AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

Lecture 10

 - The New Negroes (continued)

Overview

The Harlem Renaissance brought together legions of black writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals who celebrated black culture and romanticized its connections to an African past. In this lecture, Professor Holloway documents some of the expressions of the Harlem Renaissance (also known as the New Negro Renaissance), the political and cultural movement that claimed Harlem as its figurative capital. In fact, thousands of African Americans flocked to Harlem, and it became the center of a rich cultural and political environment–one always fraught with complications, but still understood to represent the best that black America had to offer. As Professor Holloway shows, white enthusiasts of these newly-admired cultural forms visited Harlem to get a taste of black life. Indeed, without the financial support of the white community, whatever cultural efflorescence that did exist in Harlem would have been significantly less grand. Yet the tensions between white patrons and black artists, as well as between black intellectuals and black artists, made the Harlem Renaissance a complex movement.

Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.

 
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 10 - The New Negroes (continued)

Chapter 1. Countee Cullen Poem: “Heritage” [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  When I lectured on Monday about Marcus Garvey and a little bit about Father Divine, what I was trying to get at–towards the end was the complicated texture of, for the lack of a better phrase, of– pardon me. You know, one should always remember to turn one’s cell phone off, especially if you’re giving the lecture. One thing I wanted to get at was the complicated texture of that moment as far as the position and ideology of these important black leaders, their competing philosophies, where their philosophies overlap, and then the maybe sometimes unpredictable ways that their followers might embrace all or parts of–of their political, ideological agenda. There is no single leader for this moment that I’m talking about for today, which is, you know, loosely called the Harlem Renaissance. Now I’ll–I’ll unpack that later on. But it’s certainly an era and a moment filled with all kinds of conflicting and competing narratives. And one of my goals–really my main goal today is to sort of begin to add texture to the Harlem Renaissance and add some complicating narratives that I think get us closer to the truth as it was experienced on the ground.

To help us in that direction, I’m going to start with a poem. It’s actually a very long poem, I’m only–and I’m only going to read a short part of it. And there’s many different versions of the poem. But what I’ll be–the parts I’ll be reading from are really sort of the most common overlapping stanzas, as it were. It’s a poem by the writer Cull–Countee Cullen. Let me just launch right into it.

“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

This last line here is often thought of as, you know, “what is Africa to me?” the question. It’s thought of as the title of the poem. It’s not the title of the poem. The title’s much more complicated, as we’ll see in a moment. Cullen continues in the poem: “Africa? A book one thumbs, Listlessly, till slumber comes.”  He then launches into an extended exploration of the naturalism of the African scene that defined to him what Africa was. You know, you would have herds of animals, you know, flowing through the savannah, while, you know, strong, black, beautiful couples were coupling in the–in the savannah. They were in their element, a place of animals. Africa, as you see in Cullen’s poem, was not a place that he had any personal knowledge of, but it’s a place that is, quote, “a book one thumbs.”  It’s a place that you discover through someone else’s words, through someone else’s interpret–interpretation, through knowledge that’s passed down. And in this way, Africa is a place of heritage, and that’s the actual name of the poem, it’s called Heritage. Continuing along in the poem, after going through these sort of naturalistic, animalistic, exotic scenes, Cullen continues,

“Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had bone–borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.

All day long and all night through,
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the driest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.”

And now I know I gave you like four or five stanzas really quickly here. There’s–A few things that I hope that you are hearing in this reading. Cullen wrestling with the cost of conversion, religious conversion, a complicated recognition of civilization, and the very conscious evocation of race pride. Cullen writes, “My conversion came high-priced; I belong to Jesus Christ.”  It’s his own recognition, I think, that even when though–even though he’s trained in the technique of high European arts–this is a very formalized poem after all, formalistic–the “blessing,” in quotes, of training in civilization came at a high price. I mean, through this poem the, the–you see the, the, the narrator talking about this Africa he doesn’t know, landing in this naturalized, exotic setting, and then wrestling with what he sees as religion, thinking, “Oh, well this is really backwards,” and thinking, “Well, maybe it’s actually something different. Maybe I can’t actually see it because of the way I’ve been trained.”  And that “it” he’s talking about is civilization.

