Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ | Go to book overview

BLACK-WHITE SYMBIOSIS:
ANOTHER LOOK AT THE LITERARY
HISTORY OF THE 1920S

AMRITJIT SINGH

In Harlem Renaissance ( 1971), Nathan Irvin Huggins describes the white- black relationship in America as symbiotic: "Blacks have been essential to white identity (and whites to black)." Huggins's use of this biological concept bears heavily on the main thesis of his book which argues that the black American's confusions over identity are uniquely American: "White Americans and white American culture have no more claim to self-confidence than black." Huggins's approach is valuable because in focusing on the role of black-white interdependence (conscious and unconscious) in shaping American character and culture, it allows us to gain perspective on the overrated issues surrounding assimilationism versus nationalism in black American life. 1 However, what makes Huggins's thesis controversial is the absoluteness with which he views the black American's dilemmas in self-definition on equal terms with the white American's. The term "symbiosis" in its original sense is more to the point here; symbiosis is defined as "the relationship of two or more different organisms in a close association that may be but is not necessarily of benefit to each" 2 (Italics added). Time and again in American history, the one-sided and unequal relationship between blacks and whites has obliged blacks to serve as eternal footmen holding the identity coats for whites.

On the literary scene of the twenties, this symbiosis is measured best by the nature of white writing on black life and by the quality of exchanges, real and potential, between black and white writers and intellectuals. In retrospect, it seems that these literary efforts failed, with one or two partial exceptions, to rise above the

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