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The New Negro, 1920-1935

by Dr. David Levering Lewis





From the Early 1920s until the mid-30s, artistic tremors rolled through Afro-America. Dramatic societies, literary clubs, and poetry groups sprang up in Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Topeka, among other places. In Boston, the Quill Club launched the Saturday Evening Quill periodical; in Washington, D. C., there was Howard University’s Stylus magazine and the freewheeling and remarkably productive soirées of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Saturday Nighters: Philadelphia’s literati published the intriguingly promising review, Black Opals.2 But most of this ferment remained inchoate and, at best, decidedly amateurish. Only in Harlem was there sustained and professional artistic output-although much of its music was tested in and imported from Chicago.3

Economically, demographically geographically, and politically, Harlem was the inevitable chrysalis of the Afro-American artistic development known as the “New Negro Movement” or the “Harlem Renaissance.” Nowhere else was there such a large concentration urban Blacks–well in excess of 75,000 by 1920.4 Nowhere else (unless it was in Washington, D. C.) was the reality–and, far more important, the promise–of middle-class economic opportunity greater.5 And certainly, despite its widespread if ambiguous racial segregation, nowhere else was the aureole of the music hall, the theater, and the worlds of publishing and high society more brilliantly showered upon Afro-Americans than in New York City. The lure of Harlem was irresistible.

Arna Bontemps and Wallace Thurman (both California-educated writers) were working side by side in the Los Angeles central post office when the August, 1924, issue of The Crisis (the NAACP periodical), containing Bontemps’ first published poem, arrived. Thurman would hesitate several months before joining the swelling migration of talent to Harlem, but Bontemps, already exhilarated by Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows, “resigned [his] job in the post office packed [his] suitcase and bought a ticket to New York City.”6

As early as 1915, more than a half decade before the New Negro Movement was officially launched, the political mystique of the region above 135th Street (conquest of the ten blocks below 135 Street was not achieved until 1935)7 had begun to enthrall Afro-Americans and many West Indians. The Colored Republican Club, organized by the wily Charles W. Anderson in 1904 still promised to exercise more than token power in the city. Thomas Fortune’s New York Globe (later Age) was the voice of the deceased Booker T. Washington’s still powerful machine But the force that inspired the mind and stimulated the pulse was W.E.B. DuBois, who, for most literate Afro-Americans, was the personification of all that was brilliant, noble, and militant, and the raison d’etre for the NAACP.

Economically, demographically geographically, and politically, Harlem was the inevitable chrysalis of the Afro-American artistic development known as the “New Negro Movement” or the “Harlem Renaissance.”

When an affluent gentleman from Duluth accompanied his daughter on her first trip to the East, he showed her Boston’s Crispus Attucks monument and Harvard, and then the required sites of New York City-but only after going first, as did numerous other Afro-American tourists, to pay homage to DuBois.8 The pair also visited the offices of the Messenger, whose editors Asa Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, were among the first Afro-Americans to espouse socialism.

Few Afro-Americans–certainly not those from Minnesota–were socialists or were even aware of the Rand School from which Randolph and Owen derived their creed. It was Randolph’s panache, not his politics, that was appealing. He was a majestic figure and the Messenger, which included Theophilus Lewis and George Schuyler among its contributors, was admirably literate and delightfully iconoclastic.9

There were two other political movements that were anathema to most of the middle class One was the Marxist-oriented African Blood Brotherhood and its newspaper The Crusader, which was guided by West Indian born Cyril Briggs, and which had a limited, almost exclusively West Indian constituency. The second was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founded in 1920. Already hugely financed by the workers of the Caribbean and Central America, the UNIA claimed millions of Afro-American members whose contributions (estimated at $10 million) would far exceed the fund-raising achievements of all Afro-American organizations to date.10

Having popularized the slogan, “Africa for the Africans,” recruited briefly writers Claude McKay and Negro World, mounted gaudy parades and rallies at which his disciplined and splendidly uniformed militia and Black Cross nurses defiled before UNIA counts and dukes, created a Black version of Christianity with an elaborate hierarchy the envy of the Vatican, Garvey also left crowds at Madison Square Garden and throughout the land spellbound with imprecations against the Black bourgeoisie and with exhortations to return to Africa.ll DuBois and the NAACP were Garvey’s special objects of contempt, and the idol of bourgeois Afro-America was soon desperately on the defensive. Garvey’s attack went far beyond politics.

“A little, fat, black man, ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head,” as DuBois described him in Century magazine, the Jamaican born Garvey violated that most sacrosanct of Afro-American covenants-the conspiracy of silence about color.12 He denounced mulattoes in general, and DuBois in particular (“purely and simply a white man’s n…….”), 13 as fifth columnists among the mass of struggling blacks. And once proclaimed, the invidious libel rapidly gained the status of self-evident truth for many rural and blue-collar blacks.

