George Hutchinson, the Harlem Renaissance in Black and White

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George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White

George Hutchinson's new history of the Harlem Renaissance, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, is a provocative and well-written effort to tell a different story of the era of the "New Negro." Hutchinson's study suggests that white intellectuals participated more broadly than is usually taught. Were it not for the ferment at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago involving Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and William James, among others, black thinkers such as Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, almost certainly would have conceived the Renaissance in terms other than those advanced by the new, constructivist pluralism of the academies. The then new anthropology of Franz Boas, anti-racist in its focus and remarkable for its rapid dominance in the first years of the twentieth century, influences not only white liberal thinking but black consciousness as well. Its structure and spirit inform the folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who studied under Boas at Columbia. The fiery progressivism of Claude McKay was given new impetus by his alliance with Max Eastman, and led to the significant influence that McKay was later to have in an editorial capacity at Eastman's Liberator. A variegated affinity, a multicultural complementarily, was being formed. While white culturalists saw the completed project of American literary modernism as being inelusive of the efforts of African American writers to establish a genuine American intellectual presence, black writers envisioned their productions as being crucial to the achievement of a true democracy.

Hutchinson traces this development of African American modernism not only among intellectuals and within the academies but focuses also upon the influential magazines of the period. While McKay crafted his progressive social agenda in the pages of the Liberator, DuBois's Crisis, Charles Johnson's Opportunity and Randolph's and Owen's Messenger were important black publications of the Renaissance seeking also to advance a pluralist message. Participating with them (and at times, robustly in disagreement) were Oswald Garrison Villard's Nation, and, though often tangentially, H. L. Mencken's American Mercury. In addition to the magazines, there were the new generation of New York publishing houses built by Jewish entreprenurial adventurers who had previously been denied access to Boston's temples of publishing power. Albert and Charles Boni, B. W. Huebsch, Alfred Knopf, and Horace Liveright (who for a time teamed with Albert Boni) were fueled largely by socialist thinking and the spirit of the newly emergent Soviet Union, and actively sought to print titles not only of European and American radical left thinkers, but of African American writers as well. Though the Renaissance would have happened without this activity, its absence might have configured a very different African American canon at this point in the century, and one with perhaps less variety than we now know.

There is one disturbing feature of this otherwise fine history, however, and it is unfortunately not a small matter. In this chronicle, Hutchinson presents only one broad perspective on an enormously complex period while suppressing another. He committs the act of misprision with which he charges previous commentators such as Nathan Huggins and David Levering Lewis. While Hutchinson correctly seeks to decenter the critical discussion of the urge toward primitivism, his representations of the period become limitations themselves as he insists in his introduction that these and other critics have upheld the primitivism and exoticism of blacks by white writers as central to the history of the period. He does not generate a thorough reconstruction of earlier views because he ignores the opportunity to reintroduce this latter idea as part of a more comprehensive third view -- namely that the principal ambivalence of the Renaissance itself, residing manifestly in the black writer as a Du Boisian dual presence, was its EuroAmerican intellectual and institutional support, on the one hand, and on the other, the more encompassing ideology of race as advanced by white American artists of the time through modernism's aestheticized racism. …