Academic journal article African American Review

The Harlem Renaissance as Postcolonial Phenomenon

Academic journal article African American Review

The Harlem Renaissance as Postcolonial Phenomenon

Article excerpt

"Wonder why he chose an American college? Most of the chiefs' sons'll go to Oxford or bust. I know--this fellow is probably from Liberia or thereabouts. American influence--see?"--Rudolph Fisher, The Conjure Man Dies

The Harlem Renaissance--as American as Florence Mills in Shuffle Along, Langston Hughes composing "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" while crossing the Mississippi on a train, Zora Neale Hurston collecting Black folklore for Franz Boas. And yet the road version of Shuffle Along also hosted chorine Josephine Baker, who scored international stardom as a headliner for the Paris Folies Bergere; Hurston followed her first successful reworking of African American folklore in Mules and Men (1935) with Tell My Horse (1938), an examination of the practice of voodoo in Haiti; and Hughes's poem grounds itself specifically in a diasporic consciousness that embraces the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile as rivers of Black geography. On the home front, the biography and career of Casper Holstein, an immigrant from the former Danish Virgin Islands, then ruled by the US Navy, illustrates just how seminal was the West Indian presence in the Harlem of the 1920s. Holstein, a former porter, invented and enriched himself through the numbers racket; yet as historian David Levering Lewis points out, he used a portion of his wealth not only to promote the Harlem Renaissance but to make the linkage between American racism at home and its export to its unacknowledged empire. "Invited by his young friend Walrond to use [the National Urban League's journal] Opportunity as a sounding board for conditions in the Virgin Islands, Holstein wrote a detailed, carefully argued article for the October 1925 issue. From then on, the Opportunity network had a generous friend.... Holstein's gift of a thousand dollars made the 1926 awards possible" (When Harlem Was In Vogue 130). (1)

In Alain Locke's groundbreaking anthology The New Negro (1925), which announced the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance on the literary scene, the Caribbean presence is evident. Prominently featured were poems by the Jamaican immigrant Claude McKay, and a short story titled "The Palm Porch," by the West Indian writer Eric Walrond. Essays were contributed by Puerto Rican bibliophile Arthur Schomburg ("The Negro Digs Up His Past"), and by the Jamaican-born journalists Joel A. Rogers ("Jazz at Home") and Wilfrid A. Domingo. Domingo's "Gift of the Black Tropics" not only claims McKay as a Jamaican poet but explicitly states, "It is probably not realized, indeed, to what extent West Indian Negroes have contributed to the wealth, power and prestige of the United States" (344).

The literary contributions of these Caribbean Blacks reflected the demographics of Harlem, where almost 25 percent of the Black populace came from outside the United States (Osofsky 131). This presence often resulted in intraethnic tensions. American Blacks often applied the insult "monkeychaser" to residents of West Indian origin--but many West Indians made their presence felt in the left-wing and radical movements of Harlem's political scene. (2) Journalists and activists of West Indian origin, including Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, Hubert Harrison, and Amy Jacques Garvey, played prominent roles in the United Negro Improvement Association, the Socialist Speakers Bureau, the Peoples Education Forum, and the African Blood Brotherhood, an early nationalist organization founded by Briggs that eventually allied itself to the Communist Party. Domingo explains that, coming from countries in which Blacks had experienced no legalized segregation and limitations upon opportunity, West Indians were better prepared to challenge racial barriers in the United States than the more docile American Blacks: "Skilled at various trades and having a contempt for body service and menial work, many of the immigrants apply for positions that the average American Negro has been schooled to regard as restricted to white men only, with the result that through their persistence and doggedness in fighting white labor, West Indians have in many cases been pioneers and shock troops to open a way for Negroes into new fields of employment" (344-45). …

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