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?

James Weldon Johnson, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in 1912, at a time when race relations could not have been worse in post-Civil War America. Jim Crow had been fully established throughout the South by then, lynching was commonplace, and the Chicago Race Riots would be only a few years away. As any history student knows there were two major responses to this. Booker T. Washington argued for the reduction of racial tensions through the ending of agitation for social equality, while building up the wealth and skills of the black working class. W. E. B. Du Bois wanted to fight at that moment for full social and legal equality, resting his arguments on a clear demonstration of intellectual equality. James Weldon Johnson was of the Du Bois camp. He wrote for The Crisis, edited his own newspapers in support of civil rights, and argued for social equality. At the same time, his first novel gives a third set of strategies, which were much more common and maybe—in the final analysis—more historically significant. These made up the uncountable day to day acts of resistance, interracial cooperation and community, and outright neglect of the often unwritten codes of Jim Crow. The narrator of the novel chooses one of these strategies in the end, that of “passing.” (See my posts on Charles Chesnutt for more on this.) This constituted a form of opting out. Not opting out of being black, but a refusal to accept the social laws imposed on him. That only a few could embrace this strategy does not really matter. As the novel shows there were plenty of other coping and evasion strategies.

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as most of you probably know—follows the early life of a light-skinned African-American, who was raised without even a full awareness that he was black, until a teacher made this clear to him in a classroom exercise. From there, his story reads a bit like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. The narrator is talented and eager to go to college, saving up enough money for two years of college in Atlanta. Once his money is stolen by a Pullman sleeping car porter, he gives up his plans and his narrative diverges from Washington’s. He takes a job rolling cigarettes, eventually becoming the “reader” in the factory. His job was to read the news and novels to the workers. He later moves north to get involved in the ragtime culture of the city, befriending a white “millionaire” who becomes his benefactor. After witnessing the murder of a white woman by a jealous lover in the club he was working, he goes to Europe with his benefactor. After a while he feels a type of Jim Crow relationship between the two of them and he decides to return to the United States. There he witnesses a lynching, which convinces him to being passing as white. He meets a white woman and begins a relationship. It is revealed that he is passing (apparently with a subtle use of words), but she comes to terms with it and they proceed to have a happy life together.

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As the final chapter shows, the narrator did not choose to pass because he felt ashamed of being black. He only felt that in the context of his lover discovering that he was passing, and then it was only temporary.

I felt her hand grow cold, and when I looked up she was gazing at me with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen. Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared to have comprehended what I said. [. . .] When I got into the street I felt very much as I did the night after meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins, and wished that I were really white. (123)

The point being, it seems, is that the narrator was passing in order to simply evade the grotesque inequalities of American racism. My guess is that this was Johnson’s answer to arguments made by whites that passing was either impossible or the result of blacks feeling ashamed.

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What was most memorable to me in this novel was the rich descriptions of everyday life among the working and non-working African-American poor. In the cigar factories we see a rich cultural life carried on informally by the “readers.” The ragtime clubs and bars of New York City created spaces for interracial cooperation in seeking out pleasure. I suppose we often make too little of this as an authentic survival strategy. But as part of the rich texture of everyday life, pleasure seeking must be seen as a crucial element of the challenge to racism. These clubs may have done more to break down the barriers of racism than all the propaganda newspapers. As we see below, there were not entirely all well-meaning. Some it seems sought to profit from mocking blacks, but even so shows the integration of everyday life was possible and I think should be looked at as part of the struggle.

Beside the people I have just been describing there was at the place every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sight-seeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay only for a few minutes, while others sometimes stayed until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others to delineated darky characters; they came to get their imitations first hand from the Negro entertainer they saw there. There was still another set of white patrons composed of women; these were not occasional visitors, but five or six of them were regular habitues. (66)

The Pullman sleeping car porter suggests yet another survival strategy composed of committing petty crimes, in this case victimizing black travelers as they moved in great numbers between the northern cities and the South on the railroads.

One more part of this book is important for anarchists to consider. It is easy to see in the porter’s actions reason to mistrust each other and see the difficulty of solidarity, but the gambling halls that the narrator visited early in the story paint another picture, that of a sort of baseline communism. When the narrator won, the social pressure to share his winnings was overwhelming. By the end of the night he had little of winnings left. Most had been given out in the forms of drinks or covering others bets. While it seems he was taken advantage of by a room full of his peers, another analysis of this could be that you see the customers at the gambling den forming a collective socializing both profits and losses. In that system no one (except maybe the gambling hall) will come out rich, everyone will get an enjoyable evening and no one will entirely lose their shirt.

