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p. 684. What is Africa to me?locked

  • Cheryl A. Wall

Abstract

Countee Cullen’s poem Heritage (1925) asks “What is Africa to me?” a phrase that resonated with many black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. They knew little about Africa but felt that they were related to it. With its representation of Africa as a lost Eden, the poem fulfilled the desire for a spiritual connection. ‘What is Africa to me?’ discusses the painters who drew on Africa’s artistic traditions; the political motivations of Marcus Mosiah Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois who organized Pan Africanist congresses; and essays and poems by writers such as Jessie Fauset and Langston Hughes who had seen the continent at firsthand.

What is Africa to me: Copper sun, scarlet sea, Jungle star and jungle track, Strong bronzed men and regal black Women from whose loins I sprang When the birds of Eden sang? One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved Spicy grove, cinnamon tree What is Africa to me?

Countee Cullen’s 1925 poem “Heritage” asks a question that resonated in the hearts and minds of many black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. They knew little about Africa—either its history or its social complexities, which scholars had yet to document—but they felt that they were somehow related to it. Few of the writers had firsthand knowledge of Africa: only W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay had set foot on the continent, and Fauset and McKay had been only to northern Africa. The relationship of blacks in America to the land of their ancestors could only be imagined. Some writers like Cullen, who traveled to Morocco after he wrote “Heritage,” drew an idealized homeland that they wished they had p. 69known. They represented themselves as descendants of “strong bronzed men and regal black / women” who had lived in a lost Eden. But their relationship to these ancestors is uncertain at best. On the one hand the African heritage is too distant to be understood. “Africa?” the speaker asks and then answers his own question: “A book one thumbs / Listlessly, till slumber comes.” But at other times, the connection feels so intense that the speaker cannot sleep. The images the poem invokes are mainly of flora and fauna. The only individual human figures are “jungle lovers” whose sensual abandon is not at all consistent with the strict codes governing sexual behavior in traditional African societies. But the poem betrays no knowledge of actual Africa. In the end its central concern is not history but spirituality. The speaker ponders his Christian faith, as he asserts that slavery was the price his people paid for Christianity, and wishes that like his pre-Christian ancestors, he served gods who looked like him.

Writers were not the only ones imagining Africa. Painters and sculptors were, however, less interested in representing Africa than in drawing on its artistic traditions. They knew that modernist masters—including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Amedeo Modigliani—had been inspired by the African masks they studied in Le Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The encounter with the art of Africa was revolutionizing European art. Alain Locke in The New Negro averred that black Americans were “acting as the advance-guard of the African peoples in their contact with Twentieth Century civilization.” With no consciousness of his own hubris, he spoke of black Americans’ mission to rehabilitate the race in world esteem. More politically minded thinkers analyzed the role blacks in the New World could play in the liberation of Africa. Du Bois organized and led Pan-African Congresses in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927, where American blacks met with their peers from West Africa and the Caribbean. Finally, hundreds of thousands of blacks in the United States and throughout the African diaspora joined Garvey’s UNIA. Garvey, whose mantra was Africa for the Africans, urged his followers to come together p. 70from across the world to build a great nation in Africa. His was “the Dream of a Negro Empire.”

Marcus Garvey’s Africa was unarguably popular and in some ways no less unrealistic than that imagined by the intellectuals who disdained it. He imagined an Africa that was powerful enough to protect people of African descent wherever in the world they were. Unlike the New Negro leaders, he had no hope that racial equality could be achieved in the United States. Insisting that never in history had slaves ruled their former masters, he concluded that the best Negroes could aspire to was token participation in the political processes of the United States. He did not, however, believe that all blacks should go back to Africa, though that is what many who heard him speak thought he meant. He wanted instead to strengthen the political and commercial ties between blacks in the New World and on the African continent. But he first needed to create a Pan-Africanist consciousness. A riveting orator, he sought to instill that consciousness in his audiences. He wove together biblical allusions (“Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God”), political commentary (“The political readjustment of the world means that those who are not sufficiently able, not sufficiently prepared, will be at the mercy of the organized classes for another one or two hundred years”), and race pride (“When Europe was inhabited by a race of cannibals, a race of savages, naked men, heathens and pagans, Africa was peopled with a race of cultured black men, who were masters of art, science and literature, men who were cultured and refined; men who, it was said, were like the gods. … Why, then, should we lose hope? Black men you were great; you shall be great again.”).

