The Harlem Renaissance was, in the 1920s and 1930s, called the New Negro Renaissance. Black people redefined themselves and announced their entrance into modernity. They responded to its opportunities and its challenges: urbanization, technology, and the disruption of traditional social arrangements and values. The Harlem Renaissance occurred against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the mass movement of black people from the rural South to northern cities during the First World War. ‘When the Negro was in vogue’ outlines the key moments and figures of this time including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker.
The twenties were, as Langston Hughes remembered them, the period “when the Negro was in vogue” and “whites flocked to Harlem in droves.” In his memoir, The Big Sea, Hughes offers wry descriptions of the scene: the music, dancing, and nightclubs, fancy balls and house-rent parties, and the writers, almost all of whom he knew, respected, and mentioned by name. Hughes lists Gwendolyn Bennett, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Wallace Thurman among the “Harlem literati.” While claiming not to have a critical mind, Hughes deems Jean Toomer “one of the most talented of the Negro writers,” although Toomer did not wish to associate with Negroes. Hughes could not resist mocking the pretensions of those who “thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley,” a reference that signified on several levels. The project of the New Negro Renaissance, as it was then called, was to achieve through art the equality that black Americans had been denied in the social, political, and economic realms. Segregation was the law in much of the United States, and the practice in the rest. Despite the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, founded in 1909) and the National Urban League (founded in 1910), the fight for equality had been thwarted.
But at a time when the Negro was in vogue, progress on the cultural front seemed possible. Race leaders called for the p. 2↵representation of Negroes as upstanding and respectable citizens. Gladys Bentley was not the emblem leaders had in mind. Usually costumed in a white tuxedo and top hat, Bentley sang and played barrelhouse blues and Tin Pan Alley tunes, whose lyrics she raunchily rewrote, in clubs that catered to a sexually adventurous clientele. The Renaissance itself was a combustible mix of the serious, the ephemeral, the aesthetic, the political, and the risqué.
It arrived on the heels of the Great War that promised to end all wars. Optimism defined the national mood, and the Renaissance reflected the particular optimism of black Americans. Black men had fought for the right to fight in the war, and having proven their patriotism on the battlefield, these veterans returned intent on claiming their citizenship rights. Their mood and the social realities they encountered did not mesh. The decade after the war saw anti-black riots, a growing number of lynchings, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet black people mobilized and in some cases prospered. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) preached race pride and the gospel of “Africa for the Africans,” while Madame C. J. Walker became the first black woman millionaire by selling hair-straightening products. Jazz, with its syncopated rhythms and improvisations, its fusion of Tin Pan Alley and the blues, caught the contradictions that defined the age.
White Americans also embraced the music, and they learned the dances: the Charleston became the iconic dance of the twenties. Although they did not come in the “droves” that Hughes averred, a number of well-heeled whites made their way uptown to learn the moves. In a tongue-in-cheek essay titled “The Causasian Storms Harlem,” Rudolph Fisher, whose dual vocation was writer/physician, describes his return to his old stomping ground after a five-year absence. Finding no familiar faces, he concludes, “the best of Harlem’s black cabarets have changed their names and turned white.” He notes the popularity of black art on Broadway, on the concert stage, and even in the galleries of the Metropolitan p. 3↵Museum. With the wit for which he was well known, he summed up the commercial vogue: “Negro stock is going up, and everybody’s buying.” Or so it seemed.
We now call this era the Harlem Renaissance. It was not just a time when the Negro was in vogue, although it was certainly that; it was also a time when black people redefined themselves and announced their entrance into modernity. They responded to its opportunities and its challenges: urbanization, technology, and the disruption of traditional social arrangements and values. The Harlem Renaissance occurred against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the mass movement of black people from the rural South to northern cities that gained momentum during the First World War. Alain Locke captured the spirit of the change when he described the migration of Negroes to the city, as “a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.” Locke was loath to credit the economic and social factors that produced the migration; he insisted that it reflected a change in consciousness above all.
