionistic, and sympathetic toward anti-Bolshevik artists and bohemians--favored the Revolution, but were by no means proselytizing pieces. He did stress Lenin's and the Comintern's solicitude for the oppressed peoples of the world and for Afro-Americans in particular. But McKay also "grew sick and tired to death of meeting the proletarian ambassadors from foreign lands, some of whom bore themselves as if they were the holy messengers of Jesus, Prince of Heaven, instead of working-class representatives. And so I spent many of my free evenings at the Domino Cafe, a notorious den of the dilettante poets and writers." Nor could McKay find an American publisher for his Negroes in America.
Instead of organizing Afro-Americans, McKay remained abroad for over a decade and withdrew from radical politics. McKay had in effect been ousted from his position on the Liberator, whose freewheeling, independent brand of radicalism was almost extinct in the United States. In McKay's experience, Communism combined the worst of two worlds: regimented thought and venomous factional infighting. His opinion further soured after the death of Lenin and the concomitant accentuation of totalitarianism in Russia and Soviet control of the Comintern. McKay told Max Eastman that his Since Lenin Died had "done more than anyone can imagine just now for the Proletarian movement--you are helping to lift the clumsy hand of Moscow off of it." McKay had long believed that the Comintern should move to some other country; Russian domination ensured that "the International will always consciously or unconsciously be overinfluenced by Russian governmental politics internal and external--to the detriment of the proletarian movement." He saw in the Comintern "nothing but dry rot--the little leaders of Western Europe and America mere ventriloquists vying each with the other to repeat the words of Moscow." In 1925 McKay dedicated a poem, "We Who Revolt," to Eastman, denouncing the new tyrants who, in the name of the peasants, had replaced the old:
And we shall see the thoughts we loved so well
Twisted and torn and mangled into shapes
More hideous than the fancied forms of hell,
To strengthen the old tyranny of new-crowned apes.....
For tyranny eternal must be fought
Whether he dons a king's or a peasant's dress.
McKay did not relish resuming his sporadic succession of menial jobs in the United States, and had little knowledge of (or sympathy for) the Afro-American elite. Further, he doubted whether the United States (whose secret police followed his every move) would allow him reentry. McKay remained in Europe because he had no future in the United States.
McKay had scant opportunity for radical politicizing in Europe. Radical activity would have been dangerous. A French friend he encountered in Moscow warned him against participating in radical activities in France--a warning McKay heeded. Indeed, McKay concealed his sojourn in the Soviet Union from his new friends. But after a party in his flat, a sailor began singing "The Internationale," and everyone joined in; this elicited a sudden visit from the French police. McKay explained that he admired the "Marseillaise" more than "The Internationale." Asked whether he was a Communist, McKay replied that he was "a poet and a great admirer of Victor Hugo." When he visited Morocco, he associated on fairly intimate terms with the natives (whom, he observed, were paid one-sixth what a French citizen was paid for identical work). Yet he found himself harassed by the police of the colonial powers:
For the first time in my life I felt myself singularly free of color-consciousness. I experienced a feeling that must be akin to the physical well-being of a dumb animal among kindred animals, who lives instinctively and by sensations only, without thinking. But suddenly I found myself right up against European intervention and proscription.... Even in Africa I was confronted by the specter, the white terror always pursuing the black.
McKay's close association with the native population had aroused suspicion. The French police hauled McKay--a British subject--before the British Consul, who accused him of mingling with the natives and spreading radical propaganda. "The Consul said the colonial people were being actively propagandized by Bolshevik agents since the Russian Revolution," McKay recounted. "I said that I was not a Bolshevik agent. Finally I was permitted to leave." McKay added "I'd been so absorbed in the picturesque and exotic side of the native life that I was unaware [of imperialist oppressions] until authority stepped on my sore toe."
McKay had usually insisted--even when addressing the Comintern--that he was primarily a creative artist. His focus on writing and abandonment of political activity, therefore, was more a shift of emphasis than a repudiation of his past. However, McKay relied heavily on radical friends for financial assistance, moral support, and helpful criticism of his work. Hubert Harrison, Grace Campbell, Max Eastman, Louise Bryant, and Mrs. A. Philip Randolph all provided financial support, as did the radical Garland Fund. Eastman especially "put heart in me again to continue," McKay said, while "Louise Bryant thought, as I did, that there was no bourgeois writing or proletarian writing as such; there was only good writing and bad writing." Unlike Eastman, she urged that McKay write fiction: "John Reed had written some early stories about ordinary people with no radical propaganda in them, she said, and suggested that I should do the same about my Negro stories--just write plain tales." Bryant warned McKay: "don't try to force your stories with propaganda. If you write a good story, that will be the biggest propaganda."
For much of his prolonged stay abroad, McKay lived an impoverished, precarious existence, suffering from various diseases (including syphilis, the cure for which was almost as debilitating as the disease) and poor housing. Dependent on handouts from friends and supporters, he occasionally supplemented this income by taking menial jobs, including a brief stint as a servant for a white American. In despair, he wrote Bryant: "And here I am... existing, trying to write, in swarms of flies and bugs and filth, when, maybe, my stories converted and sent to America might change my wretched situation a little.... Now I am terribly disappointed, utterly desperate, absolutely fed up... Marseilles is my last and cheapest stand. I don't want to be driven out of here by hunger and want... After all, the few things I manage to turn out are the only joy I have."
McKay felt isolated from his fellow expatriate writers. "I never considered myself identical with the white expatriates," he later said. "I was a kind of sympathetic fellow traveler in the expatriate caravan. The majority of them were sympathetic toward me. But their problems were not exactly my problems.... Color-consciousness was the fundamental of my restlessness. And it was something with which my white fellow expatriates could sympathize but which they could not altogether understand. For they were not black like me.... I believe that I understood more about the expatriates than they understood of me." McKay, unlike most of the white American expatriates, "was in love with the large rough unclassical rhythms of American life." He also believed that art and literature could flourish in the United States; more surprisingly, he repudiated the cult of the isolated, alienated artist. "I am partial to the idea of an artist being of and among the people, even if incognito," he said. Even when in Africa McKay "lived on the edge of the native life, among them, but not one of them."
Wrestling with Color Scheme, a projected novel depicting Harlem life, McKay wrote H.L. Mencken in 1923 that he was "leaving no subject, however degraded, untouched. Much of the period 1914-1919 was spent in the so-called underworld and should make interesting reading from the point of view I shall write from. I have the whole thing planned in my head and I see the scenes in a finer perspective from here." In a statement doubtless kept from his radical backers, McKay told Mencken that the culture and lifestyle of the working class (fit subjects for artistic treatment) interested him "far more than the wellbeing of the average worker." In marked contrast, he told radical and racially conscious backers that he was working for social and artistic revolution. He apologized to Arthur Schomburg for his endless requests for money and favors but claimed they were justified because "I am working in my small way for the common cause." He wrote Grace Campbell that "my life here is very unsatisfactory for a propagandist--cadging a meal off people who are not at all sympathetic to my social ideas. There is so much work to be done if I am helped a little." Color Scheme, however, was definitely not propaganda, either radical or racial; and Alfred A. Knopf rejected it as both mediocre and legally obscene. McKay admitted that it was perhaps "too raw for the American public" but deemed it "a realistic comedy of life as I saw it among Negroes on the railroad and in Harlem."
McKay also fought bitterly from a long distance with prominent arbiters of Afro-American taste and letters. Incensed with Alain Locke, who would not publish McKay's poem "Mulatto" in the special Survey Graphic, McKay accused him of "a playing safe attitude--the ultimate reward of which are dry husks and ashes!" McKay stormed that "no wonder the Negro movement is in such a bad way.... when Negro intellectuals like you take such a weak line.... Send me back all the things--and I do not care to be mentioned at all--don't want to--in the special Negro number of the Survey. I am not seeking mere notoriety and publicity. Principles mean something to my life." If Locke published other poems but excised Mulatto, "you may count me as an intellectual enemy for life!" Locke not only omitted "Mulatto," but included another poem that McKay had explicitly repudiated and changed the name of yet another poem over McKay's vehement protests. At about the same time the Crisis published some poems that McKay had originally submitted strictly for cash. McKay had later regretted these inferior poems and asked Du Bois to return them. Du Bois, however, printed them and paid McKay nothing. McKay, incensed, wrote a white friend "Negro editors are in a class by themselves and do not follow any of the rules of journalistic decency."
McKay himself, however, criticized prominent Afro-American leaders in private, and was then upset when the victim found out. In a virtual replay of his imbroglio with Hubert Harrison over his criticisms of the NAACP leadership, McKay concealed the title and theme of his projected book from Walter White, and then exploded when Locke informed White. Disillusioned, McKay advised his friend Arthur Schomberg that he "try to keep yourself out of all back-biting gossip.... The Negro belts are just rotten-crazy with spiteful, nonsensical malice and if we get mixed up in that sea of shit we shall never be able to do any real revolutionary work along artistic or social lines." In a slap at the Afro-American uplift intellectuals, McKay also ridiculed special medals and prizes for Afro-American literary achievement. He indignantly wrote Schomberg that "the very thought of a Spingarn medal to reward the intelligence of American Negroes annoys me..... Put any other race or national group in America in that position and see how ridiculous it looks." Conscious that his brand of literary realism would offend many blacks, McKay also feared that sponsorship of literature by racial advancement organizations would throttle free expression. Indeed, he kept secret the very title of his novel-in-progress, fearing that "my precarious supply of bread and butter may be cut off entirely."
When Home to Harlem appeared in 1928, it predictably ignited a firestorm of controversy reminiscent of Nigger Heaven. (Although accused of imitating Van Vechten, McKay had begun writing about racy Harlem life long before Van Vechten). McKay, indeed, offended in two ways Van Vechten did not. McKay was himself black, and therefore his novel was branded as an act of base race betrayal; and Home to Harlem exclusively described the lower strata of Negro life that Van Vechten had treated only incidentally. The black elite which comprised the bulk of Van Vechten's characters was absent from McKay's Harlem. As the Messenger said, "those who objected to Nigger Heaven will, if they are honest, howl with rage when they read Home to Harlem. It is not a book for old maids, neither he nor she; it is frankly a study of the so-called common niggers" of many varieties, "all written of in a free and open manner.... This book is not a picture of Harlem Life, it is a slice of Harlem Life. The social milieu treated" was accurately portrayed; McKay, however, did "not include the variety of types pictured by Van Vechten."
The Messenger's prediction of an uproar proved accurate. Afro-American writers resented the novel's primitivism, its lack of protest, its focus on low-life Negroes, and (in a revelation of the black community's most closely guarded secret) its sharp emphasis on color distinctions within the race. The widely circulated Chicago Defender complained that "white people think we are buffoons, thugs and rotters anyway. Why should we waste so much time trying to prove it? That's what Claude McKay has done." The highly respected Pittsburgh Courier lumped McKay with white racist author Thomas Dixon, author of The Klansman, while William Ferris accused McKay of betraying his race for cash. White reviewers praised the novel's extolling of black primitive vitality and exotic Otherness--accolades that further aroused black suspicions. One notable exception was Freda Kirchwey's Nation--a magazine notable for publicizing black grievances and for sympathizing with Afro-American aspirations--which eventually attacked McKay for the very stereotyping that pleased other white reviewers. Criticizing McKay's 1929 novel, Banjo, Kirchwey lamented that McKay "shares with his brothers of the Klan a dangerous proclivity to generalize--only he reverses the values. To him, the Negro is superior in all that appears important: a capacity to feel and enjoy, to be generous and expressive, to be warm and irresponsible, to live without shame and inner repression." Kirchwey, however, skeptically asked whether Negroes were "the uninhibited children of joy that Claude McKay believes?"
Although Du Bois had also extolled "the gift of black folk" in terms similar to those implicit in McKay's novels, the NAACP leader and Crisis editor heaped scorn and abuse upon McKay's novel. Du Bois's insight that whites projected their own basest desires onto blacks would resonate among future critics not only of McKay, but of the Harlem Renaissance in general. Du Bois criticized Home to Harlem in terms reminiscent of the abuse he had heaped upon Nigger Heaven. McKay's new creation, Du Bois wrote in the Crisis
for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts I feel distinctly like taking a bath.... McKay has set out to cater [to] that prurient demand on the part of white folk for a portrayal in Negroes of that utter licentiousness which conventional civilization holds white folk back from enjoying--if enjoyment it can be called. That which a certain decadent section of the white American world, centered particularly in New York, longs for with fierce and unrestrained passions, it wants to see written out in black and white, and saddled on black Harlem. This demand... McKay has certainly satisfied, and added much for good measure. He has used every art and emphasis to paint drunkenness, fighting, lascivious sexual promiscuity and utter absence of restraint in as bold and as bright colors as he can.
If this had been done in the course of a well-conceived plot or with any artistic unity, it might have been understood if not excused. But Home to Harlem is padded. Whole chapters here and there are inserted with no connection to the main plot, except that they are on the same dirty subject. As a picture of Harlem life or of Negro life anywhere, it is, of course, nonsense. Untrue, not so much as on account of its facts, but on account of its emphasis and glaring colors. I am sorry that the author of Harlem Shadows stooped to this.
Du Bois hoped that McKay would eventually write a novel with "a strong [and] well-knit as well as beautiful theme."
Du Bois was correct about the novel's structure, which was indeed impressionistic and episodic. At least one entire chapter consisted of a short story about a prostitute, written years earlier and unrelated to the plot, inserted almost verbatim in the novel. Yet despite McKay's later nurturing of a feeling of misinterpretation and persecution, much of the Afro-American intelligentsia approved of his scandalous novel. Opportunity praised it for its "absolute candor, its complete freedom from an attempt to apologize or explain or gloss over." Its main character, Jake, was "refreshingly primitive" and lived "with no restraint or concern for the morrow." Ray, a Jamaican, was "a young man upon whom the tragedy of race weighs heavily." That Jake's Americanism makes him suspicious of Ray "is one of the most subtly delightful touches in the book. It is something the author must have met himself, since he is a Jamaican." All in all, Opportunity endorsed the novel as "a thoroughly entertaining book, in which there are drama, tragedy, comedy, romance, pathos and most of the other elements one asks for in literature." It was well written and filled with authentic Harlem slang; if it depicted only a part of Harlem life, no novel could artistically encapsulate all of reality. Locke, also writing in Opportunity, praised the novel for its "descriptive art and its reflection of the vital themes of Negro life"; it revealed "the peculiar and persistent quality of Negro peasant life transposed to the city and the modern mode, but still vibrant with a clean folkiness of the soil instead of the decadent muck of the city gutter."
