Conflicting Visions of Harlem:

A Cultural Critique of the Portrayal of Harlem in the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance

Heather Belmonte

 

            Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” (1883) summarized the embracement of European immigration and cultural assimilation in the early 20th century. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (233). America presented a face of welcome to the world, not only with the image and representation of the Statue of Liberty, but also in Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot. The four-act piece became immensely popular in the United States (Sollors 66). Premiering in 1908, the play marked the welcoming sentiment of the early 20th century. “More than any social or political theory, the rhetoric of Zangwill’s play shaped American discourse on immigration and ethnicity” (Sollors 66). America became an icon of freedom and opportunity for the world, and by 1910, over 14 percent of the American population was foreign-born (Simon). America became “God’s Crucible” and the Statue of Liberty became the symbol of this Crucible. “When I look at our Statue of Liberty,” Zangwill’s David Quixano exclaims, “I just seem to hear the voice of America crying: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”’ (32). This Biblical reference, taken from Matthew 11:28, is a direct quote from Jesus and turns America into the figure of a welcoming Savior.

The welcoming sentiment, however, did not last long, and by the end of 1919 and the beginning of 1920, immigration had been reduced to a “low ebb” largely due to an intense period of nativism. (Higham 267). Even as overseas immigration declined, however, black migration from the south began to rise. “The migration of blacks from the south to the north…increased dramatically, numbering more than three-quarters of a million in the decade of the 1920s” (Sowell 209). The incoming blacks, however, were faced with nearly insurmountable obstacles in their attempts at acculturation in a society that had entered a time of extreme nativism. Economic depression coupled with a fresh wave of immigration in May of 1920 helped spur anti-foreign outbreaks in the early 1920s, for “some thought that immigration was undermining the whole economic system” (Higham 267). Even in the previous era of cultural assimilation, blacks had been excluded. 

Originally excluded in Zangwill’s notion of assimilation, blacks were singled out by Zangwill as being too distinct to be melted in the Crucible. Their physical traits were considered “dominant” and “not easy to eliminate from the hybrid posterity” (207). Zangwill argued for a melting pot that collapses “bodily boundaries” rather than “cultural boundaries” and insisted that races have the ability to change. Zangwill’s notion of melting implies a physical fusion with the dominant culture. Conspicuously left out of the equation, however, are blacks which Zangwill saw as “too far apart for profitable fusion” (Abu-Laban 35). Scholars Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Victoria Lamont note how Zangwill, as an immigrant himself, was pro-immigration but that “Zangwill’s envisioned melting pot resists ‘fusing’ certain groups into its body politic, and makes poignant the distinction between ‘white’ and ‘black’” (35). The cultural anxiety surrounding the fusion of blacks into the larger American society can be seen in the Afterward to Zangwill’s play, where Zangwill writes that blacks who desire assimilation “would serve their race better by making Liberia a success or building up an American negro State” (207). Zangwill’s theory suggests that America cannot be a melting pot for blacks and therefore blacks cannot be acculturated into the mainstream American society. Therefore, Zangwill asserts, blacks should leave America altogether (i.e. make “Liberia a success”) or band together by forming a unique black melting pot (i.e. build up “an American negro State”), both of which were attempted.

Zangwill’s suggestion of black separatism was attempted by Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey’s attempts at separatism, however, ended up never reaching fruition. The notion of a black melting pot, however, was created in the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro Anthology, published only a year after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act which severely limited immigration, states in his essay The New Negro, “Here in Manhattan is not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life. It has attracted the African, the West Indian, the Negro American; has brought together the Negro of the North and the Negro of the South…Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another” (6). Here Locke is arguing that Harlem has become a black melting pot and, in a sense, a microcosm of America. Earlier in the Forward, Locke wrote concerning how the migrating Negro appears in his journey to Harlem. “The New Negro must be seen in the perspective of a New World, especially of a New America. Europe seething in a dozen centers with emergent nationalities…are no more alive with the progressive forces of our era than the quickened centers of the lives of black folk” (xxv-xxvi). Harlem, then, becomes a “New World” to the migrating Negro just as America was considered the “New World” to incoming Europeans centuries earlier.