Marcus Mosiah Garvey organized the first black mass movement. The odds against this achievement cannot be overstated; for one, it happened without the benefit of mass communication. Garvey had only his voice and his pen. Born in Jamaica in 1887, he had neither wealth nor family connections. When he left the hamlet of St. Ann’s Bay, he went to the capital, Kingston, where he found p. 71work as a printer’s apprentice. He then traveled for work throughout Central and South America—Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Columbia, and Venezuela—and came to the conclusion that black people everywhere faced the common enemies of colonization and exploitation. After spending time in London, where he met like-minded Africans and West Indians, he founded the UNIA in Jamaica in 1914. Garvey’s political perspectives were bold, but his economic principles were conservative. He immigrated to the United States in the hope that he could study at Tuskegee Institute because he admired Booker T. Washington’s principles of economic self-sufficiency; Garvey planned to establish a school in Jamaica that would propound them. But Washington died shortly after Garvey arrived in the United States. Forced to develop an alternative plan, he moved to New York City and became a leader with whom to reckon: “I asked: where is the black man’s government? Where is his king and kingdom? Where is his President, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, and then, declared, I will help to make them.”

One could say that Harlem enabled Garvey to reinvent himself in ways that allowed him to pursue his grand ambitions. He established his headquarters, Liberty Hall, on West 138th Street in 1917. Within two months, the UNIA had two thousand members. By 1919, the year of “Red Summer,” Garvey claimed two million members worldwide. The number is doubtless inflated, but many more people shared parts of Garvey’s vision than actually joined his organization. Still, in 1926, the UNIA boasted 725 branches in the United States, most of them in the South, as well as branches in the West Indies, Central and South America, and Africa. The Harlem branch was by far the largest.

For new arrivals in the city, who felt bereft of family and home, the UNIA provided community. Initially, the UNIA resembled traditional fraternal organizations. It promised to provide sickness and death benefits to its members. Its various auxiliaries includingp. 72

7. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) organized massive parades in Harlem, such as this one in 1920, that exemplified founder Marcus Garvey’s belief in race pride and race unity.

the African Legion, the Black Star Nurses, and the Royal African Guard, each with distinctive uniforms and regalia, fostered a sense of belonging to those who joined. The organization’s parades were beloved in Harlem (fig. 7). Behind the marching auxiliaries, Garvey, resplendent in uniform and plumed helmet, rode in an open car. The UNIA conventions were decidedly grand. In 1920, for example, the month-long international conference ended with Garvey’s speech in Madison Square Garden before a crowd of 25,000. The convention designated Garvey as the Provisional President-General of the African Republic, which was deemed a “government in exile.” His assistants were given titles such as the Supreme Potentate and the Supreme Deputy Potentate, titles that gave more impetus to critics who mocked Garvey’s pomposity.

In 1918 Garvey had founded Negro World, which quickly became one of the leading Negro weeklies with a circulation estimated at between 60,000 and 200,000 at the height of its popularity in the early twenties; it continued publication until 1933. The newspaper circulated worldwide until it was banned by colonial governments, p. 73possibly because it reported events in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe as well as in the United States. Every issue included an editorial by Garvey as well as articles expounding his ideas and philosophy. The latter frequently referred in vivid terms to the glorious African past and to New World slave rebellions. Unlike other black-owned newspapers, Negro World refused to run ads for the skin lighteners and hair straighteners that were financial mainstays of the Negro press.

Fellow Jamaican Claude McKay criticized Garvey’s vision as utopian fantasy. But his sonnet “Africa” explored one of Garvey’s favorite themes: the ancient glory of the motherland. It begins, “The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light, / The sciences were sucklings at thy breast.” These lines call to mind one of Garvey’s favorite ripostes: Africa was a site of learning at the time that Europe was in the Dark Ages. But the images of pyramids and the Sphinx conjured ancient Egypt, rather than the West African empires of Mali, Songhai, and Ghana. McKay was hardly alone. Black Americans had claimed the heritage of ancient Egypt, at least as early as David Walker’s Appeal, the abolitionist document published in 1829. They insisted that Egypt was a part of Africa in response to the insistence of white Americans that it was not. Obviously, blacks had the better argument geographically, but the historical connection was debatable. Nevertheless, much of the iconography of Africa in the New Negro magazines was actually Egyptian iconography: the Sphinx, the pyramids, and figures clothed in Egyptian dress. Tellingly, McKay’s poem, published in 1921, extolls Africa as both an “ancient treasure-land” and a “modern prize”—a timely reference to the European scramble for colonies in Africa before and after World War I.