Cullen acknowledged–or the narrator acknowledges, as the poem goes forward, that Africans were civilized. Throughout the poem–I mean, by the end of the poem, you realize that throughout the poem he’s wrestling with the question, “Well, you know, I know I’m civilized. I’ve been converted. I belong to Jesus Christ.”  But, you know, these–these dark–these, these, these rods–these, these gods, excuse me, they’re fashioning out of “dark and brittle rods,” maybe there’s something to that as well. And what he’s really bemoaning, I think, is the fact that it took him so long to understand that these Africanist belief systems, this fashioning of many different kinds of dark gods, that he actually saw something desirable in it as well; that he often wished his god, something you can’t see and can’t hear in the reading of it, but you see in the print, with, you know, he’s capitalizing “He” and “You” often, that he wishes his god were a god that looked black, or looked, you know, black African.

And so it’s the pain of discovery that he has lost something in the process of gaining something. He wished that, quote, “He I served were black” and that if there were a black god, if one could imagine it, one could extend a belief system such that there’d be recognized–a recognition in the United States that black Americans might have some purchase–a different interpretation, certainly, but a purchase–on one of those most treasured things of being civilized, a formalized religious belief system, that a white god could be a black god and still be a god. It’s a powerfully complex poem, speaks to all these different issues: verbalized pride in the natural beauty and bounty of Africa, at the same time speaking ashamedly of its simplicity; illuminating as it does that heritage is something of which one can be proud, but also something about which one can feel exquisite pain. And the speaker clearly feels, by the end of the poem, remorse about being torn in these two different directions.

Toward the end of the poem, he asks forgiveness, after all, for the actions he takes that he feels are necessitated by the strange cruelties and ironies of heritage. He says, “Lord, forgive me if my need sometimes shapes a human creed.”  This last phrase, “Lord, forgive me if my need sometimes shapes a human creed,” really is a metaphor that I want to use. I want to use it as a metaphor, deploy it if you will, to help us get a purchase on the New Negro Renaissance. And one quick caveat here–and I’ve already–in fact, I’ve already done it–I’ll talk about the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro–New Negro Renaissance. Just for your understanding, I’m talking about the exact same thing. This is actually old habit. For the longest time when I was being trained and educated, if–and we talked about the era, it’s always about the Harlem Renaissance. In the last twenty years or so, that, well probably a little more than that, but the–the use of Harlem Renaissance has faded in many quarters, with the reference to New–to the New Negro Renaissance as well. And I–I should be detailing some of that in today’s lecture. But for me, this is just–it’s old habit, but with a recognition of a much more common, and I think accurate, depiction of how you’d understand this era, and that is the–as, excuse me, the New Negro Renaissance.

Whatever I’m going to call it in this lecture, I want you to think of the Renaissance as a moment where issues of culture, where politics, where economics, where social psychology, and perhaps even social pathology–not even perhaps, certainly social pathology, come crashing together. Collectively, these things, culture, politics, economics, social psychology and pathology, collectively forging a human creed out of a human need.

Chapter 2. Gwendolyn Bennett Poem: “Heritage” [00:11:06]

In the time that remains, I’m going to canvass the Renaissance, hitting some of the famous high spots, calling your attention to some lesser known moments, and suggesting some alternative ways to think about what the Renaissance actually is.

Let’s go back to Countee Cullen’s “Heritage.”  This is seen as one of the hallmark poems of the Renaissance. If you come across some selections of Cullen’s poetry and anthologies, you’ll be sure to see this poem cited. But there’s another poem called, also called “Heritage” that preceded Cullen’s. It was written by an artist named Gwendolyn Bennett. Renaissance historians don’t really have much to say about Bennett. Much of her work, her paintings, her sculpture, her writings, much of the work was destroyed by an angry father and stepmother, who wanted her to do something “useful” with her life. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on her work, and to think about the fact that what we–and, and to think about the fact that what we see here, read, about the Renaissance, has far too little to do with the women artists during the period. There were a lot of them doing important work. Anyway, “Heritage” by Gwendolyn Bennett. It’s a much shorter poem but, well you’ll see, you’ll see why I read it.