While Harlem was burgeoning in numbers and talent, much of white America, after a brief and artificial surcease, was undergoing a reinforcement of Negrophobia, drawing upon eugenics, Freudian psychology, history, sociology, and the pseudo-science of intelligence mensuration to justify another round of repression. University professors and Army Medical Corps psychologists “objectively” demonstrated the genetic or behavioral inferiority of the Afro-American. “Take him away from all cultural education,” Dr. William Lee Howard urged in The Ladies’ Home Journal. “Make him the nation’s ward, as are the self-respecting Indians.”4 Columbia University’s renowned sociologist, Howard Odum, concurred in language more neutral but which essentially recapitulated President Wilson’s raw judgment upon the “host of dusky children untimely put out to school.”15 Since he was unstable unassimilable, incapable of mastering the higher tasks of citizenship, it was unthinkable that the Afro-American could be allowed to advance his condition by shouldering arms for his country. Major R. W. Shufeldt, author of America’s Greatest Problem: The Negro (1915) and the Army Medical Corps’ outstanding authority on racial characteristics and IQ testing, performed yeoman’s work during the war to amass a body of scientific data (the infamous Alpha and Beta IQ tests) painstakingly confirming the “bestial,” prelogical nature of the AfroAmerican.”16 Meanwhile, Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), over the vigorous protests of the NAACP and a few liberal whites, was shown in the White House and in packed cinemas throughout America. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a primer for Nordic survival among the “lesser breeds,” was a best seller. Historians trained in the Dunning School rewrote the past to document the aberrant unwisdom of Radical Reconstruction.

Already hugely financed by the workers of the Caribbean and Central America, the UNIA claimed millions of Afro-American members whose contributions (estimated at $10 million) would far exceed the fund-raising achievements of all Afro-American organizations to date.10


Until the European armistice, however, neither radical black political movements nor the new pseudo-scientific racism were more than secondary themes in the music of Afro-American patriotism, employment, and optimism. The exodus of peasants from the South continued, vigorously prodded and loudly monitored by the America’s largest newspaper. Between 1917 and 1919, 50,000 immigrants doubled Chicago’s Afro-American population. There were similar increases in Detroit, East St. Louis, Illinois, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. 17 But the “New Zion” was Harlem. “In Harlem, black was white,” King Solomon Gillis exults in Rudolph Fisher’s short story “City of Refuge.” “You had rights that could not be denied you; you had privileges, protected by law. And you had money.”l8 There were as yet, very few intellectuals, poets, and writers. Indeed, there was only one of each so far as most people knew: DuBois the intellectual; McKay; the poet; James Weldon Johnson, the poet-writer. It would require a confluence of unusual forces to persuade the Solomon Gillises that what Harlem needed most was a literary elite.

Apart from their exiguous literary tradition, all classes of Afro-Americans were doggedly pragmatic, and nothing could have seemed more extravagantly impractical to them than writing poetry and novels. Still, for that small group meeting the elevated criteria of DuBois’ concept of the “Talented Tenth,” there was a keen awareness that, in the hands of white writers, the Afro-American was a remarkably salable commodity.

The public’s fascination with-and revulsion for-the Negro was beginning to take on the symptoms of an epidemic. Moreover, despite the dominance of inflammatory themes, derived from writers such as Thomas Dixon, Jr., and Thomas Nelson Page, ………. unmistakable signs existed of a kinder and more serious literature. Beginning with Ridgely Torrence’s three plays, The Rider of Dreams, Granny Maumee, and Simon the Cyrenian (1917), and decisively perpetuated by Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones (1920), Afro-American actors appeared for the first time before the New York white public in serious dramatic roles.

James Weldon Johnson wrote almost breathlessly to the Afro-American critic, Benjamin Brawley, that the Smart Set’s Jean Nathan “spoke most highly about the work of these colored performers.”l9 And when Paul Robeson appeared in O’Neill’s 1924 play about intermarriage, All God’s Chillun Got Wings-although as drama it was unpolished and racially equivocal-Afro-Americans exulted. An even more remarkable tonic, however, was the 1921 success of the musical Shuffle Along, with music, lyrics, choreography, cast, and production entirely in Afro-American hands.

Meanwhile, the reading public was being alternately diverted, titillated, saddened, guilt-stricken, and angered by Octavus Roy Cohen’s ……stories, Highly Colored (1921) and Assorted Chocolates (1922), and by E. E. Cummings’ primitive “Jean Le Négre” in The Enormous Room (1922), T. S. Stribling’s equally tragic Birthright (1922), H. A. Shands’ brutal White and Black (1922), ………and Waldo Frank’s shocking Holiday (1922). This was only the beginning: Julia Peterkin’s Green Thursday (1924), Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925), DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (1925), and Roark Bradford’s 01′ Man Adam and His Chillun (1928) were yet to come.

If they were not always pleased by this white outpouring about black life, Afro-American leadership immediately grasped its civil rights significance. As Benjamin Brawley, the literary critic, wrote James Weldon Johnson, “It seems to me that we have a tremendous Opportunity to boost the NAACP, letters, and art, and anything else that calls attention to our development along the higher lines.”2 Walter White, the NAACP’s assistant executive secretary, was moved to send O’Neill his “personal approval of the uncompromising stand you are taking regarding the production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”2l With few exceptions, white novelists and playwrights were careful in public either to minimize or to deny entirely espousal of the AfroAmerican cause.

For the majority, books about blacks represented a profitable excursion into the exotic, the romantic, or the anachronistic. But the “Talented Tenth” knew that sometimes there were finer motives. Indeed, writers like Clement Wood and T. S. Stribling said so. …..Wood wrote Walter White, “and I want to help it in every legitimate way.”22 Such books could make a great deal of difference, Walter White agreed. He wrote to cheer up a disappointed Stribling: “I am afraid you are a bit pessimistic with regard to the effect that protests such as you and I may make will have upon the great masses of people. There has been a marvelous change in the last five years in the attitudes of white people in general.”23 He added that Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes were helping to make the “marvelous change.”