Material conditions in the South were of course a major impetus to Negro flight. Wages for blacks varied from seventy-five cents a day on farms to $1.75 for menial jobs in southern cities. By contrast, the average wage for unskilled work in the North ranged from $3.00 to $8.00 per day. Living conditions for southern blacks were abysmal; rural sharecroppers were usually housed in the cabins left standing from the time of slavery. Thus, Locke’s implicit reference to southern feudalism was well founded. Sharecroppers paid the rent for the land they farmed by giving a share of the crops to the owner; they almost never raised enough to cover what they owed and soon accumulated debts beyond what they could ever pay. In effect, they were bound to land they did not own (see fig. 1). Most rural communities had no secondary schools for blacks; primary schools followed an agricultural calendar rather than an academic one, so children could be available to plant and harvest crops. And too, mob violence p. 4↵became a constant threat. Almost 3,000 blacks were lynched between 1885 and 1918, a period that the historian Rayford Logan deemed “the nadir for the Negro.” After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case decided that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was the law of the land, “Jim Crow” laws were enacted across the South. Transportation, public accommodations, and schools were lawfully segregated; facilities for “colored” were never remotely equal to those reserved for whites. To make matters worse for rural black southerners (fig. 1), floods devastated Alabama and Mississippi in 1915, and an infestation of boll weevils decimated the cotton crop.
At this same time, the war effort, responding to demands from the Allies in Europe, increased the demand for labor. The war had cut off immigration from Europe, and there were not enough white workers to fill the need, so northern employers sought out black laborers in the South. With the promise of better wages, sanitary housing, public school education for their children, and freedom
p. 5from mob violence, black men and women traveled north. Some came alone, while others moved in families and even larger groups. Black southerners often made the journey in stages, moving from rural hamlets to southern cities, and finally to the northern hubs.
By the time they arrived, they had acquired the new consciousness that Locke celebrated. It had taken courage to move, and it required grit to stay in places that in no way resembled home. Like the European immigrants who had earlier landed in waves in northern cities, black migrants struggled to adapt to the pace of urban life, its sense of dislocation, and anonymity. Although some struggled to hold on to their old ways—their religious and social rituals—others were thrilled to leave old rituals and mores behind. Absent the monotonous routines of rural life, the prying eyes of small-town neighbors, and the expectation that one would follow in one’s parents’ footsteps, many newcomers felt free to reinvent themselves.
Although the term “New Negro” was associated with the elite, workers also rejected the racist stereotypes that depicted blacks as servile and submissive, traits that were captured under the sign “Old Negro.” They too assumed a stance of autonomy and pride. But it was the elite that produced the social and cultural upsurge. As Langston Hughes observed, “ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.” Nevertheless, the art of those ordinary Negroes—their dance, speech, songs, and stories—would become the motive forces of the cultural awakening, the New Negro Renaissance that engaged poets and novelists, musicians, painters and sculptors, and theatrical performers during the 1920s and 1930s. Blues and jazz, folk idioms, and urban vernacular would become the building blocks of black modernism.
It is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the awakening began. Many historians identify its beginning with the end of World War I, when black enlisted men came marching home p. 6↵expecting to find the democracy for which they had fought overseas, but there are several origin stories. Langston Hughes chose the opening of Shuffle Along, the 1921 show written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and performances by Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, and Florence Mills. A veritable sensation as well as the first musical revue to include a plot, it introduced the popular songs, “Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Literary scholars point to the 1919 publication of Claude McKay’s searing sonnet, “If We Must Die,” or the publication of James Weldon Johnson’s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922, or Jean Toomer’s Cane in 1923. Each of these signaled a new moment in African American literary history. McKay’s poem declared the Negro’s right to self-defense in a form that led the reviewer Jessie Fauset to exclaim, “This is poetry!” In his preface, Weldon Johnson argued that “the final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced,” which might have provoked Hughes’s riposte about art and Gladys Bentley. Nonetheless, the anthology’s value derived both from the poetry it collected and from the preface that defined art broadly enough to include spirituals, folklore, the cakewalk, and ragtime. If the last were updated as popular dance and jazz, these four entities were the forms that inspired much of the art of the Harlem Renaissance. The genius of Cane was Toomer’s ability to fuse folk traditions (such as spirituals and work songs) with the innovations of Anglo-American modernism. As important as any of these specific cultural texts were, however, none could be said to be the originary moment.