The most important writer in the UNIA was its founder, Marcus Garvey. His prophetic language was hardly modern, but its timeless quality was part of its appeal. “No one knows when the hour of Africa’s redemption cometh,” he wrote, “It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here. When that day p. 74comes all Africa will stand together.” The biblical cadence invested Garvey’s words with authority. His readers became believers.

Garvey was a visionary who made the mistake of trying to materialize his visions. He established the Negro Factories Corporation, whose purpose was “to build and operate factories in the big industrial centers of the United States, Central America, the West Indies, and Africa to manufacture every marketable commodity.” It organized grocery stores, a restaurant, a laundry, and a publishing house, but its successes were modest. The Black Star Line (BSL) was the most audacious of the UNIA enterprises. At a time when shipping was the mode of international transportation, Garvey decided to enter the industry. Its very name, Black Star Line, was intended to suggest some competition with the Cunard’s White Star Line, the industry leader. The BSL was also to be a commercial enterprise, intended to link New York and the West Indies, and this move seemed to literalize the promise of “Back to Africa.” Capitalized at half a million dollars, it offered shares at $5.00 each. Shares were offered only to blacks, and no individual could purchase more than two hundred shares. The rationale was that even the poorest Negro could become a shareholder. In short order the company raised three-quarters of a million dollars by selling shares to more than forty thousand people. Garvey’s critics ridiculed his plan. They were temporarily silenced when he announced the purchase of ships, which Garvey christened with characteristic flair, the SS Phillis Wheatley and the SS Booker T. Washington. Nonetheless, the BSL enterprise failed: Garvey knew a lot about motivation and salesmanship, but he knew nothing about ships. The men he hired proved either incompetent or untrustworthy or both.

In 1922, the federal government indicted Garvey on charges of mail fraud in connection with the sale of BSL stock. He was convicted, as he was a second time on charges of income tax evasion (on a salary he never received) and was jailed in Atlanta. Although he was pardoned, he was deported to Jamaica in 1927. p. 75By then, Garvey’s efforts to materialize his vision by buying land in Liberia had been stymied by the government there. Moreover, his 1923 meeting with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, based on their shared belief in racial purity, had persuaded Negro leaders that Garvey did not understand U.S. history and politics. The UNIA continued to exist but only as a shadow of its former self.

Like Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois believed in “Africa for the Africans,” arguing that such was the logical inference of President Wilson’s declarations that the war had made the world safe for democracy and all people were entitled to self-determination. Despite their shared Pan-Africanist perspectives, Du Bois and Garvey could not make common cause, a failure that is understandable but regrettable. Du Bois disdained Garvey’s flamboyant style and penchant for self-aggrandizement. The more popular Garvey became, the more Du Bois considered him a threat to the cause of racial advancement. In the May 1924 issue of the Crisis, just after Garvey’s mail fraud conviction, Du Bois declared, “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.” Garvey believed that Du Bois was conspiring against him. He also viewed the light-skinned New Englander though the lens of Jamaica’s tripartite social system, in which mulattoes enjoyed officially sanctioned privileges. In the United States, however, all Negroes, regardless of complexion, were officially second-class citizens. For his part, Du Bois expressed prejudices against Garvey as a dark-skinned West Indian. Their mutual name-calling was a discredit to both.

Du Bois had an informed critique and a cosmopolitan experience of the world, but he could not excite the masses as Garvey did. Instead of large-scale conventions, Du Bois organized Pan-Africanist Congresses that brought together members of the intellectual elite from throughout the African Diaspora. The mission was to realize “the world-old dream of human brotherhood.” The political goal was to free African people from p. 76the shackles of colonialism. Representatives from throughout the African diaspora as well as sympathetic whites met to plan long-range strategies and to mount an immediate propaganda campaign. The fact that the meetings were held in the European capitals of London, Brussels, and Paris suggested how distant the goal of political autonomy remained.