Hughes also praised the novel, writing McKay that "it is the finest thing 'we' have done yet." Its critics were "amusing and pathetic.... Everyone's talking about the book, and even those who dislike it say it's well written." James Weldon Johnson also loved the novel, calling it "the flower of the Harlem Renaissance" even if could appropriately be entiteld "Nigger Hell." Johnson had already urged that McKay return to the United States. "You ought to be here to take full advantage of the great wave of opportunity that Negro literary and other artists are now enjoying," he said. "In addition, we need you to give more strength and solidity to the movement."
In two major interventions into the rekindled debate about the nature and purposes of African-American literature, Johnson repudiated Du Bois's complaint that white publishers rejected respectable Afro-American novels and poetry. Without so much as mentioning Home to Harlem, Johnson contested the common idea that white publishers would publish books on Negro themes only if they depicted the "lower" classes of blacks and the less seemly aspects of Negro life. Echoing some of Carl Van Vechten's more inflammatory pronouncements, Johnson descried
a certain snobbishness in terming the less literate and less sophisticated, the more simple and more primitive classes of Negroes as "lower." At least as literary material, they are higher. They have greater dramatic and artistic potentialities for the writer than the so-called higher classes, who so closely resemble the bourgeois white classes. The vicious and criminal element--and we must admit that even in our own race there are such elements--are rightly termed "lower," but even they have more accessible dramatic values than the ordinary, respectable middle-class element.
Johnson doubted whether the middle class of either race could easily be depicted in a dramatic or even interesting fashion.
Johnson did agree that African-American authors confronted unique difficulties which were inherent in their position. Afro-American authors necessarily addressed "a double audience" composed of "two elements with differing and often antagonistic points of view." In an implicit slap at Langston Hughes, Johnson insisted that no one could write for himself alone: "it is doubtful if anything with meaning can be written unless the writer has some definite audience in mind." White authors naturally and unthinkingly addressed an almost exclusively white audience; "the influence of the Negro on his group is infinitesimal if not zero. Even when he talks about the Negro he talks to white people." Aframericans, however, faced problems whatever their choice of audience.
Whites cherished "hard-set stereotypes" about the African American, viewing him either as indolent, childish, and loyally subservient, or as "an impulsive, irrational, passionate savage... an everlastingly alien and irredeemable element in the nation." These prejudices limited and the artistic portrayal of blacks: "White America has some firm opinions as to what the Negro is, and consequentially some pretty well fixed ideas as to what should be written about him, and how." Overcoming literary conventions was difficult so long as the social prejudices which undergirded them remained intact. "Even revolutionary literature," Johnson declared, "if it is to have any convincing power, must start from a basis of conventions, regardless of how unconventional its objective may be." Whites would reject as unrealistic any artistic portrayal of blacks that violated white stereotypes; they would prefer a romantic story of an African chief to one based upon a heroic, sensitive, or refined African American. "American Negroes as heroes form no part of white America's concept of the race"; as for a sensitive, romantic love story, whites believed Negroes mated "in a more primeval manner." Whites also vehemently rejected black artists who used whites as their subject matter However, the African-American artist could not ignore whites, who comprised 90 percent of the American population. Even if unconsciously, every Afro-American writer hoped that he could in some small manner affect the white majority "for the good of his race.".
The Negro also artist confronted problems when addressing his own people, however. The black artist had "no more absolute freedom to speak as he pleases addressing black America than he has in addressing white America," Johnson complained.
There are certain phases of his life that he dare not touch, certain subjects that he dare not critically discuss, certain manners of treatment that he dare not use--except at the risk of rousing bitter resentment. It is quite possible for a Negro author to do a piece of work, good from every literary point of view, and at the same time bring down upon his head the wrath of the entire colored pulpit and press, and gain among the literate element of his own people the reputation of being a prostitutor of his talent and a betrayer of his race.
Afro-Americans freely criticized themselves in private, and at race theatres "all of the Negro weaknesses, real and reputed, are burlesqued and ridiculed in the most hilarious manner, and are laughed at and heartily enjoyed." But if these same plays were performed in front of whites, "a wave of indignation would sweep Aframerica from the avenues of Harlem to the canebreaks of Louisiana." This racial defensiveness, however explicable, severely vitiated black literature. It discouraged "the production of everything but nice literature... of the defensive, exculpatory sort." Ironically, such novels, however unconsciously, ignored the Afro-American audience and addressed the white public.
Johnson said that fusing "white and black America into one interested and approving audience" was "the only way out," but he admitted that this required a long, slow transformation in the attitudes of both races. White Americans would scuttle their stereotypes, and Afro-Americans their taboos. "Standing on his own racial foundation, [the black writer] must fashion something that rises above race, and reaches out to the universal in truth and beauty."
Despite the accolades which descended upon him, McKay, worried about harassment by the American authorities, was reluctant to take Johnson's advice and return to the United States. However, he found that the winning of the prestigious Harmon Award for Negro Achievement (the very kind of award that he had so vehemently protested) and his bestseller status mollified some critics. "The financial success of my novel had helped soften hard feelings in some quarters," McKay later recounted, adding that "in tipsy accents some of the Harlem elite admonished me against writing a Home-to-Harlem book about them." McKay, however, remained abroad: his alienation from the United States, including middle-class African-American culture, precluded an immediate return.
McKay did answer his critics with spirit, if at first mostly in private. McKay complained of Du Bois's malfeasance regarding his verse and asked why the Crisis published one of his poems in the very issue in which it attacked Home to Harlem. "Nowhere in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics," McKay lectured one of Afro-America's preeminent literary artists, "and therefore you are not competent or qualified to pass judgment upon any work of art." Du Bois had "been forced from a normal career" into the "special field of racial propaganda and, honorable though that field may be, it has precluded you from contact with real life, for propaganda is fundamentally but a one-sided idea of life. Therefore I should not be surprised when you mistake the art of life for nonsense and try to pass off propaganda as life in art!" Concluding that the "artist-soul" must always endure misunderstanding and abuse, McKay signed his letter "yours for more utter absence of restraint."
McKay also wrote James Ivy, book review editor for the Crisis, attacking the "craziness" of black critics of Home to Harlem, who, he claimed, did "not move me in any way." McKay said that "I am an artist interested in imaginative portrayals of life and artistic truth," a goal alien to the Aframerican who feared the "white man's ridicule and mockery." The average conventional black "sees Negro life falsely as a propagandist, and a very unintelligent propagandist at that, and he wants only to see in art a what-will-look-good-to-the-white-public side of it.... I don't think a sincere artistic presentation of Negro life in America, no matter whether it is high, low, or middle, will ever please the black Babbits because what they want is not a picture but [a] whitewash or veneer." McKay exclaimed that "Babbits, black or white, do not have intellect or understanding"; they were "lost souls." As for himself, "I am finding myself through instinct, intellect and understanding by digging down in the roots of my race and getting in warm contact with it and seeing it, in spite of all the black-and-white raging and clamor, as one great part of the whole of life.... So let the howling go on. The noisier the better....." He also assailed William Ferris and "the nigger newspaper for which he writes."
Fearing criticism from his old comrades on the Left, McKay wrote James Weldon Johnson that he considered Home to Harlem "a real proletarian novel." He said, however, that "I don't expect the nice radicals to see that it is, because they know very little about proletarian life and what they want of proletarian art is not proletarian life truthfully, realistically and artistically portrayed, but their own fake, soft-headed and wine-watered notions of the proletariat. With the Negro intelligentsia it is a different matter, but between the devil of Cracker prejudice and the deep sea of respectable white condescension I can certainly sympathize, though I cannot agree, with their dislike of the artistic exploitation of low-class Negro life. We must leave the appreciation of what we are doing to the emancipated Negro intelligentsia of the future, while we are sardonically aware now that only the intelligentsia of the superior race is developed enough to afford artistic truth." McKay also responded to his critics in his next novel, Banjo, which Du Bois perceptively noticed read better as a series of philosophical ruminations on the Negro's plight than as a story.
McKay need not have worried, however--at least for the moment. Although he had published only a single poem in the New Masses, he was still listed as a contributing editor of that Communist-affiliated magazine. Although black Communist William L. Patterson implied (October 1928) that McKay had abandoned his former radicalism, the New Masses ignored rather than attacking Home to Harlem. Indeed, its initial notice even of Nigger Heaven was an ambivalent and remarkably tolerant review by V.F. Calverton, who concluded that Van Vechten's novel was "progressive in its attempt to give the Negro a serious portrayal," even if "inadequate as a picture of his life."
Mike Gold, McKay's old nemesis on the Liberator, reviewed McKay's second novel, Banjo, in the New Masses in July 1929. Gold had anticipated major themes of this critique in a letter to the Nation in which he attacked Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" immediately after its publication. Gold claimed that blacks could not "build up some special race culture in this huge America" because they were molded by an American environment "pounding like an obsession at the ears and nerves and brain," the most intense and shaping the world had ever known. Even young Chinese in San Francisco, a comparatively small and isolated population, had been absorbed by pulsating American culture: Gold described flappers who wore rouge and silk stockings, read the mass commercial press, and danced the Charleston. "We Negroes, Jews, Germans, Chinese, Anglo-Saxons are all part of America, for better or worse," he said. "We are citizens of a new age, bloodier yet more hopeful than all the ages of the past."
Contesting Hughes's notion that Afro-Americans were somehow distinctive and fought their own separate battle, Gold insisted that "the only real division is that of economic classes. Negro bosses will exploit and oppress Negro workers just as Jewish bosses at present exploit and beat up (with Irish police clubs) their racial brothers who happen to be poor and on strike." Hughes may indeed speak for a portion of the young black intelligentsia. "But what does this young crop of Negro intellectuals know or care about the great mass of peasants and factory workers of their race? Nothing. Almost nothing. Mr. Hughes believes with the white dilettantes that jazz and the cabaret are the ultimate flower of his people." Hughes, however, should venture "out to Passaic and see a few black heroes on the picket-line" where they fought side-by-side with whites against exploitation, poverty, and oppression, problems which afflicted both races. "If the Negro intellectuals really care for their race they will forget the cabaret and colleges for a while and go down into the life of their own people," Gold said. "It will make them better Negroes and better artists."
Gold admitted that "there are Negro themes, enough for a lifetime of creative activity," but claimed that whites such as O'Neil and Lindsey had so far expressed more creatively than blacks. "Black men may do better some day, not because they are black, but because they are artists." Meanwhile, black life, like Jewish life, remained open to artists of any race. Similarly, "the black race will play a great role in American history, not because it is black," but because millions will unite with whites "in the unending battle for a free, civilized, and socialized America, against the black and white money grabbers."
The Negro intellectuals can do a fine thing for their race. They can leave the cabaret of the jaded dilettantes and the colleges of the middle-class striver, and help the masses of their brothers in the economic fight. The cultural future of the Negro soul resides in this battle, brother Hughes, and not in Africa, Harvard, or the bootleg cabaret.
A last thought. In this battle, as I have observed him, the black worker thinks, feels, and acts very much the same as the white, yellow, or red worker the world over. Only he uses the Southern dialect.
In his review of Banjo, Gold reiterated his belief that life and art were essentially nonracial, and that class trumped race as a signifier of human culture. McKay "will always remain a typical poet, a man drunk with sunlight, who loves the natural world with the passion of a wild goat, and resents humanity's touch," Gold said. He praised McKay for resisting "the pressure upon Negro writers by the leaders of their own race" to "write only of the educated fringe. Any writer like McKay who goes to the proletarians for his themes is regarded as a sort of Judas." But Gold also accused McKay of racial chauvinism, of manufacturing nonexistent differences between whites and blacks, and of creating, out of understandable bitterness, stereotypes as foolish as those of "a Southern Negro-hater." Speaking of Banjo and his group, Gold said that
Anyone who has ever been "on the beach" with a gang of congenial bums will feel homesick in reading this book.... In McKay's mind these Negro beachcombers in a foreign port become a kind of symbol of Negro joy. This is a false note. I can testify that white beachcombers enjoy themselves in about the same manner and with the same gusto as the blacks. I once spent five months on the beach in Tampico, and had about the same kind of time as Banjo and his friends.... The human animal is about the same mess of foolishness whatever his color or race. McKay's gang are a delightful bunch, however; and he writes of them with a lush, gorgeous humor that reminds one of no one less than Shakespeare.
Gold's review, however, unconsciously embodied a paradox implicit in the emergent "proletarian" school of writing: Gold extolled McKay for his realism, but lamented the lack of revolutionary characters or class-conscious action in his novels. Yet that lack was precisely part of the realism; the working class--and even more, the lumpen-proletariat whom McKay lyricized--displayed scant class or revolutionary consciousness. Partly anticipating McKay's own later defense of his novels against leftist criticism, Gold said that
McKay refuses to be turned into a parlor writer by the ritzy New Negro intellectuals. He has had too fervent a contact with life to aspire toward becoming a black Villard. He knows that the Negro workers are the folk, the race, the Negro reality; and that what they think and feel and do is much more important than a hundred fashionable weddings like that of Dr. Du Bois's daughter.
Claude McKay used to be a member of the Communist Party but there are no hints of revolutionary feeling in his novels. What he has done, however, is to describe Negro workers and migratories with the truthfulness and intimate sympathy of a proletarian writer. He is one of these workers; that is the feeling you get from his books. He is not a mere observer, an intellectual.
Gold, however, did not ask himself the obvious question: if McKay's characters were realistic, and yet devoid of class consciousness, how could anyone write a realistic novel full of revolutionary workers? It was a question for which McKay had the obvious answer.