“I want to see the slim palm-trees,
Pulling at the clouds
With little pointed fingers…

I want to see lithe Negro girls
Etched dark against the sky
While sunset lingers.

I want to hear the silent sands,
Singing to the moon
Before the Sphinx-still face…

I want to hear the chanting
Around a heathen fire
Of a strange black race.

I want to breathe the Lotus flow’r,
Sighing to the stars
With tendrils drinking at the Nile…

I want to feel the surging
Of my sad people’s soul,
Hidden by a minstrel-smile.”

Like Cullen–and this is–I mean Cullen’s poem is quite famous; this one is sort of an afterthought. Like Cullen, Bennett has a highly romanticized notion of what one would find in Africa. Also like Cullen, Bennett has an angry coda in her poem that recognizes the painful side of heritage as well. Africa has exotic strength, natural beauty, grace, but it’s also been seen as the birthplace of a people who have to hide their pain behind a “minstrel-smile.” 

Chapter 3. The New Negro Renaissance [00:13:47]

So if taking these two poems together, black America’s heritage presents such a quandary. What are we to make of the New Negro Renaissance?  There are at least two critical things to know about the Renaissance, at least for the purposes of this class and the examinations. It needs to be thought of as a movement, and it needs to be thought of as a movement of binaries. And I’ll be getting to that in a moment. I’ll be getting to–I mean, you might want to take the notes down. I’ll be talking a bit about the binaries in a moment, but these are the binaries that I–that I think are worth thinking about.

Now what makes it a movement?  As I said at the beginning of the lecture, it has no singular leader like Garvey, or Du Bois, or Father Divine, or Booker T. Washington. But I think we could consider it a movement, because to understand the Renaissance, one has to understand a broad range of things that, taken together, have coherence. It’s a movement involve–that involves the written word. It’s a movement that involves the theater. It’s a movement that involves music. It’s a movement that involves the material arts, sculpture and painting. It’s a movement that involves film. It’s a movement that involves club life, as you see detailed in this–this very intense book I’ve asked you to read this week. And it’s also a movement of white infatuation.

Now as I said, and I’ll start–I’ll start detailing these in a moment, it’s also a movement of binaries, they’re on the screen there. It’s American and it’s African. It’s urban and it’s rural. It embraces high culture and low, or folk culture. It’s about racial independence and about patronage. So the Renaissance is this moment of astonishing cultural production going in many different directions, expressed in many different ways, but it grows out of certain real demographic changes, political changes, social, psychological changes as well. Very simply, the migration grows out of–I mean, excuse me, the Renaissance grows out of the Great Migration. You can’t have the Renaissance really without the migration. Now remember, the migration was not literally from a field in Alabama to New York City–New York City’s Harlem, although some certainly did make that journey in that way. The migration was moving in fits and starts, forward and back, backward and forwards, North to South again, a little further north, maybe to Midwest to North. It’s a movement of, sort of a general level of chaos but tending and trending towards the North and urban centers.

That soup of the migration is rather important because if you are from the fields in Alabama and find yourself six months later–say you’ve been picking cotton in Alabama and now you’re working in a, in a coal field–a coal mine in West Virginia and you’re there for another year, it’s not just about your labor, but it’s about a kind of cultural exchange, your ways of looking at the world, the kind of foods you eat and the way you prepare them, the songs that are important to you. There is, with this migration, a profound cultural sharing of experiences, just by happenstance. When you move people, their ideas and their values move with them, and they clash or they mix, depending on the circumstance, in generative ways. So the Renaissance develops out of the fact that the culture is moving with the people to different places. And when you have such an intense change in places like Chicago, or Detroit, or New York City in terms of demographics, there’s a heightened sense of, of, of cultural tension, and that’s what’s really so important about the Renaissance’s connection to the migration, and why Harlem is often thought of as the, as the, as the–referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, because Harlem does become the focal point for so much of these artistic changes, although they are happening everywhere.

