Academic journal article African American Review

James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan and the Kingdom of American Culture

Academic journal article African American Review

James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan and the Kingdom of American Culture

Article excerpt

Surely there shall yet dawn some mighty morning to lift the Veil and set the prisoned free.... When men ask artists, not "Are they black?" but "Do they know?"--W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 510

"To the general American public," James Weldon Johnson claimed in his 1928 essay "Double Audience Makes Road Hard for Negro Authors," the recent appearance of "the Negro author" on the lists of the best publishers and the best-sellers must seem "a novelty, a strange phenomenon, a miracle straight out of the skies" (408). He used nearly identical phrasing two years later to describe the emergence of modern Harlem at the outset of Black Manhattan (hereafter BM), his chronicle of African Americans in New York: "It strikes the uninformed observer as a phenomenon, a miracle straight out of the skies" (34). The common phrasing suggests the extent to which, for Johnson, "the Negro author"--the highest agent of a racial and national "culture"--owed his or her recognition to the existence of a densely populated, racially homogenous, yet cosmopolitan cultural center contiguous with, and in this case literally inside, a larger, racially heterogenous, cosmopolitan cultural center.

But the two passages suggest a more complicated cultural scenario than that of the mutual interdependency of African American writers and their nurturing, racially-founded, modern--that is, urban--cultural home. Both passages deploy tropes of sudden visibility and divine intervention, qualified by the author's assurance that the strangeness of both phenomena in question is more apparent than real. What marks the miraculousness of the contemporary American scene may be less the emergence of the Negro author than the fact that he or she "has come into the range of vision of the American public eye" (Johnson, "Double Audience" 408). And that he or she has done so owes much to the fact that "a black city, located in the heart of white Manhattan, and containing more Negroes to the square mile than any other spot on earth" (BM 4) makes it virtually impossible for explorers of New York City not to see black people. "If you ride northward the length of Manhattan Island," he informs his reader midway through Black Manhattan, picking up the thread of his introductory paragraphs,

   you cannot escape being struck by the sudden change in the
   character of the people you see. In the middle and lower parts
   of the city you have, perhaps, noted Negro faces here and there;
   but when you emerge from the Park, you see them everywhere, and
   as you go up either of these two great arteries leading out from
   the city to the north, you see more and more Negroes.... [I]t is
   not until you cross the Harlem River that the population whitens
   again, which it does as suddenly as it began to darken at One
   Hundred and Tenth Street. You have been having an outside
   glimpse of Harlem, the Negro
   metropolis. (145)

The "you" whom Johnson addresses here is an ideal citizen-reader: urbane enough to venture from one end of the metropolis to the other, and unafraid to cross a very physically demarcated color line, even as he or she may be more at home in the whiter part of Manhattan. Still, Johnson's disarming tour-guide persona implies that this citizen-reader may be prone to the pattern of mis-recognition that besets "the general American public." His may be "the thoughtless glance" that makes Harlem's presence "within the greatest city of the New World.... the climax of the incongruous"; that reader may be "the uninformed observer" for whom Harlem--like the serious Negro author-artist--is "a miracle straight out of the sky" (BM 3-4).

For our more informed chronicler, of course, the seemingly miraculous and incongruous have historical causes; and his ostensible purpose in Black Manhattan is to demonstrate that modern Harlem is the almost inevitable outcome of forces that trace back to the origins of modernity and the founding of the new nation, when European colonists brought African slaves to New Amsterdam in the 1620s. …

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