Meanwhile, as McKay wrote his novels of vagabond life, Joseph Stalin totally reconstituted the CPUSA, evicting the leadership elected by 90 percent of the members and installing his own henchmen, who parroted the sectarian "third period" line. Accordingly, the Communists repudiated alliances with socialists and liberals (now denounced as "social fascists"), and demanded rigid ideological conformity from everyone, including artists. By 1930, Gold's position on the kind of black literature written by McKay had, accordingly, hardened considerably. Although Gold's attack centered on Van Vechten (and implicitly repudiated the more nuanced view of Nigger Heaven that Calverton had earlier expressed) it had obvious implications for McKay, who was almost universally associated with the Van Vechten school of Negro fiction. Van Vechten, Gold charged, was "the worst friend the Negro has ever had." Because he was among the first whites interested in black writers, he "influenced many of them" and "has been the most evil influence." Gold charged that
Gin, jazz, and sex--this is all that stirs him in our world, and he has imparted his tastes to the young Negro litterateurs. He is a white literary bum, who has created a brood of Negro literary bums. So many of them are now wasting their splendid talents on the gutter-life side of Harlem.
What a crime against their race! This will led the Negro nowhere. And what a slander against the majority of Negroes who must work so painfully in the mills, factories and farms of America. The Harlem cabaret no more represents the Negro mass than a pawnshop represents the Jew, or an opium den the struggling Chinese nation.
Gold said that "I have known quite a few Negro revolutionists" and strikers; "there are depths, nobilities and emotions in this race that are yet unexpressed, and that will amaze the world when revealed." Negro literature and art were in their infancy and "this cabaret obsession is but an infantile disease, a passing phase.... Negroes are plowing into the revolutionary movement. It is the Negroes' only remaining hope. And among these masses the Negro will at last find his true voice. It will be a voice of storm, beauty and pain, no saxophone clowning, but Beethoven's majesty and Wagner's might, sombre as night with the vast Negro suffering, but with red stars burning bright for revolt." By the early 1930s, indeed, a black Communist was no longer an anomaly, especially in Harlem, where the party had many members and an even greater number of sympathizers. Soon enough, a black writer could write of a class-conscious, revolutionary black worker without sacrificing literary realism.
McKay's novels were first explicitly attacked in the New Masses in October 1930, in the course of Walt Carmon's review of Hughes's Not Without Laughter. Carmon touted Hughes's book (although complaining that its racial bitterness undermined its class consciousness) as "the first definite break with the vicious Harlem tradition of Negro literature sponsored by Van Vechten." Carmon charged that "this literary tradition has vulgarized and burlesqued the Negro as have the stage and the movies. It has seduced young Negro writers with easy money and quick recognition" and constituted "a libel on 12 million American Negroes, most of them wage slaves." Carmon lamented that even "our own Claude McKay in Home to Harlem and Banjo, despite all their virtues," contributed to "this travesty of Negro life." Neither Gold nor Carmon recognized the condescension implicit in their assumption that a single
white writer had corrupted an entire generation of Afro-American literary artists.
After McKay returned to the United States in 1934, and broke explicitly and irrevocably with the Communists, the New Masses attacked McKay's "If We Must Die" and his Home to Harlem as lacking class consciousness. In the fashion of CP polemics of the time, this article personally slandered its target. McKay publicly answered his critics and upheld the authenticity of his characters compared with the saccharine falsehoods mongered by the proponents of proletarian art. Emphasizing his working-class life in the United States rather than his more bohemian existence abroad, McKay wrote
I did not come to the knowing of Negro workers in an academic way, by talking to black crowds at meetings, nor in a bohemian way, by talking about them in cafes. I knew the unskilled Negro worker of the city by working with him as a porter and longshoreman and as waiter on the railroad. I lived in the same quarters and we drank and caroused together in bars and at rent parties. So when I came to write about the low-down Negro, I did not have to compose him from an outside view. Nor did I have to write a pseudo-romantic account, as do bourgeois persons who become working-class for awhile and work in shops and factories to get material for writing dull books about workers, whose inner lives are closed to them.
McKay claimed that he had "created my Negro characters without sandpaper and varnish" and challenged the Communists to "create a Negro casual better than Jake in Home to Harlem--a man who works, lives, and loves lustily and even thinks a little for himself."
Perhaps partly in response to his critics, but also definitely because of his experience of white racist colonialism in Morocco, McKay's next novel, Banjo, contained significant criticism of white racism and imperial rule. McKay himself complained that Banjo contained too much about "the problem of the Negro," and remarked that he "had to get that out of my system." But McKay answered his critics systematically and publicly only in a long article in the New York Herald-Tribune book section in 1932, and in his autobiography, A Long Way From Home. In his Herald-Tribune piece McKay complained that the Afro-American race leaders, preoccupied with their task of fighting racism, were unfortunately "the sole arbiters of intellectual and artistic things within the Negro world," even though "they often do not distinguish between the task of propaganda and the work of art." The Negro writer was thus torn "between the opinion of this group and his own artistic conscientiousness." While on the Liberator he had written much lyric poetry, but also the landmark "If We Must Die," which made him famous among the black masses. "None of my colleagues on the Liberator considered me a propaganda poet who could Reel off revolutionary poetry like an automatic machine cutting fixed patterns," McKay said. "If we were a rebel group because we had faith that human life might be richer, by the same token we believed in the highest standards of creative work." Afro-American intellectuals, McKay falsely claimed, despised "If We Must Die." Respectable blacks deplored "artistic or other iconoclasm in Negroes" and were "apparently under the delusion that an Aframerican literature and art may be created out of evasion and insincerity."
The Afro-American elite and white Americans both deplored bitterness in blacks. Yet, McKay said, the Afro-American "has bitterness in him in spite of his joyous exterior. And the more educated he is in these times the more he is likely to have.... The feeling of bitterness is a[s] natural part of the black man's birthright as the feeling of superiority is of the white man's. It matters not so much that one has had an experience of bitterness, but rather how one has developed out of it. To ask the Negro to render up his bitterness is asking him to part with his soul. For out of his bitterness he has bloomed and created his spirituals and blues and conserved his racial attributes--his humor and ripe laughter and particular rhythm of life."
After the publication of Home to Harlem, McKay claimed, the Afro-Saxon elite criticized him for opposite reasons. "If my poetry had been too daring, my prose was too dirty"; McKay was now denounced "as a hog rooting in Harlem" and "a filthy beast." However, McKay had long ago captured "the spirit of the Jamaican peasants in verse," expressing "their primitive joys, their loves and hates, their work and play, their dialect. And what I did in prose for Harlem was very similar to what I had done for Jamaica in verse." McKay complained
The colored elite thought that if animal joy and sin and sorrow and dirt existed in the Belt as they did in ghettos, slums, tenderloins and such places all over the world, they had no place in literature, and therefore my book was a deliberate slander against Aframerica. From being too much of a rebel I was now a traitor who should be suppressed....
[Although I respect many members of refined society].... It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica.... Their spontaneous ways of acting and living for the moment, the physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised--all served to feed the riotous sentiments smoldering in me and cut me finally adrift from the fixed moorings my mind had been led to respect, but to which my heart had never held. During the first years among these Negroes my only object was to possess the means to live as they did. I forgot poetry.
McKay reminded his critics that polite society discussed all of his own themes around their dinner tables. He ridiculed the notion that white readers would identify all blacks with the lower stratum depicted in his novel (although with the significant caveat that "I should be the last person to defend the intelligence of any public simply because it read.") Any oppressed minority, he wrote, needed "self-criticism" as an antidote for "the miserable soul-stifling pit of self-pity" into which they might otherwise fall. And "if aspiring Negro writers are made afraid and artistically inarticulate from fear and pressure within their own circles, the truth may come from without, perhaps in unpleasant and unartistic form."
Addressing the contradictory criticisms that he repudiated Western civilization, depicted a bleached-out and unauthentic expatriate African culture, and overly emphasized group differences, McKay said that whatever his criticisms of Western culture,
I do not regard myself as a stranger but as a child of it, even though I may have become so by the comparatively new process of grafting. I am as conscious of my new-world birthright as of my African origin, being aware of the one and its significance in my development as much as I feel the other emotionally....
The Aframerican may gain spiritual benefits by returning in spirit to this African origin, but as an artist he will remain a unique product of Western Civilization, with something of himself to give that will be very different from anything that may come out of a purely African community.....
One may have the highest ideals of human brotherhood, but the fact under our ideals is that humanity is actually divided into races and nations and classes. And individuals do bear the marks of their special group. A sincere artist can represent characters only as they seem to him.... The time when a writer will stick only to the safe old ground of his own class of people is undoubtedly passing. Especially in America, where all the peoples of the world are scrambling side by side and modern machines and the ramifications of international commerce are steadily breaking down the ethnological barriers that separate the peoples of the world.
McKay later recognized that many white writers also received abuse from their peers for realistic, and hence critical, artistic renderings of contemporary life. Insurgent black writers, McKay said, "have allies among some of the white writers and artists, who are fighting formalism and classicism [and] crusading for new forms and ideas against the dead weight of the old." Ironically, McKay, like his mentor Eastman, opposed most forms of literary modernism.
McKay's experiences in Jamaica, Harlem, Marseilles, and Morocco--contrasted with his misery in a London that lacked a "black belt" where he could blend in with his own race--accentuated his early apotheosis of racial group life, expressed in his Songs of Jamaica. In Marseilles he exulted in belonging to "a great gang of black and brown humanity. Negroids from the United States, the West Indies, North Africa and West Africa, all herded together in a warm group. Negroid features and complexions, not exotic, creating curiosity and hostility, but unique and natural to a group. The odors of black bodies sweating through a hard day's work, like the odor of stabled horses, were not unpleasant even in a crowded cafe. It was good to feel the strength and distinction of a group and the assurance of belonging to it." McKay said that "it is hell to belong to a suppressed minority and outcast group. For to most members of the powerful majority, you are not a person; you are a problem. And every crusading crank imagines he knows how to solve your problem." Whites, he said, had done Africans at home and in the diaspora much evil and some good. "But one thing they cannot do: they cannot give Negroes the gift of a soul--a group soul." Writing toward the end of his life, McKay lamented the lack of "group spirit among Negroes," especially when compared with Europeans and Africans. The Afro-American was "the most advanced [black group] in the world" and could easily assume "the world leadership of the Negro race."
But it sadly lacks a group soul. And the greatest hindrance to the growth of a group soul is the wrong idea held about segregation. Negroes do not understand the difference between group segregation and group aggregation.... Negro institutions and unique Negro efforts have never had a chance for full development; they are haunted by the fear of segregation. Except where they are forced against their will, Negroes in general prefer to patronize white institutions and support white causes in order to demonstrate their opposition to segregation.
Yet it is a plain fact that the entire world of humanity is more or less segregated in groups.... Certainly no sane group desires public segregation and discrimination. But it is a clear historical fact that different groups have won their social rights only when they developed a group spirit and strong group organization.
McKay, however, would have suffered the most from any "group soul." He was marginalized enough in a pluralistic, effervescent, and divided Afro-American community in which he had many friends and supporters as well as enemies and opponents; a unitary, cohesive group with a common "soul" would have anathematized creative rebel artists even more effectively than some blacks repudiated McKay. "All my life," McKay ended his autobiography, "I have been a troubadour wanderer, nourishing myself mainly on the poetry of existence." Yet it was just this wandering, troubadour, eccentric individualism that evoked such opposition from prominent members of his group.
Locke perfectly caught this dilemma. He had praised Home to Harlem in early 1929; but commenting on McKay's 1937 autobiography, A Long Way From Home (in which Locke was severely mocked and criticized), the dean of the Harlem Renaissance quoted McKay both as representing himself as a truant by nature and as expressing the sentiment of his group. These two claims, Locke pointed out, were incompatible. Locke charged that McKay had deserted or betrayed every group he had ever joined. He had begun as a spokesman for the Jamaican peasantry, which he soon discarded "for a style and philosophy of aesthetic individualism in the then current mode of pagan impressionism." He had in turn deserted the radicals clustered around the Liberator and repudiated any party loyalty; he had distanced himself from white expatriate writers and lived with the Marseilles and Morocco blacks without truly joining either group. Locke concluded that McKay was therefore "a longer way from home than ever" and that his "spiritual truancy" blighted "his otherwise splendid talent."
"One may not dictate a man's loyalties," Locke wrote, "but must, at all events, expect him to have some." McKay, however, was "a versatile genius caught in the egocentric predicament of aesthetic vanity and exhibitionism." He had matured during times of racial self-expression and rising social consciousness; having benefitted from these tendencies, he had repudiated them and every other loyalty. Ironically, Locke then asserted that McKay's "aberrations of spirit," his "lack of purposeful and steady loyalty," in some sense did represent the first generation of "New Negro" writers. "The one great flaw of the Negro Renaissance," which McKay embodied, "was its exhibitionist flair. It should have addressed itself more to the people themselves and less to the gallery of faddist Negrophiles.... Negro writers must become truer sons of the people, more loyal providers of spiritual bread and less aesthetic wastrels and truants of the streets." Locke demanded that the Afro-American writer create a Negro group soul, rather than expressing his wayward individualistic impulses.
McKay undoubtedly did capture key facets of underclass life in his novels. Indeed, his novels corroborate the modern historical insight that even the most downtrodden individuals experience joy and agency. The oppressed are historical actors and creators of culture, not merely passive victims; their vivacity, resilience, and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity do indeed merit celebration. Yet like many contemporary historians, McKay also romanticized the life of the outcasts. Arna Bontempts, a celebrated Afro-American novelist, poet, anthologist, and scholar, quoted McKay's letter from Marseilles (the same Marseilles whose vibrant group life McKay extolled in his autobiography) complaining of "flies and bugs and filth." Recounting McKay's life of poverty and disease and his incessant letters begging money and favors from friends, Bontemps concluded:
Unable to adopt fully the primitive life-style he pursues, McKay is destined forever to live, in his own words, "on the edge of native life," always observing but never fully participating.