The Renaissance develops out of World War I injustices, and soldiers returning home, and the heightened racial awareness that grows out of it. I ended last week’s lecture with Countee Cullen’s, you know, “If We Must Die,” often seen as, sort of, one of the, the, the, the call to arms in a sense, for the Harlem Renaissance poets, in retrospect. The Renaissance develops out of an intense black political impatience. I’ll explain more about that in a moment. It’s–It would be nowhere, the Renaissance, without patronage, and it wouldn’t–and it wouldn’t be nearly what it was if you didn’t have technological developments, in terms of the publication–publishing industry and entertainment industry, literally, how you produce records, mass marketing. The Renaissance wouldn’t have spread as broadly as it did without these changes as well. So there’s some technical aspects to it.

Now let me try to narrow things down a little bit on the Renaissance itself. You know, it involves these different things, these different kinds of artistic expressions. It involves the different forces, you know sort of combined in a such a way to make such an important moment, but, you know, what are its boundaries?  The Renaissance–I mean the short answer is, we don’t really know. We kind of generally agree, we being people who agree with me. The–But most historians really point to the Renaissance starting in 1919. There are certainly moments here and there where you, you know, have artists coming together doing some bold and interesting things prior to that. There’s no doubt about it. But in terms of a self-consciousness, a collective self-conscious, a will to change, it’s when the black soldiers return home. It’s when the cities go up in flames and black communities are targeted, and it’s given to Countee Cullen publishing this really spectacular poem–excuse me, Claude McKay, publishing “If We Must Die.”  And if I said earlier–mental rewind–if I said Countee Cullen with “If We Must Die,” it is Claude McKay, just to make sure I didn’t misspeak.

Now that beginning, so we’ll, you know, we’ll stick with 1919 for this course. This is a pretty accepted start point for the Harlem Renaissance, New Negro Renaissance. Its end point is really much murkier. Many will point to the stock market crash in 1929, and there’s compelling reasons, because once disposable income dries up, it’s much harder to patronize a club or support an artist. So if the Renaissance continues after 1929, it’s certainly diminished. But if you stop it at 1929, you would actually cut out from the Harlem Renaissance conversation a lot of its most famous artists and writers whose work really comes to be known in the 1930s. So 1929 is a bit harsh of a cut off. We can move it into the 1930s easily, with the growth of the federal government and the New Deal and the–and the support the New Deal gives to artists of all colors and backgrounds. And you might even carry it up to 1941 when the U.S. enters the Second World War. This might even be stretching it a little bit. A few people even say the Renaissance never ended; it just kind of quieted down. I think for our purposes, to have it–a useful understanding of the Renaissance, we really need to think of it as an inter-war phenomenon, 1919 to certainly the early 1930s, with less clarity maybe to 1941. The end point is less important to me.

Chapter 4. The White Patrons’ Fascination with Black Cultural Performance and Ability [00:22:11]

Now within this vague realm of the timeline, there is an important marker that there’s no debating: 1925 is universally recognized as a pivotal moment in the history of the Renaissance. Maybe it began with Claude McKay’s poem, but a pivotal moment is the 1925 publication of a journal, a special issue of a journal called Survey Graphic. It was edited, this special issue, edited by this man, Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at Howard University. People recognized–Locke was one of these people–that there was something happening in terms of cultural production. There were a lot of, you know, art shows, a lot of new music forms, a rise in popularity and certainly consumption. He goes, you know, “I want to tap, I want to gather up this moment, as we can do it in a journal” and so he gathers a collection of poems, excerpts from plays, essays, and short stories, that represented in Locke’s mind the new spirit in black America. The special edition of Survey Graphic is published as a book. It’s expanded and published as a book, edited by Locke, that is recognized as the bible of the Renaissance, and that book is called The New Negro.

Now you remember the, the phrase New Negro goes back to Booker T. Washington’s, you know, popularizing of it at the turn of the century. It becomes more commonplace with this changing mentality. Soldiers come home, World War I, and really starts to go through the culture with Alain Locke’s publication of the New Negro in 1926. The journal becomes–a special issue of the journal becomes an expanded book. I mentioned earlier that one of the things you need to think about the–the Renaissance is thinking of it as a movement, a movement engaging politics. Locke, a philosopher, was convinced that culture, that thing he’s trying to gather up in the book New Negro¸ culture was a political battleground. He was explicit on these terms–this issue. The Renaissance in Locke’s term, in Locke’s opinion, was all about a fight for cultural recognition. And then once that recognition was gained, it was about political freedom and equality. That once black Americans could demonstrate that they have something to–something to contribute to the world from a cultural standpoint, others would have no choice but to recognize that they had something of value, and they would be embraced and given their political freedom of full equal rights.