Paul U. Kellogg extends Locke’s rhetoric of a black melting pot to include direct links to transoceanic immigration. Contributor to The New Negro Anthology, Kellogg was also the editor of Survey Magazine. A leading proponent of social work, Kellogg conducted an in-depth study of life in Pittsburgh which was published as the Pittsburgh Survey (1910-1914) and which became a model for social reform (Simkin). Having written about immigration in the past, Kellogg was heavily involved in studying the social conditions of urban immigrants and worked several times with sociologist Jane Addams. The New Negro Anthology includes Kellogg’s essay entitled The Negro Pioneers, in which he argues, “In the northward movement of the Negroes in the last ten years, we have another folk migration which in human significance can be compared only with…the waves of immigration which have swept in from overseas in the last half” (Locke 271). In this passage, Kellogg directly links black migration to transoceanic immigration. Wallace Thurman plays with such a link in his novel Infants of the Spring (1932). “People rave about the progress of the Negro. It is nothing near as remarkable, that is generally, as the progress made by foreign immigrants who also come to this country to find freedom from a state of serfdom and illiteracy just as stringent as that of the pre-and post-Civil War Negro” (37). Thurman depicts immigrants and Negroes as having similar desires and experiences: both been victims of a slave like “serfdom” and both hope to find “freedom” in America. John Lowney, a later critic of the Renaissance, also writes concerning the link between black migrants and overseas immigrants. Lowney argues that Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) is a “migrant narrative” and that the geography of exile found in the narrative “evokes American immigrant and international modernist fiction more than African American fiction of the period” (414). In this passage Lowney observes that McKay’s novel stands out as evoking an immigrant narrative to give expression to the Negro experience.

In the writings that compare black migrants with overseas immigrants, we see immigration rhetoric that harkens back to an era of cultural assimilation and which adopts Zangwill’s notion of a melting pot America. Harlem, seen through the lens of a welcoming portal for migrating blacks, becomes a tool of uplift for the New Negro. If, as many suggest, blacks coming to Harlem are like immigrants coming to the United States, Harlem should serve as an Ellis Island figure, welcoming the incoming immigrants. There seems to be a longing for Harlem to be the kind of home that immigrants searched for, and yet, this literature came at a time when America was in the throes of nativism, a separatist ideology which highly favored an indigenous American culture as opposed to acculturation. Leaders of the black arts movement specifically used immigrant rhetoric as a backlash to the nativism of their time and instead turned towards a more pluralistic approach, proposing equality while still retaining a distinct culture with a distinct literary tradition. The cultural assimilation referred to by black leaders seems to denote integration which in turn means democracy, and yet, despite such rhetoric, black leaders still retained a pluralist approach which demanded black art be expressed through the use of African roots. In the fiction of the Renaissance we see a pull against a purely pluralistic approach, and this pull undermines the efforts of the older generation of black intellectuals. If blacks coming to Harlem are like immigrants coming to the United States, Harlem should be a symbol of freedom, a portal whereby blacks enter the democracy of America. Instead, we see a portrayal of Harlem that complicates this vision, a Harlem that is portrayed as a jungle, a city of extreme materialism, and a city lacking any sense of family life. Ultimately the disparity between the way in which the established black leaders of the era viewed the purpose of Harlem and the way in which black writers chose to portray it in their literature, belies a fundamental flaw of the Harlem Renaissance: internal disunity. Without a unified ideological background, the Harlem Renaissance presented a disjointed vision of Harlem, a vision which complicated the movement’s purpose.

Part of the internal disunity within the black community arose from the various portrayals of Harlem, the “Negro capital”. Even though most of the Harlem writers were not Garveyites, they nevertheless often portrayed Harlem as an African jungle. In Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928), Harlem is described as “a city jungle this, if ever there was one, peopled largely by untamed creatures that live and die for the moment only. Accordingly, here strides melodrama, naked and unashamed” (4). Manhattan’s Broadway and Fifth Avenue change when they reach Harlem. “Fifth Avenue reverts to a jungle trail, trod almost exclusively by primitive man; while Broadway, seeing its fellow’s fate, veers off to the west as it travels north, avoiding the dark kingdom from afar” (188-189). Rather than a portal, Harlem is described as a “dark kingdom”. “Dark” implies negative or hidden while “kingdom” has a decidedly anti-assimilation, anti-democratic connotation. Harlem isn’t a part of America, it isn’t even a part of New York; it’s an entirely separate “kingdom”. 

In Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, the speakeasies, especially the Congo, give Harlem a barbaric atmosphere. McKay describes Harlem as offering “primitive joy” (109), and the Congo is “a real throbbing little Africa in New York” (29). When Jake enters the Congo he notes that “a jungle atmosphere pervaded the room, and, like shameless wild animals hungry for raw meat, the females savagely searched the eyes of the males” (68). What’s striking in McKay’s description is the savage consumerism he attributes to those who frequent the Congo. The females are hungry and appear aggressive in their desire. Such description lies in blatant discord with the image of immigrants seeking to elevate their position in life. Instead, blacks are beasts who enter Harlem in search of “raw meat” and “primitive joy”.

