The Harlem Renaissance and Black Transnational Culture
The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Nationalism
By Brent Hayes Edwards
(Harvard University Press, $24.95)
Brent Edwards, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, has been hailed as one of the most promising emerging scholars of African American letters. His debut book, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, does not disappoint. In its path-breaking take on Black print culture of the 1920s, a decade that witnessed the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude Movement, The Practice of Diaspora recalls David Levering Lewis' seminal history, When Harlem Was In Vogue, while declaring Edwards' brilliance as a literary scholar in his own right.
Arguably, the phrase that set the tone for Black literary and political initiatives of the 1920s was W.E.B. Du Bois' "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." In a master stroke of scholarship, Edwards reveals that this idea was first uttered, not in the "Forethought" of his 1903 Souls of Black Folk, which made it famous, but at the 1900 Pan-African Congress in London. Given the influence of Du Bois' century-old prophecy, re-framing the "color line" in relation to "the nations of the world" might occasion re-readings of much of 20th-century African American intellectual thought.
Here, in The Practice of Diaspora, Edwards applies that global reading to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement traditionally understood as shaped by "U.S.-bound themes": cultural nationalism, civil rights protest, and racial uplift through arts and letters. In a break from convention, Practice traces the ways that questions regarding international civil society raised by the formation of the League of Nations, labor organizing, and "globe-carving discourse of European colonialism" influenced the Renaissance. That the New Negro Movement epitomized by Alain Locke's eponymous 1925 anthology was, in fact, "international in scale" is not an original insight; Edwards acknowledges a "handful of scholars" such as Robert Stepto who have made the point. What Edwards contributes is an innovative literary theory about the role of translation in "any correspondence that would connect [people] of African descent around the world."
In the interwar years, Paris became "a privileged point of encounter" where cosmopolitan African Americans, Antilleans, and Africans, though speaking different languages, collaborated and exchanged ideas in the ephemeral organizations and periodicals that sprung up. These international …