You can hear this in the opening and closing quotes from Locke’s introduction to the book, The New Negro. On the New Negro mentality, Locke says,

“For the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life.”

On the value of culture to political possibility, Locke says the following:

“It must be increasingly recognized that the Negro has already made very substantial contributions, not only in his folk-art music especially–not only in his folk-art, music especially, which has always found appreciation, but in larger, though humbler and less acknowledged ways. … A second crop of the Negro’s gifts promises still more largely. He now becomes a conscious contributor and lays aside the status of beneficiary and ward for that of a collaborator and participant in American civilization. … The especially cultural recognition they win should in turn prove the key to that revaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further betterment of race relationships.”

Culture is the key for Locke. So Locke really, I mean literally saw the Renaissance as a political movement, shrouded in the cloth of culture. Locke talks as some length about the folk culture that so often defined, for good or for bad, black life in America. And to be sure, this is part of the heritage that many Renaissance artists hailed in their work. But the celebration of folk art styles, rhythms, and voices becomes very complicated when we consider white infatuation, or where scholars will often use the phrase, the “white gaze.”  “The white gaze.”  What do we mean by the white gaze?  Talking about, literally in some ways, the people who come to Harlem clubs to witness and experience the, quote, “delirious” social scene in Harlem. White patrons coming to clubs, clubs where blacks are performing in Harlem, that blacks could not go into as patrons themselves.

Now that’s a literal. He’s talking about white bodies buying tickets to see black performances. But less literally, the gaze I’m talking about described white patrons’ fascination, not just with black cultural performance, but cultural ability. You have prominent patrons like Albert Barnes, the famous art collector, a white man who praised blacks’, quote, “authentic and native talent.”  And these are very loaded words. You know, what is authentic, after all? What do you mean when you say native?  What kind of baggage is being carried with that?  Now Barnes was recognized as a great patron of the arts and as a great, as the phrase was of the time, “a friend of the race.”  No one doubted, you know, his credentials in that regard. And Locke, Locke recognized this and wanted to have Barnes in his collection. He’s an important figure, playing an important role in the cultural development or the propagation of African American cultural skills. So Barnes has the second essay in The New Negro. And he says the following:

“That there should have developed a distinctively Negro art in America was natural and inevitable. A primitive race, transported into an Anglo-Saxon environment and held in subjection to that fundamentally–fundamentally alien influence, was bound to undergo the soul stirring experiences which always find their expression in great art. … The most important element to be considered is the psychological complexion of the Negro as he inherited it from his primitive ancestors and which he maintains to this day. The outstanding characteristics are his tremendous emotional endowment, his luxuriant and free imagination and a truly great power of individual expression. He has in superlative measure that fire and light which, coming from within, bathes his whole world, colors his images and impels him to expression. The Negro is a poet by birth. … The white man in the mass cannot compete with the Negro in spiritual endowment. Many centuries of civilization have attenuated his original gifts and have made his mind dominate his spirit.”

Now I know I’ve talked about civilization and civilizing ideologies some–you know, a lot to date in this course. But one reason I share this quote, because it is–it is the, the currency that a lot of these–these black leaders and white leaders share in terms of really who is to be saved, who is to be fought for, who has certain gifts. And Barnes, as dated as this language sounds today, and even condescending, he was being quite clear in his admiration of blacks’ cultural gifts. Now he also thought that that’s because they were really not quite fully civilized, but they were in touch with something more primal than whites. Whites no longer–they used to have it. They could no longer be in touch with this part of their spirit because their minds had become overdeveloped.