White might also have mentioned another marvel, Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), a book which sold only a few hundred copies but was hailed as the most promising achievement of the day by writers as dissimilar as Sherwood Anderson, Matthew Josephson, and Allen Tate.24 It was the first novel (actually a collection of character sketches) of the Harlem Renaissance.

This renaissance was not spontaneous. Swarms of unpublished Afro-American and West Indian artists, novelists, and poets converging on Harlem could not have produced the phenomenon. It was manufactured in the sense that artists were recruited, supported and didactically counseled to portray the Afro-American according to the aesthetic gospel of the NAACP and the Urban League. And it was manufactured in the sense that white allies of the civil rights movements assiduously encouraged artistic expression. White motives were highly mixed. Some, like Muriel Draper, Elizabeth Marbury, Rita Romilly, Florence Stettheimer, and Carl Van Vechten and Fania Marinoff, cultivated Afro-American artists as fascinating additions to their salons. “Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals, all stimulate me enormously for the moment,” Carl Van Vechten confided to H. L. Mencken. “Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time”-the faultiest of predictions because, for the Van Vechtens, interracial socializing became a crusade.25

Some, like editors and publishers V. F. Calverton, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Horace Liveright, and Carl and Irita Van Doren were motivated by enlightened professional-con-considerations. “What American literature decidedly needs at the moment is color, music, gusto,” Carl Van Doren told a “Talented Tenth” audience. “If the Negroes are not in a position to contribute these items, I do not know what Americans are.”26 Others, like Hart Crane, Max Eastman, Waldo Frank, Zona Gale, Frank Harris, Louise Bryant, Georgia O’Keefe, and Alfred Stieglitz, were “lost generation types or cultural mavericks who saw in the Afro-American a potential for enriching their personal lives as well as that of a materialistic America. Finally, there were the Jewish notables-scholars such as Franz and Boas and Melville Hershovits, jurists such as Louis Brandeis and Louis Marshall, civic leaders such as Herbert Seligmann and the Spingarn brothers and philanthropists such as the Guggenheims and Rosenwalds -whose liberal traditions and special anguish over newly virulent anti-Semitism encouraged interracial solidarity. It was noted that Madison Grant’s enormously popular The Passing of the Great Race had reserved its bitterest diatribes for Jews. The lynching of an Atlanta Jewish businessman, Leo Frank, not long before (1916) stunned them. And they continued to agonize over the vicious passions unleashed by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s witch hunt against aliens and other “undesirables.” It was hardly surprising that the official and unofficial role of Jews in Afro-American civil rights organizations was a dominant one. “Whether they acknowledged it or not,” Professor Hasia Diner’s pioneering study asserts, “Jewish participation in the civil rights movement was useful to them…… In the movement for black legal rights, Jews may have been able to prove themselves generous, selfless, tolerant, and humanitarian.”28

With the end of the war in Europe came the inevitable resurgence of domestic racism. When Professor Robert E. Park, the dean of American sociologists and mentor of Charles S. Johnson (the Urban League’s leading intellectual) had asked, “What is going to happen when the negro [sic] troops return from France?” he might have anticipated the four days of rioting in the nation’s capital and twelve days of rioting in Chicago as partial answers.29 Economically, politically, and socially, the Afro-American was to be put in his place.” But the “Talented Tenth” and Its white well-wishers noted that nothing was said about “his place” the arts. Here was a small crack in the wall of racism, one admirably suited to college-educated Afro-Americans and liberal whites. And if whites were able to write about Afro-Americans and win an audience, the NAACP’s Jessie Fauset, W. E. B. DuBois, and Walter White wondered if their own literary efforts might not be equally successful. Had not the works of McKay and especially Toomer suggested how much deeper and truer the literary optic of Afro-Americans could be? “The lines which I have marked”-in a poem by Toomer-“[are] proof of an art and of a contribution to the literature which will be distinctly (blacK) [sic] and without propaganda,” Jessie Fauset wrote Arthur Spingarn, the NAACP legal advisor. “It will have in it an element of universality “30

It was hardly surprising, as Arna Bontemps recalled, “that crusading civil rights leaders suddenly decided that a touch of magic had been found.”31 The second novel of the Harlem Renaissance (if Cane is considered the first), The Fire the Flint (1924), was written by Walter White-and written, he claimed, in twelve days.32 Jessie Fauset dashed off There Is Confusion (1924), the third “New Negro” novel. The Urban League countered with poems by Countee Cullen, who had become the business manager of its new organ Opportunity magazine.

What was to be written about was never in much doubt: the “representative” Afro-American depicted in as correct and cultured a setting as credibility permitted. But how best to depict “Negroes” of the “better classes” was less obvious. Propaganda was to be avoided. “My chief objection to propaganda,” Howard University Professor Alain Locke explained, “is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it.”33 The obvious and ideal goal would have been simply to portray Afro-American themes with as much craftsmanship and candor as possible, to avoid the demeaning trap of ethnic imbuing their material with universality. But the obvious course was not thought to be a reasonable one.

In American Mercury James Weldon Johnson solemnly.-admonished that “it would be straining the credulity of white America beyond the breaking point” to depict Afro-Americans as heroic, aggressive, or rich. And white Bigotry was matched, Johnson said, by black puritanism. Because of “taboos” within his own community, the Afro-American writer “has no more absolute freedom to speak as he pleases addressing the black community.”34 He was cursed by the “double audience.” The only solution, Johnson argued, was to create a literature whose appeal would “fuse” the two reading publics.