The year the Renaissance ended is equally in dispute. Some historians identify 1929 and the financial collapse as the end point. The Depression dashed much of the optimism that had characterized black life in the 1920s. The promise of Harlem as a self-sufficient community faded as did the uptown jaunts of rich white visitors. But if the onset of the Depression ended the vogue for Harlem, it did not signal the end of the Renaissance. More p. 7↵books by black writers were published during the 1930s than in the 1920s. Arguably, the riot that devastated Harlem in 1935 marked the end of the Renaissance. It sealed Harlem’s transformation from “promised land” to ghetto, a designation it carried for the rest of the century.
Periodization is at best a literary fiction. Scholars write the history of all literary periods retrospectively; as they do, they typically exclude the female participants in any movement. In this case, if one were to agree that the Renaissance ended in 1929 or even 1935, one would exclude all but one of Zora Neale Hurston’s novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. More than a vogue, the Harlem Renaissance was the most influential period in African American literary history before the last quarter of the twentieth century. In its most expansive and most useful conception, it spans the decades between the two world wars. As World War II began, Richard Wright and other black writers set a very different tone from their precursors.
If it is difficult to pinpoint beginnings and endings, it is just as easy to choose key moments and figures that evoke both the spirit of the time and the substance of its achievement. To cite several:
On March 21, 1924, an elegant dinner took place at the Civic Club, perhaps the fanciest venue in Manhattan that welcomed an integrated clientele. Its host was Charles S. Johnson, a sociologist, who served as the editor of Opportunity magazine, the official publication of the Urban League. It was, as he later described it, the “debut of the younger school of Negro writers.” Most of them attended, including the poets Gwendolyn Bennett, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, the fiction writer Eric Walrond, and Walter White, a NAACP official and soon-to-be-published novelist. They were joined by their elders: W. E. B. Du Bois, the founding editor of The Crisis, A Record of the Darker Races, the official publication of the NAACP; James Weldon Johnson; and the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. These black luminaries were p. 8↵presented to an audience that included the heads of major publishing houses—Harper Brothers, Boni and Liveright, and Scribners—as well as editors of influential mainstream journals—the Century, the World Tomorrow, the Nation, and Survey Graphic. Among the white authors attending were the playwrights Eugene O’Neill (The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings) and Ridgely Torrence (Granny Maumee and Simon the Cyrenian), whose work had won favor with black audiences and opened opportunities for black actors. The novelist T. S. Stribling also attended. Jessie Fauset had written that his Birthright had inspired her to write a novel, “to tell the truth about us,” more honestly than Stribling, despite his good intentions, had been able to do. The literary editor of the Crisis, a poet, and a translator, Fauset had achieved success with her first novel, There Is Confusion (1923); she was told the dinner was in her honor. It was not.
It was instead the official launch of the Renaissance. Soon afterward, the evening’s master of ceremonies, Alain Locke, a Harvard PhD, a Rhodes scholar, and philosophy professor at Howard University, was asked to edit a special issue of Survey Graphic, a social work magazine. The issue became the kernel of The New Negro (1925), the signal anthology of the Renaissance that collected essays, short stories, and poems. With essays on “The Drama of Negro Life,” “The Negro Spirituals,” “Jazz at Home,” and “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” it defines a multifaceted cultural movement that includes music, theater, and visual art as well as literature. Not only were almost all of the New Negro writers included but also most of the leading Negro intellectuals and scholars. Social scientists contributed articles on the Great Migration, Negro education, and business. Several of the pieces, notably W. A. Domingo’s “Gift of the Black Tropics” and Du Bois’s “Worlds of Color,” expanded the scope of the movement beyond the borders of the United States. The volume also included pieces by progressive white scholars and writers, including Arthur Barnes (later to earn renown as the founder of p. 9↵the Barnes Foundation), Montgomery Gregory, Melville Herskovits, and Paul Kellogg.
