This week’s selection from the Library of America is Harlem Renaissance: Four Novels of the 1930s. (What is going on with some of their recent selections? They seem to like to choose a topic and era and select 4-5 novels. This does let us hear from authors that would not normally fit in with a complete volume but some of these are marginally in the canon – not that I am complaining, I would have never gotten to some of these novels otherwise). As we all know, the Harlem Renaissance was a cultural product of the Great Migration, which brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to Northern urban areas as they chased industrial jobs and fled Jim Crow. It also helped bring black artists into the American cultural discourse in new ways.
One major debate in the period of the Harlem Renaissance was about the role of art. Langston Hughes in Not Without Laughter will speak to it. The debate was over how artists should depict black life in America. W. E. B. Du Bois for one, thought artists should cultivate an image of black success, education, and upward mobility. Art should reflect the political aspirations of people trying to overcome discrimination. Others argued that art should reflect real life, even if it is sometimes ugly, bitter, or embarrassing. (Hughes seems to prefer the later approach.) This in a sense paralleled the Du Bois/Washington debate over the path out of discrimination (hard work, industrial education, temporary acceptance of white supremacy v. education, civil rights, legal and political agitation). Since a cultural policy rightfully reminds me of Stalinist or Maoist efforts to control I tend to agree with Hughes on this one. Besides, the ugly, brutal, drunk-in-the-gutter narrative appeals to me more than whatever Du Bois was after.
Not Without Laughter is made up of various vignettes in the life of young Sandy Rogers. His is from a black, working-class family. His father, Jimboy, is deemed by the community (and most strongly by his in-laws) as a horrible father due to his inability to keep a job. He moves around and eventually leaves completely. At the end of the novel, he is on another adventure in France during the Great War. His mother, Annjelica, attempts to make it with her husband’s dubious income and long periods away from home. Eventually she goes with her husband to Detriot, leaving Sandy with her mother and later (when her mother dies) with her sister. Her sister is educated and married to an upwardly mobile man. They are supporters of Du Bois, with his emphasis on education and strive to keep Sandy home in Kansas to secure his education. The novel ends with the failure of this plan and Annjelica brings her son up north. In a sub-plot, Annjelica’s sister Harriet makes it as an artist, suggesting an alternative to staying at home and entering the migrant workforce in urban centers.
There are a few important themes in this novel:
Great Migration’s Untold Stories: The Great Migration can rightfully be described as an expression of African-American economic and institutional power that had been built in the decades after slavery ended. Hughes is careful to point out how traumatic the experience was for the people left behind. In Not Without Laughter is is both the older generation (not understanding her children’s restlessness and the chip on their shoulders about whites) and the younger generation (left behind while the parents find their way) that are left without clear direction. This is a problem faced by any vanguard of course. We do not really get a clear idea of how Jimboy interpreted his life as me wandered around and I doubt it was a self-conscious assertion of power. Yet, he was refusing to play the game that his mother-in-law wanted. She wanted Jimboy to be a diligent, stable, worker. This is exactly what the white employers wanted. It was people like Jimboy and the million others who traveled north that frustrated the efforts of rich whites to keep a stable and diligent workforce. Yet, the warning here is that when we refuse to play that game we sometimes are causing harm. Harriet reminds the elders at one point of this brutal reality: “White folks run the world, adn the only thing colored folks are expected to do is work and grin and take their hats as thought it don’t matter.” (59)
Color Consciousness: It seems that most of these writers of the Harlem Renaissance were, like Charles Chesnutt, acutely aware of color consciousness among blacks. “Sandy’s playmate was a small ivory-white Negro child with straight golden hair, which his mother made him wear in curls. His eyes were blue and doll-like and he in no way resembled a colored youngster;l but he was colored. Sandy himself was the shade fo a nicely browned piece of toast, with dark, brown-black eyes and a head of rather kinky, sandy hair that would lie smooth only after a rigorous application of vaseline and water. That is why folks called him Annjee’s sandy-headed child, and then just–Sandy.” (15)
Power of Culture: Jimboy may have been a poor provider and rather reckless but he was musically talented, as explored in the chapter “Guitar.” He shared this interest with with his sister-in-law Harriet. Du Bois called for blacks to gain an education and uplift the race by revealing their intellectual equality. Washington discussed labor as the means of uplift. Now both talk about African-American music. There is a chapter devoted to it in Souls of Black Folk. (I do not have the Washington reference with me.) I am not sure what they said of culture as a means of racial uplift. I doubt they would have stressed it much. But for Harriet (but not Jimboy) it was artistic expression that led to an escape from poverty and drudgery. Harriet went from near or actual prostitution to being about to tell her nephew that she easily carries around what would be a week of his wages ($14). The final chapter of the novel is called “Princess of the Blues” and is about her meteoric rise. Perhaps Hughes is talking about his own success as a poet.
In short, the Great Migration came out of revolutionary change in America, at the very moment when race relations were at their worst in the USA. Blacks debated their future vigorously and these debates often took the form of generational conflicts. All people were a part of this revolutionary moment, even Jimboy and Sandy (only the second was perhaps aware of this). The novel also speaks of strategies for autonomy – much like Jack London and Herman Melville, Hughes is taping into this American restlessness. This American restlessness can have horrible consequences. It divides up communities or leads us to mistrust each other. It can also be a form of hidden resistance.