Academic journal article African American Review

Mediating "Race" and "Nation:" the Cultural Politics of 'The Messenger.' (Magazine)

Academic journal article African American Review

Mediating "Race" and "Nation:" the Cultural Politics of 'The Messenger.' (Magazine)

Article excerpt

Studies of the Harlem Renaissance have so far paid insufficient attention to American cultural nationalism as an important locus of transracial ideological contestation during the 1920s. Since Nathan Huggins's rather surprising conclusion that "New Negro" authors "failed" in part because of a failure to claim their "American nativity" (308), scholars have focused on the black cultural nationalist, integrationist, and pan-Africanist aspects of the multi-faceted literary movement but have not carefully examined the diverse approaches of black authors to the issue of their "Americanness," despite Robert Hayden's insistence on the importance of this issue in his preface to the 1968 edition of The New Negro (x-xi). Perhaps one reason for this wariness has been the fear that stressing the "Americanness" of the movement would soften the distinction between "black" and "white" cultural traditions that has been an important impetus to much African Americanist scholarship since the 1960s. Perhaps it derives from the continued difficulty of reconciling the "double-consciousness" famously defined by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk: "One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body" (5). Whatever the case may be, the intimate yet multifarious relationship between the writing of the Harlem Renaissance and American cultural nationalism is a rich subject for inquiry at the current moment, when the relative claims of Afrocentricity, American multiculturalism, and cultural "hybridity" demand attention.

One way of approaching this issue is by way of discursive "field" analyses, including examinations of specific institutions that helped structure the literary field in which African American authors worked during the 1920s, institutions offering diverse, sometimes conflicting, and even self-contradictory positions on issues of fundamental import to the re-imagining of the mediation between "American" and "Negro" cultural identity. So far, such examinations have stressed the tensions between The Crisis and Opportunity magazine, yet even these discussions have neglected an important dimension of the cultural debates - the flux of racial and cultural theory at the time, and the variety of views about the likelihood and/or desirability of wholesale "amalgamation" of the "races" in the United States. Views on this crucial issue were remarkably varied; Jean Toomer's, for example, were not so unusual as is often assumed. The Messenger is an especially important journal to examine on this count, as it addressed issues of racial and cultural amalgamation more boldly than did any other publication, and it did so within the context of addressing the "Americanness" of African American culture in provocative and often satirical fashion, with as yet unexamined consequences for understanding the "racial" culture of the United States.

American cultural nationalism took a very different form in the pages of The Messenger than it did in The Crisis and Opportunity. The Crisis's cultural criticism revolved around a political and social indictment of white America on the grounds of "American ideals," served by the propaganda of art; Opportunity emphasized cultural self-revelation as such, the aesthetics of experience, and "cultural racialism" (a "harder" form of cultural pluralism than that of The Crisis). In contrast, The Messenger adopted a stridently iconoclastic approach, more often than not ridiculing the notion that African American culture was distinctly different from European American culture and stressing the "mulatto" character of U.S. culture. One gleans from The Messenger the notion that cultural similarities between black and white Americans are hidden by a shared racial discourse, a culturally specific "American" (that is, U.S.) phenomenon sustaining the widely shared faith in essential racial differences. Moreover, at the heart of the rituals of this faith one finds an ironic deconstruction of it, a flirting with the color line that hides while enacting the "amalgamation" continually going on beneath the cover of racial reasoning. …

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