Countee Cullen was one of the young writers from whom much was expected. The adopted son of the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen, he had grown up in the parsonage of Salem Methodist Church, one of Harlem’s largest congregations. The spiritual themes and biblical allusions in his poetry bore traces of his upbringing. Cullen’s first poem won notice in his own right, when the New York Times noted his achievement as a poet at DeWitt Clinton High School. By the time he graduated from New York University in 1925, he had published in Harper’s, the Crisis, and Opportunity, and his first volume of poems, Color, was in press. It more than met the expectations of his eager public with poems such as “Heritage,” “Incident,” and “Yet Do I Marvel,” a sonnet that summed up the paradoxical situation of a poet who believed with his favorite poet John Keats that “beauty is truth and truth is beauty,” but Cullen also felt a keen obligation to depict the often ugly realities of life for his fellow black Americans. The sonnet’s final couplet stated his determination to persist: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing / To make a poet black and bid him sing!”
In 1925 Cullen was the most famous black American poet, but he had already lost a poetry competition to Langston Hughes, whose fame would be more enduring. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Hughes grew up with his grandmother, Mary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas; Mary Langston’s late husband had ridden with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Langston later moved with his mother to Cleveland, where he finished high school. His father, so embittered by racism in the United States that he moved to Mexico, wanted his son to train as a mining engineer. But Hughes knew early on that writing was his vocation; when he was nineteen he wrote the classic poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” as he rode a train home from Mexico after visiting his father. Still, he pretended to accept his father’s plan and persuaded him to pay p. 10↵his tuition to Columbia, not because he wanted to attend the Ivy League university but because “more than Paris, or the Shakespeare country, or Berlin or the Alps, I wanted to see Harlem, the greatest Negro city in the world.” Harlem became not only his home but also a wellspring of poetic inspiration.
“The Weary Blues,” the title poem of Hughes’s first book, merits closer consideration. The poem pens a portrait of a black man playing the piano in a bar on Lenox Avenue, in the kind of neighborhood hangout frequented by those who had not heard of the Renaissance. Although the song he sings was traditional among rural African Americans, the music and the setting were new for poetry in 1926. Paul Laurence Dunbar had initiated a school of dialect poetry at the turn of the twentieth century, but no one before Hughes had treated the blues as a subject and source for formal poetry. Hughes interpolates a folk lyric: “I’ve got the weary blues and can’t be satisfied / I’ve got the weary blues and can’t be satisfied / I ain’t happy no mo’ and wish that I had died,” which he had heard while growing up in Kansas. Also titled “The Weary Blues,” the folk lyric itself is framed by Hughes’s own blues-inflected lines. The poem does not specify the man’s circumstances, but with poetic indirection it defines the spirit and the sound of the blues: “a syncopated tune,” “a mellow croon,” “sad raggy tune,” “melancholy tone,” all “coming from a black man’s soul.” If the spirit partakes of the popular understanding of the blues as a state of mind, the syncopated, mellow, and raggy (after ragtime) sound evokes the music and suggests how generative it could be for poetry. Finally, “The Weary Blues” enacts the process through which blues offered a release from pain. After experiencing what the Greeks termed catharsis, the man whom the poem depicts as playing through the night “sleeps like a rock / or a man that’s dead.” Having sung his way through his trouble, he achieves physical and psychic release. Although we do not learn much about him, we know that this man is not a rural subject. He may know the folk blues from an earlier life, but for now he is totally at home in Harlem.
p. 11Several key figures missed the Civic Club party. Claude McKay spent most of the Renaissance traveling the world—London, Marseilles, Moscow, and Tangiers were among his ports of call. Born in Jamaica in 1889, he started writing poetry in the local vernacular while working as a constable. In 1912 he published two volumes, Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica; and that same year he left his birthplace, never to return. In the United States, he was first a student then a worker, whose jobs included porter, bar-boy, houseman, and railroad dining-car waiter. These experiences were transformative, for, as McKay reflected, “It was not until I was forced now among the rough body of the great service class of Negroes that I got to know my AfraAmerica.” For that reason, his black America was different from that of his bourgeois peers. He lived in Harlem for a time but left for England in 1919, just having achieved his first literary success. A self-proclaimed radical, McKay allied himself with the leftist community in New York; that affiliation led to the publication of his first poems in the United States, appearing in Seven Arts and The Liberator. The poem “If We Must Die” was written in response to the Red Summer of 1919, when anti-black riots broke out across the country in cities as far apart as Chicago, Washington, and Elaine, Arkansas. Mobs of white men often rampaged through Negro neighborhoods, as they sought to restore the racial status quo that the war had slightly shifted. “If We Must Die” channeled the spirit of the New Negro, who resisted these attacks. A novelist as well as a poet, McKay would write the only bestseller by a black author of the era, Home to Harlem, in 1928.