In his contribution to Locke’s The New Negro, “The Negro Mind Reaches Out,” Du Bois argued that the ideal of democracy would never be achieved in Europe as long as it was denied in the colonies that “shadowed” the imperial powers. The essay offers both a comprehensive overview and anecdotes drawn from Du Bois’s experience. “Modern imperialism and modern industrialism are one and the same system,” he insists before detailing examples from Egypt (“Egypt too is Africa”) to South Africa, and Sierra Leone to Kenya. He revisits his dictum “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” first expressed in 1899 and made famous in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. He argues that it is still accurate but only if understood as a problem of labor as well as race. But that understanding is elusive. The Africans who attend the Pan-African Congresses too often represent their colonial rulers rather than the colonized masses. At the Pan-African Congress in Brussels, for example, an African born in the Congo but raised in Belgium defends the indefensible cruelty of King Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo. At the essay’s close, Du Bois writes that “my ship seeks Africa,” and he arrives in Liberia, where “political power has tried to resist the power of modern capital.” That resistance was vanquished.

Jessie Fauset was one of the few women to attend any of the Pan African Congresses, and her article “Impressions of the Pan-African Conference,” drawn from her notes on the 1921 meeting, was published in the Crisis. Although it includes a reference to her presentation on the contributions of women to the freedom struggle in the United States, it ends with a declaration that seems to assume the global struggle is gendered male: “All the p. 77possibilities of black men are needed to weld together the black men of the world against the day when black and white meet in battle. God grant that when that day comes we shall be so powerful that the enemy will say, ‘But behold! These men are our brothers.’ ” Fauset was deeply interested in Africa, but in part because of her gender it was difficult for her to express that interest. For example, Fauset declined the invitation to translate Batouala, the novel by René Maran that was awarded the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France in 1921, just two years after it had been won by Marcel Proust. Born in Martinique, Maran had served as a colonial official in Africa and made Africans the central figures in Batouala. Fauset reviewed both the original publication in French and its translation. She judged it “a great novel. It is artistic, overwhelming in its almost cinema-like sharpness of picturization.” But she confided to a friend, “If I should translate that book over my name, I’d never be considered ‘respectable’ again.” She did not explain the reasons, but they may well have included the novel’s representations of such customs as polygamy and bride price as well as fictive rituals like the “dance of love,” which Maran describes as “intoxication.” The anticolonial sentiments that Fauset admired were largely confined to the author’s preface.

Fauset made her own way to Africa in 1925 and described her sojourn in the essay, “Dark Algiers the White.” She explains that “White Algiers” is the epithet the French gave the city to describe its topography: “the city raises white on tiers up the side of a hill, many hills.” Dark Algiers presumably refers to its people. Recounting her arrival, Fauset wrote that from its harbor the city offered a vista of brown and black faces, red fezzes, white turbans, white burnouses, and red blanket robes. “All the strangeness and difference of that life, while starting far, far in the interior of Africa yet breaks off so sharply at the southern edge of the Mediterranean, rose instantly to meet us.” To Fauset, the images of Algiers were unforgettable, though their meanings were difficult to decipher. Perhaps borrowing from Maran, she develops a cinematic p. 78metaphor and skillfully freezes a series of scenes. At one moment a group of men reminds her of Old Testament patriarchs. A couple comes into view and Fauset thinks the silent woman is “like an automaton besides her lord.” An old woman looks out above her veil and seems to Fauset the “very savor of the East.” Although her descriptions of people can be condescending and even racist, Fauset most often maintains the perspective of respectful outsider. At the least she is sensitive enough to recognize that to the Algerians she is “equally exotic.” But Africa is not her home.

