James Weldon Johnson, Essays and Poems

The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise the status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art. (688)

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With this passage, from his preface to an anthology of black poetry, James Weldon Johnson summarized the politics of documenting and making known black cultural endeavors. Johnson would have said (and this seems to be the case) that it was not so much that the Harlem Renaissance created black cultural traditions in the United States. This had a long history going back to Phillis Wheatley. What he Harlem Renaissance saw was a conscious effort to articulate for white America what that tradition was and what the contribution of blacks was to American cultural life. Sure there were new things going on—ragtime, the impressive contribution of Caribbean writers, an explosion of black nationalism, growing interest in folk lore, and a vibrant debate about how artists should present black life in America—but all of these had suppressed roots. Johnson was eager to reveal those roots.

In the preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson revisits something he wrote in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, summarizing what he saw as the fundamental cultural contribution of African-Americans to American culture: the “Uncle Remus” stories, slave songs, the cakewalk, and ratime. As he shows, these are really four trees, each with their own branches. In a sense they come down to folklore, music, poetry, and dance. Much of the introduction is devoted to tracing the genealogy of black poetry from the slave songs (the so-called “spirituals”). He returns to the Afro-centric suggestion I wrote about in the last post.

This power of the Negro to suck up the national spirit from the soil and create something artistic and original, which, at the same time, possesses the note of universal appeal, is due to the remarkable gift of adaptability; it is more than adaptability, it is a tranfusive quality. And the Negro has exercised this transfusive quality not only here in America, where the race lives in large numbers, but in European countries, where the number has been almost infinitesimal. (697)

He then goes onto point out the African heritage of Alexander Suma, Alexander Pushkin, and Colerdige-Taylor. The problem in America, holding back an even more fundamental contribution to world culture is the “grueling race-struggle” that consumes all the intellectual energies of both the black and the white South. The Souls of Black Folks is just one piece of evidence suggesting the extent of what was lost. Making matters worse, the black artist has been placed into “a certain artistic niche.” (It is for this reason, it seems, that Johnson refused to write in dialect even when dealing with something as grassroots as religious rhetoric (see “God’s Trombones” below).

A similar mixed feeling comes across in his preface to The Second Book of Negro Spirituals. The spirituals are clearly a major contribution to world literature and culture, but they are also the funnel that so much black creativity was forced through due to centuries of slavery and enforced illiteracy. Even this tradition had been truncated as people simply forgot the songs and poems. “Indeed, the Spirituals taken as a whole contain a record and a revelation of the deeper thoughts and experiences of the Negro in this country for a period beginning three hundred years ago and covering two and a half centuries. If you which to know what they are you will find them written more plainly in these songs than in any pages of history. The Spirituals together with the secular songs—the work songs and the sex songs—furnish a full expression of the life and thought of the otherwise inarticulate masses of the Negro race in the United States.” (731–732) He ends his preface with a suggestion that the “Spirituals” will continue to be a rich source for ragtime and blues composers.

“The Dilemma of the Negro Author” and “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist” makes distinct but related arguments. Johnson seems to be borrowing from W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” and the “veil” when talking about black authors, who must present their works for both a black and a white audience. In fact, catering to either audience is debilitating, but necessary given the realities of racism in America. The long-term consequence of this, however, has been a slow changing of attitudes toward blacks rooted in greater national appreciate for their cultural contributions. Again, Johnson returns to his beloved ragtime as evidence of this change. “In this way the Negro is bringing about an entirely new national conception of himself; he has placed himself in an entirely new light before the American people. I do not think it too much to say that through artistic achievement the Negro has found a means of getting at the very core of the prejudice against him.” (765)

Black Manhattan is one of those works I have come across several times in anthologies, but only in abridged format. Each time I am certain that the whole is very rich indeed, but I have not yet had a chance to look at the entire thing. In the passages included here we are given a street-level perspective on the cultural life of black New York during the Harlem Renaissance. For all the thinking we do about culture it is important to keep in mind the sheer joy involved in consuming culture. I still hope to read the entire thing someday.

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The anthology in my hands (as always the Library of America edition for those not keeping track) includes a sampling of Johnson’s poetry. Some are intimate and beautiful. Some are political and deal with the failures of the American dream for African-Americans. Many begin to explore the African roots of the black experience (this may be of interest of those who want to historicize the philosophy of Afrocentrism). Yet others feed off of black folklore. The pillar in this collection is “God’s Trombone,” which attempts to recreate (although not in dialect) the rhetoric and performance of the “old-time Negro preacher.” I was struck by the use of repetition, which must have been a device used to keep the performativity on high and aid memorization. Clearly the line between song and preaching is fine. Here are two tastes of that:

Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father. (848)

On Calvary, on Calvary,
They crucified my Jesus.
They nailed him to the cruel tree,
And the hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem’s streets.
The hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem’s streets. (857)

