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.

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Jean Toomer, “Cane” (1923)

This week I will be reading the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Harlem Renaissance novels.  I considered the works from the 1930s earlier.  The five novels in this collection are from the 1920s and begins with Jean Toomer’s brilliant novel Cane.

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Cane is not a difficult novel to read, but it is impressionistic, like much of high modernist writing.  Structurally, Cane mixes short vignettes drawn from subjective experiences of different people across black America, intermixed with poems.  At the end of the novel is the only lengthy piece, a play about a school teacher.  Many of these works were published before, and as an overall theme is either hard to find or broad, Cane can be read as short stories (and it is anthologized that way often enough).  If any work contested W. E. B. Du Bois’ belief that during a time of political struggle, fiction should take on the role of propaganda, it is Cane, which sought to present life as it was lived, even down to the scents.  What propaganda cannot do well is provide subjective experiences.  In contrast, Toomer floods Cane with those very subjective experiences.  Every small section of this novel provides the perspective of another person.  Men, women, mixed race, Southern, Northern, urban, rural, middle class, poor are all represented in the short vignettes that Toomer strings together elegantly.  While a work of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is of the South.  It is either set there, or haunted by the memory of the South.  It reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance emerged from the dynamism that migration provides.  And as with any migrants, the writers of Harlem kept one foot in their old homes.  Toomer understood that he was engaged in a dialog with the the black literary establishment.  In the final section of Cane, about a teacher returning to Georgia we find the teacher getting the following explanation about why he must resign from his position.  “Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member.  This institution . . . was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice.  It purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives.  To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.” (107)  This language is not so far from that of Du Bois and other who believed that art should function to defend the image of the “New Negro.”  Toomer, of course, will have none of that.

toomerJean Toomer himself was biracial and grew up in a white community in Washington D.C.  He studied in various places, including the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts College of Agriculture before settling down in New York.  His first marriage was to a white woman, Margery Latimer, although this was short-lived due to Latimer’s death in child-birth.  Many of the stories in Cane reflect elements of his life, especially mixed race sexuality and its challenge to the color line.  Toomer stated as much when defending his first marriage.  “There is a new race in America.  I am a member of this new race.  It is neither white nor black nor in-between.  It is the American race.” (846)  Of course, such an effort to redefine race in American was a threat to the power structure, which sustained so much of its power by manipulating the color line for its own interests.  (See the scholarship on the role of race in union busting throughout American industrial history.)

Thinking about Cane from a libertarian perspective, I was often thinking about how the form of a novel can either liberate or limit a writer’s expression.  Certainly, an entire novel could have been written about “Karintha,” a young woman who is constantly desired by the older men around her.  Toomer is able to condense her story into a few pages but as a reader we do not feel at all betrayed by the apparent negligence.  Indeed, it is so packed with meaning that this short vignette feels like a meal.  In this way, the line between the poems and the stories is not large.

caneThere are two major transgressions documented by Toomer in Cane: interracial sex and mobility.  Both of these transgressions profoundly informed the Harlem Renaissance generation and both were significant challenges to the color line.   Interestingly, under slavery both of these ensured the power of the masters.  Interracial sex enforced the power of white masters over black women and mobility (the domestic slave trade) remained a threat, weapon, or means of making money for masters.  In the post-slavery world, mobility was a threat to land owners and employers who wanted an easily exploited and low paid labor supply in the South.  Interracial sex, once a tool of control, was now a threat to the color line, enforced by legal restrictions on interracial cooperation (and even interaction).  Toomer shows us through some of these stories that blacks as well as white worked to prevent these transgressions.  “Becky,” a white woman with two black sons is ostracized by both sides of the color line.  Yet, the world Toomer describes is still very open with many opportunities for those of will and the walls of power seem everywhere fragile.  While they are there, certainly.  Class is a strong theme, but we do not feel the heavy walls of the bosses bearing down the characters like in some of the more consciously class-based novels (or even compared to James Baldwin’s work, which was heavily invested in the struggle for racial equality).  Toomer’s characters are not revolutionaries. They are people, often at the margins, often seizing weak points in the system.  One of these weak points seems to be the dynamism of Harlem (or all those urban areas in the North).  “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War.  A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” (47)  Mobility grinds away at the walls of race.  This helps explain why Toomer’s stories are filled with wandering preachers, teachers moving from north to South, or students entering college in whitewashed Madison.  I am not certain if the mobile worker is truly more powerful, wise, or aware than anyone else, but in the American novel he is.

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.

Rudolph Fisher, “The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem”

I have not read a detective novel, with the exception of Poe, since my childhood.  Reading The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem was a nice reintroduction to the genre.  I do feel I am incapable of fully interpreting such a novel but I can speak to some interesting themes that pop up.  Rudolph Fisher was only thirty-seven when he died, which was not long after The Conjure-Man Dies was published.   He was fully part of the African-American urban landscape, studying at Brown and Columbia, before settling with a private medical practice in Harlem.  His primary profession was medicine but he started writing on life in Harlem as early as the 1920s and was fully a part of the literary and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance.  The Conjure-Man Dies connects his observations of Harlem as a vibrant and exciting place with his technical medical knowledge.  Together they make for a fascinating mystery.  In the novel, we are confronted with a supernatural event which is slowly broken down, through medical and detective work, into a fully explicable (yet fascinating) slice of life in 1930s Harlem.

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I suppose etiquette demands I do not reveal the plot in too much detail.  It revolves around a “conjure-man,” Frimbo, who is murdered.  But Frimbo shows up soon alive and well and the body disappears.  As a local practitioner of various let us call them, spiritual services, Frimbo made some enemies.  He is an well-educated African with access to knowledge both supernatural and scientific.  He is able to converse with confidence one of the lead investigators, Dr. John Archer.   The other investigator is one “of the ten Negro members of Harlem’s police force to be promoted from the rank of patrolman to that of detective,” a man named Perry Dart.  (383)  This novel is of historical interest because it is the first mystery novel by a black writer, with all-black characters.  I struggle to think of another example.

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One theme of the novel explores the power of magic and the supernatural among the people of Harlem.  Frimbo’s power and his large number of enemies comes from his position as a spiritualist, with ties to Africa.  Yet, true power came from education and the application of knowledge.  Frimbo, Archer and Dart dominate the novel because of their knowledge and ability to us reason.  All the strange events can be explained as natural scheming and Frimbo’s magic powers are all explained.  Fisher seems to be on the side of science and rather scornful of superstition.  What I do not know is if this is a common motif in detective novels of that era.  Fisher may be less overtly political and more a product of the genre.  His personal history and the text itself suggest his consciousness of the power of superstition, religion, and magic among his Harlem neighbors.  As a doctor, he may have heard his share of stories from patients.

In the debate discussed in my last two posts about the role of art, Fisher seems to have found a nice middle ground.  Perhaps the genre choice gave him this freedom to sit above the fray.  He does document the rich, vibrant and gritty life of Harlem, with colorful characters, deceivers, and crooks.  But my praising education and upward mobility so strongly, Fisher is not unaffected by the arguments of Du Bois and Alaine Locke, that art should serve as propaganda.

Mostly, it is a fun novel and genuinely surprising.