`When the Negro Was in Vogue': Guides to the Harlem Renaissance

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction . | The Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

`When the Negro Was in Vogue': Guides to the Harlem Renaissance


Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction ., The Christian Science Monitor


LANGSTON HUGHES'S eponymous essay recalled the Harlem Renaissance as a time "When the Negro Was in Vogue":

"I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long. (I remember the vogue for things Russian....) For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some Harlemites thought the millennium had come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley."

Even those who were not there are likely at least to have heard of the Harlem Renaissance. But almost no one - then or now - seems to have found a completely satisfactory account of exactly what it was or how it came about.

In his introduction to "The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader," well-known scholar David Levering Lewis locates its first spontaneous glimmers in the flowering of bohemianism after World War I. Yet he also characterizes this renaissance as a "somewhat forced phenomenon, a cultural nationalism of the parlor, institutionally encouraged ... by leaders of the national civil rights establishment for the paramount purpose of improving race relations in a time of extreme national backlash."

Deprived of voting rights, excluded from labor unions, harassed by segregation and mob violence, African Americans of the Jazz Age (ironically) faced obstacles at every turn. The arts, however, offered an avenue for talented blacks to distinguish themselves and win the esteem of their recalcitrant white fellow Americans. Such was the reasoning of civil rights leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Alain Locke.

But, as Langston Hughes wryly reflected, it was perhaps too much to hope that "the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude Mckay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke."

The glamour of the Harlem arts scene in the 1920s did not materially improve the lives of most Harlemites, let alone the rest of black America. But reverberations - close and distant - of cultural explosions are no less real for being notoriously hard to track down.

Lewis's hefty "Reader" features memoirs, essays, political statements, criticism, poetry, and fiction from a wide array of voices, including some who were not really part of the Harlem Renaissance. Marcus Garvey, charismatic leader of the back-to-Africa movement, had little in common with the Renaissance promoters. Albert Barnes, eccentric (white) arts patron, saw "the Negro" as spiritually superior to the white man, because less "tainted" by civilization and closer to nature. …

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