Harlem in the autumn of 1924 offered a “foretaste of paradise,” according to the novelist Arna Bontemps. He was recalling the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance and was perhaps a little dazzled in retrospect—Bontemps was writing in 1965—by his memories of “strings of fairy lights” illuminating the uptown “broad avenues” at dusk.
A gloomier perspective is found in the writings of James Baldwin, born in Harlem Hospital in August 1924. His novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953) and his memoir, “The Fire Next Time” (1963), both evoke a Harlem childhood dominated by poverty, fear, brutality, with the dim torch of salvation locked in a storefront church. Baldwin scarcely mentions the renaissance or its principals in all his writings—despite the remarkable coincidence of his having attended schools where two mainstays of any account of the Harlem Renaissance were teachers: the poet Countee Cullen and the novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset.
Aaron Douglas's 'From Slavery Through Reconstruction,' one of the artist's 'Aspects of Negro Life' murals at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Yet even some of Bontemps’s contemporaries found little to celebrate. “Sterling Brown was the most vocal heckler from the floor,” he wrote to Langston Hughes about a 1955 gathering at which the Harlem Renaissance was the topic of debate, “denying that there was any such movement.” Brown, a now neglected poet whose poems of the 1920s pulse to a deeper blues beat than those of Hughes himself, objected to the characterization of the Negro as an “exotic primitive.” The inward perspective of an all-black club, he argued, could only abet the exclusion of Harlem’s writers and poets from the open corridors of American literature.
The caricature was in part a creation of white patronage. Claude McKay’s novel “Home to Harlem” (1928), an enjoyable tour of speakeasies and red-light bedrooms in the company of the good-natured army deserter Jake, is dedicated to “my friend Louise Bryant,” who helped support McKay. Hughes received subsidy from a wealthy widow, Charlotte Mason, to whose Park Avenue salon many Harlem Renaissance writers came. All were welcomed by the woman they called “Godmother,” so long as they brought tales of low-down Negro life. The novel by which Hughes is represented in the collection, “Not Without Laughter” (1930), a collision between old hymn-singing devotion and new, bluesy easy-livin’, is dedicated to Joel and Amy Spingarn, who paid for the author to attend Lincoln University. The literary godfather of several writers was Carl Van Vechten, whose novel “Nigger Heaven” (1926) did much to excite interest in Harlem life among what the leading writer of the next generation, Richard Wright, called, between gritted teeth, “burnt-out white Bohemians with money.”
Any rebirth is bound to be bloody, and perhaps the better for it. Grudge, guilt and prejudice notwithstanding, the Harlem Renaissance produced a lot of good writing, some of it worth reading eight decades later. Almost all the novels chosen by Rafia Zafar for the Library of America’s two-volume collection contain scenes of interest, even when the interest is mainly sociological. (The exception is George Schuyler’s 1931 “Black No More,” a far-fetched, burlesque yarn about passing for white that might have been omitted in favor of Van Vechten’s “Nigger Heaven.”) The predominant theme of the majority of novels here—to the point of obsession—is not so much prejudice as plain color. Bigoted white voices are heard, but light-skinned blacks expressing distaste for their darker neighbors speak louder. As the heroine of Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” (1928) observes: “Negro society . . . was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.”
The most arresting tale, in this respect, is “The Blacker the Berry” (1929) by Wallace Thurman, in which poor Emma Lou Morgan, daughter of a “quite fair” mother, realizes that her “luscious black complexion” is despised by those around her, many of whom can pass for white. Emma Lou’s “unwelcome black mask” has been inherited from her “no good” father, who had “never been in evidence.” Ill-treatment from white students and teachers at school is bad enough; but when Emma Lou gets to Harlem, the humiliation turns to cruelty. She tries to rent a room from a West Indian woman. “A little girl had come to the door, and, in answer to a voice in the back asking, ‘Who is it, Cora?’ had replied, ‘monkey chaser wants to see the room you got to rent.’ ” Emma Lou remains, for the time being, homeless. When she shows her admiration “boldly” for an “intelligent-looking, slender, light-brown-skinned” man on Seventh Avenue, he “looked at her, then over her, and passed on.” Far worse are a group of Harlem youths who notice Emma Lou powdering her nose near the same spot.
Zora Neale Hurston
The one closest to her cleared his throat and crooned out loud enough for her to hear, “There’s a girl for you, ‘Fats.’ ” “Fats” was the one in the middle. He had a rotund form and a coffee-colored face. . . . He turned his eyes from her and broadcast a withering look at the lad who had spoken.
“Man, you know I don’t haul no coal.” There was loud laughter.
The ordeal continues—too relentlessly to sustain the reader’s interest. Thurman’s title, drawn from the saying “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” seems to promise a form of redemption or reward for Emma Lou. It does arrive, but only via bitter self-isolation.
It is in order to avoid a more common type of racial exclusion that the protagonist of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s “Plum Bun” (1928) decides to use her fair skin as a passport to downtown New York. Angela Murray is a talented artist and the product of a happy Philadelphia home. Her mother is also practiced in the art of “passing,” for convenience’s sake, but Angela creates a new life for herself, and a new name: black Angela Murray becomes white Angèle Mory.