Now fascination with–pardon me one second here. The–the fascination from the patrons’ standpoint would be complicated in the sense of Albert Barnes, an incredibly important art collector, supporter of the arts and black artistic production, but with these sort of interesting world views. You have other patrons like Charlotte Mason who, rather wealthy and supported the artists in a different way than Barnes. Barnes would buy their art; Charlotte Mason, you know, had artists on retainer, most famously Zora Neale Hurston and, at one point, Langston Hughes as well. And Zora Neale Hurston, whose most famous work comes out a little bit later in the 1930s–this is sort of the issue of stretching the Renaissance a bit. Essentially, Charlotte Mason would, you know, give Zora Neale Hurston a place–have Zora Neale Hurston stay in her apartment, and then would give her assignments. Zora Neale Hurston, training as an anthropologist, and Mason would send her down South to go and explore an area, and then come back and “tell me stories” about this native folk in, you know, the backwaters of Georgia.

Now–and Hurston would do this. I mean she didn’t have any other resources, but there were times when she would push back against the patron who insisted on being called “Godmother.”  She pushed back saying, you know, “I don’t want to do this. I want to do something else.”  And Mason said, “Well, I want you to do what I asked you to do.”  So this patronage thing becomes very complicated, especially when you consider that Mason also was asking Hurston to be her housekeeper at the same time. Langston Hughes was under Mason’s umbrella until he got in a fight–Langston Hughes, incredibly–sort of the poet laureate of the Renaissance–got in a huge fight with Mason and with Hurston and was sort of cut off essentially. So patronage was complicated in terms that are quite literal, in terms of “I’m no longer going to put food on the table for you,” or “I’m going to kick you out of my apartment.” 

Patronage could be complicated in other ways also, and this is actually a local story. It turns out that if you want to study the Harlem Renaissance, the best place in the world to do so is a few blocks away at the Beinecke. It has the largest collection of African American literature, arts, sculpture, and paintings for this period. The other great repository is down in New York City, the Schomburg Research Center, but for the Renaissance, you need to come to Yale. Carl Van Vechten, white writer, artist, photographer, and a great supporter of the arts in New York City in sort of salon culture, really connected a lot of black artists and white artists together, and a lot of black artists and white patrons together. And he convinced his friends, his black artist friends, you know, “Why don’t you give your papers or your collections to Yale when it’s time?”  And then he convinced a lot of his white artist friends to give their stuff to Fiske University, historically black college, when it was their time. The thinking was that black scholars would study black artists and vice versa, and they would have to go to these other institutions and sort of cross pollinate in some sort of way. I mean–and there’s actually a lot of truth in what Van Vechten set up as a, as a model.

It’s also rather funny the way that–that libraries, you know, have this–this coding. You all know that, you know, you’ll find U.S. History in E185 point whatever. Well, in the Beinecke, a lot of their holdings are–I think Z is the beginning of, of, you know, rare books collection–ZA blank. And for the James Weldon Johnson collection, which is the umbrella for the, the works that Van Vechten got brought over to Yale, it’s ZAN for “Negro.”  I mean, it’s just this–it’s just the way things get coded. I mean this is our culture in which we live. Anyway, Carl Van Vechten was responsible for having created at Yale an amazing repository of black arts. He’s also responsible for writing a very controversial book. And this is not super high quality, but a copy of its cover, Negro–Nigger Heaven, a book that a lot of other black leaders were, were horrified that he would turn on the race in a sense. But some are saying, well–it’s about Harlem. It’s about the Renaissance, and it’s about the–it’s really not–shall we say, it’s a clumsy book. It’s very overwrought and dramatic. It’s about, you know, the mysterious beat of the tom-tom, and, you know, the, the whirling dancers and all these sort of things, highly romanticized. You can see here, you know, highly stylized African material forms as well.

Some black leaders thought this was, you know, spot on, exactly right. Others, most, were actually horrified that Van Vechten would publish a book like this, certainly with this title. So patronage coming in different forms was, was complicated, just flat out complicated. And that’s partly what Scene of Harlem Cabaret you’re reading for this week is getting at. Now I mentioned earlier, we need to think of the Renaissance as a movement, and one that involved white fascination, and also as a movement of binaries that combined, a movement that combined in one space seeming opposites. The most important binary in this regard is America and Africa. That Africa was being hailed and celebrated at all was revolutionary. And I don’t want to dismiss this point of the Renaissance, because it’s really quite important. That Africa, the lands–the land mass and its people, was being interpreted as contributing something worthwhile to civilization was a radical break. And one can see this often in the famous work by Aaron Douglas, who actually did this cover, but also produced a lot of other art from the Renaissance–that is recognized as some of the most important paintings, visual art, from the Renaissance.

