- Questionnaire Responses
How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?
The earliest title appearing under both Library of Congress subject headings “Harlem Renaissance” and “Modernism (Literature)—United States” is Houston Baker’s influential Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987). Baker strikes the familiar, polemical posture that’s more subtly suggested by the “and/or” of the question posed above. The juicier question, the one not quite posed by Modernism/Modernity, is this: was the Harlem Renaissance a part of or an alternative to literary modernism?
The jury has long since issued its verdict. Harlem Renaissance writers, when read creatively and with the proper mindfulness, could be every bit as “modern” as their Euro-American counterparts. Scores of books and journal articles serve as powerful evidence of this point. But the bifurcated options—part of modernism or apart from it—remain useful ways to understand early twentieth-century African American cultural history (and by extension American cultural history). What features of this [End Page 459] culture’s history made it so easy and so acceptable to exclude, say, Georgia Douglas Johnson from the canon of modern American poetry? And why is it that it’s so difficult to exclude her today? The exercise quickly leads elsewhere: how did Langston Hughes displace Countee Cullen as the “Negro poet laureate,” and whose interests (beyond Hughes’s) were served by the switch? The twists and turns that these queries lead us through revivify that difficult question asked by Harry Levin and countless others: “What was modernism?”
We should also be prepared to ask “What wasn’t modernism?” I’m incredibly fond of Rudolph Fisher’s short fiction. I’m fascinated by its fascination with modernity. But if the category “modernism” is to hold any meaning for us, I’m not prepared to say that Fisher’s short fiction is as modernist as the more obviously experimental short fiction of Zora Neale Hurston or Jean Toomer.
How have your ideas about the Harlem Renaissance evolved since you first began writing about it?
Like many students of the Harlem Renaissance, I was (and still am) powerfully swayed by the influence of icons such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, whose cultural nationalism was (to quote David Levering Lewis) “of the parlor,” the stuff of refinement and high style. The cultural studies turn in Harlem Renaissance scholarship during the last two decades has been a welcome and powerful tonic (or perhaps gin is the more appropriate metaphor) for me personally and for the discipline.
I also swallowed whole Du Bois’s and Locke’s low opinion of Marcus Garvey, whose importance—as a political force and as a shaper of cultural attitudes—grows in my estimation with each passing moment. Garvey was an easy target for ridicule, but only because his strident Afrocentrism mimicked the efforts of white fraternal and ancestral societies that were invented to consolidate power and influence in a modern American society that was rapidly changing due to an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, from Asia, and from still other parts of the globe (including, to a very limited extent, Africa). Garvey’s mimicry strikes us these days as clumsy, but for a brief moment his showy stagecraft and soaring rhetoric captivated thousands who came into direct contact with his bigger-than-life persona and many thousands more who discovered Garvey’s ideas in print. Today’s scholarship is only beginning to trace how Garvey and others in the trenches (as well as in the parlors) created a vision of Africa that still resonates in the Euro-American imagination.
What do you think is the most interesting or challenging work being conducted in this field today, and why?
My own approach to the Harlem Renaissance has lately been influenced by the social sciences, which may or may not prove interesting, but it certainly poses a set of challenges that I never anticipated: the most reliable sources of sociohistorical data (such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Welfare Council of New York) had until far too recently a monolithic understanding of “Negro” identity, in which one’s “Negroness...