African American and Francophone Black Intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance

Article excerpt

Between the two world wars, African Americans fresh from the South's fields and factories poured into Harlem, the south side of Chicago, and other northern ghettos in search of economic opportunity and political liberty. Within a few years, a number had "fundamentally changed" themselves into what black philosopher Alain Locke as early as 1925 termed the "New Negro," burying old stereotypes of illiteracy and inferiority and claiming a new race-proud and independent identity.(1) During the 1920s and 1930s, New Negro intellectuals drew on the migrants' shared southern experiences and African heritage to produce what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary artistic and cultural movement. From Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), the Renaissance's first novel, to Zora Neal Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), its last, the "younger generation" of African American cultural workers explored, dissected, and were inspired by folk tradition in stage, song, and print. And in politics, too, for the planners in the Harlem Renaissance also sought to promote racial equality with whites by validating black cultural achievements--to attain "civil rights by copyright" to borrow historian David Lewis's pithy phrase.(2)

Yet even as Harlem was becoming the Negro cultural and intellectual capital of the world, Paris was also emerging as an important site of African American intellectual life. Having grown up in a country where, as Lewis notes, "Uncle Tom and Frederick Douglass were social equivalents, while the illiterate redneck was the superior of W. E. B. Du Bois,"(3) blacks found in France a welcome release from the strictures of Jim Crow. Further, for the New Negro intellectuals, Paris became a link to African intellectuals of French Africa and the Caribbean. Whether through the Pan-African political movement of the early and mid-1920s that sought equality and opportunity for all those scattered through the African diaspora, or in the black cultural salons of the late 1920s and 1930s, black American intellectuals met face to face with their francophone black counterparts: They became acquainted with each other's condition, fortified themselves with each other's accomplishments, and fostered a diaspora-wide sense of community.

Exhilarating as these encounters were, however, black American intellectuals understood them in a severely class-bound manner. With few exceptions, they were remarkably similar to the francophone blacks with whom they established ties: elite, educated, and imbued with bourgeois prejudices about the superiority of French Enlightenment ideas and the benighted state of blacks in Africa. Many--though by no means all--New Negro intellectuals wore blinders: They could see in France the possibilities for the black race in a system unfettered by Jim Crow, but they could not thoroughly critique the French colonial system and the mission civilatrice that continued to exploit the majority of Africans.

The single most important factor accounting for the African American love affair with Europe--and especially France--during the interwar years was the reception that the French accorded black American troops during World War I. Segregated in American units, degraded and punished by southern white officers, and given only the most back-breaking jobs and offensive details like grave registration, African American soldiers lived a concentrated version of American civilian life. By contrast, the French military establishment treated black American troops as it did its own; citizens welcomed them as liberators, took them into their homes, and treated them with kindness and respect. It was a bitter blow when American military officials, fearing the liberating effects of such treatment, pressured the French brass to proscribe fraternization between French and black American soldiers.(4)

When the war ended, some black soldiers chose to remain in France. In August 1919, Rayford Logan, a young army lieutenant, resigned his commission and, rather than return home to a volatile racial climate, became an expatriate, supporting himself by speculating in European currencies. …