Barbara Foley's book is a well-written, well-researched, and extensively supported analysis of the links between the American Left and the New Negro movement. Arguing that 1919 was a year when issues of race and class were closely tied, Foley traces the continuation and then the lessening of that connection through the early 1920s, using Alain Locke's 1925 anthology, The New Negro, as a barometer of a shift away from the more radical New Negro movement and toward the more culture-focused Harlem Renaissance.
Combining political theory, literary criticism, and intellectual history, Spectres of 1919 is filled with close analyses of magazine articles, nonfiction books, poems, correspondence, and lecture notes. Foley uses these sources to recover and reconstruct discourses of race, class, and nation from the period; her topic and her attention to these little-studied texts—including many only available in archives—make this book a valuable addition to scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance, the American Left, and the 1910s and 1920s in general.
The starting point of Foley's study is with what she calls the revolutionary potential of the post-World War I period, especially evidenced in labor strikes and a new spirit of internationalism. Foley [End Page 210] emphasizes that many African Americans—including Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois—had a good deal of "sympathy with left-wing politics and organizations" (21). This is a crucial aspect of her revisionary project, for "the significant involvement of African Americans in leftist politics," she argues, "remains to this day one of the best-kept secrets of U.S. history" (viii). She also points out the antiracism of many white leftists, demonstrating that many leftists, both black and white, saw racial and class oppression as linked and insisted that the two needed to be battled together.
But in her second chapter, Foley qualifies the assertions in her first, offering evidence that some leftists and leftist ideologies were, in fact, racist, and that many African Americans and their publications demonstrated a growing conservatism by the mid-1920s. She concludes that the limits of leftist thinking about race and class decreased the continuing appeal and power of the radical antiracist movement.
Foley also acknowledges the impact of outside pressures on the Left. In chapter three she surveys the racist antiradicalism that was omnipresent in the media, focusing particularly on the influential pseudoscience of the 1910s and 1920s and the use of nativism and eugenics to support the "bad" nationalism manifested in the 100 percent American campaign, which insisted that immigrants and minorities needed to assimilate into a homogenous American culture. Challenges to these beliefs were mounted by the emerging Chicago school of sociology and new developments in anthropology led by Franz Boas, but Foley concludes that these efforts, too, were limited by internal contradictions and shortcomings in their conceptualizations of race, class, and ideology.
In chapter four Foley explores further efforts to fight 100 percent Americanism by cultural pluralists, the Young America movement, and contributors to the Liberator. In various ways, each group attempted to formulate a "good" nationalism built around the ideal of a pluralist democracy. They asserted what Foley calls a "metonymic nationalism" (160), which holds that a single social group can signify the nation as a whole and that each group makes distinctive contributions to American culture. They also relied on organic tropes Unfortunately, Foley argues, these strategies ironically perpetuated the ideas of racial difference they were meant to undermine.
For scholars of the Harlem Renaissance, Foley's fifth chapter, on The New Negro, is particularly illuminating when she brings in information gleaned from archival materials relevant to Locke's creation of the anthology and when she offers detailed analyses of the differences between this book and its predecessor, the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic magazine. Her discussion of the changes to [End Page 211] essays that appeared in both versions highlights the revisions in tone between the magazine issue and the book. Also helpful is her overview of Locke's early radicalism...