McKay shows that even those characters who start at a higher social sphere are susceptible to the lure of the Harlem jungle. After staying in Harlem for a while, Ray feels that “he was a savage, even though he was a sensitive one, and did not mind nakedness” (226). That Ray sees himself as becoming savage is significant given how McKay introduces him. Ray is an intellectual who spends “every free day…at the library downtown” (138) reading, writing, and studying. And yet, through his friendship with Jake, Ray becomes rougher until he gets so caught up in the Harlem lifestyle, he becomes “afraid that some day the urge of the flesh and the mind’s hankering after the pattern of respectable comfort might chase his high dreams out of him and deflate him to the contented animal that was a Harlem nigger strutting his stuff” (264). Here we see Ray not only worrying over the possibility that he could become a “contented animal” in the jungle of Harlem, but also at the materialism that threatens to topple his “high dreams”. Unlike the seemingly barbaric blacks who visit the Congo to be “fed”, Ray doesn’t like the idea of being reduced to a purely consumerist entity.

Like Ray, Helga in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) is an educated black and, like Ray, Helga can’t seem to resist the primitive lure of Harlem. Having first come to Harlem simply because her employer, Mrs. Hayes-Rore, is going there, Helga arrives with no expectation that the city will alter her. After a while, however, Helga feels herself drawn into a blatant display of primitive desire that is unlike her usual primness. After dancing in a cabaret, she feels “a shameful certainty that not only had she been in the jungle, but that she had enjoyed it…She hardened her determination to get away. She wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature” (59). Like Ray, Helga is uncomfortable with the liberal sensuality which the cabaret culture evokes, and, like Ray, Helga imagines herself above such display and is chagrined that she let herself, even for a moment, slip into what she deems to be baseness.

Depicted as a jungle, Harlem becomes something foreign, wholly “other”, and thus contradicts the image of Harlem as a chance for assimilation and integration with the larger American society. The portrayal of Harlem as a jungle also turns its inhabitants into primitive creatures rather than immigrants and shows such creatures to be solely led by their desires. Many of the novels depict characters motivated by the chance of fulfilling their material desires, and the thread of consumerism can be seen running throughout the novels. Finding fulfillment of desires, even through the means of exploitation, is seen as acceptable. “I wanted money and nothing else,” says Euphoria in Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring. “Harlem offered it. Niggers were coming in by the thousands. They needed homes, and jobs, and there were people who had these homes and jobs to pass around. I began to play with both sides, getting money from all of them, those who needed, and those who had, the employer and the job seeker, the landlord and the tenant. They all came to me and they all paid” (89-90). Euphoria is unabashedly putting consumerist desires on a pedestal. A desire for material gain becomes all consuming, and Harlem is turned into a commercial city, a place to fulfill these consumerist desires.

The corrupting influence of consumerism is also seen in Fisher’s The City of Refuge (1925) when Solomon Gillis migrates to Harlem in anticipation of it being “a land of plenty” (4). Having come to Harlem as part of the great migrations, he hopes to find a better life in the urban north than he had in the rural south. Perhaps the main catalyst for his migration, however, is the fact that Gillis had shot a white man back in the south and had escaped a lynching by fleeing to the north. “The land of plenty was more than that now; it was also the city of refuge” (4). The concept of “cities of refuge” is depicted in the Bible: “Then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment” (Numbers 35:11-12). Gillis arrives at Harlem hoping that it will serve to protect him.

Upon Gillis’ arrival, one of the first things he sees is a colored policeman, and the sight casts Harlem in a rosy glow which stays with Gillis throughout the story. “Casting about for direction, the tall newcomer’s glance caught inevitably on the most conspicuous thing in sight, a magnificent figure in blue that stood in the middle of the crossing and blew a whistle and waved great white-gloved hands.  The Southern Negro’s eyes opened wide; his mouth opened wider” (4). The policeman, standing with one hand on the whistle and the other arm outstretched, becomes, in a sense, Gillis’ Statue of Liberty, and Harlem becomes a microcosm of America. Having fled suppression in his “homeland”, Gillis looks upon Harlem with the eyes of a refugee, and the inspiring image of the colored policeman becomes a symbol of new beginnings and opportunity for Gillis.

Fisher, however, doesn’t leave his readers with a rosy view of Harlem as a welcoming portal for such “huddled masses” as Gillis. Instead Fisher flips the image to show how Harlem is a breeding ground for dishonesty. Mouse Uggam soon accosts Gillis, pretending to be his friend in order to use him, without his knowledge, as a drug dealer. “Chief, I got him:” Uggam reports. “A baby jess in from the land o’cotton and so dumb he thinks ante bellum’s an old woman” (6). Uggam describes Gillis as “rip f’ the pluckin’” (6). Instead of becoming, as Gillis expected, a home and refuge, Harlem only serves to ensnare him in a ring of deception due to the desires of Uggam and others for quick profit in the drug trade. With an ironic twist, Fisher deconstructs the hopeful image of Harlem as seen through Gillis’ eyes at the beginning of the story and instead portrays Harlem as a materialist environment, causing his readers to view Gillis’ first impression of Harlem to be naïve and blind.

