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?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Blithedale Romance,” (1852)

“Thus the summer was passing away; a summer of toil, of interest, of something that was not pleasure, but which went deep into my heart, and there became a rich experienced. I found myself looking forward to years, if not to a lifetime, to be spent on the same system.” (745)

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Nathaniel Hawthorne tells us in the introduction The Blithedale Romance, the third in a series of later career works that solidified his place in American letters, that the utopian community that he lived in, Brook Farm, was indeed the model for Blithedale, the fictional Utopian socialist agrarian community where the novel is set. He says that he chose it because it is the setting that is “removed from the highway of normal travel” and would allow certain literary freedoms without “exposing them too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.” In short, he claimed not to be making a position on Utopianism, Brook Farm, or any creative efforts at radical reform of society. However, this work comes between his two works of retelling the Greek myths for American children (A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales). Given that context, it seems that creative alternatives were very much on his mind in these years. Having viciously deconstructed the legacy of history in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, this novel at least gave Hawthorne a setting to consider alternatives to the past and the crazy democratic capitalist environment of the 1840s and 1850s. We also know that Hawthorne was very influenced by his time at Brook Farm. He associated closely with Transcendentalists (some of whom are mentioned in The Blithedale Romance) and valued his time there, even if he believed that in the end he was better placed in the world as it is, not the world that might be. For that reason and because I have not touched intentional communities in quite a while, want to discuss the Blithedale as a vision of an alternative and its perils.

brook farm

Images of Brook Farm

Images of Brook Farm

The major criticisms of intentional communities come forth in various ways in this novel. One such criticism is that small communities will tend not toward consensus but toward petty factionalism. That this is true of non-intentional communities as well (see university departments) is beside the point. This is revealed through the continuous tension between the narrator Coverdale and the social reformer Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth sees Blithesdale as an experiment for the reform of prisoners. He symbolizes the typical exuberant reformism of the era but also the tendency of founders of intentional communities to project their values on the society they create. Coverdale is more neutral in terms of purpose and seems to enjoy the community for the pleasure and meaning it gives his own life. He lashes out at one point saying: “In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth, cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” (750–751)

A second criticism of intentional communities is related. Since they are so small, they will create petty tyrants who have dictatorial power over the members of the community. Again, we need only look at many a workplace where a pathetic middle manager dominates colleagues to know that this is not simply a fault of Utopian experiments, but inherent in our institutions. At one point the founders sit together and think about a time, years in the future, when they will be looked at as mythical founders of the community, the stuff of legends. Zenobia, one of the leaders and another reformer, is a clear leader as is Hollingsworth. At various times they seem at risk of centralizing power and directing its development. In fact, we see quite little of the democratic institutions of consensus that we might expect in intentional communities. The discussions they do have tend to be theoretical and devoted to the works of Fourier. When May-Day becomes a festival day, Coverdale does not even know that was due to “Zenobia’s sole decree, or by the unanimous vote of our Community.” (682) This suggests that direct democracy and dictatorship coexisted in Blithedale.

Yet another criticism is that intentional communities, due to their isolation from their neighbors, tends to cultivate strange ideas and religious practices. Again, this explains the Puritans as much as it does the some new religious movement living in a community. Perhaps the clearest picture of this is the Veiled Lady occurrence, which emerges into a myth re-told by Zenobia. But it is also seen in the cultivation of distinctive Sabbath-day practices.

Hawthorne does interrogate the presumption of many Utopian socialists that hard labor could facilitate or at least co-exist alongside intellectual activity. Given the right social context, there is no reason why a hard working farmer could not write brilliant poetry. Hawthorne questions this idea. “The yeomen and the scholar—the yeoman and the man of finest moral culture, though not the man of sturdiest sense and integrity—are two distinct individuals, and can never be melted or welded into one substance.” (689) I am not sure I would put it quite this way. For me, it is simpler. A body bound by labor is simply not a good receptacle for an active and creative mind. Better to liberate us from work and allow all people to explore their innate creativity than to force it in at the end of the day. (We also notice that cramming one hour of band practice into a day of preparation for standardized tests will not, in a million years, produce musicians.)

But of these, the strongest criticism of intentional communities in the novel is that personalities seem to interfere with the stability and success of the community. Within this short novel, there is a surprising amount of fighting, often with quite bitter words, between community members.

There is much that is impressive about Blithedale, despite these difficulties. I think most important is that the characters actual come to know and understand each other quite well. Yes, it causes conflicts, but they are, as often as not, based on shared solidarity and not animus. Even if people came to Blithedale for different reasons, they shared a commitment to its success, if not all of its socialist presumptions.

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Blithedale does have a strong woman leader in the character of Zenobia at a time when women could not vote and married women could not own their own property. Historians have long known that social reform was a way that women established a place of power in patriarchal antebellum America. If Zenobia is akin to Margaret Fuller, it seems that the community itself was not capable of breaking down any of the gender barriers in itself, it just attracted brilliant and autonomous women. The narrator often takes pains to point out how Zenobia is atypical. Whether these communities were liberating for women is a question we can only begin to investigate here.

Finally, Hawthorne makes clear that Blithesdale was an economic success. Despite hardship, jealousy of neighboring farmers, and broad disbelief that they could be successful, Blithedale thrived.

So, intentional communities are a mixed bag, as are any other community. In any case, too much planning tends to lead us to think like states.

“I rather imagine that your appreciation falls short of Mr. Hollingswoth’s just claims. Blind enthusiasm, absorption in one idea, I grant, is generally ridiculous, and must be fatal to the respectability of an ordinary man.; it requires a very high and powerful character, to make it otherwise. But a great man—as, perhaps, you do not know—attains his normal condition only through the inspiration of oneo great idea. . . . There can be no truer test of the noble and heroic, in any individual, than the degree in which he possesses the faculty of distinguishing heroism from absurdity.” (777)