That was not how Langston Hughes saw the problem. His famous manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountian,” proclaimed,”If white people are pleased, we are glade. If they are not, it doesn’t matter either.”35 But Hughes was a wandering, rather unconventional poet, not a gray eminence whose counsels had the force of a pastoral letter. As well, very few of the “Talented Tenth” were willing to accept Sherwood Anderson’s advice to Jessie Fauset: “Why not quit; thinking of negro [sic] art.”36 Preoccupation with conveying a message to the double audience resulted in literature that addressed itself to the genteel rather than the noble, to propaganda rather than realism. If propaganda did violence to their aesthetic tastes, middle class notables either ignored it or shrugged it off as necessary. Walter White’s ambivalence was typical. When Joel Spingarn and T. S. Stribling chided him for moralizing at the expense of vivid character portrayal, the author of The Fire In the Flint readily conceded the flaw.37 Writing straightforwardly to H. G. Wells, White admitted, “The novel I have done is not a great piece of writing but it is an honest attempt to give a picture which has hitherto never been shown.”33 Later, though, he bristled at similar criticism from Julia Peterkin. “As to being called a ‘propagandist’ . . . ,” he wrote her,

no person who has positive convictions about any subject, especially if that subject be in the slightest degree a controversial one, can wholly escape such an imputation. Keats might be charged with being a propagandist for beauty, and Jesus Christ, himself, is a propagandist for ethical standards of living. My own sole concern is to write as well and as honestly as I can.39

The truth was that White, the gregarious cosmopolite, would have preferred to write like his friend and mentor Sinclair Lewis: but the other White, the Afro American civil rights spokesman, believed he had to use novels in the same way NAACP lawyers used briefs. When Eugene Saxton of Doran & Company objected to the barbarity of the manuscript’s white southerners, White shot back at his editor, “They are depraved. They are rotten. Therein lies the tragedy.”40 And when Sax ton finally informed him of Doran’s turnabout decision not to publish The Fire and the Flint, White replied with a fascinatingly frank rebuttal which expressed the literary creed of the “Talented Tenth”:

Is it not time that the prosecution should be heard? For fifty years or more the argument has been all on one side, i.e., for the defense. Thomas Nelson Page, George W. Cable, Thomas Dixon, Hugh Wiley, Octavus Roy Cohen, T. S. Stribling, H. S. Shands, Irvin Cobb-all have painted the Negro as a vicious brute,rapist …..or as a happy go lucky, irresponsible and shiftless type, with the exception of Stribling who tried to picture what an intelligent, educated Negro feels terra incognita to him…. But here is an attempt . . . to depict the tragedy of color prejudice as seen by intelligent Negroes of high ideals-of which territory I am not wholly ignorant and you object because an attempt is made to give the other side of the picture which has never been adequately given.4′

If one of the principal officers of the major civil rights organization nearly failed to find a publisher for a surprisingly good and truthful first novel about racism in a small southern town, publication prospects for other Afro-Americans hardly could be encouraging.42 An outraged Irvin Cobb could still put a Walter White “in his place” by telling George H. Doran that, “if he wanted . . . to have his books read in this part of the country [the South] as well as every other, never put his name on the title page of that horrible book.”43

Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Rudolph Fisher, Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, and Eric Walrond were assured of sympathetic treatment from the editors of Cr¿sis, Messenger, or Opportunity. It was extremely doubtful, however, that luck or merit alone would lead to a contract with Harper’s or Harcourt. Prospects for fellowships from the Guggenheim, or Rosenwald foundations were even more remote. Unlike White, none of them could avail himself of H. L. Mencken’s intercession with Alfred Knopf. Nor did Mencken’s suggestion that Afro-Americans should develop their own publishing houses meet with, enthusiasm. “Even if there were such a concern,” White explained to Mencken, “I would yet want my present story to be published by as conservative and respectable a white firm as would do it…. Colored People know everything in my book…. It is not the colored reader at whom I am shooting, but the white man and woman who do not know what you and I know.”44

Another reason, seldom stated, was the fear that, if whites refused to publish “Talented Tenth” works, the Afro-American masses might turn away from bourgeois leadership. Despite his legal troubles, Garvey’s UNIA was more threatening than ever. Others were beginning to voice displeasure. In their joint Messenger column, “Shafts and Darts,” Theophilus Lewis and George Schuyler mercilessly lampooned the august Professor Locke by awarding him “the elegantly embossed and beautifully lacquered dill pickle.” The occasion of their scoffing was Locke’s address at Harlem’s Saint Mark’s M. E. Church where the “high priest of intellectual snobbocracy” cautioned that “counter assertions against the whites will only generate more prejudice. You must get down to the practical job of working into the American standard of living according to our separate capacities.” Far more compromising was Schuyler’s ridicule in The Nation of “Talented Tenth” literary pretensions.45 Soon after the Messenger lambaste came DuBois’ unexpected and lethal broadside, discharged as much, perhaps, from panic about the consequences of “Talented Tenth” failure as from suspicions of white motives. “How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals. . ., a fighting organization which has come out of the blood and dust of battle, struggling for the right of black men to be ordinary human beings-how is it,” DuBois wondered, “that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about art?”46 The explanation, he wrote, might be that there are “a surprising number of white people who are getting great satisfaction out of these younger Negro writers because they think it is going to stop agitation of the Negro question.”47 In spite of his dark suspicions, DuBois continued to be a mainstay of the Harlem Renaissance, but he had voiced a charge that has gained increasing credence over the years.

