Look for Me All around You": Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance

Article excerpt

Louis J. Parascandola, "Look For Me All Around You": Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance (Wayne State UP, 2005).

Writing in The Crisis in September, 1920, W. E. B. Du Bois commented on the significance of the many Caribbean immigrants comprising what he called a "new Ethiopia of the Isles" in upper Manhattan. His remarks were occasioned by the rise of Garveyism and specifically by the enormous turnout for the first international convention of the United Negro Improvement Association, held the previous month at Madison Square Garden. Du Bois wrote,

It is this mass of peasants, uplifted by war and migration that is today beginning to assert itself at home and abroad and their new cry of "Africa for the Africans" strikes with a startling surprise upon America's darker millions. The movement is as yet inchoate and indefinite, but it is tremendously human, piteously sincere and built in the souls of hardworking, thrifty independent people who while long deprived of higher training nevertheless have among them very few illiterates or criminals. It is not beyond possibility that this new Ethiopia of the Isles may yet stretch out hands of helpfulness to the 12 million black men of America. (214)

What would result from the contact, collaboration, and community sharing of African Americans with this "mass of peasants"? Du Bois' qualified praise indicates both the anxiety many native-born Blacks felt about the cultural differences between themselves and the Caribbean immigrants as well as the promise that their presence represented for a more dynamic and robust movement on behalf of social change and racial equality. One hears a tension in Du Bois' measured hope that a mutually beneficial meeting of cultures "is not beyond possibility," a desire to reconcile the presumption of salient, observable cultural differences with the prospect of a cosmopolitan community.

During the 1920s, when Harlem witnessed its legendary Renaissance, the presence of Caribbean immigrants was, as Du Bois' comment suggests, widely felt and the subject of regular, energetic discussion. In fact, our shopworn notions of the Harlem Renaissance fail to account fully for the richness of this culturally diverse community's experience; we have tended to impose a fairly narrow conception of "the Negro" of the New Negro movement. Consider, for example, that in this decade one in four Harlem residents was an immigrant, most likely from someplace in the anglophone Caribbean. At the time, their presence was thought important and found its way into a great deal of canonical Harlem Renaissance writing. For example, the famous Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, the forerunner to Alain Locke's The New Negro and a pivotal text in the New Negro movement, refers often to the presence and influence of West Indians, including most explicitly the essay, "Gift of the Black Tropics," by the Jamaican-born socialist W. A. Domingo. Among other points of extraordinary importance Domingo raised was that "it is this large body of foreign-born who contribute those qualities that make New York so unlike Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, and other cities with large aggregations of American Negroes". (342)

The significance of anglophone Caribbean immigrants in New York and of the Caribbean in the material and imaginative lives of Harlemites were widely understood and remarked at the time, but preserving this significance has proven difficult. With some rare exceptions, notably Garvey and Claude McKay, the Caribbean origins of many Harlemites, famous and ordinary alike, were overlooked by scholars. And where they were noted, the complexity of the conditions provoked by such cultural differences was not adequately pursued. Historian Irma Watkins-Owens notes that while a 1930 WPA guide referred to the "blend[ing]" among New York's Negroes of "habits and qualities carried from the southern states, Africa, and the West Indies," by contrast "more recent investigations rarely emphasize Harlem's diverse origins, or explore the intraracial ethnic dimension as an important dynamic in African American community life" (1). …