Claude McKay was an integral part of the American literary movement of the 1920s. Responsive to the metaphors embodied in the cult of the primitive, McKay's art served to reinforce the image of the Negro as the simple, liberated, uncorrupt man.... His life represented a less successful effort. Forever seeking fulfillment of his desires to escape color consciousness and recapture lost innocence, McKay was doomed to an existence directly opposed to the life he apotheosized in his art. It is McKay's special and tragic irony that although he clung tenaciously to the conception of himself as a "free spirit," his obsessions condemned him to a life of slavery.
Bontemps perceptively noted the contradiction between McKay's actual life and his idealization of it in art, but his strictures are far too harsh. Many a literary artist has embellished his or her life while transmuting it into art. If McKay was indeed "a long way from home" wherever he was, that is a fate shared by many artists, and one particularly appropriate for a black poet in a world that disdained both blacks and poetry. Most of McKay's problems stemmed from a brutal and racist world, rather than from his own deficiencies. With Cullen, McKay could marvel that God could "make a poet black, and bid him sing!" Indeed, McKay with some success made literature his home. Ironically, his alienation, poverty, and despair did exemplify the lives of many Africans abroad. McKay was eternally torn by the conflicting demands of art and "propaganda" (whether racial or more broadly social)--a conflict largely imposed upon him from outside, by Afro-American and radical critics. By minutely scrutinizing every character and every passage for their political import, and imposing wildly contradictory and inappropriate standards upon creative literature, these critics imposed an impossible burden upon a struggling black artist, who saw his task as that of naturally and spontaneously expressing himself, and thus incidentally a part of the life of his people.
While Opportunity, the Crisis, and Mckay fought their literary wars in the middle and late 1920s, the Messenger, while emphasizing interracial and Afro-American unionization as the most promising avenue for racial advancement, also fostered Afro-American literature. The Messenger boasted that it regularly featured "reviews and criticisms of contemporary dramatic productions. This is the only department of its kind in Negro journalism, and is as good as any in America." It also solicited "first rate short stories, verse, and other literary features." However, Messenger writers (particularly Theophilus Lewis, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman) took a remarkably jaundiced view of the emergent Renaissance. In fact, the Messenger's critics anticipated the deficiencies noted by later commentators: its romanticization of a Harlem that was a virtual death trap for its Negro residents; its pandering to white stereotypes and voyeurism; the saccharine critical acclaim lavished on jejune Negro literary efforts; and its exaltation of literature as a weapon in the battle for racial progress, with the consequent neglect of economic and political struggle.
Theophilus Lewis, the Messenger's main drama critic, emphasized the vital importance of poetry, the novel, and the theatre. Disdaining "art for art's sake," he heralded instead the social and individual origins of art and its function as a mirror and criticism of life. "Instead of being hauled down out of airy nothingness art is extracted from the very core of life," he proclaimed. "This is why the highest art, no matter how thoroughly it is refined and perfumed, never quite loses the odor of viscera and bowels." Afro-Americans boasted a rich poetic tradition because verse was the most communal and primitive of the arts. Negroes had achieved artistic greatness only in poetry, the art form of the infancy of a people, which exuded emotion rather than analysis and thought. "Maturity of spiritual expression is a social as well as an individual development," Lewis said. "A people lays the foundation of its literature by breeding illiterate rhymesters and story tellers who recite their sagas for the entertainment of the customers of taverns, country stores and barber shops or for the diversion of their fellow workers in the cotton fields." Their gems entered common speech. Even if a precocious artist appeared before his time he would lack materials, techniques, and an audience for his genius, and would perforce dissipate his energies. Everyone experienced vivid emotions, Lewis said, but only a minority reflected upon life. America's first Negro versifiers were called poets only by courtesy, because they wrote before the illiterate bards of the cotton fields and cane brakes had fertilized racial thought; early black poets rehashed old white ideas from books, and "were quite innocent of any distinctive Negro flavor." Lewis, however, praised much contemporary black poetry, including Langston Hughes's Weary Blues, as embodying racial roots and flavor. Hughes, he said, stemmed from "the new race of American blacks"; he was a "pagan poet" who was "fast becoming a religious force."
The drama, Lewis believed, "is the most vivid portrait of an age that art can produce. Drama more than any other art form except the novel embodies the whole spiritual life of a people; their aspirations and manners, their ideas and ideals, their fantasies and philosophies, the music and dignity of their speech--in a word, their essential character and culture, and it carries this likeness of a people down through the centuries for the enlightenment of remote times and races." But the Negro theatre had failed "in the one endeavor that makes the theatre really worth while.... It has made no concrete contribution to the culture of the race nor given us anything we can pass on as our gift to the general culture of humanity." Yet any theatre, any "spiritual expression for the bottom of the race" was better than none at all.
Lewis attributed the poverty of Afro-American drama to the baleful influence of white producers and audiences. Emphasizing the incommensurability of white and black experience and the inability of white playwrights, actors, and audiences to fathom the black soul, he spoke of the "numerous little nuances of living and untranslatable thoughts handed down by their common ancestors" which alien writers, however artistic and sympathetic, could not divine. "A race is not distinguished by the basic feelings it shares with all humanity," he said; "it is distinguished by the peculiar qualities it alone possesses.... [such qualities] can never be fully comprehended. They can only be expressed." Lewis insisted that "the humor, gayety and naughtiness of a race are idiomatic. They contain something indefinable yet indelible which cannot be translated into the free speech of another race. This racial flavor of the light moods of life is so pronounced that it is practically impossible for a Negro to act a Caucasian comic role without an accent. The same goes, of course, for a white actor attempting a piece of shine comedy." So white artists depicting blacks falsified Afro-American life by "substituting his own feelings for the alien feelings which baffle him." Yet white depictions of black life in minstrel shows, plays, movies, and novels set the tone which Afro-American authors accepted as their models. Worse yet, Afro-Americans emulated in life the caricatures of the stage as a mechanism of survival; whites favored blacks who played the role of the loveable nitwit and the "incorrigible and glamorous vagabond."
Afro-Americans lacked a single theatre devoted exclusively to serious drama about Negro life, Lewis complained. Negro critics, actors, and playwrights lusted after "a chance to play on Broadway." They therefore imitated white plays and themes rather than developing indigenous ones. The Negro theatre thus produced not the "actor-dramatist of his own life," but the "actor-showsmith" who garnered his material "not in Negro life, but on the Caucasian stage," which slandered and ridiculed Negro life. The serious actor could do nothing but "run an elevator while waiting for some white playwright to bring out a play with a darkey butler in it," or go abroad like nineteenth century black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. "Instead of crying for white folks to give them a chance on the 'legitimate' stage, let Negroes turn their attention to producing Negro drama for Negro audiences."
Lewis castigated white theatre owners and producers as low and uncultured types who could not elevate Negro theatre even if they wished. "Only slightly less pernicious than the domination of the white owner-manager is the influence of the white producer" who, satisfying base white desires for degrading images of Negroes, practiced "theatrical slumming." Worse yet, white producers grabbed the most successful Negro actors from the Negro stage and placed them in front of white audiences, thus boosting their careers. "This condition makes a prominent part in a show assembled for white audiences the goal of the colored actor's ambition.... Instead of making an effort to reform the Negro theatre for the better, the more competent and versatile colored actors spend their best years developing themselves for a career under a white producer." So even when performing for Negro audiences they imitated "the distorted standards of white vaudeville because becoming popular with its audiences is the surest way to catch the eye of white producers of musical comedies and revues." Without such white-inflicted distortions, good Negro actors would develop a following and a regular income, and become producers themselves. "Without economic autonomy the Negro stage can never become the flexible medium for the expression of the spirit of the Negro people it ought to be," Lewis concluded. He therefore heralded the advent of two black "little theatres," the Inter-Collegiate Association and the Krigwa Players.
Lewis demanded authenticity in theatre above all else. Although he characterized the Negro stage as a "glamorous brothel" that fostered prostitution rather than art, he recognized that a theatre that reflected genuine needs and aspirations was capable of growth, whereas artificiality stunted all future possibilities. He wrote in praise of female disrobing on the stage and, in an only partly satiric ode, praised the licentious theatre:
As lasciviousness is one of my accomplishments and poverty one of my afflictions I naturally regard this form of entertainment as not only first class theatre but also one of the most convincing signs of God's ultimate goodness to man.... The world is still gaudy enough for rich men and preachers, of course, for those fortunate fellows are always assured of an adequate supply of private women. But for the luckless ledger clerk or chauffeur, whose one woman soon wears away her schoolgirl complexion with cooking and sweeping, if he is legally mated with her, or becomes wan and wrinkled from earning her own living and using contraceptives, if he is only courting her, life is a pretty drab proposition. It is to this repressed and sex-starved citizen that the modern musical show brings a royal bounty of color, hilarity and vicarious sin. It not only brightens up the dull grey monotony of his present existence but it also enables him to drink deeper of the joys of impure love than he could ever do in the past....
The cost is insignificant. Here in Harlem fifty cents purchases a two-hour revel in vice which formerly only bankers and Oriental potentates could afford to enjoy. Indeed, while he sits in his orchestra seat the tired taylor's helper is a banker, for he enjoys most of the sensations the plutocrat is able to enjoy with all his gold. Anywhere from ten to two score girls frolic before him to the strains of voluptuous music, dance and sing for his delight, wink at him and pelt him with spitballs and shake their little torsos for his excitement.... While he observes the saturnalia he suffers only one disadvantage when compared with a sultan; he cannot touch the girls. But he is compensated for that loss by the enchantment distance lends to the view.
On other occasions, however, Lewis castigated the pernicious effects of mass commercial culture, which narcotized black and white workers alike. Neither race, he said, would "give a continental about [America's increasingly caste-stratified society] so long as they are not molested in the exercise of their inalienable right to disport themselves in amusement parks and make love in the movies." Lewis castigated the Negro theatre audience as "unlettered and lewd folks, laborers and menials and hoydens and hoodlums and persons who are materially prosperous but spiritually bankrupt." Their theatre, therefore, provided "exaggerated buffoonery, obscene farce and sex-exciting dancing, supplemented with such curiosities as giants, acrobats, musical seals and mathematical jackasses." The Negro audience was not "vicious. It is merely vulgar. But the influence it exerts on the theatre is vicious" because it drove the best actors away. Today's audience, Lewis said, was represented for the most part by "an economic slave or a loafer" who wants "to forget his life of drudgery for an hour or so while luxuriating in what he considered were the joys of a sybarite." But the common Negro audience supported his theatre with its hard-earned dollars, and its insistence that it get what it wanted "is an honest and manly attitude." Meanwhile, cultivated blacks boycotted the Negro theatre and carped.
Lewis insisted, however, that "from an aesthetic point of view a low spiritual tone is not necessarily an unwholesome one. The important thing is that the spiritual expression of a people should be spontaneous and unaffected." If cultivated Negroes attended, they would ideally help elevate the theatre by offering it "the censorship of the intelligent." The ideal audience demanded pleasure from theatre consonant with its indigenous ideas of propriety. But when the cultured black attended,
he commonly ignores his own tastes as well as the desires of the lower elements in the audience and demands that the performance be adjusted to a set of standards alien to both. He insists on the Negro theatre copying the suave manners and conventions of the contemporary white American theatre, unaware that the white stage reflects the racial experience of a people whose cultural background has never resembled ours since the beginning of history. Now and again our stage has attempted to give its better class of patrons what they demanded but the result has ever been a vexatious artificiality that quickly alienated even that part of its audience which desired the innovation.... [Therefore] the domination of our stage by the dregs of the race, while it is unfortunate in some respects, is at least a healthier state of affairs than the ascendancy of sniffish indifference and affectation would be; for sincerity, however crudely expressed, is at the root of every true art. Besides, the financial support of the groundlings does keep some sort of theater in existence.
This authenticity assured the theatre's slow evolution. "When dramatists begin to appear they will find a body of actors skilled in at least the rudiments of their art."
Lewis warned the Afro-American theatrical community that it would succeed only "by organizing itself as a national theatre. That is, it must isolate itself and address its appeal exclusively to colored audiences.... As most of [the audience] will be persons educated by the movies it goes without saying that the spoken drama they will like at first must be full of thrills and sensations.... Once the audience has been won, higher forms of drama can be judiciously inserted in the repertory as a means of educating the audience."
The critic's role was vital because authentic art was necessarily ahead of its time. "In his own age the artist is most appreciated when he works in familiar materials and creates conventional forms of beauty," Lewis wrote. The creations of genius "will at first appear unintelligible to men at large in proportion as they are original. Since what is unintelligible cannot be appreciated, the repudiation of the artist by the crowd is both honest and sensible. The artist must wait until the more clear sighted of his contemporaries perceive the liaison between his creations and the trend of events and communicate the discovery to their fellows." The critic, therefore, "should possess something of the artist's insight into the nature of things.... [and into] the spiritual and sociological conditions those arts seek to interpret."
The Afro-American critic must realize that the Negro problem was "the question of whether a youthful people living in the midst of an old and moribund civilization shall die with it or find themselves able to shake loose from its complexities and build their own culture on its ruins." Art expressing this reality will contain "dissonances of sound and color." The Negro artist must depict "the convulsions of a world breaking down in chaos. Perhaps the nuclei of a new world forming in incandescence." In a civilization in the throes of "senile disintegration, art takes disordered forms which are expressive of the era." The task of black criticism, Lewis believed, entailed communicating these truths to a conventional audience nurtured on traditional ideas of art's form and content.