Harlem consumerism extends from the environment to the individual, originating in personal desires for material rather than social uplift. Such internal corruption can be seen in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) where she writes about the materialism of Harlem and the false sense of assimilation which acquiring things provides women. The desire for material goods breeds a destructive obsession which leads to passing and which Larsen condemns.  Clare’s main reason for passing is because she “wanted things. I knew I wasn’t bad-looking and that I could ‘pass’” (159). Irene, who passes when it suits her, thinks to herself, “It wasn’t that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her” (150). Irene achieves a sense of assimilation through her passing. She’s able to enjoy all the benefits of the Drayton, thus she is able, at least temporarily, to counter racial barriers through deception. For Clare the fruits of passing are no less material. Jealous of the life her friends led, Clare states, “You had all the things I wanted and never had had. It made me all the more determined to get them, and others” (159). Thus the desire for material gain prompts both women to pass, Clare as a lifestyle and Irene only occasionally. Both women must resort to disguising their identities in order to gain the freedoms that their white counterparts enjoy.

The assimilation through deception which passing creates, however, gives a false sense of equality; an equality akin to the melting pot notion of losing one’s identity in an effort to mesh, or melt, into the larger society. By losing their Negro identity, the women are able to achieve this type of assimilation as well as a sense of equality. Ultimately, however, this pseudo-equality is enslaving to the women, for it requires that they reject a part of themselves. Irene sees passing as a betrayal to the black race, but in the end it’s a betrayal of one’s self. Clare denies a fundamental part of herself and in the process betrays herself by passing. “You don’t know, you can’t realize,” she tells Irene, “how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh” (200). Irene, in her lifestyle of sporadic passing, finds herself unfulfilled in her ordered life as she’s drawn to Clare’s lifestyle and views her friend’s life with “a sudden inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling” (194), a feeling which borders on the homoerotic. Yet Irene craves the acceptability and order she’s made of her home life. This dual life creates dual emotions and tensions in Irene as she unsuccessfully attempts to have the best of both worlds.

Larsen condemns passing in the novel as a structure that is driven by consumerist desires and fueled by a false sense of equality, and therefore she portrays passing as a construction that women can get sucked into and held in bondage to almost without realizing it. Clare slipped logically into passing. She was a vulnerable young girl staying with her white aunts who disliked Negros. “They forbade me to mention Negroes to the neighbours, or even to mention the south side” (159). She had no fond family memories or connections to tie her to her heritage. Her father was abusive, “bellowing curses and making spasmodic lunges at her” (144) and telling her that “everything must be paid for” (169) meaning Clare is the consequence of his alliance with a Negro. So it was only too easy to slip into the lifestyle of passing. Once caught up in this lifestyle, Clare was trapped. She couldn’t reveal her true identity to her husband without inviting complete ruin and rejection. Larsen shows that even though Clare now experiences the freedoms that would be otherwise denied her, Clare is more entrapped than she was before. The women in Larsen’s novel forfeit their identity in favor of material gain and a fleeting sense of autonomy and equality. Ultimately, however, Larsen shows passing to be nothing but an outward extension of inward cravings for material gain.

The consumerist desires of Harlem blacks, however, are projected back onto them, for not only are blacks consumers of goods; they are goods waiting to be consumed. The very nature of the Harlem Renaissance turned the focus onto blacks and what they could “do”, thus, in a sense, objectifying them. In his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes writes concerning the objectification of blacks: “All of us know that the gay and sparkling life of the so-called Negro Renaissance of the ‘20’s was not so gay and sparkling beneath the surface as it looked” (177). Hughes discusses how Harlem was dependent upon white patronage, but that same white patronage simply came to “stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo…a large part of the Harlem attraction for downtown New Yorkers” Hughes admits, “lay in simply watching the colored customers amuse themselves” (176). Hughes concludes that “non-theatrical, non-intellectual Harlem was an unwilling victim of its own vogue” (178). McKay also deals with the relationship between white patrons and Harlem blacks. In Home to Harlem, McKay writes concerning the dynamics between the white visitors and the black dancers. “And the white visitors laugh. They see the grin only” (337). White patrons come to the cabaret and are entertained by choosing to see what they want to see without acknowledging the laugh which finishes “in a sob” or the moan which ends “in hilarity.” Even though both white and black patrons are consumers in Harlem, McKay depicts a deep rift being created between the two races, with blacks being both the consumer and the consumed.

Objectification and the constant search for pleasure and material gain have a decidedly isolating effect which perpetuates a youth culture while denying any sense of community or family. Black writers of the Renaissance frequently depicted the lack of home and family life in Harlem, emphasizing that Harlem was not a place to settle in. Black writers such as McKay and Fisher portray Harlem as merely a holding place by focusing extensively on blacks’ movements in and out of the city as well as avoiding any mention of family life or permanency in any form. “It (Harlem) was nice to visit,” declares James Vayle in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, “but not to live in” (102). Vayle’s sentiment regarding Harlem underlies many of the depictions of Harlem.