Nella Larsen missed the dinner as well, although she was known to frequent the Civic Club. In the 1920s she divided her time between Uptown Manhattan and Greenwich Village. She never felt completely at home in Harlem, yet she lived there during its heyday. She published two well-regarded novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and not long afterward, she disappeared from Harlem and from literature. She had been an p. 12↵outsider all her life. Born in Chicago in 1891, she was the daughter of a white mother, a Danish immigrant, and a black father, who emigrated from the Danish (now the U.S.) Virgin Islands. Her father died when she was an infant; her mother remarried a white Danish immigrant who detested his wife’s biracial daughter. Larsen was keenly aware of the pain her presence caused her mother. After graduating from high school, and with her mother’s help, she enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville. Here, for the first time, she was in an all-Negro environment, but it proved no more satisfying. An indifferent student, she chafed at the rigid codes of conduct and was expelled after her first year. She then traveled to Denmark, where she came of age in a country where she was both stranger and kin.
On her return to the United States in 1912, Larsen enrolled in nursing school at Lincoln Hospital and Home in the Bronx. The program was specifically for Negro students, even though many of the patients they cared for were white. After graduation, she took a job as head nurse at the hospital of Tuskegee Institute, founded by the formidable Booker T. Washington. The work was exhausting, and the atmosphere proved stultifying. Off campus, segregation was strictly enforced, while on campus, faculty and staff were subject to the same strict rules as students: strict curfews and mandatory chapel.
Larsen returned to New York, signed on as a public health nurse, and met and married Elmer Imes, a research physicist with a doctorate from the University of Michigan. He came from a prominent Negro family and enjoyed the arts as much as Larsen did. The attractive couple led a glamorous social life. Larsen began volunteering at the 135th Street Library, the foremost cultural center in Harlem, and perhaps the time she spent there motivated her to shift careers. She graduated from the New York Public Library School—she was its first Negro graduate—and eventually took a position at the 135th Street branch. In addition to staffing the children’s room, she planned readings, lectures, and p. 13↵exhibitions. Then she decided that she wanted to create art rather than simply present it. Her fiction would, as she hoped, catch the panorama of its time, at least as life was lived in its more cosmopolitan precincts.
Jean Toomer was not at the Civic Club dinner either, but his publisher, Charles Boni, rose to lament the poor sales that Cane had achieved in its first year of publication. Toomer’s peers, if not the reading public, knew how important Cane was. A mélange of poems, sketches, short stories, and a novella, the book paints a broad canvas of Negro life in the 1920s. Deploying modernist techniques such as free verse, imagism, and stream-of consciousness, it conveys the alienation of urban life, the beauty of the southern landscape, and the stunted lives of the blacks who inhabit it. Toomer had been inspired by his sojourn in Sparta, Georgia, in 1921. There, he reflected, “I received my initial impulse to an individual art. … For no other section of the country as so stirred me. There one finds soil, soil in the sense the Russians know it—the soil every art and literature that is to live must be imbedded in.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Toomer had lived his life in cities, chiefly Washington, New York, and Chicago. He was the grandson of P. B. S. Pinchback, who had served as the governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction. The family’s fortunes had declined, and his parents’ failed marriage left Toomer with uncertain prospects. He studied at several institutions, including the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin as well as the American College of Physical Training in Chicago, before he found his voice as a writer. Then, in 1922, Jessie Fauset accepted two of his poems for the Crisis. She praised his work extravagantly but cautioned that he was “a little inclined to achieve style at the expense of clearness.”