Lewis similarly demanded authenticity of form and content in Afro-American fiction. Reviewing Eric Walrod's widely acclaimed Tropic Death, Lewis said that African-American writers affected alien styles and wrote about subjects and cultures of which they were totally ignorant because "they must please a publisher whose final judgment is decided by what he thinks white people will pay for reading." Walrod's stories were "marred by his attempt to make [every story] conform to the current American idea that the Negro the world over is inevitably an exotic and pagan character." Yet Barbados, the setting for Walrod's stories, was densely populated and resource-poor; its destitute people emigrated whenever possible. "You simply don't find any spontaneous, Dionysian attitude toward life among people of a country like that any more than you find it among the inhabitants of the backwoods of Alabama," Lewis exclaimed. "The people of those regions may be wild, but never pagan." Lewis also criticized Walrod's false dialect and poor expressionistic writing, concluding "I can see no way out for the Negro artist until some colored capitalist or some adventurous white publisher stakes his money on what he thinks black people will pay for reading." Such a venture, Lewis acknowledged, could not begin with great literature, but would first publish
adventure stories, uplift stories, love stories, sex stories, sport stories, idiotic stories of all kinds for the moron progeny of Uncle Remus and Aunt Chloe.... The success of the venture would turn the eyes of Negro writers inward toward the things and people they are familiar with. While at first there would be a great flood of cheap and salacious stuff, pretty soon the market for trash would become saturated and the publishers would be forced to consider the smaller but by no means negligible profits [in] putting out literature [which] the intelligent minority of the race would produce. As a result there would come into being an idiomatic literature of Aframerican thought and feeling all compact, which, since the Caucasian literature of the country is now coming into the full power of maturity, is the one thing needed to make the spiritual expression of America full and complete.
Although Lewis's theory of black literature was cogent, some Messenger writers disagreed not only with his specific criticisms, but with his larger image of Afro-American life as having a nuance and flavor distinct from that of white society. J.W. Ivy, editor of the Messenger's book review department, explicitly attacked "the theory that the American Negro, so-called, has a mind differing in quiddity and essence from the common American mind; and that he (the American Negro) will react to social stimuli in some exotic and fantastic way. The Negro in America is really an American and is as remote, mentally, spiritually and socially from his African brother as Garvey is from his African throne." Ivy cited many examples (conceptions of beauty, the property value of female chastity) where Afro-Americans mimicked white American tastes that differed vastly from those of Africa (which Ivy extolled as superior and authentic). Randolph himself viewed the Afro-American as "the most typical American. He is the incarnation of America. His every pore breathes its vital spirit, without absorbing its crass materialism." J.A. Rogers, another frequent contributor, complained that "the Negro is but a white man inside, his whole training making him so.... Negro and Caucasian have been mixing for eight thousand years," and the two races would eventually merge biologically as they already had to a large extent culturally.
George Schuyler, a satirist and unorthodox Socialist, also recognized and deplored the loss of a distinct Afro-American identity. He worried that the literati's pet "racial differences" theory resembled that of the Ku Klux Klan, but said that the intellectuals who grew fat as race interpreters ignored this similarity. Schuyler sardonically advised that aspiring writers hurry to New York City (the capital of sharpers, swindlers, and religious fakirs), by horse, foot, or train, and "immediately get in touch with that group of about twenty New Negroes who represent the intellect of the Negro race so admirably." They would introduce the panting newcomers to sophisticated white patrons, with the literary dictators of Aframerica paving the way. Schuyler warned the new authors that their material must smack of true Negro psychology: "Such matter should always without exception be bizarre, fantastical and outlandish, with a suggestion of the jungle, the plantation or the slum. Otherwise it will not be Negro literature, and hence not acceptable.... If the mistake is made of presenting the American Negro as a product of machine civilization, just like other people in the same environment, an immediate rejection slip can be expected."
Implicitly contrasting bleached-out Afro-Americans with authentic Africans, Schuyler extolled the "unprogressive Negroes" of rural Suriname as unashamed of their black skins and kinky hair. They assumed that art was an integral part of life. "It is not a Nordic but a Negro civilization--a jungle civilization. Here is developed a philosophy of life, a science, a system of government, an art, a code of morals and a standard of aesthetics adapted to black people in the jungle. It works and works well, which is more than one can say for Nordic civilization." Schuyler extolled the fearlessness that preferred death to slavery, the astounding knowledge of the witch doctor, and "the delight and pride of these jungle folk in their marvelous knowledge that is a closed book to the white man." The book under review contained "one of the most accurate and devastating criticisms of the Caucasianized Negroes that I have read. [The author] refers to the tragedy of Aframerica--the disparagement of things Negro because they are Negro.... [and] the disgusting practice of skin whitening and hair straightening." "Civilized" Negroes, Schuyler declared, had no future. "People who despise and poke fun at characteristics of which they should be proud (because these things are part of themselves)--such people no matter what their wealth and education, can never amount to a damn."
Schuyler himself displeased some Messenger readers with his one act sexual farce, "The Yellow Peril." This play concerned a light-skinned Negro woman greatly desired by dark black men; the woman deceived all of her men, while the men cheated on their wives. Schuyler (very dark himself) resented the color-phobia within the black race and complained that
At present hardly any Aframerican of the painted sex but uses several pounds of skin whitener for the purpose of increasing popularity and sales value.... Many a gal who used to be a wall flower is now a society belle just by swallowing twenty-five arsenic tablets, and many a dark dame who thought she was doomed to wed a chauffeur or a cook has, by the most diligent application of Black-No-More preparations, been able to share an undertaker, a druggist, a physician, a dentist, or even a numbers banker..... It has been said that nobody loves a fat man, but with far more truth can it be said that nobody loves a black woman--except white men....
In response to reader complaints, Schuyler defiantly vowed that he would "hold up the mirror to Aframerican life without camouflage." Negroes could afford "uncovering some of the skeletons in our racial closet." Schuyler complained that some of our "best" people hit "any exposure of our sore spots" but said that "we cannot decry the Caucasians for their prejudices when we have the same or worse prejudices right within our own group--for which, of course, the Nordics are largely responsible, since their attitude created them and gave them impetus. Negro life, like all life should be portrayed--the good as well as the bad, and vice versa. If the Negroes of this great moral Republic have an urge for pink skins and straight hair, this should be stated and portrayed, along with the evidences of material and cultural progress."
Other Messenger writers also briefly entered the Harlem Renaissance fray about the relative merits of "art" versus "propaganda," some condemning propaganda, some regretting its necessity as long as the dominant whites slandered blacks, and some hesitantly acknowledging its value, even as they distinguished it from true literature. Messenger writers disagreed about the criteria for Negro art because they differed over their ultimate hopes and expectations for their racial group. When the Messenger asked prominent Afro-American intellectuals for their views about the relative merits of amalgamation, racial pride, and group struggle, many declared that the extinction of the Negro race through amalgamation with whites was both inevitable and desirable. Others demanded the retention of a separate racial identity, both biological and cultural, although no one explained how Afro-Americans could prevent assimilation once accorded full equality. The faculty of Lincoln University collectively replied that amalgamation was inevitable but stressed that the cultivation of racial consciousness was nevertheless a good because amalgamation "should not mean an absorption in which all traits and characteristics of the Negro are eliminated" but rather "a fusion of races, culturally, as well as biologically. The development of Negro race consciousness" would ensure the flowing of "Negro social culture into the new composite race which will result from amalgamation." Because Afro-Americans differed on the present status of Negro culture (whether it existed, whether it was authentic or merely echoed white prejudices) and the Negro future (a distinct race or total assimilation), they perforce disagreed on the status and function of Afro-American literature.
Messenger contributors of almost every ideology, however, agreed that a Harlem Renaissance generated by white dollars and confined to a tiny minority of blacks offered no salvation for the race. (For that reason, perhaps, the strictly literary debates that preoccupied the Afro-American intelligentsia of the 1920s consumed relatively few pages of the Messenger.) Many agreed that Harlem, glamorized by Renaissance literature, was a ghetto, a slum, and a trap for blacks, most of whom would escape if they could. Harlem, J.A. Rogers said, was "a place where the chief excuse for one's existence is to furnish a living for exploiters, white and colored.... Harlem furnishes a release of soul for white people of the less cow-like sort, 'fed up' with the monotony and arctic whiteness, spiritual and physical, in their own group." Harlem was Van Vechten heaven, but distinctly uncelestial for blacks. Gauging the impact of black cabarets, dance, and literature, Lewis agreed that "the candid and humorous treatment of sex by the Negro stage has enriched the general culture of America to a greater extent than it has benefitted the people whose theatre introduced it. The increasing paganism of the white masses can be attributed to the influence of the Negro theatre more than any other single institution; and this is a good thing, for the spiritual life of American whites was threatened with dry rot and sadly in need of such tonic."
Rogers sometimes extolled the power of drama in improving Afro-American life within the black community itself. The theatre was "a more powerful instrument of good than the pulpit" because it confronted life rather than death and was "a case of examples versus precept," where people saw their own vital problems addressed. "Besides, theatre reaches those who go to church and those who don't. Our greatest need is dramas and a stage. Not until we, as a people, so provide that our best talent may cease playing the jester for tired white people, will our period of real culture begin. A mirror is one of the first aids to a well-dressed figure."
Unlike many figures of the Harlem Renaissance, however, Rogers doubted the power of literature to improve relations between the races. He discussed the dilemma of Roland Hayes, at times confronted with the necessity of either singing for white audiences that segregated or excluded Negroes, or not singing at all. Some blacks demanded that he not perform; others said that his singing would itself lessen white prejudice. James A. Jackson of Billboard magazine, iterated a common 1920s theme when he told Messenger readers that showfolks were more than mere entertainers. They were
perhaps our pioneers into the realm of public esteem and our greatest advocates in the court of race relations.... This is because they are in contact with so many people at a time when their subjects are in a tolerant and non-resistant mood that is only prevalent when humanity is being entertained.... However high or low the intelligence of an audience may be, its members will consciously or subconsciously take with them an impression that may bode good or evil to us; whether they go from concert hall, theatre, tent or fair grounds.... The stage and its people are an important element in the progress of the whole race.
Ira Aldridge "was largely responsible for the favorable reception that has been accorded American Negroes in England, while "any consideration of [Roland Hayes] includes his people."
Discussing Hayes's dilemma, Rogers fairly summarized the views of both sides. He concluded, however, that "the fear of the hidden razor in the pocket of the 'bad' Negro.... has done more to put the love of Christ in the [white's] heart than all the art and the sermons that have ever been preached. In the Chicago riots I noted that it was red-hot bullets and keen-edged weapons, not art, that won the day. The Negroes' rights will not be politically safe until it is physically unsafe to violate them. Art is the solution of those with ice water, not red blood in their veins." Rogers repudiated his own fantasy in From Superman to Man that an educated, sophisticated Afro-American could convince a Southern cracker of the error of his ways.
Rogers also said that the New Negro, unlike the old, recognized the necessity of collective economic action, especially as expressed through labor unions. "The Old Negro falls glibly for all the agencies used by white friends to sidetrack the mind of the Negro group from its real problems such as over-stressing of Negro art, spirituals, piffling poetry, jazz, cabaret life, and the puffing into prominence of mediocre Negroes. The New Negro again relegates these to their proper place" and realizes that the race problem "is almost solely an economic one." The New Negro felt himself entitled to justice and knew that "he has a perfect right to take any step, however violent, to rid himself of tyranny." He did not fear labels such as Bolshevik, atheist, pagan, or Red, realizing that these only connoted a thinking person. "He will be anything else but a sheep."
Another Messenger contributor, reviewing Alain Locke's The New Negro, exclaimed that few of the writers who appeared in the anthology agreed with Locke's exaltation of art for art's sake. The reviewer exclaimed that McKay's "If We Must Die" was every bit as good as James Weldon Johnson's "The Creator" and that Marcus Garvey, the NAACP, Hubert Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, and the black labor movement were "as expressive of the spirit of the New Negro" as any distinctly Afro-American art forms. Poston said that "as a historical resume of the achievement of the American Negro, Mr. Locke has given us a gold nugget in 446 pages, but as a volume designed to express the spirit of the new Negro, this NEW NEGRO is wanting in many respects. That virile, insurgent, revolutionary spirit peculiar to the Negro is missing. The recent gesture on the part of Roland Hayes not to sing whenever his group is segregated is far more expressive of the spirit of the new Negro" than was Locke's anthology (or, perhaps, Hayes's own music).
Wallace Thurman, a Messenger writer and sometime editor, started a strictly literary journal, Fire!!, in 1926. The magazine, which boldly stated it would ignore racial stereotypes fostered by both races, folded after a single issue, burdening Thurman with debts he repaid only after many years. In a post-mortem, Thurman said that Fire!! "was experimental. It was not interested in sociological problems or propaganda. It was purely artistic in intent and conception. Its contributors went to the proletariat rather than the bourgeoisie for characters and material. They were interested in people who still retained some individual race qualities and were not totally white Americans in every respect save color of skin." Thurman recognized that white writers faced similar opposition from conventional people who opposed "the literary upheavals of a Dreiser, an Anderson, or a Sandburg.... The mass of American Negroes can no more be expected to emancipate themselves from petty prejudices and myopic fears than can the mass of American whites. They all revere Service, Prosperity, and Progress. True, the American Negro may be the more pitiful figure, since he insists on selling every vestige of his birthright for a mess of potage." Afro-Americans were rapidly assimilating, and their leaders believed that "those elements within the race which are still too potent for easy assimilation must be hidden until they no longer exist." Thurman attacked Walter White's Fire in the Flint and Jessie Fauset's There Is Confusion as unabashed propaganda and complained that Du Bois and Locke "treated the Negro as a sociological problem rather than as a human being."
By late 1927 Thurman pronounced the Renaissance dead. The "Negro art fad" had meant only that "literate and semi-literate" African Americans "began to strut and shout.... Everyone was having a grand time. The second emancipation seemed inevitable." Then whites "began seeking some new fad," while blacks remained divided over the merits of their new literature. Thurman concluded that "if but a few live coals are found in a mountain of ashes, no one should be disappointed. Genius is a rare quality in this world, and there is no reason why it should be more ubiquitous among Blacks than Whites."