The portrayal of Harlem as an unsuitable place to live is seen in McKay’s ironically titled Home to Harlem. The story neither depicts Harlem as a home nor shows any of the main characters choosing to make Harlem their home. Ray is restless and feels that he can’t stay in Harlem, for “soon he would become one of the contented hogs in the pigpen of Harlem, getting ready to litter little black piggies” (263). Ray is worried about the lure of “primitive” Harlem which has caused him to turn from everything he’s worked for. He confides in Jake: “I don’t know what I’ll do with my little education. I wonder sometimes if I could get rid of it and go and lose myself in some savage culture in the jungles of Africa. I am a misfit” (274). Ultimately Ray decides to deal with the conflicting emotions Harlem evokes in him by running away. The safest route for him, he decides, is to leave the city. “Going away from Harlem…Harlem! How terribly Ray could hate it sometimes” (267). By the end of the novel, we see Ray signing on as a mess boy on a freighter headed for Europe. Jake leaves Harlem as well and considers going abroad. Felice, however, doesn’t like the idea. “What you wanta go knocking around them foreign countries again for like swallow come and swallow go from year to year and nevah settling down no place? This heah is you’ country, daddy. What you gwine away from it for?” Jake asks “And what kain I do?” to which Felice replies, “Do? Jest le’s beat it away from Harlem, daddy. This heah country is good and big enough for us to git lost in” (332). They settle on Chicago. Lowney comments on their decision to stay in America: “If Jake is an outlaw from a “nation” that has denied him his rights as a citizen, he can still lay claim to a “country” within but apart from this nation, even if its primary appeal is that it is “big enough…to git lost in” (423). Jake and Felice’s tie to Harlem, and America as a whole, is tenuous at best. Having spent most of his adulthood overseas, Jake is just at home outside of America as in it, whereas Felice, although against leaving America, is against it simply because she deems it more inconvenient to leave and more expedient to stay. Felice’s main desire is to settle down someplace with Jake and she realizes that Harlem will not help her attain that goal. Felice declares that she’s “right down sick and tiahd of Harlem” (303), and therefore she’s ready to move on with Jake, realizing that Harlem will only bring them more of the same with the cabarets and jazz.

Helga Crane in Larsen’s Quicksand also struggles with the decision of whether or not to remain in Harlem and also comes to the realization that Harlem is not home. She ends up emigrating from America only to turn around and come right back. “No. Helga Crane couldn’t, she told herself and others, live in America. In spite of its glamour, existence in America, even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped, to uncertain, too cruel; something not to be endured for a lifetime if one could escape, something demanding a courage greater than was in her. No. She couldn’t stay” (96). Helga’s tie to Harlem is tenuous as well. Upon first arriving to Harlem, she had high hopes for the city, with a similar reaction to Fisher’s Gillis. “That magic sense of having come home. Harlem, teeming black Harlem, had welcomed her and lulled her into something that was, she was certain, peace and contentment” (43). The feeling of homecoming, however, is short lived. “It didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s…the signs of spring appeared, but…filled her only with restlessness. Somewhere, within her, a deep recess, crouched discontent” (47). Even during her intoxicating stay in Harlem, Helga holds low expectations of the city, “But, while the continuously gorgeous panorama of Harlem fascinated her, thrilled her, the sober mad rush of white New York failed entirely to stir her. Like thousands of other Harlem dwellers, she patronized its shops, its theaters, its art galleries, and its restaurants, and read its papers, without considering herself a part of the monster. And she was satisfied, unenvious. For her this Harlem was enough” (45). Rather than viewing Harlem as the gateway of opportunity, Larsen has her main character start out disillusioned and then eventually deciding to leave the city. The propensity of black writers to portray their characters as being restless “immigrants” depicts an innate disappointment with Harlem. Expecting Harlem to be a home, the characters reach the realization that it simply isn’t, and this realization isolates and confuses the characters.   

To add to the sense of isolation and homelessness, black writers refrain from including a sustained family picture in Harlem and very few stories include a depiction of the family unit. Families were under close scrutiny during the Harlem Renaissance due to the pervasive and “even ubiquitous” eugenic thinking of the 1920s (English 37). Du Bois, although he doesn’t use explicitly eugenic rhetoric, uses “biological metaphors to describe his superior set of race leaders” (English 43) and his idea of the “Talented Tenth comprises not just an already uplifted representative body but a carefully bred, selected, and trained elite” (English 44). As part of the “Talented Tenth” black writers should, theoretically, have been the ones having children, however, “better educated and higher income blacks have even fewer children than their white counterparts, while low-income blacks have even more children than equally low income whites” (Sowell 213). Rather than creating characters who pass along intelligent, beautiful children to the next generation in compliance with the “Better Baby Campaign”, black writers instead create characters who show resentment and an unwillingness to propagate their own race.

