THE WHITE WRITER AND BLACKS IN THE TWENTIES
RICHARD A. LONG
Langston Hughes's often-made remark that the Harlem Renaissance was the time when Negroes were in style immediately raises the question, with whom? In Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen, which lives up to its subtitle "An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties," Negroes are mentioned only as the objects of intolerance, along with Jews and, in some instances, Roman Catholics. No black writer or spokesman is referred to, and the only white writer Allen mentions who dealt with blacks in his work is Eugene O'Neill. Nevertheless scores of writers, journalists and editors are referred to in Allen's book. Of course Allen's concern is social history and not literary history. Thus it is necessary to see Hughes's remark in its true context, that of literary fashion, which occupies only a limited portion of the total matrix of any society, but which, at least to students of literature, wears well and longest, so that in retrospect we see a period primarily through its literary history.
Black folk entered the larger American consciousness in artistic form, dubiously, only at the end of the twenties in the nightly radio series, Amos and Andy, performed by two white vaudevillians who prospered so mightily that in the twilight of their years they were golf companions of President Eisenhower. An analogue to the burlesque of Amos and Andy, which was heir to black-faced minstrelry--always a source of laughter to the aryan out for a laugh--were the writings of Charleston-born Octavus Roy Cohen, who published short stories--mainly vignettes of black bumptiousness 1--regularly in the Saturday Evening Post from 1918 until well after the twenties.