The Harlem Renaissance, Remixed
Once upon a time, blackness was in vogue. It was a period where the New Negro, adorned in furs, sequins, and pinstripes, walked the streets of urban America. It was a period when Langston Hughes was a young poet-busboy, when Zora Neale Hurston studied at Barnard, when W.E.B. DuBois ran the NAACP. It was a period when white revelers flocked to see black entertainers wail, shimmy, and shout at segregated venues like the Cotton Club, in the hopes of catching a little of whatever it was that made black people dance like that. It was a period when Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born orator, could draw a crowd of thousands by shouting the siren call of “Africa for the Africans!” It a period when it was so cool, so joyful to be black that you could charge a cover for your own house party, so long as the music was good and you provided refreshments. It was the 1920s, and blackness was visible on every street corner in America, and it was as though black America had collectively decided that white America may not like us, but they were sure as hell going to see us. And we were visible with such grace and style that history saw fit to memorialize it in the name: the Harlem Renaissance.
Sound familiar? Through the echo chamber of history, the fleeting grace of an erstwhile black Renaissance resounds eerily in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ destined-to-be-classic elegy, “My President Was Black.” Describing the Obamas’ farewell party, where the glitterati of black America, from Dave Chapelle to Janelle Monàe, gathered in incredulous glory on the White House lawn: “This would not happen again, and everyone knew it.” Such is the way of Renaissances. In our contemporary Renaissance, I have the unspeakable luxury of turning on my television and seeing such a variety of black casts and characters that I can say that I liked Atlanta but the first-season of Insecure was just meh, that I love Lena Waithe’s character in Master of None but I’m bored by Luke Cage, that I will wait, I think, to catch up on Being Mary Jane. There is blackness enough, and in such variety, that I am no longer obligated to pick at the meager bones of black representation for sustenance. Now I have a whole meal! It is undeniable that the black arts are undergoing something of a second Renaissance. In today’s Renaissance, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are considered public authorities on race and society, and although their visions and experiences of blackness often differ from each other and from my own, I am happy to see them out there. But the beautiful, iridescent historical bubbles that we call “Renaissances” are destined to pop if we view them as moments of black excellence, rather than as a continued historical narrative. Just as, in the 1920s, when scholars and artists sought to distinguish the New Negro (woke, artsy, bougie) from his maligned ancestor the Old Negro (Uncle Tom), we revel in the exceptionalism of our moment. Never before have we been this woke, this artsy, this bougie, this beautiful. Only this is not true—we have always been these things, and more. And as we come upon the hundred-year anniversary of those fevered years of black arts that we call the “Harlem Renaissance,” we may find that there is a lesson to be learned in its rise and fall.
Due to a fortuitous conjunction of talent and capital in the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was an exhilarating time to be a black artist. Through a combination of galas and literary contests funded by elite Harlem social clubs, sympathetic Jewish editors, and rich white patrons looking to assuage their guilt about “the Negro question,” an unprecedented amount of funding was available to black writers and artists of all stripes. Not just the greats, the ones we remember (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston et al.), but dozens of artists who have not been canonized by the Black History Month greatest hits list. Many of these figures were black women. People like Helene Johnson, a successful poet of the 1920s and 1930s known for her playful vernacular poetry about desire and longing on the streets of Harlem. Many of these figures were one generation removed from slavery, rising to fame from the crushing poverty of the Jim Crow South and the tenements of the North and Midwest. People like Ada “Bricktop” Smith, a Chicago-raised performer who went on to host European royalty and American high society at her swanky nightclub in 1930s Paris. Ultimately, however, these artists’ talents were undermined by the precariousness of their financial support. When the Renaissance declined with the stock market crash in 1929, all but its most successful artists slowly went back to careers as domestics, nurses, busboys, and schoolteachers by the dawn of World War II. The Renaissance died sometime in the 1930s, according to Langston Hughes, because of waning white interest: “We were no longer in vogue, anyway, we Negroes. Sophisticated New Yorkers turned to Noel Coward. Colored actors began to go hungry, publishers politely rejected new manuscripts, and patrons found other uses for their money.”
Due to its dependency on white interest and philanthropy, scholars like David Levering Lewis and Nathan Irvin Huggins (the grandfathers of Harlem Renaissance literary criticism), argue that the Harlem Renaissance failed. Scholars have since pushed back against the notion that such a vast and disparate collection of artists and intellectuals could fail or succeed at anything, as though they were collectively playing a game of basketball or constructing a piece of Ikea furniture. After all, even after Langston Hughes’ funding from his rich white patroness dried up in 1930, he went on to travel the world, publish widely, and become the amiable godfather of black American arts we all know him to be well into the 1960s. In other words, Hughes’ life as a black artist was not fenced in by the time-span of the so-called Renaissance, and thus teaches us an important (and timely) lesson: that black arts exist beyond and after the vicissitudes of global capital.
I think the most important social contribution of the Harlem Renaissance to American culture was the idea that blackness was not the problem (as W.E.B. DuBois famously formulates it in The Souls of Black Folk, when he is asked “How does it feel to be a problem?”); America was the problem. The 1920s and 1930s marked an era in which being black was not an injury to be overcome or a curse to be shaken, but a desirable way of being in opposition to the evils of capitalism and imperialism. In 1929, Claude McKay, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States and a hallmark writer of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote: “If the Negro had to be defined, there was every reason to define him as a challenge rather than a ‘problem’ to Western civilization.” Woven into the music, literature, and artwork of the time period was this message: We are not the illness, we are the antidote. And in those brief years between the two world wars, it would seem that America knew it. White America’s brief interest in “the Negro,” is nothing more than an affirmation that black people have a secret escape route from the woes of modernity. And though black Americans are just as prone to alienation and emptiness as any other variety of American, to believe that the cure is in us is an immensely powerful thing for a people who had so long been labeled as a problem. James Baldwin, a Harlemite of the generation following the Renaissance, affirms the unique spiritual achievement of black Americans as a kind of “sensuality,” meaning an ability “to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” In this way, the Harlem Renaissance is an articulation and a deepening of black sensuality, an orientation towards the world to which we are greatly indebted today.
The Harlem Renaissance was much more than the great literary and artistic rendezvous that brought us Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Like today’s Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance coincided with (and, in no small way, reacted to) a large-scale attack on civil rights. After all, the reason Harlem became the capital of black America was not because it was home to the most black Americans, but because it was flooded with the talent, creativity, and labor power of the black South. The internal migration of black Southerners to the urban North was not just a move towards economic opportunity, but a concerted rejection of and escape from the racial terror of the Jim Crow South. The rise in lynchings in the South in the early 20th century is directly linked to the Great Migration of African-Americans to the urban North. So when we are told by scholars that the Harlem Renaissance failed “because of naïve assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities,” we must remember how deeply those economic and social realities shape artistic representation, and vice versa.
It seems that black history is not a linear progression towards freedom, it is something freewheeling, more akin to a carousel than an arrow arcing triumphantly into the future. This is only to say that this is not the first time we have found ourselves #magical, not the first time we have pressed our full weight down upon a world that says we do not matter. And perhaps the lesson that 1920s Harlem teaches us is that if the award shows stop, if the book deals fall through, if we can no longer afford the headwraps, if the bloggers and the Instagram celebrities lose their followings, we gon’ be alright. Just because we are at the mercy of white capital does not mean we cease to exist when white America decides to turn its head. As Zora Neale Hurston puts it in her landmark essay, “How it Feels to Be Colored Me”: “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” In other words, stay woke fam.