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.


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