Fauset was not a primitivist at heart; Countee Cullen was. His poem “Fruit of the Flower” explores a theme similar to “Heritage” but written in sparer lines. Here the speaker wonders why he has not inherited the “sober, steady ways” of his father, or the “puritan” spirit of his mother. Instead his is a pagan spirit and he, as well as his father, ponders its source:

My father is a quiet man With sober, steady ways; For simile, a folded fan; His nights are like his days.
My mother’s life is puritan, No hint of cavalier, A pool so calm you’re sure it can Have little depth to fear.
And yet my father’s eyes can boast How full his life has been; There haunts them yet the languid ghost Of some still sacred sin.
And though my mother chants of God, And of the mystic river, I’ve seen a bit of checkered sod Set all her flesh aquiver.
p. 79Why should he deem it pure mischance A son of his is fain To do a naked tribal dance Each time he hears the rain?

Cullen’s adoptive father, the Reverend Frederick Cullen, was the pastor of Salem Methodist Church, a congregation that he had built from a store-front mission to one of the leading churches in Harlem. The minister was also active in the NAACP and well respected in the community. In contrast to the depiction in the poem, the pastor’s nights might well have been different from his days; the “folded fan” works as a simile for repression as well as it does for “sober, steady ways.” The “some still sacred sin” might allude to his sexual peccadilloes and suggest Cullen’s uncertain response. Less is known about his adoptive mother, Carolyn Cullen, who played the piano and sang soprano in the church choir. The poem does little more than suggest that her religious faith has not extinguished human desire. The speaker is left to consider the source of his “wild” or “pagan spirit.” The spirit could be a metaphor for the homosexual identity that the poet could not acknowledge. What seems more important is that Cullen coded sexual and spiritual difference in terms of primitivism. His poems attribute any nonconformist behavior to an atavistic source, which speaks to the pervasiveness of primitivism in 1920s life. It was a handy, if deeply problematic, frame of reference.

In “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” Alain Locke offered an arresting counter to the mythology of African primitivism. Training his eye on African sculpture, he pronounced it “rigid, controlled, disciplined, abstract, and heavily conventionalized.” It was anything but “primitive,” an adjective he considered appropriate to describe the art of black Americans, their music, poetry, and dance, which he considered “free, exuberant, emotional, sentimental, and naïve.” Locke enumerated a long list of European artists who had been influenced by African art. He cited scholars who attested to the originality of African sculptors, p. 80who “can see form in three dimensions.” Locke lamented the absence of a tradition of visual art among black Americans, although he listed all the Negro artists he could. He noted that African sculpture was as alien to them as to their white countrymen. However, were the black American artist to embrace African art, he would recognize that he is “not a cultural foundling without his own inheritance.” Here and elsewhere, Locke wants both to claim and deny an essentialist connection between blacks in America and in Africa.

Locke points to the attraction of African sculpture to European painters, which offers them “fresh motifs.” But black Americans could derive much more from the study of African art: “a classical background, the lessons of discipline, style, [and] technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery.” They could create art in the tradition of West Africa rather than that of the United States. Not only was the former more distinguished, the latter had deliberately excluded black subjects, despite their presence in American life. Locke notes parenthetically that black figures appear frequently in European painting, even though the black population in Europe was miniscule. He illustrates the essay with diverse images of African sculpture from Benin, Dahomey, Sudan, and the Congo, all of which were held in the collection of Albert Barnes.

Barnes, a physician and chemist who discovered a cure for infant blindness, had already established the foundation that bears his name; the suburban Philadelphia mansion that long housed the foundation was built the same year The New Negro was published. Barnes’s fortune was as deep as his tastes were eclectic; he amassed one of the largest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist European paintings in the United States as well as an extensive store of African sculptures, which he exhibited for their aesthetic values rather than their ethnographic significance. “Negro Art and America,” Barnes’s contribution to Locke’s anthology, does not discuss his collection or his radical p. 81views on art education. In many ways, Barnes’s theories on art were fiercely nonhierarchical and democratic. In collaboration with John Dewey, Barnes developed an art curriculum for workers that shaped the offerings at the school run by his foundation. He insisted on displaying his collection without regard to chronology or nationality. A single gallery might hold French paintings, African sculptures, hand-wrought iron, and Pennsylvania Dutch furniture. Despite this practice, his essay inscribes racial hierarchy and relies heavily on the supposed primitivism of Africans and African Americans, people for whom no boundary exists between art and life. Barnes’s real contribution to the volume was the reproductions of his art.

