The Harlem Renaissance Revisited
Politics, Arts and Letters
Edited by Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 272 pages
$60 hardcover, $30 paperback. ISBN-13: 978-0-8018-9461-9
Reviewed by Cécile Cottenet
As indicated by its title, this collection of fourteen essays seeks to bring "fresh perspectives" on a key moment in African-American and American cultural life, the New Negro movement. The essays, which all articulate dialectics of hope and resistance, are presented as dynamic and thought-provoking contributions to the already rich scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance. The different approaches range from extending the temporal and spatial boundaries of the movement, looking beyond Harlem and New York at other loci of cultural production, to proposing a diasporic and internationalist vision, as well as original stylistic, class and gender-based analyses.
Surprisingly perhaps, no mention is made of the fact that these essays were first presented in March 2008 at a Conference at the University of Connecticut at Storrs – where Jeffrey Ogbar is a Professor of History. This would account for the slight heterogeneity of the collection, which the brief introduction and afterword somehow fail to smoothe out.
The essays are organized thematically into five parts that successively focus on aesthetics, class and place, literary icons, gender, and "politics" – or rather, the scholarly and geographical remapping of the movement. While the literary icons singled out for revision should by now be familiar to scholars of American Literature – Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman – the essays also excavate, however too briefly, forgotten or secondary yet exciting protagonists such as Harold Jackman, the critic Hubert Harrison, and Bruce Nugent.
The first and fourth parts, "Aesthetics and the New Negro", and "Gender Construction", are perhaps the least convincing. Frank A. Salamone's essay on Duke Ellington is a commendable attempt at spotlighting the importance of music, very often overlooked as an artistic expression of the Renaissance; but most of his examples are obviously post-Renaissance. As for the approach of the younger male artists through the prism of Rodney Evans's 2004 film, Brother to Brother, it falls short of its endeavor to "recreate as a collage"  the collaborative creation of Hughes, Thurman, Aaron Douglas and Bruce Nugent. Sadly the latter remains in the background, and the essay obscures rather than highlights the importance of this figure among the younger generation of black poets and writers.
Other essays, although unequal, present insightful portrayals of Harlem society, stressing the high "class-consciousness" of this microcosm. In this respect, Jacqueline Jones's chronicle of the wedding of W.E.B. DuBois's daughter with gay/ bisexual poet Countée Cullen ("So the Girl Marries") and Jacob S. Dorman's contribution, "Back to Harlem: Abstract and Everyday Labor during the Harlem Renaissance", are truly complementary. The first articulates the issues of class division and colorism that marred the New Negro movement and the black middle class more generally, while the second endeavors to represent the complex social and cultural geography of Harlem in a sociological study "from below".
More successful in renewing the Renaissance scholarship are the diasporic and internationalist approaches chosen by Claire Oberon Garcia and Myriam J.A. Chancy. In her feminist study of Jessie Fauset's short works, Garcia subtly examines the Harlem Renaissance as a global, transnational phenomenon, linking Fauset to contemporary francophone women of color with whom she shared not only a sense of oppression, but also the language. Using the concept of "décalage" proposed by Brent Hayes Edwards, she reclaims Fauset, "a cosmopolitan woman of color" , as a writer who "imposes" a "disorientation of perspective"  on her readers. She thereby lifts her up from the reductionist position as "midwife" of the New Negro movement, that she had acquired as literary editor of The Crisis.
Chancy's thesis, borrowing from post-colonial perspectives, is particularly convincing regarding Hurston. Discovering traces of kreyol in one of Hurston's most famous novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in Haiti, she proposes to read it as "an encoded travel narrative of Hurston's confrontation with the Haitian landscape and geography […] engaging [...] not in resistance but in acknowledgement of the store of knowledge embedded in the black diasporic experience" .
Saving the best for last
For different reasons, the last two essays are indeed the most stimulating. In a brief historiographical essay assessing the latest scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance ("Perspectives on Interwar Culture – Remapping the New Negro Era"), Perry Hall suggests a shift toward a class-based analysis for future investigations of the issues of race, class and politics. Assessing the works of Barbara Foley, William J. Maxwell and Anthony Dawahare, he foregrounds the – sometimes consciously – overlooked connection between the New Negro and the "radical wave of political and social ferment"  that agitated the United States in the wake of World War I, thus raising the question of how race-consciousness negotiated with class-consciousness.1 Maxim Matusevich's essay on "Black sojourners in Stalin's Soviet Union" depicts the fascination of many African Americans, famous and less, not only with Communism, but more generally with the Soviet promise of racial equality, and the ensuing possibility of obtaining a higher social status in the East. The novelty of this essay lies not only in the form of internationalism it describes, but also in the historical sources it draws on. Indeed Matusevich does not restrict his corpus to the known testimonies of Claude McKay, DuBois or Langston Hughes, but brings us the voices of "anonymous" students, as he was able to track down the rare diplomatic archives relating the travels of Americans to and from the Soviet Union. He thus explores a mutual form of admiration, that ended as the rift between the N.A.A.C.P. and American Communists grew larger in the 1930s, culminating with the "Great Betrayal" of the 1939 Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union.
This exploration of the Harlem Renaissance from the standpoint of gender, diaspora studies and class-based analysis suggests that new roads can be taken, and that scholarship has developed since the groundbreaking studies by Houston Baker, George Hutchinson, David Levering Lewis.2 Although not all of these approaches are equally convincing, they do map out new areas for future investigation.
1. Barbara Foley, Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); William J. Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Anthony Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism, and African American Literature between the Wars: A New Pandora's Box (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003).
2. Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Knopf, 1997).
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