 By the time of the Harlem Renaissance, the matter of childbearing was no longer deemed a personal choice; rather, black leaders viewed childbearing as the duty of the elite. During the 1920s, “eugenics…found a ready partner in the period’s class-based, interracial improvement project for African Americans—that is, uplift” (English 36-37). Directly linked with uplift ideology, eugenics sought to continue the output of the best of Harlem by ensuring that those talented individuals who made up the Harlem Renaissance were the ones supplying the next generation with black representatives. Resistance to eugenic pressures, however, can be seen in the literature and adds to the stark portrayal of Harlem. “You know, son,” Stephan tells Raymond in Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, “family is a hell of a thing. They should all be dissolved” (278). When Lucille tells Raymond that she’s going to have an abortion, she states, “I never want to bring a child into this world. I agree with you…that race suicide would be the quickest way to cure human beings of their ills. Why should we go on bringing others into the world?” (255). Lucille has no desire to build up a family in Harlem, and Thurman nips the makings of a family in the bud.

Larsen also comments about the undesirability of building a family simply because one has been deemed a representative of the race. Helga Crane in Quicksand resists “any assigned role as reproducer for a racial cause” (English 38). When speaking with James Vayle, her ex-fiancé, she states: “Why do Negroes have children? Surely it must be sinful. Think of the awfulness of being responsible for the giving of life to creatures doomed to endure such wounds to the flesh, such wounds to the spirit, as Negroes have to endure” (103). Helga’s view is purely practical, but James is aghast because he agrees with the black bourgeoisie on the subject of children. “But Helga! Good heavens! Don’t you see that if we—I mean people like us—don’t have children, the others will still have. That’s one of the things that’s the matter with us. The race is sterile at the top. Few, very few Negroes of the better class have children, and each generation has to wrestle again with the obstacles of the preceding ones” (103). According to James, Helga has no right to deny her seed to society, and if she does so, she is directly adding to the race problem rather than being a part of the solution.

Resistance to eugenic pressures, however, was not the only way Harlem writers portrayed their unwillingness to align with the concept of the “Talented Tenth.” Such unwillingness can be seen in the portrayal of Harlem as a destructive force pulling away from assimilation rather than a portal for migrating Negros. Thurman depicts the senselessness of Harlem “assimilation” in his description of Raymond’s reaction to the donation party. “Whites and blacks clung passionately together as if trying to effect a permanent merger. Liquor, jazz music, and close physical contact had achieved what decades of propaganda had advocated with little success…This…is the Negro renaissance, and this is about all the whole damn thing is going to amount to…It is going to be necessary…to have another emancipation to deliver the emancipated Negro from a new kind of slavery” (186-187). The black melting pot of Harlem, rather than being the center of artistic output and social uplift, is instead portrayed as a trap and hindrance to black assimilation. The black melting pot only serves to embroil those it contains, and here we see a Harlem that has become nothing but a hopeless cycle with none of the traits so highly held by black elitists. The only sense of assimilation Harlem seems to be able to provide is that of liquor and jazz. Assimilation through liquor and jazz is also seen in Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho. “Out on the dance floor, everyone, dickty and rat, rubbed joyous elbows, laughing, mingling, forgetting differences. But whenever the music stopped everyone immediately sought his own level” (74). This time liquor and jazz are shown to be the only way for blacks of different classes and shades to mingle. The black melting pot, unable to stand on its own two legs, seems to be contingent upon the catalyst of liquor and jazz to facilitate unity.   

The way in which black writers portray Harlem, shows the city to be a ghetto for black “immigrants” rather than a portal. The cycle of Harlem life spirals downward and creates a distinct culture that works against assimilation. “Liberal minds to-day,” Locke states, “cannot be asked to peer with sympathetic curiosity into the darkened Ghetto of a segregated race life. That was yesterday” (xxvi). And yet the vision of Harlem which the majority of black writers give us falls more under the label of “ghetto” than portal. “Nor must they expect to find a mind and soul bizarre and alien as the mind of a savage” (xxvi) Locke continues and yet the jungle rhetoric in many of the novels belies this statement as well. What accounts for the disparity between the hopeful immigration imagery and the stark portrayals of Harlem? I argue that the various savage and dark portrayals of Harlem are a backlash to an uplift ideology which black writers found suppressive.

