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  • A Long Way from Prague:The Harlem Renaissance and Czechoslovakia
  • Charles Sabatos (bio)

The transnational turn in American studies has provided new perspectives on ethnic and minority literatures, including the Harlem Renaissance and its representative anthology, Alain Locke's The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925).1 While such cosmopolitan intellectuals as Locke and Langston Hughes aimed to instill pride in an oppressed American minority, they were keenly aware of global political developments. Yet as Brent Hayes Edwards has pointed out,

To note that the "New Negro" movement is at the same time a "new" black internationalism is to move against the grain of much of the scholarship on African American culture in the 1920s, which has tended to emphasize U.S.-bound themes of cultural nationalism, civil rights protest, and uplift in the literary culture of the "Harlem Renaissance."


Along with Edwards's groundbreaking work on black internationalism across linguistic borders and Paul Gilroy's influential formulation of the "black Atlantic," literary historians such as Michel Fabre and Kate Baldwin have examined the cultural and [End Page 39] political influence of major European powers like France and the Soviet Union on African American writers. Yet little work has been done on the connections (both social and textual) between Europe's smaller nations and America's racial minorities. Locke's models of liberation, however, were drawn not so much from Africa, where independence from colonial rule lay decades away, but from nations in Central Europe that had been freed from imperial rule at the end of World War I. In particular, the newly established Czechoslovakia, despite its vulnerability to larger powers, provided Harlem Renaissance writers, especially Locke and Hughes, with an example of a group that had developed self-reliance through cultural achievement.

The most widely noted example of the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and Czechoslovakia occurs in Locke's introduction to The New Negro, in which he compares Harlem to both Prague and Dublin as "nascent centers of folk-expression and self-determination" (7). By collecting the work of established writers like Du Bois and emergent poets like McKay and Hughes, Locke emphasized the parallels between the newly self-confident cultural identity of African Americans (while carefully avoiding any suggestion of political autonomy) and the rise of newly independent smaller nations around the world. Houston Baker explains that The New Negro is "a broadening and enlargement of the field of traditional Afro-American discursive possibilities … summoning concerns not of a problematic 'folk' but rather those of a newly emergent 'race' or 'nation'—a national culture" (73). Locke's study in Europe, particularly at the University of Berlin, increased his awareness of the political movements among the smaller European nations. Aside from his European cultural sympathies, the direct source for his comparison of Harlem and Prague can be traced to the origin of The New Negro as a special issue of the journal Survey Graphic in March 1925. This illustrated periodical provided a glimpse of foreign cultures for American readers and, before the issue on Harlem, had featured social transformation in Czechoslovakia, which was represented as an outpost of American values. As Clarke Chambers notes, "[w]hatever pertained to the 'folk' moved [the Survey's editor] Paul Kellogg to delight. As editor he devoted special numbers of the journal to the Irish Free State, to education and land redistribution in the Mexican countryside, and to the Gypsies" (112). Thus Locke's seemingly tangential reference is a conscious strategy to position African American identity together with other small cultures that were striving for greater respect. [End Page 40]

Both Prague and Dublin have become enshrined as centers of European modernism because of their inseparable connections to Franz Kafka and James Joyce. Werner Sollers, in his discussion of the "relationship of ethnic authors to in-group and out-group audiences," suggests that "perhaps even James Joyce's venture into modernism was related to his complex sense of Irish ethnicity; and Franz Kafka's own minority literature was written by a German-speaking Jew in Czechoslovakia, in a situation of not just double but multiple group consciousness" (253). However, both of these great novelists were alienated from the national movements around...


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