This is a book I purchased a while back in the hopes of writing some SF set during the Harlem Renaissance, but which came in handy for my course Understanding English and American Popular Culture. (The first half of which has been pretty much devoted to African-Americans’ role in building the foundation of American popular culture.)
The strength of the book is that it builds up a picture — and one that is honestly critical without stooping to being demeaning — of the world in which the Harlem Renaissance occurred, and a number of the major figures of the Renaissance. There are starring roles, and there are cameo appearances, and all of them are quite fascinating.
One pattern that emerges is the divide between the African-American middle and lower classes. The middle class seems to have been utterly repressive to its men, but especially to its women. Little wonder that all of the creative African-American women in this book who hailed from the middle class — or aspired to it — such as Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy Walker, Jessie Fausett, Nella Larsen) became writers, while those whose roots were more solidly of the lower class (Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker) seemed to gravitate more to performing arts like dance and song. But as author Marks notes somewhere, the black middle class did not permit its women to breathe in public.
This sounds familiar — the Koreans I’ve known from more affluent positions in society (and especially the women from such families) have also been the most subject to stifling familial controls and social expectations, and have also been the individuals who have most profoundly internalized the racism of the dominant world order. In a discussion of racism in the aforementioned class a few weeks ago, I struggled with defining racism and then asked my students whether they thought of themselves as racists. One replied, “Yes: I am a racist. I think whites are smarter, better, funnier, more developed, and more beautiful than Koreans,” and others around him were nodding their heads in agreement that this is, to some degree, how things are in all too many people’s minds here. We’d been talking about internalized racism and it was heartening to see the idea had made sense.
[Incidentally, I went with the sarcastic response of, “Even though you know me?” rather than to point out that the racial hierarchy is a ladder, and plenty of nonwhites are, in mainstream Korean society, placed below the Korean and white “races.” It’s a two-way ladder, after all.]
There is a heartbreaking centrality to the hue of one’s skin in this book, as one reads of children treated better for being one shade or another, differing from the parents in the “wrong” way — lighter or darker alike could be subject to punishment, but usually lighter skin got better treatment and darker skin got worse from the stories contained in The Power of Pride. There is an obsession with “passing for white,” which some individuals seemed to try to do while others, like Walter White (subject of one of the chapters) bravely refused to do though he looks pretty much about as white as I do.
The chapter on Josephine Baker, particularly, resonates quite powerfully with a kind of particularly modern, American, female, “sex-icon” celebrity that remains exceedingly familiar today. Thomas Disch claimed, tongue in cheek I think, that modern science fiction would have been impossible without Madonna, but Madonna’s public persona isn’t just the remix of Marilyn Monroe that we know today: there is as much Josephine Baker in Madonna as there is Monroe, I was surprised to discover… but I’ll post about that another time.
Langston Hughes, too, gets a great treatment, and as one of the figures most familiar to me before reading this book (along with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith), I have to say the man’s life is a fascinating tangle of mysteries and passions and problems and achievements. Personally, I find it interesting that the Queer Lit people are so eager to claim he was gay, while biographers like Arnold Rampersand are more circumspect. Personally, this is where I happen to agree (once again) with Terry Eagleton in finding the sexuality of the poet less significant than the things he actually published. That said, it’s also arguable that his possible homosexuality has important implications for how his work should be understood.
And sexuality is a very interesting topic here, not in the prurient sense so common to white Americans at the time of the Harlem Renaissance — for they associated jazz music and African-Americans with sexuality in ridiculous ways — but because, strikingly, so many figures within the Renaissance were homosexual, or bisexual. I’m not sure whether this is something that fits into wildly disrupted, creative subcultures in general, whether the homosexuality was part of the wider questioning of received cultural values of white society, or whether it was a self-conscious way for many creative and ambitious women to escape the confines of what were, at the time, the pretty limited options available to a wife.
There are other figures who are important, but peripheral, like W.E.B. Du Bois, and Billie Holiday, and Lester Young — who would fit in the extended range of the Renaissance that Marks mention, with Du Bois as a precursor and old guard critic of the Renaissance, and Holiday and Young as late entrants — though Hughes claimed the Renaissance was over by the beginning of the Depression.
In any case, this book deals compellingly, honestly, but also compassionately, with the figures it discusses, and seeks to show much of the connections with the Harlem Renaissance, such that figures from earlier sections make cameo appearances in the narratives of other figures, and so that, for example, when one arrives at the chapters on Van Vechten (a white publisher who was involved in publishing many African-American authors and who spent much of his time socializing with them), or at the chapter of Langston Hughes, one already has at least something of a sense on how they fit into the scene, and what part of the crowd they were connected to.
One more thing you really get from this book is a sense of the feeling of belief that art was significant, important, meaningful, in a way that one can, retrospectively, sense it wasn’t (not in the same way, not as liberative, or transformative, or radical) for white America at the time. This makes it particularly interesting reading in Korea today, where –from what I’ve heard — the role of the arts has been sidelined for a long time but was finally punted to the absolute sidelines during the 1997 economic crisis. (With the tacit exception of whatever may be called “traditional art” in Korea… precisely that which seems to connect the least to the young people who are living through this mind-shattering era of transformations quietly shaking Korean society today.)
The book is also chock full of amazing pictures, put together lovingly by Diana Edkins, which serve to illustrate the social and cultural world of the Harlem Renaissance and those extensions of it that reached out to Paris, to Moscow, to other cities in the USA, and so on.
If there is a shortcoming, it’s that the book is really something of a snapshot of an era. Each of the individuals I knew about before reading the book, it seemed to me, had all kinds of things left out of their chapters which could and should have been discussed, but then, this is a series of chapters, not a series of full-length volumes, and there are autobiographies for a number of the more compelling figures, such as Baker and Hughes, as well of course as all kinds of media out there to check out.
If you come to the book looking for an introduction, a snapshot, a sense of a time, you’ll be richly rewarded — especially if, as with me, your knowledge of the subject is limited to a few texts and whatever vague impressions you’ve picked up of the Harlem Renaissance. If nothing else, it will ignite in you a desire to know more about whichever one of these figures interests you most: for me, it’s Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes for now, though I’ll be looking into some of the other figures in the book in years to come.