 “I believe in the higher education of a Talented Tenth,” said W. E. B. Du Bois, “who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into a higher civilization” (Lewis 7). Trumpeted by Du Bois, the concept of the “Talented Tenth” promoted an elitist ideology and placed the pressure of “the race problem” squarely on the shoulders of a select few. Art was to be for one purpose: racial uplift, and it was to be “highly polished stuff, preferably about polished people, but certainly untainted by racial stereotypes or embarrassing vulgarity. Too much blackness, too much streetgeist and folklore—nitty-gritty music, prose, and verse—were not welcome” (Lewis 95). Alain Locke, another proponent of the “Talented Tenth”, states in his introduction to The New Negro Anthology that Harlem is “a cosmopolitan cultural capital whose importance for “Aframerican” nationalism resembles that of the newly emergent national capitals of Europe” (Lowney 416). Locke writes, “Here in Manhattan is not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life…Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another…Within this area, race sympathy and unity have determined a further fusing of sentiment and experience…In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination” (6-7). Harlem is uplifted, becoming, in a sense, a Statue of Liberty figure, heralding in the new era. “Whoever wishes to see the Negro in his essential traits, in the full perspective of his achievement and possibilities, must seek the enlightenment of that self-portraiture which the present developments of Negro culture are offering” (Locke xxv). This passage places on a pedestal those blacks who are able to artistically contribute to the “Negro culture” and, in doing so, aid in a “group expression” that would uplift the black race.

Black writers, however, don’t appear to keep racial uplift in mind when presenting Harlem in their literature, at least not in the sense that the black elite expect. “Most of the good ones,” Hughes wrote concerning black writers, “have tried to be honest, write honestly, and express their world as they saw it” (177). In much of the black literature during the Harlem Renaissance, resentment of the pressures the “Talented Tenth” ideology placed upon black writers shows in the literature. The disparity between how the black writers of the Renaissance approach Harlem and how the older generation wished Harlem to be approached belies a fundamental problem with the Harlem Renaissance: internal disunity. In order to be a success, a movement needs one ideological foundation, and all of the various views of Harlem present a disjointed Renaissance that complicates its purpose.

Such tension between the desires of the older generation of black intellectuals and the work of the black writers of the Renaissance is exemplified in Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring. In the forward, Amritjit Singh describes Thurman as “the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance who tried to organize the opposition of younger writers to the programmatic and promotional ideologies of the older generation of writers and intellectuals” (vii). Such opposition to “programmatic and promotional ideologies” can be seen in the “salon” gathering. Here Thurman concisely states the argument between those who wish to use black arts as a means to uplift the masses and those who resent the pressure of using their art as propaganda. Dr. Parkes is the fictional version of Dr. Alain Locke, and at the “salon” gathering he reminds those gathered that the future of the race depends on them. “You are…the outstanding personalities in a new generation. On you depends the future of your race…You are finding both an escape and a weapon in beauty, which beauty when created by you will cause the American white man to reestimate the Negro’s value to his civilization…to accomplish this, your pursuit of beauty must be vital and lasting….You have too much at stake. You must have ideals” (233-234). Raymond responds to this pressure by feeling himself “full of contradictions, which threatened to ooze forth despite his efforts to remain silent” (235). Raymond is a prime example of a character that feels trapped in Harlem. Having had uplift ideology force-fed to him, Ray resents the burden Dr. Parkes places on his shoulders, the burden of representing an entire race.

“I’m sick of both whites and blacks,” Ray rants to Steve. “I’m sick of discussing the Negro problem, of having it thrust at me from every conversational nook and cranny. I’m sick of whites who think I can’t talk about anything else, and of Negroes who think I shouldn’t talk about anything else. I refuse to wail and lament. My problem is a personal one” (215). Harlem is where black potential is turned to radical social uplift, where talent is supposedly turned to genius that impacts society as a whole. Having been fed this uplift ideology, Thurman’s characters feel bound to Harlem. “This environment is enough to provoke almost any type of mental or physical malady” (193) Raymond writes to Steve.

“This house has been bad for both of us,” says Steve. “I often wonder what would have happened had we been in a more sane atmosphere” (213).  “I’ve never found one. It seems to me that my whole life has been one whirlpool after another” (214), Raymond replies.

The pressure which uplift ideology applies has a crushing effect upon the individual. Because, as Dr. Parkes puts it, black writers’ work “must be vital and lasting” this puts a stopper on creativity. Although a writer, we rarely see Raymond write. The pressure of achieving perfection freezes his output. “He wanted to do something memorable in literature, something that could stay afloat on the contemporary sea of weighted ballast, something which could transcend and survive the transitional age in which he was living. He wanted to accomplish these things, but he was becoming less and less confident that he was possessed of the necessary genius” (145). Raymond cannot simply be a good writer; he must be a good black writer. Creating art simply for art’s sake is not an option. “Talent was not a sufficient prerequisite for immortality. He needed genius and there was no assurance that he had it, no assurance that he had done anything more ‘than learned his lessons well”’ (145). Paul, the only character who completes a novel, ends up committing suicide and, ironically, ruining his book in the process. His novel is “rendered illegible when the overflow of water had inundated the floor, and soaked the sheets strewn over its surface” (283). Paul’s attempt at creative and lasting output is abruptly aborted with his death. Previously in the story, Paul seemed the most adamant character in his desire to assimilate with the larger American society. “I’m not an African,” he insists, “I’m an American and a perfect product of the melting pot” (238). Paul tries to melt but can’t because Dr. Parkes and the black bourgeois will not let him. They want to emphasize the race problem and in doing so they intrinsically identify themselves as “other”. In their propaganda efforts, they only serve to further segregate themselves.