Several New Negro artists had already embarked on the path Locke set forth. One that he singles out is Laura Wheeler, who illustrated Fauset’s essay, “Dark Algiers the White” for the Crisis. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Wheeler Waring, as she was later known, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before joining the faculty at Cheney State Teachers College, a short distance from Philadelphia, where she taught from 1926 until her death. Her portraits of Negro women are particularly notable; the portrait of Ann Washington Derrick won the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal in 1927. Like Fauset, she traveled widely. She made her first trip to Europe and North Africa in 1914 and studied for a year in Paris. Her illustrations appeared frequently in the Crisis. The June 1924 cover was titled “Africa in America.” It depicts a bejeweled female figure, holding a calabash, looking at a landmass that links the maps of Africa and America. The only object drawn among the swirling lines that make up the map is a sailing ship. The human figure that towers over the ship equals the continents in size. Africa in America is gendered female.

Aaron Douglas was arguably the most successful of the New Negro visual artists as well as the one most dedicated to deploying Africanist techniques. Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Douglas arrived in Harlem in 1925 and left four years later. By p. 82that time, his images were everywhere. Most people who knew his work encountered it in the Crisis and Opportunity or on the book jackets he illustrated. These included Cullen’s anthology, Caroling Dusk (1927); Langston Hughes’s Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927); James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1927) and God’s Trombones (1927); and Claude McKay’s Banjo (1928), Banana Bottom (1929), Home to Harlem (1928), and A Long Way from Home (1937). Sympathetic to the goals of the younger writers, Douglas was also the artist of the cover of the November 1926 issue of Fire!!, the brilliant but short-lived literary journal.

Although Douglas painted realistic portraits and used impressionist techniques to paint buildings such as a power plant in Harlem, he was compelled by such subjects as Negro history, mythology, and spirituality, which were difficult to represent. The principles of abstract design that characterized African art were suited to his purpose. In his illustrations for God’s Trombones, a series of poems inspired by folk sermons, Douglas takes his cue from Bible stories such as Noah and the Ark, the Prodigal Son, and the Crucifixion. Originally painted in muted tones, the illustrations were reproduced in black and white. The two-dimensional paintings feature black subjects whose features are abstracted and resemble African masks. The central figure in The Crucifixion is Simon the Cyrenian, a man believed to be black, who was ordered by the Romans to carry the cross for Christ up the mountain of Golgotha. (Simon the Cyrenian is also the subject of a poem by Countee Cullen.) The figure’s posture and open mouth suggest the arduousness of the burden. More important, the figure’s long limbs and the cross itself create asymmetrical planes and angles that focus the viewer’s eye. A series of concentric circles in varying shades of purple and mauve draws attention to the figures of a haloed Christ and three disciples. Yet these seemingly illuminated figures are not the painting’s focus; they are dwarfed by the figure of Simon, a hero that the painting seeks to reclaim.

p. 83The murals Douglas painted for the 135th Street Library, Aspects of Negro Life, repeat elements found in The Crucifixion. Muted palettes, abstract figures, and an overall focus on design characterize these paintings; their size and subject are epic. Some as large as six feet x six feet trace black American history from Africa through slavery and Reconstruction to the industrial North. Much of this history is characterized by exploitation and violent oppression. The first panel, The Negro in an African Setting, tells a different story. The mural centers a pair of dancers in motion, each leaning backward with one leg curved and lifted off the ground. The male figure holds a spear in one hand and an assegai in the other. A small carving, perhaps a symbol of ancestry, is placed upon the heads of the couple. Figures with spears fill the canvas. The dancers’ ankle and leg bands are repeated on these figures as well as on the drummers who are placed in the foreground of the painting.

Music and dance are crucial elements in all of the murals. They forge the spiritual connection between people of African descent in Africa and the New World. African drummers are replaced by banjo players in the ironically titled Idyll of the Deep South, which depicts figures working in the fields. In From Slavery to Reconstruction, figures pick cotton at the left of the panel, while a trumpeter plays on the right. Soldiers and worshippers fill the frame. But the central figure is a speaker, book in hand, whose finger is pointing upward. The final panel (fig. 8) is titled Song of the Towers. It evokes the Great Migration and the persistent exploitation of black labor.