She is wooed by a rich man, who can’t stand “those damn niggers.” On one occasion, he complains about the presence of blacks in a restaurant, having them expelled to spare what he imagines to be Angela’s delicate feelings. When he comes out with a remark about “white blood” being responsible for a young mixed-race man’s “ability,” he is assailed by Angela’s (white) friend Martha: “You make me tired. . . . Of course he doesn’t get it from his white blood; he gets it from all his bloods. It’s the mixture that makes him what he is. Otherwise all white people would be gods. It’s the mixture and the endurance which he has learned from being colored in America and the determination to see life without bitterness.” At which point she is interrupted by the vile suitor, who claims that Martha is “boring Angèle to death.”
“Plum Bun” contains some of the best writing in these two volumes and deserves to be better remembered. It dramatizes a stark dilemma: The move toward the white world might promise liberty, but at the price of an essential sense of freedom.
A variation on that choice confronts the heroine of Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand.” Helga Crane, precocious and beautiful, “with skin like yellow satin,” does not aspire to pass for white—as does the protagonist of Larsen’s only other novel, called simply “Passing” (1929)—but to escape the ambience of complaint and victimhood that routinely fills the houses of her friends. When she quits Harlem, it is not for downtown Manhattan but for Copenhagen, where she has relatives (as did her creator). The Danish scenes in “Quicksand” are drawn with a touch that Henry James might have admired, but while Helga’s Nordic hosts are welcoming—the town’s most eligible bachelor proposes to her—they make her uncomfortably aware of her exotic appeal, highlighting another freakish conundrum of African-American experience: Do you like me for myself or for my disadvantages? “Quicksand” is something rare in the period, a black novel that dares to imagine a world beyond America’s shores.
Neither Larsen nor Fauset sought to insinuate the rhythms of the street and the porch into their dialogue, as the best-known Harlem Renaissance writers did. Larsen invoked Ibsen. Fauset looked to Milton, Pope and Goldsmith for aid in elevating her characters’ feelings—a realm of reference and register that was largely eclipsed by the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s. Who nowadays would risk credibility by opening a chapter like this, from “Plum Bun”:
Virginia came rushing in. “Angela, where’s Mummy?”
“Out. What’s all the excitement?”
“I’ve been appointed. Isn’t it great? Won’t Mother and Dad be delighted! . . . Miss Herren wants me to report tomorrow. Isn’t it perfectly marvelous!”
A few pages later, we find Virginia in conversation with friends. The subject of education arises, followed by that of discrimination. Virginia sighs: “The inevitable race discussion was on.”
It is a discussion that African-American writers have been having, frequently cursing but seldom finding a way round it, since the first one put pen to paper. It permits amplitude—every novelist needs a subject—but eventually imposes constriction. It was with a sigh similar to Virginia’s that Richard Wright boarded a transatlantic liner in New York in 1946. Sharing café tables with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he believed that he had left “race” behind. Before long, he discovered that he had left his subject matter at home as well.
Baldwin, who arrived in Paris two years later, tried to evade the “inevitable . . . discussion” by following his all-black novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” with an all-white one, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), probably the first “passing novel” by a Harlem writer.
It was the same sigh, rather than crude shame, that led Jean Toomer to describe himself on his marriage certificate of 1931 as “white.” His exquisite sequence of prose episodes and poems, “Cane” (1923), is the earliest of the books gathered here. It requires but a sampling of Toomer’s humid Georgia prose to induce in the reader a different quality of intoxication from that brought about by the rough beverages of McKay, Hughes and Schuyler: “Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live. At sunset, when there was no wind, and the pine-smoke from over by the sawmill hugged the earth, and you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front, her sudden darting past you was a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light. With the other children one could hear, some distance off, their feet flopping in the two-inch dust. Karintha’s running was a whir.”
As Nathan Irvin Huggins noted in his pioneering study, “Harlem Renaissance” (1971), Toomer was “self-consciously avant-garde; no other Harlem writer was.” It is the Modernist spirit that is most notably absent from most of the works in this nonetheless enjoyable collection. Depictions of what was mostly good about African-American life in the early 20th century were no doubt appreciated by strollers in those enchanted avenues recalled by Bontemps (represented by the only historical novel here, “Black Thunder,” about Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 slave revolt), but as contemporaries of Joyce, Hemingway and, most pertinently, Faulkner, the Harlem writers might have raised a more modern flag. “The bonds of literary tradition are stronger than those of race,” wrote the dissenter Sterling Brown.
After writing “Cane,” Toomer withdrew from black life and renounced his inherited identity—leaving behind “high yaller,” “chocolate,” “straw-colored,” “anthracite,” “skin like yellow satin,” not forgetting the supreme artificial category, “white.” “I am not a Negro,” he told Nancy Cunard in 1934, on being invited to contribute to her “Negro Anthology.” Toomer became a follower of Georges Gurdjieff, the mystic who promised to fuse the fragmented selves of each of his disciples into a perfect whole. In a more mundane way, all the writers of the Harlem Renaissance wanted the same thing.
Mr. Campbell’s biography of James Baldwin, “Talking at the Gates,” was published in 1991. His most recent book is “Syncopations,” a collection of essays (2008).