- Questionnaire Responses
How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?
I understand the Harlem Renaissance in ways that were inconceivable on my first encounter with the phrase “the Harlem Renaissance.” In the 1960s, fiercely black nationalist and Black Arts advocates castigated the Harlem Renaissance as a bourgeois, individualistic, narcissistic movement working under the commands of white patronage and black bourgeois audience demands. Never mind that most of the 1920s black writers benefited little from financial, publishing, or critical editorial input from whites. Despite their generational angst, the black nationalist and black aesthetic practitioners dubbed themselves “Renaissance II” and claimed themselves collective, committed, and committing with respect to the black majority, the masses. As the winnowing of time and critical judgments have worked their ineluctable offices, the Black Arts have revealed their own debts to mainstream (i.e., white) patronage and their errant strivings that often reached bombast and have missed “the racial mountain” altogether.
So here we are in a new millennium with nearly a century separating us from that time when Harlem was in vogue. The modes of literary and artistic understanding and reading technologies and practices have changed dramatically. With biographies such as Arnold Rampersad’s of Langston Hughes and David Levering Lewis’s of W. E. B. Du Bois, Thadious Davis’s of Nella Larsen, Robert E. Hemenway’s and Valerie Boyd’s of Zora Neale Huston (and many others), the dramatis personae of the 1920s have been brilliantly illuminated. So, too, have the temper and complexities of their era. With the shift in the incumbencies of intellectual, artistic, sociological, and psychological fields of inquiry surrounding the 1920s, our scholarship has enlarged the “normal practice” of inquiry. Our critique of the Harlem Renaissance has segued into a global project. [End Page 433]
For example, the works of Paul Gilroy, Brent Edwards, Cheryl Wald, Angela Davis, George Hutchinson, John Jackson, and Lawrence Jackson (to name but an arbitrarily designated few) have expanded the geopolitical influences and gender expanses of study. Diaspora studies has swept away parochialism with respect to the 1920s. Which is to say, W. E. B. Du Bois’s concluding essay in Alain Locke’s The New Negro titled “The World and Africa”—like so much of the Sage of Great Barrington’s labors—was prophetic. Du Bois’s critique of colonial terror, duplicity, and oppression was unequivocally a forerunner to our current expanded critique. In a sense, one might say that under the aspect of newly emergent modes of study, the so-called Harlem Renaissance vigorously inverts Hegel. Rather than Africa being a sphere “without history,” African, African American, and diaspora studies today mark the ur-commencement of new histories of race, class, gender, social organization, and economic arrangements of the world. A fine pedagogy has accompanied this perspectival and philosophical shift.
The dedicated and brilliant scholars who have shaped complex new global accounts have dramatically shaped my ideas about the renaissance of the 1920s. I have also been blessed by the work of those who were supposed to be “my students,” but who, in fact, have been some of my finest instructors in the arts and cultures of the renaissance. I am especially grateful to participants in my first National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on the anthropology of art conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. Out of that work came my monograph Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987). My graduate students have also been more than instructive and generous in bringing me up to speed on matters of gender and sexuality, class, and global intersections of the works of those who populated the 1920s.
The most challenging aspect of work on the Harlem Renaissance today is the sheer proliferation of source materials easily accessible. There was, perhaps, a time when a necessary—though surely not sufficient—understanding of Langston Hughes would read him as a young man from complicated and distinctively black American circumstances who made himself into a “local color” Negro poet. Now, one commences any critique or appreciation of Hughes with (metonymically) Africa and questions of international cosmopolitanism pertaining to Haitian indigeneity, African negritude, Cuban vernacularity, global South...