- Germany, 1923:Alain Locke, Claude McKay, and the New Negro in Germany
To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
In late 1923, as the Germany currency lay in ruins and resistance to the French occupation of the Rhineland and Ruhr continued, two African Americans met for the first time: Alain Locke and Claude McKay. During this, the initial encounter of what would become a tumultuous relationship, these two central figures of the New Negro movement strolled through one of the German capital's main attractions, the Tiergarten, a sprawling public park that had once been the hunting grounds of the ruling Hohenzollern family. Their discussion centered fittingly on German art, each partner defending a particular German art movement as a tool in elucidating his vision of an African American aesthetic. For Locke this was the neo-classical movement of the early-nineteenth century, while McKay allied himself with the newest and most radical of contemporary German art movements, Dadaism.1
By itself but an interesting historical curiosity, this meeting begins to open up the significance of Germany for the development and articulation of African American thought in this period. Far beyond aesthetic issues, around the year 1923, to African Americans Germany referred not only to a power vanquished in the First World War, but to an ongoing battleground of American racism and its increasingly international scope. As a result of the French deployment of African troops in Germany as part of its occupation of the Rhineland, the early 1920s bear witness to a surprising amount of commentary on Germany and German culture by African Americans.2 Indeed, not until the rise of National Socialism would there be an equivalent mass of articles in the African American press referencing and discussing German art, politics, and culture as was the case between 1921 and 1925. During these years, one can find in Crisis articles on the German Youth Movement as well as reports on and translations of German articles on the French occupation.3 While in the more culturally oriented Opportunity, two separate articles on the German artist Walter von Ruckteschell appear, as well as an interview with the dramaturge Max Rheinhardt and numerous articles containing discussions of German art and artists, many but not all of which were authored by Locke.4 In addition, a number of young African American students and artists traveled to Germany during the early 1920s. After a failed attempt by Locke to get Countee Cullen there, Eugene Corbie, a student at the City College of New York, travelled to Germany with the National Student Forum with the goal of international understanding between youth movements of the world (Schwarz, "New Negro" 53-54). [End Page 106] Novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset as well was at the time in and out of Europe, including Vienna, where she reported that her novel There Is Confusion was to appear in translation.5 Finally poet and activist Clarissa M. Scott traveled to Germany after graduating from Wellesley in 1923.
Yet no encounters with Germany were more important than those involving Claude McKay and Alain Locke. Unlike these other figures, McKay and Locke repeatedly returned to Germany, the Rhineland, and the city of Berlin, each producing numerous texts based upon their travels. The most important of these are Locke's "The Black Watch on the Rhine" and McKay's "Soviet Russia and the Negro," and in each text strong claims are made not only about the future of African Americans but also about Germany's role as barometer for international race relations. If both McKay's and Locke's texts from this period are by no means unknown, little attention has been paid to the ways the complex I am calling "Germany, 1923" came to function within their thought. Instead, McKay's and Locke's texts have been analyzed either as an example of diasporic thought vis-à-vis Francophone literature (Edwards) or as but one strain of the broader discussion of the use of African colonial troops in Germany (Koller). One ought, however, also consider the position of Germany in these texts, as not only part of a strategic response to some of the...