Not only do blacks become segregated from society, but also from each other. In Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho, Shine, Jinx, and Bubber call the black bourgeois the “dickties”: the elitist intellectuals of the movement who are perceived as being pretentious in their knowledge. The class they are trying to help, however, holds no respect for them. Upon meeting Merrit, their perception of the upper class is contradicted. “What manner of dickty was this? He greeted you like an equal, casually shared his troubles with you, and did not seem to care in the least what the devil you did with his furniture” (51). Shine still concludes, however, that “they never was a dickty worth a damn” (51). Likewise, in Home to Harlem, McKay portrays tension between the lower class and the educated upper class blacks. Jake only has a “vague idea” of who the “educated of the ten dark millions” (164) are. He realizes that these educated individuals are outside his circle, something heard of but not seen. The few “big niggers” he knows of are not “the educated ones. The educated “dick-tees,” in Jake’s circles were often subjects for raw and funny sallies. He had once heard Miss Curdy putting them in their place while Susy’s star eyes gleamed warm approval” (164). Miss Curdy calls educated blacks “stuck-up bush-whackers of the race” and insists that they “all talks and act as if loving was a sin” (164). In their literature, black writers portray a heightened tension within the black community, a tension based not only upon different social standings but also differing ideologies.

Author Joyce Moore Turner acknowledges such disjointed ideologies in her mention of four Jamaicans: Garvey, McKay, Rogers, and Brown, who had an impact on the Harlem Renaissance. Of these outspoken men, Turner writes, “Their accounts also helped reveal that while the wider circle of militants from different areas of the Caribbean shared common elements in their analysis of the issues, there were also stark differences in their solutions. Their homelands were marked by diversity, as were their opinions and activities in Harlem” (71). The spectrum of thought concerning Harlem and its image and purpose were wide and varied. Fisher represents fictionally the diversity of “opinions and activities in Harlem”. The General Improvement Association’s Annual Costume Ball in The Walls of Jericho is a place very much separated by class as well as color, and Fisher notes with sarcasm the intense failure of the “black melting pot”. “The bars are down,” Fisher exclaims with irony. “This is for the Race. One great common fellowship in one great common cause” (71). Those gathered, however, are not united. The shades of color sweep “from black to white through all the shadows and shakes. Ordinary Negroes and rats below, dickties and fays above, the floor beneath the feet of the one constituting the roof over the heads of the other. Somehow, undeniably, a predominance of darker skins below, and, just as undeniably, of fairer skins above…One great common fellowship in one great common cause” (74). They are gathered together for the purpose of “Negro advancement”, but color, and by extension ideology, separates them.

In Infants of the Spring Raymond points out the futility in even trying to have a movement. “One cannot make movements nor can one plot their course. When the work of a given number of individuals during a given period is looked at in retrospect, then one can identify a movement and evaluate its distinguishing characteristics. Individuality is what we should strive for” (240). Often considered a closing book of the Harlem Renaissance, Infants of the Spring ends in a cynical vision of the black arts movement. Paul’s last picture is of a crumbling Niggeratti Manor: “The foundation of this building was composed of crumbling stone. At first glance it could be ascertained that the skyscraper would soon crumple and fall, leaving the dominating white lights in full possession of the sky” (284). The crumbling of the manor represents the crumbling of the black arts movement which, in turn, makes room for the “white lights” of white hegemony to come in and take over. Thurman shows how, without a solid foundation, a building will fall and, by extension, a movement will fall without a solid ideology.

The conflicting visions of Harlem in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance belie a disjointed ideology. Black writers, instead of conforming to the ideology of the “Talented Tenth”, show resentment of such pressure in their literature. By portraying Harlem as a primitive jungle and place of consumerism, black writers were undermining the picture of Harlem as a portal of opportunity for migrating blacks. Instead of becoming a home for immigrants, Harlem is portrayed as unsuitable for family life. The often dark and stark portrayals of Harlem conflict with the view of Harlem as a tool for uplift. Ultimately the disparity between the rhetoric of uplift ideology and the work of the writers of the Renaissance belies a fundamental problem of the Harlem Renaissance: internal disunity. The tug of war going on in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance undermines its purpose of unity and assimilation. Black writers and thinkers strove for unity and assimilation in the larger American society without having internal unity within their own movement, and in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, we see the resentment and feel the hypocrisy of such contention.     

 

 

Works Cited

 

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