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For anarchists, what is most important in these texts I reviewed today is that they reveal the cultural cost of hierarchy. James Weldon Johnson was clearly not an anarchist, but he knew the impact of racial hierarchy on a people’s intellectual life. In the midst of the celebration of black people’s contribution to American culture, Johnson is constantly mourning the numerous works that were never created, or forgotten, due to slavery and its legacy. Even whites suffered from this, which is why he thinks the white South was incapable of producing artists, too much of its intellectual effort was devoted to propping up power. Is there not truth in that? It is easy to think about how many Mozarts have been lost to the factories and mines. How many Mozarts were lost to the bureaucratic job or the mundane tasks of propping up the ideologies of the power? How much creativity do we squander because high school guidance counselors advise students into business school and toward other “practical” majors? Even if we can begin to measure the cost of government and capitalism in blood and toil, can we even begin to measure its cost in lost creativity?

Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part One

Mules and Men is a beautiful work by the later Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, consisting of her ethnographic work in Northern Florida, near a sawmill town. Her contribution in this work consists mostly of collecting a significant amount of African-American folklore, but by combinging the folklore and stories with the stories, dialog, and interactions of the people who gave the stories, she enriched the narrative and shows how these stories (many of which now have a permanent place in Americana) emerged from social relations. She collected these stories beginning in 1928, but would not see them published until 1935. She was thus, not collecting these tales as part of the Works Progress Administration projects to collect oral histories of former slaves. Her original funding was private.

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Hurston’s introduction reveals some important background about why she thought it was so important to preserve these stories. Much of this may be obvious to us now. She realized that she was talking about collecting the cultural heritage of an exploited people who were told repeatability that their voice was not important to the nation. When she introduced her project, her subjects asked her with disbelief, why would anyone want to read about those “lies” (which is the term they used for this folklore). As Hurston writes: “The best source [of folklore] is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are the most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” (10) She also cuts right to what she sees as the major motif in the lore she documented: the ability to outsmart superiors and the fluid nature of social relations. This, naturally, is not really an accurate description of race relations in early 20th century America or life in slavery (where many of these stories emerged), but it suggests a deep attitude of resistance and a value that challenged the hypocritical hierarchies in American democracy. She summarizes: “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John—not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folk-lore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer ‘Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him.” (10–11) The fact that she has to introduce John Henry directly suggests how internalized this folklore became to Americans since the 1930s.

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As James Scott suggests in The Art of Not Being Governed, there is a great power in oral cultures, an advantage that literate cultures do not have. It is actually suggested in the quote in the last paragraph. Literature cultures, Scott suggests, are bound by the texts they create. Members of literate cultures are blinkered by what they wrote down, often centuries earlier. Sure, they can reinterpret, but oral cultures are much freer to adapt texts to the new conditions. For many of the stories we read in Mules and Men, their direct use as a mental survival strategy in slavery is clear. Masters are mocked, their oppression and violence explained, and the people at the bottom of the system are able to prove their worth and turn the tables. One may even suspect that the ruling class in the old South was foolish to prevent slaves from reading, because by keeping most of them illiterate, they forced them to create their own narratives of Christianity, a much more liberating narrative.

The fact that the narrative is contested is not even that important, because it becomes the fuel for social interactions. Hurston narrators a humorous (but apparently serious) disagreement about why alligators look the way they do. We are given three different stories, each building off the last as story tellers try to improve on the last speaker. This series began earlier with discussions about other animals. Story telling (and adapting or improving on stories) was a part of community building. This is missing in cultures that share stories through the ages through books. (Yes, the library really is to quiet sometimes.)

There are many stories that can be enjoyed in this volume (around 70). There are several important motifs I came across in the book. Since these stories are liquid there is not a single analysis of any one theme, so I will not attempt to provide it here. There are some tensions pointing in certain ways but many of these have variations. The most important theme running through most of the stories has to do with shifting the nature of hierarchy. Someone on the top of a natural or artificial hierarchy is undone by someone below them. Whether it is a slave outsmarting a slave owner, a woman getting the best of a man, or even men fooling God, we find that these stories challenge social divisions, class, and caste. As a corollary to these we are often presented with bosses or masters as manipulative, corrupt, foolish, or naive. This turns the tables on the hierarchy in another way. Often this narrative is replayed in the animal kingdom.

Mules and Men should be more widely read and appreciated. I suspect that most people know Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and never get the chance to come across this beautiful work. In the second half of my coverage of this Mules and Men, I will talk about what she has to say about voodoo in the second part of the book and perhaps come back to some of the folklore.