The next year Thurman started another experimental magazine, Harlem, "an independent magazine of literature and thought" by and for American Negroes. Afro-America's lasting publications "have been organs of some philanthropic organization whose purpose was to fight the more virulent manifestations of race prejudice"; as such they were filled with "Jeremiahs spouting fire and venom" and much "weeping and moaning." Blacks believed that "the most important and most tragic thing in the world was his own problem here in America"; their protest journals performed "truly daring and important work" but did nothing but preach and moan "until they completely lost their emotional balance and their sense of true values." These propaganda magazines afforded some space to new writers, but placed artistic creations between pieces of propaganda; creative works were "squeezed between jeremiads" or "thrown haphazardly upon a page." The new Afro-American writers therefore published in white magazines, but thereby lost their Negro audience. Thurman concluded that "the old propagandistic journals had served their day and generation well, but they were emotionally unprepared to serve a new day and a new generation." Afro-American writers launched struggling art magazines, but these were local and underfinanced, and soon folded.
Afro-Americans required a publication that would "give expression to all groups.... Harlem hopes to fill this new need. It enters the field without any preconceived editorial prejudices, without intolerance, without a reformer's cudgel." Thurman emphasized "the necessity of reading the newer Negro authors" and "realizing that the Negro is not the only, nor the worst mistreated minority group in the world." Salvation for blacks required "sublimating their inferiority complex and their extreme race sensitiveness and putting the energy, which they have hitherto used in moaning and groaning, into more concrete fields of action." Harlem, he wrote, would publish white and Negro authors who wrote great poetry, prose, and drama; it would comment on economics and politics as well as on literature. Despite an enthusiastic endorsement from Alain Locke, Harlem failed after two issues. The failure of Thurman's two literary magazines (and of numerous ephemeral, regional literary publications) demonstrated that Afro-Americans could not or would not sustain their own strictly literary journal, independent of the control of whites and of racial betterment organizations. Thurman's own novel, Infants of the Spring (1932), the action of which occurred in "Niggerati Manor" (Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston called the black literati the "niggerati"), ends in the suicide of its protagonist, and is widely regarded as a fitting epitaph for the long-defunct Harlem Renaissance.
Thurman's lament about the end of the Afro-American Renaissance was not only premature, however; it was seriously misplaced. Although the 1920s was indeed the decade when (in Hughes's phrase) "the Negro was in vogue," black and white writers continued mining the riches of African-American life in fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction. The Harlem Renaissance did not so much peter out as become mainstream. Never again would Afro-American writers and themes seem so exotic that they attracted the incredulous attention of the white American public; nor, in educated circles, would the essential humanity and equality of Afro-Americans require literary proof. Educated opinion from the 1930s onward recognized that racism originated in the character of the racists, not in that of the victims. And Afro-American writers in the 1930s, and in every successive decade, earned the attention of the literate American public. Alain Locke published his annual retrospective analyzes of books by and about Afro-Americans into the early 1950s.
Yet a central idea of the Harlem Renaissance--that literary endeavor could ameliorate or even end racist oppression--was repudiated by almost everyone even before the onset of the Great Depression. Very few major Afro-American intellectuals, of course, had ever placed exclusive hope in literature as a weapon of racial advancement. James Weldon Johnson was a racial militant who protested vehemently and incessantly against every manifestation of racism; despite his own social conservatism, he also maintained close contacts with the white Left. Charles S. Johnson exhaustively documented the afflictions of black America, consorted with white leftists, and advocated an interracial, class-based alliance as the best solution for Afro-American ills. Du Bois was endorsing Bolshevism and voting Socialist by 1928, while Randolph and the Messenger group espoused labor unionism (and, more privately, socialism) as the cure for black America's problems. While disillusioned with Socialist racism and perennially interested in Afro-American literature, Harrison never abandoned his class analysis of Afro-American oppression. (The Modern Quarterly published an updated version of his early essay, "The Real Negro Problem," in its September-December 1926 issue.) In 1924 Harrison endorsed Briggs's old idea of a separate black nation in the black belt of the South, a proposal which the Communist party soon advanced as its own. He died at a very early age in 1927. Briggs became a CP stalwart, although he was later expelled from the CP for racial chauvinism. In 1929 William Pickens, an NAACP official who had allied himself with the Messenger group, symbolized the mainstreaming of the formerly radical economic interpretation of Afro-American problems. Reviewing Communist party member Scott Nearing's Black America, Pickens praised Nearing for proving that black America's problem was not peculiar
but is the same old economic problem of labor and profits, poverty and wealth,--a class problem with the handicap of "race and color" added to it.... This economic discrimination is the fundamental discrimination: no other form of discrimination could long continue if there were economic equality. The color-psychosis of America lends itself to economic robbery against a large working-class group....
Whether the author chose to insinuate it or not, it is clear from the conditions described and the cases cited that white and black of the economic underclass in America can save themselves only by refusing to be used as clubs, one against the other's head, and by class cooperation: by obliterating the "color line" so far as their economic, civil and political interests are concerned. The workers must put the interests of workers before every other interest. "Color lines" among workers are too useful to the exploiters of labor.
That same year George Schuyler praised another book for proving that "the Negro worker is first of all a worker and only incidentally a Negro. Only Alain Locke (excused by his vocation as a philosophy professor) touted literature and art as a virtual panacea for racial afflictions; and even he, by the mid-1930s, readily admitted that "there is no cure or saving magic in poetry and art for... precarious marginal employment, high mortality rates, civic neglect."
McKay also retained his belief in democratic socialism, rejecting Communism precisely because it perverted his original creed; he could have claimed that he did not abandon radicalism so much as radicalism abandoned him (and its former self). And McKay had rarely confused literary creativity with political insurgency; even during his salad days after Home to Harlem, he ridiculed the pretensions of literati who believed that art would ameliorate social ills. His explicit rejection of this illusion in his autobiography (1937) merely summarized his oft-expressed opinion of the Harlem Renaissance even at its height:
I was surprised when I discovered that many of the talented Negroes regarded their renaissance more as an uplift organization and a vehicle to accelerate the pace and progress of smart Negro society.... The Negroes were under the delusion that when a lady from Park Avenue or from Fifth Avenue, or a titled European, became interested in Negro art and invited Negro artists to her home, that was a token of Negroes breaking into upper-class white society. I don't think that it ever occurred to them that perhaps such white individuals were searching for a social and artistic significance in Negro art which they could not find in their own society, and that the radical nature and subject of their interest operated against the possibility of their introducing Negroes further than their own particular homes in coveted white society.
Furthermore, McKay complained, the fervent competition for white patronage poisoned Afro-American intellectual life. "Among the Negro artists there was much of that Uncle Tom attitude which works like Satan against the idea of a coherent and purposeful Negro group," he said. "Each one wanted to be the first Negro, the one Negro, and the only Negro for the whites instead of for their group. Because an unusual number of them were receiving grants to do creative work, they actually and naively believed that Negro artists as a group would always be treated differently from white artists and be protected by powerful white patrons.... Some of them even expressed the opinion that Negro art would solve the centuries-old social problem of the Negro." McKay singled out Locke for specific condemnation in this regard.
Du Bois's repudiation of the Renaissance was evident not only in his own work, but in two scathing articles by black sociologist Allison Davis, which appeared in the Crisis in late 1928. Davis castigated virtually the entire Afro-American intelligentsia and many of their white supporters. He specifically attacked McKay, Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson among the blacks, and Van Vechten, Carl Van Doren (especially his Opportunity awards dinner speech), and Vachel Lindsey among the whites. Davis divided Negro literature into the cabaret and African jungle schools (both of which he lumped together as the Van Vechtenites) and the Menckenites. Reversing the usual claim that Van Vechten had corrupted Negro authors and ruined Afro-American literature, Davis thundered that Nigger Heaven resulted from the mouthings of the black elite, who were "responsible for its writing and its success." Davis assailed "the primitivism which our Negro writers had concocted and made a holy cause" and said that "the total effect of the whole movement was that Negroes are sincerely bestial." Davis wrote that "this whole primitivistic interpretation is the white man's facile point of view, and our Negro 'intellectuals' wanted to appear as the white man would have them.... The untrammeled self-expression which the supporters of the movement claimed for it was actually freedom only to be as primitivistic as one liked."
Davis also assailed the black Menckenites who "pose as the thoughtful and emancipated Negro" but in reality cared only about self-expression, regardless of truth. Schuyler was prominent among the Menckenites, Davis charged; he "especially reveals his lack of all standards in his frivolous and universal cynicism" and "his indiscriminate jeering at all efforts to ameliorate white animosity and injustice." Speaking of the black satirists, Davis said that "what they really set up for our improvement, in the place of standards, is their own personality..... Every man or movement treated is warped and caricatured by the necessity for displaying their own temperament.... When they set themselves up as serious critics, they become public dangers."
Davis contrasted McKay's Home to Harlem, which assailed "everything intellectual and purposeful" in the name of "beauty and pure emotion," with Du Bois's latest novel, Dark Princess. In Du Bois's work there was "both fire and light," Davis wrote. "Propaganda, I take it, is in his case the bringing to the people of inspiration and energy ordinarily beyond their reach. What he must sacrifice in terms of artistry, he gains for this purpose and this time in stimulating the soul of a great people." Davis cited English and American novelists such as Dickens, Richardson, and Stowe whose writings contained a palpable social message; these writers were great not in spite of their propagandizing but because of it, "for propaganda is the very spirit of their genius, their driving force." Davis ascribed the lamentable condition of Afro-American literature to the lack of a black reading public. "Indifference to Negro literature" pervaded black collegians and bourgeoisie alike; because blacks with money and intelligence ignored "the literature of Negro life," such literature was written for white audiences, "just as Negro schools are run for white patrons, and Negro spirituals are sung in New York to please white audiences. Dark Princess will not appeal to the same public which enjoyed Nigger Heaven and Home to Harlem," Davis concluded. "All those who have a high faith in the destiny and nature of the Negro, therefore, ought to read it."
Almost simultaneously with Davis's jeremiads, rising black Communist William L. Patterson vented similar complaints. The Crisis and Opportunity contests, he said, were "doing much to stimulate and encourage the development of the younger Negro writers" with publicity and prizes. However, the deplorable result was "that younger writers become desperately anxious to capture the attention of the public and to gain a foothold for themselves among the Negro literati. These young writers then sing a tune likely to beget success. Artistic integrity is submerged in the mad race for fame." Saying that "We demand more," Patterson complained that even poets such as McKay and Hughes had abandoned their earlier, militant tones. McKay in his best poetry "speaks not as a racialist but as the champion of oppressed peoples. It is propaganda, yes, but the music is there, greater music perhaps than it would be without the proletarian feeling. His poetry grapples with the realities and remains poetry. But what is Claude McKay doing today?" Soon enough, however, Communist literary critics would deny that McKay expressed the feelings and demands of "oppressed peoples" or contained "proletarian feeling." Communists soon denounced McKay, in fact, for the very racialism which Patterson denied.
Most black poets, Patterson continued, had prostituted themselves to white opinion in pursuit of the almighty dollar. "There is little in recent Negro poetry that would lead one to believe that the poets are conscious of the existence of the Negro masses," he complained. "There is no challenge in their poetry, no revolt. They do not echo the lamentations of the downtrodden masses. Millions of blacks are suffering from poverty and cruelty, and black poets shut their eyes!" Black poets voiced "the aspirations of a rising petty bourgeoisie" or expressed "the viciousness of black decadents"; they were "sensationalists, flirting with popularity and huge royalties.... Instead of leading heroically in the march of the world's workers, they are whimpering in the parlors of white and black idlers and decadents."
Broaching another theme that became increasingly prominent in future years, Patterson asserted that whatever the quality of its artistic creations, the Harlem Renaissance did not benefit the black masses.
The voice of a Roland Hayes, a Paul Robeson, a Lawrence Brown, the songs of Cullen, Hughes, Toomer, Johnson and McKay, may wake to ecstasy the cultured bourgeoisie of the North, the absentee Southern landlords, the exploiters of black labor; the intelligentsia of the Negro race may break into rhapsody in praise of their performances. But ten millions of the most ignoble creatures, the most debased, and dehumanized of mankind, ten millions of blacks in the savage South are unaware of their existence. The economic position of these lowly blacks does not change because these New Negroes thrill high heaven with the beauty of their songs.
Patterson admitted that the black literati sympathized with the plight of their impoverished brethren: "their sensitive natures revolt at the persecution of their stricken people, but their intellectual, stylized [and] erudite musings, though full of the heartbeat of the black peon, will help that peon not one bit." Patterson confidently predicted that the New Negro would and must arrive. "But he will not be an aesthete; he will be a revolutionist, finding his milieu in the political arena. He will be a mass leader, a leader of the working class and the working class must buy its freedom with its blood.... The New Negro must demand a new economic policy for his race, a new political program, a new social order. No modification of the old will relieve him from the yoke of oppression. His is not a lone fight. The oppressed of the world will be leagued upon his side. Only through the travail of revolution will he realize his full expression as a man, not through poetry and aesthetics." Patterson displayed amazing (and depressing) ignorance of the origins of the term "New Negro" as describing just the kind of revolutionary fighter he himself extolled. So thoroughly (even if very recently) had the term been appropriated by Locke and his fellow aesthetes that Patterson assumed that it had always connotated a merely aesthetic rebellion.
Himself a beneficiary of white patronage, Hughes soon endorsed some of these criticisms. Although he denied that most black writers had imitated whites or prostituted themselves for money, he had, as we have seen, always sported a jaundiced, satirical attitude toward the literary uplifters and critics. Hughes asserted that writers would create as they saw fit, regardless of public demands or critical comment. Even in the 1920s Hughes had affiliated himself with the Left, taking his inspiration from the Negro proletariat and writing with some frequency for the CP-affiliated New Masses. In the 1930s Hughes, like many Afro-American intellectuals, closely allied himself with the Communist party. By 1940, when he published the first volume of his autobiography, he, like McKay, more fully expressed his disapprobation with one aspect of the 1920s. Whites, Hughes complained, inundated Harlem "in droves... flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo." Most whites firmly believed "that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses." Hughes, however, said that "all of us knew that the gay and sparkling life of the so-called Negro Renaissance of the 1920s was not so gay and sparkling beneath the surface."
