My responses to various questions in this survey all revolve around the need for a stronger Marxist presence in scholarship on the movement that is routinely known as the Harlem Renaissance.
How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?
There’s no doubt that the Harlem Renaissance is now seen as integral—indeed central—to U.S. modernism. But when we contemplate the question of modernity, signifying more broadly an entire historical epoch, the dominant historical narrative still requires revision. One place to start is to reconsider the rubric “Harlem Renaissance.” Not only does this term focus a movement that was national—and to some degree international—around its “capital”; more problematically, it pronounces the movement a predominantly cultural one, analogous to the “renaissance” accompanying European modernity. The alternative term “New Negro movement” not only more accurately reflects the movement’s contemporaneous self-concept (it became known as a “renaissance” primarily in retrospect) but also leaves open the connection between economics and politics, on the one hand, and art and literature, on the other.
What aspects of the Harlem Renaissance are we missing or ignoring?
It is widely acknowledged that Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) played a key role in defining the New Negro as culture hero rather than anticapitalist militant. Locke’s highly influential intervention should be seen, I believe, as a form of class struggle in the realm of ideology, one that sought to diminish the impact of political radicalism and to promote a class collaborationist and quietistic culturalism. While it is evident that, in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, the leftist upsurge lost some of its immediate energy, it is also evident that the Bolshevik revolution had a continuing and mounting impact throughout the decade. The proletarian movement of the 1930s cannot be attributed solely to the effects of the Great Depression; its origins in the post–World War I radicalism that was inspired in large part by the establishment of socialism in the Soviet Union cannot be effaced. The routine designation of the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural “flowering” beginning in the 1920s—even if it is seen to continue to 1940, as the Norton Anthology of African American Literature proposes—deflects attention from these crucially important postwar political roots. [End Page 439] Indeed, if anticapitalist radicalism is viewed as central to the New Negro movement from its outset, and the culturalist thrust of much of the “Harlem Renaissance” is seen as a movement within a movement, one largely confined to the mid- to late 1920s, then the entire arc of African American literature is significantly reconfigured.
Also missing from much of the scholarship on the “Harlem Renaissance” is a thorough consideration of the impact of Garveyism on the culture and politics of the New Negro movement. Short pieces by Garvey are routinely included in anthologies, but the immense popularity of Garveyism is generally given short shrift, and Garvey himself remains a somewhat cartoonish character, relegated to the sidelines in most narratives of the period. Scholarly research has been impeded by the unavailability of large swaths of the Negro World; I remain hopeful that a complete run of yellowed, crumbling issues can still be found and made digitally accessible, resulting in a fuller and more objective understanding of the nature of Garveyism, as both philosophy and praxis. I anticipate that such scholarship would expand our understanding more broadly of the connections between Caribbean and U.S.-based movements—Marxist, black nationalist, and varying combinations of these—during the 1920s and 1930s.
What figures, connections, or areas of inquiry require further attention or reflection?
In connection with the above points, I believe that our thinking about some of the key figures of the New Negro literary movement can and should be refocused. Claude McKay needs to be read not only as a militant-cum-diasporic poet but also as a proletarian novelist: that his novels bridge the late 1920s and early 1930s illustrates the difficulty of confining proletarian literature to the Depression decade. The Langston Hughes of the 1920s is too often seen as the “blues” predecessor of the “red” Hughes...