Never at home in Harlem, Toomer spent much of his time in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where he befriended the writers p. 14↵Sherwood Anderson and Waldo Frank. He became an adherent of George Gurdjieff, the Russian mystic whose teachings appealed to members of the artistic avant-garde. At this point, Toomer tried with little success to recruit converts in Harlem. Increasingly unhappy with racial classifications, he began to identify himself as simply “American.” Although his work had been included in Weldon Johnson’s anthology and would appear in The New Negro, Toomer stopped granting permission for his work to appear in anthologies of black writing. He would eventually leave the Negro world behind, but Cane would influence generations of black writers.
Zora Neale Hurston arrived in New York in January 1925, too late for the “official” launch of the Renaissance. She wasted no time in meeting the right people. Within months, she was awarded the second place prize for drama at an awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine. She took the stage, scarf flowing, and intoned the name of her play, “COLOR. . R.R. STRUCK. . K.K.!” As Hurston was quick to tell anyone who asked, she was from the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, which provided the setting for Color Struck and much of her subsequent fiction. Hurston’s southern roots gave her something in common with most Harlemites but not with the Negro literati, or, as she preferred, “niggerati.” Few of them were from the South. At the Opportunity dinner, Hurston met Annie Nathan Meyer, a Barnard alumna, who arranged for Hurston to matriculate at the school. At Barnard, Hurston came under the influence of the pioneering American anthropologist, Franz Boas, who gave her the tools to study the folklore that she carried as her birthright. Armed with what she called “the spyglass of Anthropology,” she spent much of the Renaissance on the road, crisscrossing the South collecting the tales, songs, sermons, children’s games, and hoodoo rituals that she published in Mules and Men, the first volume of African American folklore collected by an African American, in 1935.
Mules and Men was the product of Hurston’s brilliant intellect, scholarly training, and personal courage. Yet she could not have p. 15↵conducted her research without the financial support of a patron. Few Americans, white or black, believed in the value of Negro folklore, and few even thought that art created by black people was important. In order to produce their work, several artists relied on rich individuals who supported them while they completed their projects. The politics of patronage was vexed, or as Hurston described her relationship with her patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, “curious.” Hurston insisted that a “psychic bond” existed between the two, which allowed each woman to read the other’s thoughts. “Godmother,” she declared in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, “was just as pagan as I.” Psychic bonds notwithstanding, Hurston and Mason signed a contract, the terms of which designated Hurston as Mason’s agent who would collect Negro folklore on Mason’s behalf. Mason would “own” the material. In return, Hurston was given a car and a camera, and she was paid a stipend of $200 a month from 1927 until 1932. She had to account for every dime; her ledger lists expenditures for everything from memberships in professional organizations to intimate personal items.
Unlike the relationship between the holder of a fellowship and a foundation, that between artist and patron is highly personal, inherently unequal, and, for Harlem Renaissance artists, disfigured by primitivist and racialist myths. Alain Locke, the forty-year-old professor whom Mason referred to as her “precious brown boy,” had introduced Hurston to Mason. Having exhausted her previous preoccupation with the Indians of the Southwest, Mason then discovered the Negro. She projected her ideas of the primitive onto the well-educated, sophisticated artists who sought her support. Locke was the go-between who shepherded Langston Hughes, the sculptor Richmond Barthé, and the composer Hall Johnson to Mason’s Park Avenue apartment. For varying lengths of time, all of these men depended on Mason’s largess. In the main, they were able to negotiate the challenge of meeting her expectations without compromising their artistic and personal integrity.