Ironically, Douglas’s most influential teacher was the German-born Winhold Reiss, himself a student of African art, who designed the cover, decorative features, and illustrations of The New Negro. One could say that Douglas’s learning about African art from a European teacher was a microcosm of the larger impact of the discovery of African art by European painters. Douglas studied African sculpture not in a Paris museum but in thep. 84

8. Painter Aaron Douglas and Schomburg Collection founder and curator Arthur A. Schomburg stand in front of Douglas’s mural, Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers, at the Schomburg Center in New York. It uses techniques inspired by African art to depict twentieth-century African American life.

p. 85collection of Albert Barnes, which also included paintings of emerging European modernists. Douglas exemplified Locke’s understanding that black Americans had to learn about African art; it was not an intuitive connection.

Years before Langston Hughes traveled to Africa, he captured lyrically the connection between blacks in the United States and Africa in the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” For Hughes the connection was more spiritual and historical than political:

I’ve known rivers. I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The poem captures the majesty of the spirituals, as it employs one of that genre’s key tropes—the river. “Deep River,” “One More River to Cross,” “Roll, Jordan Roll,” and “O, Wasn’t That a Wide River” are a few of the songs that use the central metaphor that Hughes adopts. Continuity and timelessness are qualities associated with rivers that the poem attributes to the race, here embodied in the collective “I” of the poem. That “I” is also a common element in the spirituals, as is the use of a refrain. The repetition of “I’ve known” intensifies the p. 86impact of the statement. At a time when the social consensus held that blacks had no heritage, the poem associates blacks with other key sites in human history. The Tigris-Euphrates valley was then considered the cradle of civilization. The poem connects the Negro both to the Congo and the Nile. As Du Bois did in his essay, Hughes in his poem reminds readers that Egypt is indeed in Africa. The poem links fabled African rivers with the most fabled river in the United States, the Mississippi, a major artery of the slave trade. Rather than the fear that enslaved people had of being sold “down the Mississippi,” the poem references Abe Lincoln, traveling south to New Orleans; the hope embodied in Lincoln is imaged as the transformation of the muddy Mississippi turning “all golden in the sunset.” The poem’s implicit assertion is that if the history of blacks arcs back to antiquity, the future of blacks stretches equally far.

Hughes embarked on his African journey in 1923. He sailed on a steamer that dropped anchor in Dakar, Lagos, Accra, and Freetown, as well as in ports in Angola and the Congo. Although in The Big Sea he wrote mainly about six months aboard the ship rather than in port, Hughes retained an interest in the people, literature, and politics of the continent throughout his life. But this maiden voyage left only a slight imprint on his writing. His poem, “Afro-American Fragment,” published in the Crisis in 1930 suggests one possible reason:

So long So far away Is Africa. Not even memories alive Save those that songs Beat back into the blood— Beat out of blood with words sad-sung In strange un-Negro tongue— So long, So far away Is Africa.

p. 87The poem echoes Cullen’s “Heritage” in its representation of the ineffable distance, across both time and space, between “Afro-Americans” and their homeland. After acknowledging the distance, the speaker in “Heritage” moves quickly to imagine what his ancestors left behind three centuries before. In fact, most Africans bound for the New World arrived after 1725. The Africa the speaker imagines is equally ahistorical, an Edenic space that has nothing to do with the social and political complexities then confronting a largely colonized continent. For Cullen’s speaker, “Africa” is a myth that elicits his spiritual contemplation. Hughes, perhaps because he had seen sub-Saharan Africa—at least the Atlantic ports in which his ship docked—was less willing to traffic in myths. The poem suggests a cultural connection that is conveyed through song, but the connection cannot be translated or fully understood. The poem’s speaker recognizes the limits of his knowledge and his imagination, as even the poem’s title suggests.

Hughes published little about his African travels, save the short story “Danse Africaine,” until he chronicled them in his autobiography, The Big Sea, in 1940. In his later life, he made extended trips to nations across the continent. He championed its writers. His pioneering anthology, An African Treasury: Articles, Essays, Stories, Poems by Black Africans, was published in 1960.

During the Harlem Renaissance years, however, he found his inspiration closer to home. Along with several of his peers, he journeyed to the American South.