In my final judgment, I will say that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is still about the nature of the decision to being passing—a common theme in Harlem Renaissance literature—but it is also paints a rich picture of social life among the excluded.

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.

 

Wallace Thurman, “The Blacker the Berry” (1929)

The title of Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life comes from an African-American folk saying (“the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”). By this time, the question of passing had been heavily debated. In the same year as The Blacker the Berry, Nella Larsen published Passing. Thurman’s approach was quite different and may suggest a movement toward a more self-confident black nationalism (or at least what we could call “black pride”). This theme was hinted at in Plum Bun, when the main character Angela learned that passing was not really necessary in places of strong black institutions (like Harlem). The Blacker the Berry takes a very dark skinned woman, named Emma Lou, from a predominately white part of the country (“a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one”) — someone for whom passing was never an option — and shows how she developed an acceptance of her skin color and her community. Like other characters in these Harlem Renaissance novels, Emma Lou was fleeing something. Some fled by leaving the country, others fled the South, still others fled their lives as blacks through passing. Emma Lou–poor, dark skinned, and not very self-assured–flees without any of the advantages some of her counterparts had.

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Wallace Thurman died at the age of 32 of tuberculosis and only produced three novels and a handful of other works, of which the most significance was his play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem. Before writing stories he worked a journalist, starting his own failed journal and editing for The Messenger and Fire!!  Other parts of his life were somewhat sketchy and suggest an interesting–if short–life.  His grandmother ran a bootlegging tavern in Utah, where he was born. His mother went through six husbands. Thurman himself married Louise Thompson (later Patterson) for only a few weeks. She later suggested that Thurman was a homosexual.  He bounced around from job to job, from project to project, but lived in Harlem during the peak of the literary activity of the Harlem Renaissance from 1925 until his death in 1934.  The novel is slightly autobiographical in that both Thurman and Emma Lou were raised in Utah, studied at UCLA and settled in Harlem.

Wallace Thurman

Wallace Thurman

The libertarian lessons of The Blacker the Berry seem to me to come down to two questions. One regards the proper role of migration and mobility. The second is about overcoming the bounds that race and color imposed on blacks themselves. Indeed, we see throughout the tale that some of the most debilitating color consciousness came from other blacks in Emma Lou’s life (family, friends in college, employment agencies, etc.)

In The Blacker the Berry, mobility at first glance seems potentially liberating. Emma Lou encountered many unfortunate environments that restricted her development. She also always left with a finality and decisiveness that suggested a certain amount of bravery. “Emma Lou yet felt that she must manage in some way to escape both home and school. That she must find happiness somewhere else. The idea her Uncle Joe had given her about the provinciality of people in small towns re-entered her mind. After all Los Angeles, too, was a small town mentally, people by mentally small southern Negroes. It was no better than Boise. She was not determined to go East where life was more cosmopolitan and people were more civilized.” (728) Emma Lou constantly rejects the advice of her family to return home, against suggesting autonomy.  Yet, we also know that her movement is always a flight from the discomfort the experiences due to her skin color.  She feared being unable to marry, feared getting a job, or imagined  a place “where money was more plentiful and more easily saved.” (728) As liberating as mobility can be, we should be wary of this very unPromethean flight without purpose because it suggests a unwillingness to fight where you are.

Of course, the dominant theme is “intra-racial color prejudice.”  In fact, this was clearly one of the most important concerns of black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. From her youth, Emma Lou was reminded by everyone, including her closest relatives, that she was a problem child simply for having been born dark skinned. There was plenty of fault to go around, they did not quite blame Emma. If only her mother had married a “yellow” man?  “Everything possible had been done to alleviate the unhappy condition, every suggested agent had been employed, but her skin, despite bleachings, scourgings, and powderings, had remained black–fast black–as nature had planned and effected.” (693) Mind you, this is the first page of the novel.  And I do not have space in this blog to list the examples of this type of “intra-racial color prejudice.”  Trust me, through, it accompanies almost every page of this short novel. She experienced it in college, when she was avoided by other black students. Her only friend was another dark-skinned woman who perhaps did a better job of playing the role that nature and American racism assigned to her.