p. 16Musicians faced challenges too, but attracting audiences was not one of them. On December 4, 1927, Duke Ellington and his orchestra began a career-making run at the Cotton Club, the legendary nightspot at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, where blacks were welcomed only as waiters and performers. Ellington’s orchestra had made records for a string of labels, but its first hit was the newly waxed “Creole Love Call,” with the wordless vocals of Adelaide Hall. The record became an international sensation. By then Ellington, or his manager, was already in negotiation with the owner of the Cotton Club. Ellington had not been the owner’s first choice, but New Orleans’s King Oliver had declined an offer to front the club’s house band. Ellington quickly accepted and added five more players to his six-piece group that had named themselves the Washingtonians after their hometown. The new ensemble—with players including trumpeter Bubber Miley, trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, and drummer Buddy Greer—accompanied the club’s vaudeville acts and provided musical interludes. Ellington eventually created a revue called “Rhythmania,” that featured Hall. With the Cotton Club gig, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had hit the big time. Despite, or perhaps because of, its underworld connections, the Cotton Club attracted a wealthy, celebrity-laden clientele. Whites came to Harlem, their pleasure fueled by illicit liquor and the frisson of interracial encounter. Handsome and charismatic, Ellington was a musical prodigy and a natural-born aristocrat. He and his band were as elegantly attired as any of the club’s patrons (fig. 2).
Whether the fancy clothes and the reasonably generous pay actually compensated for the segregated arrangements, the gig allowed Ellington’s music to reach an audience over the airwaves that could not be limited by race or class. Radio was a new medium that gave Americans access to entertainment on a theretofore unimaginable scale. Ellington’s was the first African American band to gain national exposure. Broadcasting live from the Cotton Club on Monday nights—either at midnight or at 6 p.m., the latter in a “supper time” slot—the orchestra created legions of fans whop. 17↵
experienced music unlike any that they had heard. With these broadcasts, the Jazz Age, as F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the decade, was in full swing. Ellington brought jazz into the homes of Americans who could never have had the opportunity to visit any nightspot, let alone the famous Cotton Club.
The club’s décor juxtaposed images of the plantation South and the African “jungle.” Ellington’s recordings were marketed as “jungle music,” a rubric that reinforced the fantasies promoted by the club owners. Records like “Echoes of the Jungle” and “Jungle Nights in Harlem” featured “pseudo-African” musical effects, including tom toms, unusual harmonies, and growling trumpets and trombones, none of which could be traced to Africa but which produced highly danceable music. Ellington understood his musical identity and its importance, as his insistence on the title “orchestra” signified. “Black Beauty,” composed in honor of the musical comedy star, Florence Mills, spoke to Ellington’s race p. 18↵consciousness. But against a backdrop of faux jungles and cotton fields, the possibilities for confusion were limitless. Some whites fantasized an encounter with “primitives,” while some blacks imagined themselves as “primitives,” even though almost all were Americans in twentieth-century New York.
Josephine Baker’s international career unfolded against a similar backdrop; racial mythologies had taken root across the Western world by the 1920s. A dancer and comedienne, Baker had a small role in Shuffle Along, but with her antics she often stole the show. The run was a huge success, but it did not make Baker a star: it took Le Revue Nègre to accomplish that. Arriving in Paris in 1925, the show, which featured jazzman Sidney Bechet along with a cast of veteran vaudeville performers, took the city by storm. By the following year, according to Vanity Fair, Josephine Baker and Woodrow Wilson were the two best-known Americans in postwar Europe. To Europeans, Baker embodied the exotic primitive. One commonplace held that “Baker dancing looked like an African sculpture come to life.” Finding her dance “a wild splendor and magnificent animality,” an eminent critic concluded that the effect of her performance (“the frenzy of African Eros swept over the audience”) was akin to that of the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire. In truth, her dance styles were totally made-in-America. Yet when she performed the Charleston, bare-breasted and girdled by her infamous banana skirt, her European audiences saw in her a colonialist’s fantasy.
While Baker enjoyed the epithet “Black Venus” and used it frequently to refer to herself, she was well aware that she was not what her audiences believed her to be. Her comedic talent enabled her to mock the image with a wink and a roll of the eye. She played the part on and off stage, strolling down the Champs Élysées with a pet leopard. When a reporter told Baker that she symbolized primitivism, she was incredulous: “What are you trying to say? I was born in 1906 in the twentieth century.” Baker did seem to want to have it both ways. Not only did she adorn her p. 19↵half-naked body with feathers and dangling jewelry, she danced with the suggestiveness that fulfilled her audience’s erotic fantasies about black women. Still, she withheld something of herself and responded fiercely to those who confused her with her role. On the streets of Harlem, Baker’s fans did not fault her for conforming to any stereotype. They reveled in her theatrical triumph and her commercial success: her image sold dolls, costumes, perfumes, and pomades. The news that Parisian women wore their hair slicked down, à la Baker’s—that some even purchased a product called Bakerfix to affect the look—was thrilling to ordinary black American women who had never heard of a black woman whose look white women wanted to emulate.