Success is its own justification, Locke and others believed. If there were many whites who believed that the struggle for civil rights could be sidetracked by the arts, then the “Talented Tenth” must play the game in order to advance the cause. Moreover, what other means remained by which to agitate the “Negro question”? The temporary gains during the war had merely resulted in greater repression. The major undertaking of the NAACP, support of the Dyer federal antilynching bill, was clearly fated to die in parliamentary chicanery. A compact with the enemy’s most enlightened representatives was, it seemed, the unique hope. “To get above ground,” Locke would soon admit, “much forcing has had to be endured, to win a hearing much exploitation has had to be tolerated. There is as much spiritual bondage in these things as there ever was material bondage in slavery.”48 It was up to the grandees of Afro-America-Charles S. Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White-to negotiate the exact terms of this spiritual bondage. Roles had to be assigned and played well. The refined Dr. Locke, the unusually secretive Charles Johnson confided to Arthur Schomburg, “was cast in the role merely of [the movement’s] press agent.”49 Sympathetic whites had to be corralled and courted. The New Negro Movement had to be institutionalized around regular dinners, banquets, and prizes. The movement had to be invested with flourish, suavity, and, if possible, genius.







Black History Is No Mystery is deicated to the memory of Dr. Carter G. Woodson who is known as the Father of Black History.  He is the guiding light in the preservation of the records of black people.  The need for recording the suffering of blacks, as well as their achievements was recognized by Dr. Woodson in 1915.  He devoted his life to bringing the accomplishments of blacks to the world’s attention, and started a trend that gathered momentum during the civil rights movement.

The beginning of the black historical movement was initiated in 1915  when Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.  The association began publishing the scholarly Journal of Negro History in 1916.  The best known of Dr. Woodson’s 16 books is The Negro In Our History published in 1922.  Many scholars consider it one of the best full length works on black history.  Other books written by Dr. Woods are The Education Of The Negro Prior 1861, A Century Of Negro Migration, The History Of The Negro Church, The Mind Of The Negro As Reflected In Letters, Negro Orators And Their Orations, Free Negro Heads Of Families, and Negro Makers Of History.

Dr. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia.  His parents were former slaves.  He received a Ph.D in History from Harvard University and received the Spingarn Medal in 1926 from the NAACP.





With the recent release of the movie Glory, a long neglected chapter of American history is being rediscovered. Glory chronicles the exploits of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, one of the earliest Black regiments in the Union army and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the wealthy young Bostonian who led them. The story of the Fifty-Fourth is a compelling one, made even more so by the swiftness with which it occurred. In March, 1863 the regiment was in training near Boston. Two months later, on May 28, the regiment marched proudly through cheering crowds in Boston, the first Black regiment from the North to go to war. By the morning of July 19,1863 Shaw and many of his men would lay dead on a sandy spit of land outside Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. Though their service was short, they made a difference. In their first battle, on July 15, they saved the Tenth Connecticut Regiment from certain destruction and their assault on Fort Wagner proved to the Union that Black soldiers were fully the equal of their White counterparts.

The regiment had many influential supporters, including Massachusetts Governor Andrew, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and other noted abolitionists of the day. These men traveled, lectured and wrote, urging Black men to join the regiment. The recruitment drive was so successful that a second regiment, the Fifty-Fifth, was filled as well. The Fifty-Fifth Regiment served with distinction throughout the war, most notably at Honey Hill, South Carolina. Among the soldiers in that regiment was James Monroe Trotter, the father of William Monroe Trotter.


The first Black regiment to serve in the Civil War was the First South Carolina Volunteers, formed in 1862. Recruited at the same time but mustered into the army shortly after the First South Carolina was the First Kansas Colored Regiment. In 1863 the Second South Carolina Volunteers, as well as the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth, began their service.


Though Shaw’s name is best-remembered, others, both in and out of the regiment deserve equal celebrity. In the crowd that day was a young Black woman named Mary Edmonia Lewis. She was so impressed with Shaw as he rode on his horse at the head of the regiment that she decided to sculpt a bust of the young colonel. Though she received little support in her artistic endeavors, she went ahead with the project. Later, Shaw’s sister commissioned Lewis to execute the bust in marble. Edmonia Lewis continued sculpting and became a respected artist both in the United States and Europe.


Two of the soldiers already had at least one admirer in the crowd. Charles and Lewis Douglass had joined the regiment as soon as they could and Lewis became the first unit’s first regimental sergeant major. It was their father, Frederick Douglass, who admired them from crowd that day as the regiment marched down Beacon Street.


Other states were raising Black regiments as well. The first Black regiment to serve in the Civil War was the First South Carolina Volunteers, formed in 1862. Recruited at the same time but mustered into the army shortly after the First South Carolina was the First Kansas Colored Regiment. In 1863 the Second South Carolina Volunteers, as well as the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth, began their service.


As Smalls served, he learned as much as he could and in May of 1862 he put his plan into action. One night when the White officers were away Smalls, who had the same figure and was about the same height as the captain of the Planter, put on the captain’s uniform and eased the steamer away from the wharf.