Harlem was objectively better for Emma Lou. At least here, color prejudice was discussed and admitted by the people she encountered.  She also finds a broader circle of allies and companions and lovers. Many people in Harlem, black and white, encourage her to make the most of her life. Even a boss at an employment agency, sending people out to mind-numbing secretarial jobs saw promise in her and urges her to become a teacher after finishing school in New York. And while she did not take that advice, she found economic independence not long after her arrival in Harlem.  The albatross over her psychology, however, remained her skin color.

Her final choice is to fight where she stands. “She was tired of running up blind alleys all of which seemed to converge  and lead her ultimately to the same blank wall.  Her motto from now on would be ‘find–not seek.’ All things were at one’s finger-tips. Life was most kind to those who were judicious in the selections, and she, weakling that she now realized she was, had not been a connoisseur.”  (829) This choice of her does not eliminate the need for institutional or social transformation, but its optimism suggests that her decision to settle in Harlem would not be due to paralysis.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, “Plum Bun” (1929)

Earlier, I considered Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which posited the dilemma between mobility and tradition. The hero of that story was able to escape from confinement and drudgery through most of her early life, but her commitment to the color line, her embrace of a black identity and her ultimate inability to cross that line led to a miserable later life. In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, we see another perspective on the color line. In Plum Bun, Angela Murray, is able to pass as a white (unlike her darker-skinned sister). She takes advantage of this ability, dating white men and pursuing an artistic career, but us ultimately confined by other forces: capitalism, gender, and ultimately race (which Angela can never fully escape).

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Fauset also lived near the color line herself, having been rejected from Bryn Mawr because she was black but only after attending a white school.  She was classically educated  and earned a degree at Cornell.  Despite working for one summer at Fisk, she struggled to find steady work until she starting working as literary editor for The Crisis.  Before getting involved in the literary politics of the Harlem Renaissance (helping some of the major figures of that movement get published), she had worked in both white and black institutions. He was also raised in a large, poor family.  She also had to work at low paid jobs for much of her life, finally accepting a position at De Witt Clinton high school in New York City. Despite the fame she enjoyed in the 1930s, the crude capitalist exchange of bare survival for a life-time of labor evaporated her literary career.

The color line is a theme that these Harlem Renaissance novels I have been reading come back to again and again. One of the later novels of this period, Black No More, goes as far as to create a science-fiction setting where the color line can be completely abolished with a simple medical treatment. This is just a simple reminder that while the image of the Harlem Renaissance is often centered on the lively cultural environment and the debates over the proper use of that culture, almost all of the works were deeply political in their effort to circumvent and undermine the color line.

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I was reminded of Lu Xun’s essay “What Happens When Nora Leaves Home?,” when reading this. Passing is straight forward enough (I hesitate to say easy) for those with the right complexion, but color is not the only barrier to human equality. In this way, the novel asks the question: What happens when Angela leaves home to pass as white? As it turns out, simply passing is not that simple because exposure is always near. This was a truth first described by Charles Chesnutt in the early 20th century with his work on passing. But as a poor woman, Angela faced all sorts of other challenges, which leads to her ultimate decision to stay at the edge of the color line, reflected in her romance with biracial man.

The novel opens with great optimism about the potential freedom that comes from passing. Angela’s point of view seems to be that passing in itself is liberatory, but also foreshadow her difficulties. “Freedom! That was the note which Angela heard oftenest in the melody of living which was to be hers. With a wildness that fell just short of unreasonableness she hated restraint. Her father’s earlier days as coachman in a private family, he later successful, independent years as boss carpenter, her mother’s youth spent as a maid to a famous actress, all this was to Angela a manifestation of the sort of thing which happens to those enchained in might be by duty, by poverty, by weakness or by colour.” (438) Angela’s mother was also able to pass and it was from her that she learned that it could be a rather joyful game to play. It also had market potential. Angela used her ability to pass to seek out financial security. In one sense she is as free as the main character in Quicksand but is restrained by conditions and realities, not the internal acceptance of the ideology of race.