And you see in Douglas an artist doing sort of the heavy lifting of bringing African cultural styles, you know, starkly angular, and bringing them into an American narr–narration, into an American scene. And we can see this really in several murals that he–it’s a six-panel mural that’s at the Schomburg Research Center in New York City. And there’s several of–these are, you know, they’re actually bigger than this, large scale paintings, that tell a story of the African diaspora to the United States and what this diaspora involves. In–and I’ll show you four of these panels. In the first, you have the Negro in an African setting, an exhortation of the culturally vibrant African past, with the ring shout religious tradition being practiced and drums, dances in the state of ecstasy. And you’ll see in these images I’m going to show you here [points up at slide] themes of, well-stylized forms, but also circles and light. That’s what ties the images, the paintings, together.

[next slide] You have the arrival of the ships in this painting, Africans now in shackles, not knowing what their future possesses, holds for them. Ships coming to see them. You have a beam of light coming in from the distance, as you’ll see, sort of forming a triangle you’ll see in other images. [next slide] You see it again right away here. Now you have an ideal of the deep South. We see echoes of the African past, certainly in the body forms and shapes. We also see, right–going from right–from your right to your left, expressions of hard labor, of celebration in the circle, again, invoking the, the ring circle, playing African–instruments with African roots like the banjo, but also playing the guitar. The movement heads you from right to left, and you see in the distance, to the left, the North Star. This is that beam of light cutting through, the North Star as a path toward freedom. What you also see though, and I can’t reach it. I’ll use the mouse to get up there. Up here, right here, see somebody hung and a lynch rope coming down. So the ideal of the deep South is hard work, cultural celebration, tragedy, horrific tragedy, and a future elsewhere. And what was elsewhere? 

[next slide] The promised land. Shackles are broken right here. The Civil War is mentioned visually. The promised land, the land of factories in the future. You have in these images–and I’ve gone through very quickly, looking at my time–the binaries of, you know, African primitive–prim–primitiveness–that can’t be the right word. Civilized, organized, North, freedom, industrial. The tragedies and the triumphs involved in the migration from one place to another. You also have in–and that’s in the visual arts, in one sort of expressive moment–you have this binary, this wrestling with the African-ness and the American-ness in poetry as well. I mean, you’ve heard some of the messier versions in Countee Cullen’s heritage. Langston Hughes the–again one of the most famous artists of prose in the Renaissance, writes the poem, “Negro Speaks of Rivers.”  It’s often hailed as sort of one of the great documents of the Renaissance.

Langston Hughes:  The poem is, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. It was written when I was 18 years old

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  No pressure.

Langston Hughes:  just out of high school. It goes like this.

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human
veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” 

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  I don’t think we need to spend much time interpreting this poem, but it is seen as, again, one of these great documents that ties together a lot of the different strands of the Renaissance. Hughes is talking about the great rivers of the world, and he’s also talking about places where there were ancient civilizations. And he’s connecting these great rivers with ancient civilizations that were black African civilizations. And he’s saying, sort of, deep in my blood, I’ve known them all, I, sort of the black man, the black individual, knows them all. “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”  So there is in the Renaissance a harkening back to an ancient time and a place. Even in this poem’s simplicity, we see this harkening back and this, this reaching for something of value in a civilized past. Now this reaching back to an African past, although remarkable for even the fact of celebrating anything African, was not without controversy.