Of course, Blacks did not have to be in military service, or even freedmen, to be of great help to the Union. One of the cleverest coups for the Union was the brainchild of twenty-three year old Robert Smalls. A slave all his life, Smalls had been forced by the Confederacy to serve in their navy. Smalls was an excellent pilot and became wheelman of the steamer Planter. Had he been White he easily would have qualified to be the steamer’s captain, but as a slave, wheelman was as high a rank as he would ever get. As Smalls served, he learned as much as he could and in May of 1862 he put his plan into action. One night when the White officers were away Smalls, who had the same figure and was about the same height as the captain of the Planter, put on the captain’s uniform and eased the steamer away from the wharf. He and his co-conspirators slipped quietly out of Charleston Harbor, giving the sentries all the correct passwords and signals. He stopped to pick up his wife and children and then sailed to the nearest Union vessel and gave them the steamer plus important information about the coastal defenses. In recognition of his bravery Smalls was given command of the ship and remained its captain until the end of the war.


As entertaining as it is to read stories like this one and to see movies like Glory, there is nothing like reading the writing of people who actually lived these events. There are several good books and articles on the subject of Black soldiers in the Civil War. Here are just a few:


Lerone Bennett Jr., “Chronicles of Black Courage, Part V” in Ebony

Magazine, October, 1983. The dtory of Robert Smalls.

Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm, Negro Troops in the Union Army, 

1861-1865.. An overview of the subject.

Otto Friedrich, “We Will Not Do Duty Any Longer for Seven Dollars Per

Month” in American Heritage, February, 1988. Injustice in the military.

Robert Ewell Greene, Black Defenders of America. Biographies of Black

servicemen, look up your ancestors!

James Hallas, “Forward, Fifty-Fourth!” in Yankee Magazine, July 1981. The

story of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment.

Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memories. Written by a freed Black woman who traveled with the First South Carolina Volunteers.






Born a slave in 1744 on the Breda plantation in St. Dominique (present day Haiti), Toussaint L’Ouverture rose to become the first independent Black leader in the New World. Under his guidance, Haiti became the second independent nation in the Americas in 1804, joining the United States which was first.

The Haitian revolution began with a courageous slave named Boukman, who led a community of 12,000 other slaves to revolt in Le Cap in 1791. It ended victoriously, with Toussaint, who not only conquered the former French and Spanish slave owners, but also handed the British army what was, up to that time, its worst defeat ever. Toussaint and the freed slaves not only conquered Napoleon in Haiti, but also caused his defeat in Europe as well. His military genius destroyed army after army of Napoleon’s forces, sent by Napoleon to re-enslave the Blacks of the island. By constantly draining the natural and financial resources of the former French colony, (the riches in the world at that time), Toussaint’s army weakened Napoleon’s position in France, giving the British the opportunity needed to destroy Napoleon’s continental forces.

Toussaint, the eldest of eight children, was small for his age, but soon developed his strength and skills through swimming, running, horseback riding, reading and thinking. His quiet, reserved manner, his cautious but confident nature, and his sharp tongue gave him command of every situation. His father, once a chieftain in Africa, taught him history and medicine. His mother taught him songs and told him stories of his ancestry. Pierre Baptiste, his godfather and a wise man, taught him French, Latin, and geometry and instilled in him a deep faith in Christianity. An avid reader of philosophy as well as history, Toussaint gained insight and power from his studies.

His last name, L’Ouverture (the opening), was a nickname the French governor of St. Dominique (Haiti) gave him after engaging in a battle with Toussaint. The governor’s statement, “That man finds an opening everywhere,” testified to Toussaint’s ability to break through enemy lines.

After hearing the declaration of the French revolutionary leaders for liberty, justice and equality for all French citizens, Haiti decided to fight its own war for independence in 1791, and Toussaint, cautious at first, soon became its leader and defeated the French slave owners. After The National Convention abolished slavery in 1793, he aided the French in their war against the Spanish and the British. In 1799, civil war broke out between the Blacks and the Mulattos. Toussaint, leading the Blacks in this internal struggle, soon won the war and became the island’s sole ruler.

When Napoleon sought to re-enslave the Blacks of Haiti in 1802, Toussaint began planning for war. He fought bravely and won many battles but was deceived by diplomacy to make peace. At peace the talks he was kidnapped and brought to France where he was imprisoned by Napoleon until his death on April 7th, 1803. Ironically, Napoleon would suffer a similar fate: capture and imprisonment until death. Under the leadership of Dessalines and Christophe, two protégés of Toussaint, Haiti maintained its independence, and was never again enslaved.
Character, training, action and a deep faith in God granted Toussaint command of the challenge of leading his people to freedom. The intellect, the curiosity, and the sense of community created through the sharing of history, coupled with the dream of freedom, justice and equality were the stamp and character of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian people.

To learn more about this brilliant leader, and the revolution he and others led, read one of the most comprehensive studies on this subject – The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by the Caribbean born scholar, C.L.R. James.





Ralph Elision’s Invisible Man explores the inconsistency between outward appearance and inner self- a reality which is both elusive and evanescent. The title itself suggests this fragility of appearance. From the narrator’s first encounter with Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, to his dealings later with the other principal character, Rhinehart, Invisible Man pokes at the flimsy nature of false appearances.

The way in which a person’s outward appearance works with his inner personality reflects his personal identity. As long as the inner and outer reality acknowledge each other, there is a consistency of appearance and true inner worth within the person. The narrator of Invisible Man learns to deny his inner worth and thus accepts various forms of deception of his identity.

Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the Negro College where the narrator first enters into the world of deception, offers us an example of a double personality. He is a master of deception and his success is due largely to his ability to manipulate whites. When the narrator naively shows Mr. Norton, a wealthy donor of the college, to the seamier sides of the neighboring community, he is bitterly upbraided by Dr. Bledsoe: “Why the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?” Dr. Bledsoe recognizes the dishonesty of lying and misrepresentation, but he rationalizes his actions as a pragmatic approach to the racist assumptions of white attitudes.

He emphasizes that though whites financially assist his college, Bledsoe himself wields the power. When he says: “True they support it, but I control it,” his implication is that there are two kinds of power- the apparent or outward power and the real or inner power. Dr. Bledsoe sees his pandering as an effective way of assuring the school’s survival.

The narrator, whose “vague notions about dignity” leave him repulsed by Dr. Bledsoe’s brutal frankness, undergoes a transformation in the course of his subsequent experiences. Rhinehart, the chameleon-like-trickster who never appears but who’s presence is felt, represents the essence of the cold and calculating Dr. Bledsoe. Though Rhinehart is not physically present, his personas are effectively utilized by the narrator. The outward appearance of Rhinehart is a matter of dress; it is put on and taken off like a pair of eye glasses. The narrator’s adrenaline is charged by the thrill of putting on a false front. The effect of the glasses is magical. The “sinister light” provides a “strange wave of excitement.” The narrator realizes the power of his new image when he is first mis-identified by a woman in a “tight fitting summer dress.”

Rhinehart, baby, is that you? she said.

Rhinehart, I thought. So it works. She had her hand on my arm and

faster than I thought I heard myself answer, “Is that you baby?” and

waited with tense breath.

The narrator almost unconsciously encourages the mis-identification of him as Rhinehart and thus he effectively denies his true identity. He is drawn into this false identity. He continues to masquerade as Rhinehart’s other personalities, seemingly enjoying the schizophrenic rush of putting on false appearances. Thus he is seduced by the power which the absent Rhinehart has over others:


I was both depressed and fascinated. I wanted to know Rhinehart and

yet, I thought, I’m upset because I know I don’t have to know him,

that simply becoming aware of his existence, being mistaken for him,

is enough to convince me that Rhinehart is real. It couldn’t be, but it


The narrator sees the power of seeing and not seeing, of being seen and not seen as something not so. Image and appearance are the reality which his world perceives. Appearance is substance.


The opening chapters reveals the narrator’s first glimmerings of realization. This realization is fully apprehended by the narrator as he perceives Rhinehart as the consummate man capable of dealing with a world of deception. His first encounter with this kind of deception was Dr. Bledsoe who took the narrator to task for not having grounded himself in the ways of the world. Dr. Bledsoe frankly explains the skills of deception which he feels are indispensable for a Black man’s survival in a white world. The narrator seems to have an innate sense of duty and honor, an idealistic sense of honesty and character which conflicts with the deception necessary to succeed like a Dr. Bledsoe or a Rhinehart. It is this conflict which prompts the narrator to ask, “What is real anyway?” 


The narrator comes to understands that denying his moral sense of duty leads to masking his true identity. His search for identity winds up at the beginning. His path has taken him full circle as he realizes the profundity of Dr. Bledsoe’s commentary.


The world has not changed for him in the end only the bitterness of many of his experiences. The Invisible Man’s process of seeing through the many facades he encounters only reveals for him the flimsy character of appearances. The narrator realizes that the deceptive Bledsoe is a universal kind, a paradigm fully expressed in the later character of Rhinehart. 





By Janis Lowe

Q: When did you become interested in film making?

A: My brother is a film maker. When I was a kid, he would take me to a lot of foreign films as well as American independent and art films. So I started
thinking about movies I wanted to make. When he would come home from college, I would tell him my ideas. So, one time he came home for Christmas break and gave me a diary. He said “Don’t tell me about your ideas
anymore. Write them down.” That’s when I first started writing scripts.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional film maker?

A: I didn’t make a conscious decision until I was graduating from high school and it was time for me to pick a college. Of course when you pick a college, you have to decide what you want to study. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do.

Q: Where did you attend college and what did you study?

A: I went to Harvard. There was a major there called Visual and Environmental Studies which is sort of an umbrella term for anything
arts related. While my main area of concentration was film, I also studied
photography, graphic arts and architecture.

Q: How should an aspiring film maker go about educating herself or himself?



A: It’s actually fairly easy to learn how to make a film. You can learn by working with other film makers or going to film school. The important thing is to learn things to make movies about. You must be a good storyteller. You must have a grasp of politics, philosophy and psychology. That’s why I chose Harvard. With a good all-around education, I felt I could make films people would want to watch. Most people tend to overlook what you’re saying (with a film). which is more important than how you say it.

Q: Can you tell me about your brother and the Black Film Foundation?

A: When my brother was a student at Yale, he made a film that people loved wherever he showed it. But when he took the film to a distributor, he would be told that there was no market for it. He knew otherwise. He got together
with some friends–people he went to college with, and formed a distribution cooperative for film makers. Ten years later, the Black Film Foundation is the largest distributor of Black independent films. They recently celebrated their 10th anniversary. They were the fiscal agent for Spike Lee’s film, She’s Gotta Have It. They’ve really played a crucial role in the contemporary success of Black independent film.