Angela’s search for personal autonomy, made possible by her ability to pass ran into the growing emphasis on racial pride, after she settled in Harlem. “It represented, the last word in racial pride, integrity, and even self-sacrifice. Here were people of a very high intellectual type, exponents of the realest and most essential refinement living cheek by jowl with coarse or ill-bred or even criminal, certainly indifferent, members of their race.” (650) But it also meant that she could enjoy the realities social freedom she was searching for.  White supremacy seemed unable to affect the vibrancy of Harlem.  It was in its own way an enclave that was recasting the color line. In her description of Harlem, we find a hidden discourse of black nationalism.

Nella Larsen, “Quicksand” (1928)

Quicksand is the story of a biracial woman, Helga Crane, with a Danish mother and a Caribbean father. Thus, like many Harlem Renaissance novels, Quicksand deals with the color line and its simultaneous flexibility (seen in the phenomenon of passing) and rigidity (in often violent and legally regulated race relations). In the same way, Crane is both flexible—almost totally inconstant—and tied down by race and her ultimate decision to marry and become a mother.

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Nella Larsen, like Helga Crane, was the issue of a biracial couple (Danish West Indies and a Danish mother). She spent much of her life travel ling between New York City and Europe, marrying a physicist along the way and finally settling down as a nurse, where she worked until the end of her life. She wrote one important novel in addition to Quicksand, called Passing, which apparently deals also with the color line. She was active in politics throughout the 20s and 30s but fell out of public life after some public humiliations.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen

The main theme of the novel seems to be restlessness. As the novel opens she is preparing to marry and is teaching in the U.S. South. This job—particularly the conservative values of the institution—frustrates and bores her. She lacked any of the family ties or religious loyalties that might connect her to the South and she, like so many others from the South, looked to moving to the northern cities. Her rootlessness takes her to Chicago where she has some family. The racial lines make this family reunion impossible and she seeks work. After being considered over-qualified for most jobs at the employment agencies, she lands a short-term gig as an assistant to a traveling speaker. This adventure takes her to Harlem and then Denmark and finally back to the United States where she married a black preacher, despite her lack of religious beliefs.

The rest of her life is one of imprisonment and boredom. Rather than a traditional narrative of expanding liberty, Helga Crane’s story ends in the prison of marriage and repeated child birth. But there are other times we see evidence of prisons in her life, most importantly regarding race. This is most clearly seen in her inability to accept a marriage proposal from a promising youth Danish artist because of her visceral dislike of interracial marriages. This belief, despite her parents, only shows how powerfully influenced she was by American racism. This block in her mind was the ultimate cause of her later imprisonment in marriage and her unhappiness.

Her ending thoughts suggest the horror of Crane’s later life. “The thought of her husband roused in her a deep and contemptuous hatred. At his every approach she had forcibly to subdue a furious inclination to scream out in protest. Shame, too, swept over her at every thought of her marriage. Marriage. This sacred thing of which parsons and other Christian folk ranted so sanctimoniously, how immoral—according to their own standards—it could be!” (430)

But let me end this short post by looking at Crane’s wanderlust, much more fascinating, troubling, and full of potential. It is a voice from her comparative youth. “In the actuality of the pleasant present and the delightful vision of an agreeable future she was contented, and happy. She did not analyze this contentment, this happiness, but vaguely, without putting it into works of even so tangible a thing as a thought, she knew it sprang from a sense of freedom, a release from the feeling of smallness which had hedged her in, first during her sorry, unchildlike childhood.” (344)

I think we need more of the petulant discontent, if propelled into a constant re-imagination of life, not just an endless stream from grumbling.

Claude McKay, “Home to Harlem” (1928)

Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem gave me troubles about a month ago and put this blog on hiatus. This was surprising. Why would a book exploring working class life in Harlem, written by a Jamaican socialist give me such trouble, considering the themes of this blog? I am not entirely sure and I am certain I was as much bothered by my other obligations than the text itself. But, for whatever reason it slowed me down. (Maybe the tropical air is slowing my brain.) I am, thankfully, returning to the work of a few weeks ago on the Library of America’s volume of Harlem Renaissance novels from the 1920s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay began his writing career in Jamaica when he worked in the constabulary. He emigrated to the United States in 1912 for college work but did not complete his degree. He moved to Harlem at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and was immediately active in labor movements, writing for Communist and labor newspapers. He is most known for injecting a racial critique in the English-speaking left, criticizing those movements of ignoring race in general and specifically racial prejudice within the movement. He spent much of the 1920s abroad, including visiting revolutionary Russia. He did all of this in his late 20s and early 30s. He published Home to Harlem in 1928, but suffered bad reviews from some of the more puritanical participants of black American intellectual life.  As I showed earlier in this blog, one of the major debates in the Harlem Renaissance was on how to portray black life and if it should be politically distorted or describe real life. Home to Harlem clearly fits into the gritty, vulgar, and “real” depictions.