But some Harlemites thought the millennium had come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley. They were sure 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.
I don't know what made any Negroes think that--except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking. The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any.
 Johnson's account of his activities is in JWJ, Along This Way, (New York, 1968), 252-289, especially 276-289. Johnson's autobiography was originally published in 1933. David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York, 1982), discusses James Weldon Johnson at some length.
 JWJ, "Prejudice and Art," NYA, May 11, 1916; JWJ, "A Poetry Corner," NYA, January 7, 1915; JWJ, "A Real Poet," NYA, May 20, 1922; JWJ, "Some New Books on Poetry and Their Makers," NYA, September 7, 1918, in SWJ, I, 263, 252-254, 271-277, 279-281.
 JWJ, "When is a Race Great?," NYA, March 11, 1918, in SWJ, I, 267-269.
 JWJ, "Some New Books of Poetry and Their Makers," NYA, September 7, 1918; JWJ, "A Real Poet," NYA, May 20, 1922, in SWJ, I, 271-277, 279-281. Many of the lines from "Some New Books of Poetry and Their Makers" were repeated verbatim in Johnson's preface to his anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York, 1921), vii-xlvii.
 JWJ, Preface, Negro Poetry, vii-xlvii.
 Dell, review of James Weldon Johnson"s Fifty Years and Other Poems (The Liberator, March 1918).
 Johnson's reply to Dell, TLR, April 1918.
 William Ferris, "The Arts and Black Development," NW, April 30, 1921, in Theodore Vincent, Voices of a Black Nation: Political Journalism in the Harlem Renaissance (San Francisco, 1973), 327.
 JWJ, "Inside Measurement," NYA, March 2, 1916; JWJ, "Anthology of Magazine Verse and Other Books," NYA, January 7, 1915; JWJ, "Mock Culture," NYA, March 22, 1917, in SWJ, I, 260-261, 251-252, 263-264.
 JWJ, "Superior Races," NYA, September 27, 1917, in SWJ, I, 265-267.
 JWJ, "Some New Books of Poetry and Their Creators," NYA, September 7, 1918; JWJ, "Superior Races," NYA, September 27, 1917, in SWJ, I, 271-277, 265-267.
 JWJ, Preface, The Book of American Negro Spirituals (New York, 1926), 49-50.
 JWJ, "Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist," Harper's, 1928; JWJ, "Negro Authors and White Publishers," TC, 1929, in SWJ, II, 397-407, 413-415.
 JWJ, "Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist," Harper's, 1928, in SWJ, II, 397-407.
 Johnson, Preface to the Second Edition, American Negro Poetry (New York, 1931).
 Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York, 1986, 218. (Originally published in 1940.) For information on Charles Johnson see Lewis, Vogue; Richard Robbins, Sidelines Activist: Charles S. Johnson and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Jackson, 1996); Patrick Gilpin, "Charles S. Johnson: Entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance," in Arna Bontempts, ed., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (New York, 1972), 215-246.
 This incident is recounted in Lewis, Vogue, 117-118. Although the phrasing may have been that of Johnson's secretary, the sentiment was definitely that of Johnson himself.
 Robbins, Sidelines Activist, 33-40; Lewis, Vogue, 45-49. Robbins, 40, says that Johnson's "determined but gradualist strategy" resulted "not from inner conviction--always at heart Johnson remained angry and dismayed about the conditions white America imposed upon black--but from a tough-minded, realistic assessment that racial gains would be slow and a long time coming." Lewis, 48, aptly says that "Johnson found that one area alone--probably because of its very implausibility--had not been proscribed. No exclusionary rules had been laid down regarding a place in the arts. Here was a small crack in the wall of racism, a fissure that was worth trying to widen. Not only was this a tactic admirably suited to the ability and temperament of educated Afro-Americans, it seemed to be the sole battle plan affording both high visibility and low vulnerability. If the road to the ballot box and jobs was blocked, Johnson saw that the door to Carnegie Hall and New York publishers was ajar."
 E.K. Jones, "'Cooperation' and 'Opportunity'," OPP, Jan 1923; CSJ, "Why We Are," OPP, February 1923.
 CSJ, "We Begin a New Year," Opp, January 1925.
 "Social Case Work and the African Tradition," OPP, March 1923; CSJ, "Public Opinion and the Negro," OPP, July 1923; CSJ, "After Garvey, What?," Opp, August 1923. Johnson's open-mindedness was displayed by his printing of a long article by respected historian of black America, William Leo Hansberry, extolling the survival of an ineradicable African temperament in the blacks of the diaspora. Hansberry strongly asserted that innate African characteristics, not Afro-American experiences, explained distinctive black life and culture in the United States. William Leo Hansberry, "The Social History of the American Negro: A Review," OPP, June 1923.
 CSJ, "Public Opinion and the Negro," OPP, July 1923.
 AL, quoted in "The Debut of the Younger School of Negro Writers," OPP, May 1924; Carl Van Doren, "The Younger School of Negro Writers," OPP, May 1924. Indicating male attitudes (both white and black) towards Afro-American women, the banquet organizers relegated Fauset to the background, even though the festivities were ostensibly in her honor. Cheryl Wall, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington, 1995), 68-72. Wall remarks that "whatever she had done to produce it, Fauset would not have a starring role when the renaissance hit the big time."
 Editorials, "An Opportunity for Negro Writers," OPP, September 1924. Johnson was sincere in his disdain of propaganda in literature; his review of Walter White's highly-regarded The Fire in the Flint faulted it for excessive moralizing. "The white mind could be made more intelligible," he said. "They are mad men, most of them. Certainly this conduct has some justification in their own minds even if irrational and unsound." Johnson also properly complained that lynchings, however dramatic, did not epitomize the sufferings of most blacks: "There is yet even more poignant tragedy in the lives of the droning millions who are ground down and broken and who are not permitted even the escape of death." Johnson, "Our Book Shelf," OPP, November 1924. For some reason--as if distancing himself from criticizing so venerable an NAACP official as Walter White--Johnson signed his review before concluding it with some of his most critical comments.
 Editorial, "The Last Warning," OPP, December 1924; Editorial, "We Begin a New Year," OPP, January 1925.
 "The Contest," OPP, May 1925.
 "Jazz," OPP, May 1925.
 Brenda Ray Moryck, "A Point of View," OPP, August 1925.
 CSJ, "On Writing About Negroes," OPP, August 1925.
 Countee Cullen, "Our Book Shelf: Poet Upon Poet," OPP, February 1926.
 Countee Cullen, "Our Book Shelf: Poet Upon Poet," OPP, February 1926; Cullen, New York Times interview, 1923, quoted in Lewis, Vogue, 77. Cullen's regular Opportunity column, "The Dark Tower," started later that year.
 "A Negro Invests in the Future," OPP, June 1925; "The Contest," OPP, October 1925; "The Contest," OPP, March 1926; "A Note on the New Literary Movement," OPP, March 1926;
 "A Contest Number," OPP, June 1926.
 John Macy, "The Kingdom of Art," OPP, June 1926.
 GSS, "The Negro Art Hokum," the Nation, June 16, 1926, in David Levering Lewis, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (New York, 1994), 96-99.
 Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," the Nation, June 23, 1926, in Lewis, Renaissance Reader, 91-95. For a brilliant evocation of Hughes's life in the years surrounding the writing of this essay, see Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: I, Too, Sing America (New York 1986). Rampersad, 130, calls "Racial Mountain" the "finest essay of Hughes's life."
 GSS, "Views and Reviews," the Pittsburgh Courier, February 6, 1926; GSS, "Speaking of Monuments and History," the Pittsburgh Courier, April 24, 1926; GSS, "Views and Reviews," the Pittsburgh Courier, January 27, 1925; GSS, "Views and Reviews," the Pittsburgh Courier, August 30, 1930; all quoted in Michael W. Peplow, George S. Schuyler (Boston, 1980), 24, 38.
 GSS, "Negroes and Artists," (a letter), the Nation, July 14, 1926.
 CSJ, "American Negro Art," OPP, August 1926.
 "Gambling and the Lyre," OPP, October 1926.
 "More About Negro Art," OPP, May 1927.
 "The Third Opportunity Contest," OPP, October 1926; "Our Need of Better Plays," OPP, January 1927. Du Bois castigated black theatre groups for refusing to pay $5 (half of which was earmarked for the play's author, and half for the Crisis) for plays published in that magazine. Du Bois said that he would not prosecute those who stole plays: "If they can stand that kind of encouragement for Negro artists, we presume we can." DB, "Paying for Plays," TC, November 1926. Benjamin Brawley complained of the poor quality of Opportunity contest essays. Brawley, "The Writing of Essays," OPP, September 1926.
 "The Opportunity Contest," OPP, September 1927. Johnson also cited the greater ease with which black writers could publish in mainstream white periodicals.
 Lewis, Vogue, 294.
 CSJ, Introduction to Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea (New York, 1927).
 CSJ, "To Negro Youth," OPP, September 1928.
 "Opportunity and The Modern Quarterly," OPP, March 1925; "Pot-Pourri, Intellectual Cooperation," editorial from The Modern Quarterly reprinted in OPP, April 1925;
 "Negro Labor and Communism," OPP, December 1925; "Labor and Race Relations," OPP, January 1926. Thomas L. Dabney also denounced capitalist education and advocated working-class institutions in "Workers' Education," OPP, March 1926.
 Lewis, Vogue, 149-155; AL, "The Ethics of Culture," speech printed in the Howard University Record (January, 1923), in CT, 415-421.
 AL, "Apropos of Africa," OPP, February 1924.
 AL, "The New Negro," in AL, The New Negro (New York, 1925) 3-16.
 ibid.; AL, "To Certain of Our Philistines," OPP, May 1925.
 ibid.; AL, "Negro Youth Speaks," in AL, New Negro, 47-53.
 AL, "The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts," New Negro, 254-268.
 ibid, "The New Negro."
 AL, "The Negro Spirituals," in New Negro, 199-213.
 AL, Introduction, "The Poetry of Negro Life," in Four Negro Poets, (New York, 1927), in CT, 47. The four poets selected by Locke were McKay, Hughes, Toomer, and Cullen.
 AL, "The Drama of Negro Life," Theatre Arts Monthly, October 1926, in CT, 87-91.
 AL, "The Negro and the American Stage," Theatre Arts Monthly, February 1926, in CT, 79-86.
 AL, "The Drama of Negro Life," Theatre Arts Monthly, October 1926, in CT, 87-91.
 AL, "Beauty Instead of Ashes," the Nation, April 18, 1928, in CT, 23-25.
 AL, "Art or Propaganda," Harlem, November 1928, in Huggins, Voices, 312-313; AL, "The New Negro," in New Negro, 3-16; AL, "American Literary Tradition and the Negro," Modern Quarterly, May--July, 1926.
 AL, "Art or Propaganda?," Harlem, November 1928, in Nathan Irvin Huggins, Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (New York, 1976), 312-313. Harlem was Wallace Thurman's successor to his one-issue publication, Fire!!. It lasted for two issues before folding.
 ibid.; AL, "The Drama of Negro Life," Theatre Arts Monthly, October 1926, in CT, 87-91.
 AL, "Art or Propaganda," Harlem, November 1928, in Huggins, Voices, 312-313.
 AL, "1928: A Retrospective Review," OPP, January 1929, in CT, 201-204; AL, "This Year of Grace," OPP, February 1931, in CT, 205-208.
 AL, "Propaganda--or Poetry?," Race, Summer 1936, in CT, 55-61.
 DB, "The Negro in Literature and Art, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, September 1913, in Andrew Paschal, editor, A W.E.B. Du Bois Reader (New York, 1971), 81-86; DB, "Begging," TC, September 1915; DB, "The Future," TC, November 1915.
 DB, "Negro Art," TC, June 1921.
 DB, "The Negro and the American Stage," TC, June 1924; DB, "The Amy Spingarn Prizes in Literature and Art," TC, November 1924.
 DB, "The New Crisis," TC, May 1925.
 DB, "Krigwa, 1926," TC, January 1926.
 Carl Van Vechten to DB, October 29, 1915; and DB to Van Vechten, November 5, 1925, in Aptheker, ed., The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois (Amherst, 1997).
 Du Bois, "A Questionnaire," TC, February 1926.
 "The Negro in Art. How Shall He Be Portrayed? A Symposium," TC, August, March, and May 1926.
 "The Negro in Art. How Shall He Be Portrayed? A Symposium," TC, August, March, and May 1926. George S. Schuyler was one Afro-American who did laugh heartily at white follies. Schuyler's habit of poking fun and everyone and everything, however, evoked criticism from some of his more serious brethren.
 ibid., March, May, June and August 1926.
 ibid., April 1926.
 ibid., March 1926. This article was partly based on Van Vechten's earlier letter to Du Bois, cited above.
 ibid., April, June and August 1926.
 ibid., August 1926.
 ibid., November 1926.
 LH, "The Negro in Art. How Shall He Be Portrayed?," TC, April 1926; TC, November 1926.
 DB, "Criteria of Negro Art," TC, October 1926. This essay was first delivered as a speech at the NAACP's annual convention that year.
 Hughes, Big Sea, 251, says that "only Carl Van Vechten's parties were so Negro that they were reported as a matter of course in the colored society columns." Lewis, Vogue, 184, recounts a story from the era which he calls "as likely as amusing." A porter at Grand Central Station addressed Mrs. Astor, a high society figure, by name. When asked how he knew her name, the porter replied: "Why, ma'am, I met you last weekend at Carl Van Vechten's." Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York, 1974) discusses Van Vechten, Nigger Heaven and the reception accorded that novel. See also Bruce Kellner, ed., Keep A-Inch' Along: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters (Westport, 1973)) 73-78, and Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, (Norman, 1968), 195-223. Hughes discusses Van Vechten favorably in Big Sea, 251-255, 268-272.