 

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)

Notes of a Native Son is the first of Baldwin’s collection of essays.  Often in his novels, characters are trapped by social expectations, family, urban environments, or peer groups.  Baldwin mentions more than once that he did not want to write about the “Negro problem” simply because he was a black writer active in the Civil Rights era.  Yet, that is exactly what he does in his 1950s and 1960s non-fiction work.  He realized the limitations of this and the cruel assumptions underpinning the expectation that a black writer consider issues of race.  “I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews — mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” (5)  But as any writer, he had to write about the life he lived and the times he lived in.  This makes the “Negro problem” central to his work form this period.  The essays in Notes of a Native Son were written when Baldwin was just starting his writing career and are grouped into three sections based on his experiences in these years: (1) his exhaustive reading, (2) growing up in Harlem, and (3) life as a black expat in Paris.

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The first part, consisting of three essays, examines the images of blacks in American culture.  First, he critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by extension “protest novels,” which by their nature suspend realism for the pushing of a political wish.  Her characters are simple and her understanding of relationships between the races under slavery was shallow.  Such novels, Baldwin asserts, have their role in promoting freedom but are nevertheless bad novels because they miss out on the fundamental reality.  “The oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs.” (17)  Baldwin next levels a similar critique against Richard Wright’s Native Son.  Like Stowe, Wright is “trapped by the American image of Negro life. . . . It is the socially conscious whites who receive him [Bigger] — the Negroes being capable of no such objectivity.” (31)  By embracing the anger of the era, Wright is no less a distorter of the black experience.  His final critique is of Carmen Jones, a film with an all-black cast interpreting Carmen.  And again, we find the work of art separated from the realities of black life.  “One is not watching the complex and consuming passion which leads to life or death — one is watching a timorous and vulgar misrepresentation of these things. . . .The Negro male is still too loaded a quantity for them to know quite how to handle.  Baldwin’s essential cultural critique at this time is the inability of artists to depict the world as it really is.

The next set of essays are autobiographical and deal with the urban experience of African-Americans in places like Harlem.  He starts with a depiction of just how horrible things are in Harlem (“The Harlem Ghetto”).  Poor services, high rents, staggering food costs, and abuse by black and white politicians.  We feel like we are in the world described by David Simon in The Wire.  Indeed we are in many ways and it is tragic how little of what Baldwin describes has changed in the last fifty years.  What we end up with is trapped people.  Baldwin explores this social prison through an analysis of black anti-Semitism.   He sees it as a reflection of black bitterness toward whites produced by a racist society.   “The Negro’s outlets are desperately constricted.  In his dilemma he turns first upon himself and then upon whatever most represents to him his own emasculation.”  (53)  Yet (and here is makes the same point he makes in critiquing Native Son) bitterness and anger is not all that defines the urban experience.  “Journey to Atlanta” considers some jazz musicians who toured the South.  There they were taken advantage of by local political workers of the Progressive Party to canvas neighborhoods.  Of course, the lesson here is that these skilled musicians were essentially seen as their skin color.  “Notes of a Native Son” is the story of Baldwin’s father and his death.  These memoirs intersect with some of the brutal realities in Harlem, including the indifference of some of the whites he encounters.  Baldwin uses these small events to make explicable the race riot that engulfed Harlem at the same time that his father died.  “The avenues , side streets, bars, billiard halls, hospitals, police stations, and even the playgrounds of Harlem — not to mention the houses of correction, the jails, and the morgue — testified to the potency of the poison while remaining silent as to the efficiency of whatever antidote.” (78)

The final four essays come from Baldwin’s observations of expat life in Paris, particularly focused on what he sees as the uniqueness of the African-American experience.  In contrast to black nationalists (who he debates directly in The First Next Time), there is not a singular modern black experience in the world.  African-Americans are bound to the U.S. and have their own struggles there.  While providing some potential for freedom, Paris seems to be at best an escape from where the real reckoning must take place.  One looks at the meetings of African-American expats with Africans living in France.  “They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged to ever be trapped in speech.” (89)  Paris cannot become a center for identity for expats because too many of them are emotionally or otherwise tied to America.  Baldwin often wrote about blacks in America encountering police, so it is interesting that he took the time to write a long essay about his arrest in Paris (he was accused of fencing).  The police and judicial system is something that (I suppose) few expats experience and it may very well be one of the last parts of a foreign culture on experiences, if at all.  I suppose the essay shows how Baldwin never quite became a Parisian and still held onto American attitudes about the police and power.  The final essay describes Baldwin’s visit to a town that may have never encountered a black before.  In a way, this allows Baldwin to escape race for the first time in his life.  Since race is a dialectical experience, shaping the development of both whites and blacks, this small town lacked the “black-white” experience that would have contributed to such a fossilization of racial expectations.  Being in a town without any blacks meant he was in a town without a history of slavery, violence, economic exploitation, and hatred.  He sums up the “Negro problem” in America by saying “I am a stranger here.  But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.” (124)

 

I will forestall any conclusion for now, until I write on more of Baldwin’s writings on race.