- Measuring the Harlem Renaissance: The U.S. Census, African American Identity, and Literary Form by Michael Soto
Michael Soto's new book Measuring the Harlem Renaissance tests the notions that "a clear connection exists between social life and cultural production" and that "historical experience gives birth to literary and artistic expression" (x). Using social scientific methods of data gathering, mapping, and census tracking, Soto suggests that these connections cannot be empirically proven but that both social analysis and literature can provide "a partial and provisional view of the facts on the ground" (xi). In this respect, he joins recent works such as Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve and Franco Moretti's Distant Reading, which suggest that literary studies can benefit from quantitative analysis.
Literary scholars who are disinclined toward charts, graphs, and maps may find the book challenging, but it yields new insights into the sociological and artistic construction of Harlem in the first part of the twentieth century and complicates common interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance. In doing so, Soto joins scholars such as Davarian L. Baldwin, Brent Hayes Edwards, Emily Lutenski, and Minkah Makalani by troubling the conceptual links readers often make between Harlem and African American culture. Unlike these scholars, however, whose analyses extend beyond New York, Soto focuses squarely on black Harlem. There he interprets works by Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and others through the lens of the US Census in order to show how their descriptions of multifaceted black identities contrast with the abstract language used by the Census Bureau to denote race. It is paradoxical then, as Soto concludes, that the image of the Harlem Renaissance as a celebration of a monolithic African American culture is a consequence of demographic statistical analysis that left little room for intraracial diversity. [End Page 130]
Soto begins by describing the history of the US Census Bureau's attempts at enumerating the racial makeup of the nation from 1790 through the present. Importantly, prior to 1970 a person's racial identity was chosen by the census taker rather than by the person being counted, and the census itself gave few instructions for how to determine race. To acknowledge this fact helps shed light on recent controversies about individual authors, such as efforts to account for Jean Toomer's ambiguous racial self-identity. Soto examines the 1920 and 1930 censuses, where Toomer is listed as white, and proposes that because Toomer lived primarily among others who were listed as white, he was more likely to be labeled as such by census takers rather than self-identifying that way. In addition, the 1920 census included the categories "white," "black," and "mulatto," but in 1930 the only options were "white" and "Negro." These factors indicate that it is impossible to say, based on the census alone, that Toomer was "a Negro who decided to pass for white," as Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have argued (qtd. on 23). Rather, we have to recognize that the language of the census consolidated racial identifications and obscured the heterogeneity of the African American population.
In the remaining chapters of the book Soto illustrates how this abstraction of racial identity continued in social analysis from both outside and within black communities. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's study The Negro Family infamously labeled as "pathological" the preponderance of female-headed households in African American families. In chapter 2 Soto faults Moynihan and the social analysis that predated him (notably, W. E. B. Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro and E. Franklin Frazier's The Negro in the United States and The Negro Family in the United States) for missing the economic causes of this social structure. He argues that game theory—in its early stages during the years of the Great Migration—allows us to see this social structure as a predictable response to the ratio of men to women in urban areas. More African American women than men moved...