 CSJ, introducing Kelly Miller's "Where is the Negro's Heaven?," OPP, December 1926. Ironically, Van Vechten--who had used exotic and salacious scenes in his previous successful novels--probably exaggerated the wildness of the Harlem cabarets, and helped evoke the very primitiveness his novel extolled. As Lewis says, Vogue, 208, "Less than three years before, [that is, at about the time Nigger Heaven burst upon the world] Variety had yawned through a nocturnal Harlem sortie. By late 1929, it found the scene much changed: Harlem's night life 'now surpasses that of Broadway itself.'"
 Lewis, Vogue, 186. The novel's Afro-American defenders pointed this out in their reviews.
 HHH, "Homo Africanus Harlemi," Amsterdam News, September 1, 1926, in HHHR, 340-344; HHH, "Nigger Heaven--A Review of the Reviews," Amsterdam News, November 13, 1926, in HHHR, 344-351.
 Lewis, Vogue, 181-184, Kellner, Keep A-Inchin', 76; CSJ, "On the Meaning of Names," OPP, September 1926.
 Lewis, Vogue, 181-184, Kellner, Keep A-Inchin', 76; CSJ, "On the Meaning of Names," OPP, September 1926; JWJ, Along This Way, 381.
 JWJ, "Romance and Tragedy in Harlem--A Review," OPP, October 1926. Charles S. Johnson indicated his own sense of the importance of the book by publishing this review as a full-fledged article, rather than as a short book review.
 ibid. In his autobiography, Along This Way, 381, James Weldon Johnson said that Nigger Heaven "aroused something of a national controversy. For directly opposite reasons, there were objections to the book by white and colored people. White objectors declared that the story was a Van Vechten fantasy; that they could not be expected to believe that there were intelligent, well-to-do Negroes in Harlem who lived their lives on the cultural level he described, or a fast set that gave at least a very good imitation of life in sophisticated white circles. Negro objectors declared that the book was a libel on the race, that the dissolute life and characters depicted by the author were non-existent. Both classes of objectors were wrong, but their points of view can be understood. Negro readers of the book who knew anything knew that dissolute modes of life and dissolute characters existed in Harlem; their objections were really based upon chagrin and resentment at the disclosures to a white public."
 JWJ, Along This Way, 382.
 The Carl Van Vechten prize was announced in the November 1927 Opportunity; Charles S. Johnson, Robert Lovett, and James Weldon Johnson were the judges. (James Weldon Johnson, of course, had a longstanding interest in Haiti, and had written a celebrated series of articles concerning U.S. Haitian policy for the Nation in 1920. These articles were subsequently published in pamphlet form.) Bellegarde's article appeared in December 1927; the portrait of Van Vechten is on page 367 of the December 1928 issue.
 DB, "Books," TC, December 1926.
 Thurman, "A Stranger at the Gate," TM, September 1926; Thurman, "Fire Burns: A Department of Comment," Fire!!, November 1926;
 ibid.; JWJ, Along This Way, 381.
 DB, "Mencken," TC, October 1927; DB, "Harlem," TC September 1927.
 Kelly Miller, "Where is the Negro's Heaven?," OPP, December 1926. Miller was very critical of some aspects of Afro-American life in the nation's capital, although very appreciative of others.
 DB, "Mencken," TC, October 1927.
 DB to Amy Spingarn, January 19, 1928, in Aptheker, Correspondence, 372-373.
 HHH, "No Negro Literary Renaissance," Pittsburgh Courier, March 12, 1927, in HHHR 351-354; HHH, "Cabaret School of Negro Literature and Art," Pittsburgh Courier, May 28, 1927, in HHHR, 355-357. The first essay was so incendiary that the Courier published a disclaimer; the Courier denied that Harrison's article represented the views of the paper, and promised to publish alternative viewpoints.
 HHH, ibid., 354.
 ibid., 356.
 ibid., 351-357.
 HHH, "Harlem's Neglected Opportunities: Twin Source of Gin and Genius, Poetry and Pajama Parties," Amsterdam News, November 30, 1927, in HHHR, 357-362.
 McKay, "Soviet Russia and the Negro," TC, January 1924.
 RSHR, 219.
 RSHR, 219-220.
 LWFH, 259-260.
 LWFH, 300-302.
 LWFH, 300-302.
 CM to James Ivy, May 20, 1928, in PCM, 145-146; LWFH, 254.
 CM to Louise Bryant, June 24, 1926, quoted in Michael Stoff, "Claude McKay and the Cult of Primitivism," in Bontempts, ed., Harlem Renaissance, 145. RSHR, 229-230, quotes this same letter but thinks that McKay exaggerated his plight to evoke sympathy (and funds) from Bryant. McKay himself wrote James Ivy in 1928 that "I have lived roughly and very cheaply, but with my sensual love of life I have had a tolerably good time." CM to James Ivy, May 20, 1928, in PCM, 146. However, a close reading even of RSHR indicates that McKay's description of his life in this letter was truthful, despite his later romanticization of his vagabondage in his autobiography.
 LWFH, 243-246, 332.
 RSHR, 212, 221, 198, 210.
 RSHR, 225-226, 224; CM to Du Bois, June 18, 1928, in PCM, 149-150; Aptheker, Correspondence, I, 374-376. Du Bois did pay McKay for his poets after McKay's remonstrance. Although Du Bois blamed Jessie Fauset for an earlier imbroglio with McKay, Fauset's biographer reasonably ascribes this and similar confusions to the chaos which followed Fauset's departure as literary editor in 1926. Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer (Troy, 1981), 112-114. Sylvander recounts similar episodes where other authors, both prominent and unknown, were abused.
 CM to Arthur Schomburg, April 28, 1925; CM to Arthur Schomberg, July 17, 1925; CM to Arthur Schomburg, 1925, all in PCM, 139-143.
 Tillery (McKay, 80) quotes a McKay letter to Walter White as early as August 4, 1924, worrying that Van Vechten's impending novel about Harlem life would deflect attention from McKay's own proposed work. Lewis, Vogue, 187, quotes a white character in Nigger Heaven as warning the black protagonist that "If you young Negro intellectuals don't get busy, a new crop of Nordics is going to spring up who will take the trouble to become better informed and will exploit this material before the Negro gets around to it." Deliciously, Lewis comments that "of course, that was exactly what Van Vechten and Nigger Heaven had done, and the joke was on Claude McKay, still without a publisher." As it turned out, however, Van Vechten's scandalous success almost certainly wetted the public's appetite for similar novels, thus contributing to McKay's unprecedented (for an Afro-American novelist) success. Tillery, 78-83.
 "Book Bits," TM, May-June 1928. This unsigned review was presumably written by the editor of the "Book Bits" column, James Ivy.
 RSHR, 245-248; Lewis, Vogue, 224-228; Kirchwey, review of Banjo in the Nation, May 22, 1929, quoted in RSHR, 258.
 DB, "The Browsing Reader, TC, June 1928.
 Herschel Brickell, review of Home to Harlem, OPP, May 1928; AL, "1928: A Retrospective Review," OPP, January 1929, in CT, 201-204.
 RSHR, 243-244; JWJ to Alain Locke, March 1, 1928, quoted in Tillery, McKay, 88.
 JWJ, "Negro Authors and White Publishers," TC, July 1929.
 JWJ, "The Dilemma of the Negro Author," American Mercury, December 1928. This same essay was apparently published in the Philadelphia Tribune, November 29, 1928; see SWJ, 408-412.
 ibid. Henry Louis Gates Jr. addressed a similar contemporary phenomenon in his delightful essay, "The Chitlin' Circuit," the New Yorker, February 3, 1997.
 LWFH, 314-315.
 CM to DB, June 18, 1928, in PCM, 149-150; also, with DB's reply, in Aptheker, Correspondence, I, 374-376.
 CM to James Ivy, May 20, 1928, in PCM, 145-147.
 CM to JWJ, April 30, 1928, quoted in RSHR, 247.
 DB, "The Browsing Reader," TC, July 1929.
 William L. Patterson, "Awake Negro Poets!", New Masses, October 1928; V.F. Calverton, "Harlem Melodrama," New Masses, December 1926.
 Michael Gold, "Where the Battle is Fought," The Nation, July 14, 1926.
 Michael Gold, "Drunk With Sunlight," New Masses, July 1929.
 ibid. Du Bois had shamelessly used the pages of the Crisis to publicize and celebrate his daughter's wedding to Countee Cullen.
 Michael Gold, "Notes of the Month," New Masses, February 1930.
 ibid. For an excellent account of CP activity in Harlem see Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana, 1983).
 Walt Carmon, review of Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter, in the New Masses, October 1930.
 RSHR, 293-298; LWFH, 226-227. PCM contains many documents expressing McKay's disillusionment with Communism.
 LWFH, 228.
 LWFH, 228.
 CM to James Ivy, September 20, 1929, in PCM, 147-148. McKay put "the problem of the Negro" in quotation marks. Michel Fabre, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 (Urbana, 1991), 108-110, detects some anti-capitalist animus in the novel.
 CM, "A Negro Writer to His Critics," New York Herald-Tribune Books, March 6, 1932, in PCM, 132-139.
 LWFH, 317; CM to Max Eastman, April 25, 1932, in PCM, 151.
 LWFH, 277, 345.
 LWFH, 349-351.
 LWFH, 349-351.
 LWFH, 354. He added that "All I offer here is the distilled poetry of my experience."
 LWFH, 312-314. McKay said that "there had been an interesting metamorphosis in Dr. Locke" in recent years. Among other things, McKay claimed that when he had met Locke for the first time, in Berlin in 1923, Locke "took me for a promenade in the Tiergarten. And walking down the row, with the statues of the Prussian kings supported by the famous philosophers and poets and composers on either side, he remarked to me that he thought those statues the finest ideal and expression of the plastic arts in the world. The remark was amusing, for it was just a short while before that I had walked through the same row with George Grosz, who had described the statues as 'the sugar-candy art of Germany.'" After recounting his imbroglio with Locke over McKay's poems in The New Negro, McKay said that "I couldn't imagine such a man as the leader of a renaissance, when his artistic outlook was so reactionary." Many persons mentioned in McKay's A Long Way From Home disputed his accounts of their thoughts and actions. And Locke, very soon after 1923, was extolling the beauties of traditional African art--a far cry from the Tiergarten. Locke remained ecumenical in his tastes, praising the poetry of McKay and Hughes as well as Cullen.
 AL, "Spiritual Truancy," New Challenge, Fall 1937, in CT, 63-66.
 Arna Bontemps, "Claude McKay and the Cult of the Primitive," in Bontempts, ed., Harlem Renaissance. Debunking a radical critic who claimed that Jake's raunchy sex life epitomized McKay's, McKay later said that "I couldn't indulge in such self-flattery as to claim Jake in Home to Harlem as a portrait of myself. My damned white education has robbed me of much of the primitive vitality, the pure stamina, the simple unswaggering strength of the Jakes of the Negro race." LWFH, 229.
 Squib, TM, January 1925; "Announcement," TM, February 1926.
 TL, "The Theatre," TM, February 1927; TL, "Book Reviews," TM, October 1926; TL, "Books," TM, 1926.
 TL, "The Theatre, TM, October 1926.
 TL, "New Books," TM, April 1926; TL, "The Theatre," TM, September 1925; TL, "The Theatre," TM, February 1926.
 TL, "Same Old Blues," TM, January 1925.
 TL, "The Theatre," TM, September 1926; TL, "The Theatre," TM, June 1926.
 TL, "The Theatre," TM, December 1926; TL, "The Theatre," TM, January 1927.
 TL, "The Theatre," TM, March 1927; see also TL, "The Theatre," TM, February, 1925.
 TL, "The Theatre," TM, April 1926.
 TL, "The Theatre, TM, July 1926.
 TL, "The Theatre," TM, June 1925.
 TL, "Books," TM, January 1927.
 James Ivy review of My African Neighbors, TM, April 1926; Ivy, "The Negro Faces the Future," TM, July 1926; Rogers, in symposium "Group Tactics and Ideals," TM, January 1927.
 GSS, "Shafts and Darts," TM, August 1926; GSS, "Shafts and Darts," TM, January 1926.
 GSS, "Book Reviews," TM, December 1926.
 GSS, "The Yellow Peril," TM, January 1925.
 GSS, "Shafts and Darts," TM, July 1927.
 GSS, "Shafts and Darts," TM, February 1925.
 Symposium, "Group Tactics and Ideals," TM, December 1926 and January, April, and October 1927. The response of Lincoln University's faculty is in TM, January 1927.
 Rogers, "The Critic," TM, February 1927 (Rogers referred to the title of white author Carl Van Vechten's controversial novel, Nigger Heaven); TL, "The Theatre," TM, October 1926.
 Rogers, "The Critic," TM, January 1925.
 Jackson, "Showfolks More Than Mere Entertainers," TM, January 1925.
 Rogers, "The Critic," TM March 1926.
 Rogers, "Who is the New Negro, and Why?," TM, March 1927.
 U.S. Poston, "New Books," TM, April 1926.
 Wallace Thurman, "Negro Artists and the Negro," New Republic, August 31, 1927.
 Wallace Thurman, Editorial in Harlem, November 1928, in Huggins, Voices, 72-74.
 Thurman had written a previous novel The Blacker the Berry, an exposé Afro-American colorism; and a play, Harlem, which toured the United States after a successful Broadway run. In Los Angeles, Thurman was repeatedly (including on opening night) denied a good seat at the performance of his own play. See Lewis, Vogue, especially 236-239, 279-281.
 William Pickens, "Modern Slavery," a review of Scott Nearing's Black America, in the New Masses, March 1929.
 GSS, "Brother Workers," review of Charles H. Wesley's Negro Labor in the United States, the New Masses, February 1928; AL, quoted in Robbins, Sidelines Activist, 57.
 LWFH, 321-322.
 LWFH, 322.
 Allison Davis, "Our Negro 'Intellectuals,'" TC, August 1928.
 Allison Davis, review of DB's Dark Princess, TC, October 1928.
 William L. Patterson, "Awake Negro Poets!," the New Masses, October 1928.
 William L. Patterson, "The 'New Negro,'" the New Masses, June 1928.
 Hughes, Big Sea, 224-228.