I want to stop, however, and suggest that Du Bois and other more moralistic writers are not entirely wrong. The middle class, professional, upwardly mobile, and educated people were no less a part of Harlem than the working class people scraping by on the borders of economic or moral legitimacy. Depicting real life does not necessarily take us to the gutters.

 

hometoharlem

homeharlem2

Home to Harlem follows the life of Jake, an African-American returning from fighting in France during the First World War. Like many others, he returned with a slightly more global perspective, a bit of cash, and an eagerness to find a place in America. Jake also returned to a Harlem governed by a new set of rules due to the imposition of Prohibition. While it did not stop anyone from drinking, it did make the police a greater threat to the places that Jake liked to frequent, such as the Congo Rose or the Baltimore.

One thing that the novel makes clear is that Harlem was extremely color-conscious and the legacy of interracial sex was a fully integrated part of everyday life. “Ancient black life rooted upon its base with all its fascination new layers of brown, low-brown, high-brown, nut-brown, lemon, maroon, olive, mauve, gold. Yellow balancing between black and white. Black reaching out beyond yellow. Almost-white on the brink of a change. Sucked back down into the current of black by the terribly sweet rhythm of black blood.” (166) In fact every character, especially the women, seem to be described with careful attention to their color and the metaphors for different shades are bountiful. Jake was not just color-conscious, he was also prejudice about other blacks from different regions of the Atlantic. “And as an American Negro he looked askew at foreign niggers. Africa was a jungle, and Africans bush niggers, cannibals. And West Indians were monkey-chasers.” (201)

Jake has a strong belief in working-class solidarity even if it does not quite reach the level of interracial cooperation. Like McKay, Jake understood that the unions themselves often discriminated against blacks, but that did not mean he would look kindly on scabbing. While working at the docks, he took a job but at the end of his first day he learned that he was scabbing during a wild-cat strike (unauthorized by the union). Jake states that he will look for new work but did not want to join what he assumed was a racist union. Other scabs were less conflicted, vowing to continue working.

Another theme is the strong current of gender politics. Harlem’s working class society is conflicted between sexual liberation and proprietary relationship. This is the fate of Jake’s buddy Zeddy who as, McKay explains, found himself trapped—unwillingly—into the prison on monogamy. And with real honesty, McKay seems to think that money and resources are the primary reasons people sustain these possessive bounds. “To be adored by a Negro lady of means, or of a pseudo grass-widow whose husband worked on the railroad, or of a hard-working laundress or cook. It was much more respectable and enviable to be sweet—to belong to the exotic aristocracy of sweetmen than to be just a common tout. But there were strings to Susy’s largesse. The enjoyment of Harlem’s low night life was prohibited to Zeddy. Susy was jealous of him in the proprietary sense. She believed in free love all right, but not for the man she possessed and supported. She warned him against the ornery  hussies of her race.” (177) It suggests the invasion of capitalism into our relationships. Not new, certainly, but perhaps a growing part of life in the vibrant and heavily commercialized and unequal 1920s.

The first half of the novel considers Jake’s life in Harlem after returning from the war.  In the second half, Jake takes a job on a diner car of a train, servicing the American northeast. This opens up Jakes world considerable and he learns about the African-American communities in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.  This experience also changed his views of other blacks.  More so than the experience in the war, Jake’s experience working in the dining car gave him a global perspective and allowed him to place his own history and struggles in that Atlantic context. He learned of Liberia, of ancient African kingdoms, and the legacy of empires white and black. Much of this comes from his talks with the cook, Sam, who was born in Haiti. Jake learned that the U.S. used the war as a cover for expanding their empire in the Caribbean. This seems to me to be the ideological core of the novel. Jakes service to white empires in the war did little to expand his world. Indeed, he immediately returned to his old ways and old neighborhood. Working with Sam opened his eyes.

Harlem in the 1920s

Harlem in the 1920s

That said, the novel is not primarily about lessons. It is trying peel off aspects of life for working class blacks in the 1920s: politics, gender, sexuality, work, culture, identity. I found it consistently fascinating and rich in this regard.