Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

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

"REFINED RACISM": WHITE
PATRONAGE IN THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

BRUCE KELLNER

Despite their good intentions, white intellectuals and philanthropists bestowed mixed blessings in support of black artists and writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Their involvement contributed indirectly to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, yet the cost to the 1920s is undeniable. The black writer both thrived and suffered, torn between well-meant encouragement from the white race to preserve his racial identity (usually described as "primitivism") and a misguided encouragement from his own race to emulate the white one. Madame C. J. Walker's products, designed to straighten hair, and surely those of her competitors, designed to lighten skin, as well as the regular practice of black comedians wearing blackface makeup, are extreme examples at opposite ends of this appalling scale. Nevertheless, at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, that "renaissance" would never have progressed beyond Harlem without the intervention and support of white patrons. Inevitably, such support manifested itself in action which in retrospect seems patronizing, but to deny its positive aspects is intellectually indefensible. White patronage, for good as well as ill, was merely an unavoidable element in getting from the past to the present, and the roles of people like Albert C. Barnes, for example, Charlotte Mason, all the Spingarns--Joel and Amy and Arthur--and Carl Van Vechten, make a strong supporting cast. Some were bad actors; some were better.

Alphabetical order is a reasonable approach to such a list; coincidentally, it is an order leading from the weakest to the strongest involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, although quantity and quality are rarely equal.

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