The Black Intellegentsia: Critics
D espite the crucial role that James Weldon Johnson and other black intellectuals played in supporting the Harlem Renaissance, it would be a mistake to assume that the entire black intellectual community was uniformly elated about the movement. For example, the two most prominent black literary critics of the period, William Stanley Braithwaite and Benjamin Brawley, did not view the movement enthusiastically at all. Neither did the most prominent black intellectual of the period, W. E. B. Du Bois. Each of these men had serious misgivings about the nature of much of the Renaissance literature. While they generally supported black literary endeavors and encouraged and assisted a number of young writers, they were highly critical of a number of the Harlem writers, especially those closely identified with ghetto realism, and they were more inclined than others to view art in terms of its propaganda potential. Marcus Garvey, perhaps the most influential spokesperson for the urban black masses in the early 1920s, also viewed literature in terms of its political potential and had an even more strained relationship with the movement. Quite clearly, the black intelligentsia was not unanimous in its commitment to the Harlem Renaissance.
William Stanley Braithwaite was the first of these men to emerge as an unequivocal critic of the Renaissance, although he was also the least concerned about using black literature as a propaganda weapon in the struggle for racial equality. Braithwaite was born in Boston in 1878 and attended public school there and in Newport, Rhode Island. Although he was largely self-educated, he had become one of the leading scholars of American poetry by the second decade of the century. After publishing two small volumes of his own work, he became the literary critic of the Boston Evening Transcript and contributed literary essays to a number of magazines. In addition he edited several volumes of poetry, and each year