Black intellectuals, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week, had long been concerned about the persistence of falsehoods and myths about black people, myths that as the Baker phenomenon confirmed, circulated not just in the United States but around the world. Far from the headlines in 1926, Arthur Schomburg, a Puerto Rican–born bibliophile, sold his collection of books, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and memorabilia documenting the history and culture of people of African descent to the New York Public Library. Ernestine Rose, the white woman who headed the 135th Street branch, facilitated the purchase. Schomburg, who worked in the mailroom at Bankers Trust, received $10,000 from the sale; he was then hired as the curator of his collection to be housed at the library, where it would grow into the leading research center that it is today. In 1926 the 135th Street Library was already a popular meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Schomburg had previously invited writers, including Du Bois, to use the collection for their research so that the public at large had access to it. Ordinary readers could now join in Schomburg’s quest to document the history of the race.
According to an often repeated account, Schomburg’s impetus for collecting was an encounter with his fifth-grade teacher who had p. 20↵told him that black people had no history. He spent his life refuting the lie. In his essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” published in the New Negro, Schomburg wrote, “though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro.” The metaphor of the essay’s title suggests the difficulty of retrieving the past, and the reference to the American ethos suggests how unpopular the undertaking would be, but the dividends were great indeed. Blacks would learn that they had always collaborated in the struggle for their freedom. They would reject the practice of celebrating those blacks of accomplishment as “exceptions” rather than part of the group, and they would understand the contributions of people of African descent to human history. In so doing they were able to transform their understanding of themselves.
The word “Negro” was a badge of pride for Schomburg’s generation. In fact, W. E. B. Du Bois had led a campaign to persuade the New York Times to capitalize the word. In the 1960s, “Negro” became associated with the spirit of accommodation it was intended to displace. That was the decade in which historians began their research on the cultural awakening; not surprisingly they preferred the then less controversial term “Harlem Renaissance.” And that was the term that has stuck. Its persistence is striking, given the fact that as early as the 1920s, Sterling Brown, a poet and pioneering literary scholar, insisted that there was no such thing as a “Harlem Renaissance.” Although Brown spent most of his life on the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., many other writers whose names were associated with the Renaissance never lived in Harlem. While Harlem remained a key location then, the Harlem Renaissance that this book introduces reaches across the nation and the globe.
Black people in cities across the world responded to a common impetus to view themselves as modern subjects. They met and p. 21↵produced journals and exhibitions in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, all of which lay claim to our attention. In Boston, the conservative influence of the poet and critic William Stanley Braithwaite was evident even in the title of its publication, The Quill. In Philadelphia, a small group published Black Opals, a literary journal. In Washington, the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted a salon, the “Saturday Nighters,” which not only provided a meeting place for the black literati of D.C. but also welcomed writers from outside the city. Arguably, Chicago boasted the most vibrant jazz scene; there Louis Armstrong became a major and important creative force. As scholars have more recently demonstrated, the development of black modernism was a transatlantic phenomenon, and Paris, no less than Harlem, was a crucial site. Yet, the names alone of none of these other cities evoke the cultural specificity of Harlem. We can speak of Paris Noir, Colored Philadelphia, and the Southside of Chicago, but Harlem signifies all by itself.
For those who had only heard about it, Harlem became in the folklore of the time “the promised land.” For those who had only read about, it signified a kind of dreamscape. Léopold Senghor, along with other writers from Africa and the Caribbean, wrote poems about Harlem. There is still much to consider “beyond Harlem,” as the conclusion of this book attests. But first, we need to attend to the New Negroes and their effort to rescue the race, and themselves, from the stereotypes and caricatures that represented black Americans to most of the world in the first decades of the twentieth century.