Q: The Black independent film tradition is at least 70 years old. Why is this not common knowledge?

A: Much information about Blacks being empowered is repressed. It is important that Blacks continue to make films. A lot of people mistakenly
believe that a movie is Black if a Black appears in the film. The true definition of a Black film is when a Black person is the creative influence behind the camera. If the writer, the director, and the producer are Black, then it is a Black film. Black subject matter does not qualify a film as Black.

Q: You mentioned that the Black Film Foundation was fiscal agent for She’s Gotta Have It. Is Spike Lee involved with the foundation in any other way?

A: He’s very supportive of the organization, financially. He’s the largest individual contributor. The foundation hosted the premier of She’s Gotta
Have It,
and has given him an award for helping to break down barriers in the film industry.

Q: Several Black films made in the seventies were financed by independent
groups of Black business people. Do you foresee an increase in such cooperative efforts?

A: Those kinds of efforts are very difficult to put together. Blacks have to be willing to put out a few thousand dollars and possibly lose that. Many Blacks don’t have those kinds of resources. However, I think the success of
She’s Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle have encouraged people to attempt low budget pictures and I hope more will be successful.

Q: Do you feel Blacks have the economic power to control their media image?

A: Yes, if Blacks employ other Blacks whenever possible, the first battle is won. If a Black musician has a Black manager, hires a Black company to do the music video, goes to a Black studio to record his album, insists upon a Black agent, we could take over the entertainment industry. Blacks have the number one show on television, the number one movie star, and the number one recording star. If we put Black nationalism to work within the entertainment community, we could control a sizable chunk of one of America’s largest industries.

Q: Do Black film makers have a responsibility to the Black community?

A: All of the Black film makers I know went into film making because they wanted to make a social statement. Considering the amount of money it costs to make a film, I don’t think you can spend that much money, get that much of people’s time and attention and not say anything.

Q: Tell me about your film, House Party?

A: It began as my thesis at Harvard in 1983. When I was a kid writing scripts, I promised myself that I would one day capture my various mis-adventures on film. I said to myself, “This might be the only film I ever make so I better keep my promise.” So, I made the short version of House Party which was twenty minutes long and very successful. I entered the film in a lot of film festivals . It played a lot on the short film circuit. After the success of She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood studios were looking for Black film makers. New Line Cinema had heard about me and wanted to see some scripts. I sent them two and they decided to produce House Party as a feature film.

Q: Is anyone from the original cast in it?

A: I tried to but most of them were not living at the same address after six years. I hope to work with some of the original cast when other projects come up.

Q: What did you have to do to get the original House Party seen by people who would possibly produce it?

A: I sent copies of the video tape around to people. I also had the film distributed by the Black Film Foundation. Through the Foundation and word-of-mouth, people became aware of the movie. Also, when Spike Lee
became successful and was deluged with offers, he would put in a good word for me. Some opportunities came that way.

Q: Will young Black men find positive role models for themselves in your work?

A: I think so. If there’s a central message at the heart of the film, it’s about birth control. We try not to moralize. We respect their intelligence as audience. When I was a kid I hated to be preached to so I try not to preach to kids. At the same time, if there’s a crucial issue in America today, its babies making babies. That you can’t blame on the White man. It is our special organs that are doing that. If we put ourselves in check, that’s a huge problem that can be eliminated.

Q: One of the #1 problems among Black youths in our society is lack of self-esteem. How can we best build self-esteem in our young people?

A: The problem is kids’ lack of knowledge of Black history. When I was coming up, I never felt inferior. I knew everyone in my family was intelligent and I knew the achievements of Black people as a whole. I never felt that I could not do something because I was Black.

Q: Who helped to instill this positive attitude in you?

A: There were many influences but the number one influence was my family.

Q: Is there any particular school of philosophy or thought that encouraged you?

A: The attitude of “do for self”. No one owes you anything. The system may be corrupt but you don’t hold your hand out and say, “you owe me something”.
You take what you deserve.

Q: Is there anything that has hurt or hindered you in the process of becoming a successful film maker?

A: The film industry, like most other industries, is prejudiced. Because it is a culturally based industry, it is even more biased. Success in the industry is based on aesthetics, what is considered funny and entertaining. I go to Hollywood studios and I don’t even see Black secretaries or janitorial staff. That is very disheartening.

Q: Is your staff at House Party a Black staff or an integrated one?

A: The industry standard is five percent Black participation. We have sixty-five percent Black participation.

Q: How can we best build institutions such as banks, theaters, cultural centers, social and economic networks that will help African Americans enter the ranks of the financially successful?

A: Its a two fold thing. On one hand successful Black institutions are usually based around someone who says, “the buck stops here.” Someone willing to take ultimate responsibility. But of course, one person can’t do it alone. For us to build institutions, we have to have people who are willing to sacrifice. This is difficult for us to do on a day-to-day basis because Blacks often have a hard time in service positions. We don’t like working for anybody. We remember when we weren’t benefiting from the fruits of our own labor. However, we can’t afford that mentality now that we’re doing for ourselves. I think the first step is to take the attitude that this is ours and we have to work hard, even if we work for someone else. We have to work as if we owned it. The second step is the successful transition of power. Lots of times, we based an organization or a movement around a charismatic, intelligent leader. When that figure retires or is killed–that’s it. Then cut off the head and the body dies. We need to build succession.



Dr King and Wife 1