Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined

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

"THE CANKER GALLS. . .," OR, THE SHORT PROMISING LIFE OF
WALLACE THURMAN

DANIEL WALDEN

Although New York City in the 1920s was for most whites a joyous, expanding metropolis, for many blacks, Wallace Thurman among them, it was a city of refuse, not a city of refuge. Growing up at a time when many Americans--after World War I--were eager to get back to what Warren Harding would call "normalcy," Thurman reached Harlem at the moment when white Americans looked to black America, north of 110th Street and along Lexington and Convent Avenues, as the bastion of primitivism and earthiness. Some whites came to gape, some to laugh, but many came to seek exuberant escape in the so-called exotic primitivism of Negro cabaret life. As Langston Hughes exclaimed in The Big Sea, "thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses." 1

During these years, nearly all the black writers and artists drifted to New York. As might be expected, most were drawn by the promise of New York City as a center where art and literature would flourish. In Hughes' contemporary opinion, what was important was that black writers spoke their own words, their own truths, no matter whether blacks, or whites, were pleased or offended. For in this decade, publishers opened their doors to black authors and poets and artists. What was significant was that in New York City the NAACP, The Crisis, Opportunity, and several black newspapers flourished. As early as 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Anne Spencer, Abram Harris and Jessie Fauset had already been published in The Crisis.

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