A figure named George Schuyler, popular syndicated column–columnist and author who becomes–who’s a gadfly sort of and becomes incredibly conservative over the next thirty or forty years. He’s un–politically unpredictable at this point. He writes an essay called “The Negro Art Hokum” in The Nation, the magazine called The Nation. And he says that Negro Americans, his words, were “little more than lamp–lamp blacked Anglo-Saxons;” that the best black artists merely imitated white style, highly stylized European style, and failed to demonstrate their own. That any black art worth knowing was really–you know, a white artist would have done the same thing, but maybe with a black subject. A week later, Langston Hughes, who you just heard him reading his own poem, responds with a very famous document, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  This is in your reading of course. Seen as also another central text of the era. And he says in that piece it’s the duty of the black artist to reach back, to sort of speak of rivers, if you will, and develop the culture that defined their life, be it African, rural, or southern. Blacks had to make–had to make a claim, according to Hughes, had to make a claim on their own blackness, articulated it in their own terms, and in their own ways. They were not lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons. They were their own being.

But articulating blackness could mean different things, of course. Even if one distanced himself or herself from the highly stylized African past, something that’s often seen in sort of these condescending ways, like through people like Carl Van Vechten with his, you know, mysterious tom-tom and such, where black Americans, if they’re not African, well, are they southern?  What does it mean to be southern?  Are they rural?  What does it mean to be rural?  These are some of these early things I mentioned at the beginning of the lecture about what the Renaissance was. It was pulling from all these different kinds of lived experiences and imagined experiences, but never without controversy. Black leaders were angry at Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. And if you remember back a week or so, with Sterling Brown even, for writing in dialect, for using folk dialect. So many black leaders and other black artists are saying, “Look, we’re not going to be respected if we start, you know, talking like ‘the folk.’  We don’t want to celebrate that. We want to celebrate these highly stylized forms.”  So what do you get?  You get profoundly mixed messages about what is valued and what is valuable during this era.

Revealing block–excuse me, black folk dialect was counterproductive to the political project that Du Bois– that Locke envisioned, of demonstrating black excellence. Just hang on with me a couple more minutes here. The desire to move away from the rural folk experience was also accompanied by a heightened sense of blacks as exotic. The white gaze in the US and abroad made superstars out of performers like Josephine Baker, who in the–this publicity still you see here, one of her most famous images that was marketed, famous for her banana dance. Not getting any traction in the U.S., she goes off to France and becomes a humongous star in France. But it makes you wonder at what cost, you know, at what cost did this conversion come, harking back to the beginning of the class?  What was lost when Baker develops her power and her international fame when she dons the banana skirt, often topless, as a native African woman, using the bananas in her skirt to entice a sleeping white explorer?  What’s being lost in the transaction, even though something really quite amazing is being gained as well?  Is it a step forward for one, but a large step backward of the people? 

So the Renaissance is many competing narratives, as it would inevitably be with all these different people producing arts and ideas and culture. And then it begs the question, because of these competing narratives, who is the Renaissance for?  Was it for blacks, was it for whites, was it for the wealthy, was it for workers?  Was it just about art and notions of beauty?  Beauty is a complicated thing. I’m just going very quickly here. This is also the era of celebrating blackness, celebrating African forms. But it also, Madam C.J. Walker becomes the most powerful black businesswoman, a multimillionaire, by selling hair straightening products and skin lightening creams, idealizing white beauty.

I already showed you this image earlier that the Renaissance, the New Negro mentality is about a certain kind of anger and political stance. And then the last image here, in this image you start seeing the Renaissance as being larger than just the arts. It’s larger than just Harlem. It’s more than just words. This is a picture of Fredi Washington, one of the–one of the great performers of the Renaissance, a dancer, most famously, and an actress. And she forms–she joins a group called the Negro Artists Guild during this era. You know and it’s no mistaking the fact that she has lighter skin and she has “good hair” as the phrase would have been, and actually still is in many places. But notice her armband. She’s wearing a protest armband. It’s of a person being lynched. That there’s such resistance to, you know, anti-lynching campaigns that artists were joining these campaigns through their own artistic slash political guilds in this case.

So the Renaissance is all of these things, in small ways and, and going in these different directions, but taken together, it is a movement of an ideology that comes out of a movement of people that wrestles with the current sort of racial ideologies of the time, turns them upside down. It celebrates at the same time it dismisses and it engages in the world in terms of producing new art in new ways, but also visiting old battles in images you see like here, with Fredi Washington protesting lynching and the lack of anti-lynching laws in the United States. Thanks for hanging on a couple more minutes, and have fun in the snow.

[end of transcript]

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