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How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?

I think the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and modernism in the United States is more or less dialectical. On one hand, as I have argued at length elsewhere, African American literature, music, dance, theater/performance, fashion, language, and so on had an enormous impact on the development of modernism and artistic bohemia, influencing modernist notions of diction, subjectivity, literary landscape, and so on. From its earliest days, bohemia in the United States was significantly defined as a space in which the increasingly rigid boundaries of race were permeable. The evolution of the African American ghetto in the early twentieth century in Harlem, the South Side of Chicago, and other urban centers created a “black” space easily accessible [End Page 457] to the intelligentsia of various “races.” The concentration of the so-called vice industries in these new ghettoes also made that space, especially in Harlem, a site of an interracial gay community in which black and white were more or less peers. This community significantly overlapped with artistic bohemia in a time when such interracial communities were very, very few. In short, the Harlem Renaissance, especially but not solely in Harlem, given that it was the inheritor of older black artistic traditions and practices and as a bohemian space, did much to shape modernism in the United States.

At the same time, many black artists of the Harlem Renaissance had a sense of themselves as modernizing African American art, literature, and politics and of participating in larger cultural and social movements beyond the boundaries of the ghetto, indeed, beyond the boundaries of the United States. While, as a number of scholars have remarked, the trope of the “New Negro” considerably antedated the Harlem Renaissance, it was recontextualized in terms of contemporary events and movements (e.g., Dadaism and surrealism, the Bolshevik revolution, black physical resistance to the white mobs of the 1919 “race riots,” and so on). However, this is not to say that black artists necessarily saw these larger movements as fundamentally “white” in the sense that we have traditionally understood “race” in the United States. As Kate Baldwin points out in Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain (2002), one of the things that excited Langston Hughes and Claude McKay about the Soviet Union and the international communist movement was, as Hughes and McKay saw it, their multinational and multiracial character and, in the case of the Soviet Union, a significant rejection of “whiteness” as a defining characteristic of the new state.

How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?

I suppose the biggest change in my thinking over the years is my growing conviction about the absolute centrality of an interracial gay community to the cultural circuits that provided much energy to the Harlem Renaissance and allowed it to circulate outside of African American community—and made possible much of the physical record that allowed the boom in Harlem Renaissance studies in the first place.

What do you think is the most interesting or challenging work being conducted in this field today, and why?

Some of my favorite work in the field is being done in gender/sexuality studies (e.g., Gary Holcomb’s Claude McKay: Code Name Sasha [2007], Shane Vogel’s The Scene of Harlem Cabaret [2009], and Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion [2009]) and on the interface of black political radicalism and cultural production (e.g., Holcomb again, Jeffrey Perry’s Hubert Harrison [2009], and Barbara Foley’s Spectres of 1919 [2003]). Basically, I think the work done in both areas has significantly extended earlier scholarship by people like George Chauncey and Bill Maxwell, expanding our sense of the formal and thematic evolution of Harlem Renaissance literature as well as of the artistic, intellectual, and social networks through which that literature was promoted and circulated. [End Page 458]

What figures, connections, or areas of inquiry require further attention or reflection? What aspects of the Harlem Renaissance are we missing or ignoring?

Despite my answer to the previous question, much more could be done in...


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