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  • The Disinterested and Fine:New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies

In 1932 Thomas Mabry, a white junior instructor in the Vanderbilt English department, sent out invitations for a party in honor of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, who were at that time both at nearby Fisk University. Mabry’s senior colleague, Allen Tate refused to attend, writing in a public letter he sent to the department chair, to other faculty and alumni, and to a New York magazine that “he would gladly meet these ‘very interesting writers’ in New York, London, or Paris” but that like “the colored man who milks our cow” he believed “there should be no racial intercourse in the South, ‘unless we are willing for that to lead to intermarriage.’”1 According to Arnold Rampersad, Tate “compared attending [the] party … to meeting socially with his black cook.” Tate wrote that while he believed Hughes and Johnson were his “intellectual equals” and that Mabry was “disinterested and fine,” he preferred to respect the racial customs of Nashville and thought the event was beneath the dignity of Vanderbilt.2 To assuage his colleague, Mabry suggested that Tate “bring a beautiful woman” with him to the event; Tate replied “that the most beautiful woman he knew was his colored cook, but that her sense of decorum would prevent her from coming.” Tate’s open letter led to a “flood of turn-downs” to Mabry’s invitation, and the department chair informed Mabry that his position would not be renewed and that he would not be recommended for a position at any other institution unless the party was canceled.3

Tate’s comments about “the colored man who milks our cow” and the “colored cook” with her “sense of decorum” not only [End Page 485] assert that segregation is a “natural” position that even uneducated servants comprehend but also implicitly associate Hughes and Johnson with these black workers, both different from and subordinate to the “disinterested and fine” Mabry. Rhetorically the poets are also subordinate to Tate (“our farm”) and Vanderbilt, undermining Tate’s claim that he was sure Hughes and Johnson were his “intellectual equals.” Indeed, Hughes and Johnson are “placed” not only in the kitchen and on the farm but also in the racially mixed streets of the urbanscape. It’s one thing, apparently, to meet a black poet in Harlem, but quite another to have to meet him in the halls of one of the premier rural southern institutions.

I open with this infamous story not to call out Tate’s racism once again but rather to call attention to the central role of racism in the formation of the academy’s conception of modernism and its exclusion of New Negro writers.4 Since the emergence of scholarly work on modernist literature, the New Negro Renaissance has been conspicuously absent. Although contemporary research has shown that New Negro culture was integral to American modernism, research in modernist studies overwhelmingly focuses on white authors. New Negro literature is studied mainly in other disciplines, such as African American studies or American studies.5 Tate’s response to Mabry is usually cited to illustrate the segregationism of southern academic institutions, but the widespread response to Tate’s letter from academics outside of Vanderbilt suggests something more widespread.6 It seems indicative of an unexamined color line in modernist studies that has persisted ever since the field emerged in the midcentury.

Although the New Critics have often been attacked for their racism, I don’t want to reduce the exclusion of New Negro writers from “modernism” to personal prejudices. Ironically, the lack of scholarly attention to the New Negro Renaissance in modernist studies has persisted alongside growing efforts within the field to diversify the canon and the curriculum. African American poetry produced in the modernist era has until very recently been considered not modernist. The New Negro Renaissance is typically viewed as congruent with but distinct from modernism and, until the early 1970s, New Negro literature was most often addressed by scholars in sociological rather than literary journals.7 Indeed, a colleague of mine working on black poets in the late 1990s...


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