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Archive for the ‘harlem renaissance’ Category

hughes“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) was a short essay written by poet Langston Hughes for The Nation magazine. It became the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance. In it Hughes said that black artists in America should stop copying whites, that they will never create anything great that way. Instead they should be proud of who they are, proud to be black, and draw from black culture. Not “white is right” but, as we would now say, “Black is beautiful”.

One day a promising young black poet told him, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet.” Which to Hughes was just another way of saying, “I want to be a white poet” or, more to the point, “I want to be white”. Which told Hughes that he would never be great:

For no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.

But there is more at stake than just great art:

… it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro – and beautiful”?

The artist, by discovering himself and his people, helps to free their minds.

America tries to make everyone the same – standardization. One size fits all. Blacks are fortunate to the degree that they escape that standardization. It gives the black artist material to draw on that few white artists can.

Yet rich and middle-class blacks wanted to be standardized, wanted to be as white as they could be – in how they looked, dressed, acted, sang and worshipped. They read white books and white magazines, watched white films. They looked down on the blues, spirituals and even jazz. Because “white is best”. Their mothers told them, “Don’t be like niggers” and their fathers said, “Look how well a white man does things.”

They never learned to see their own beauty but instead learned to feel shame about their blackness. And so through their minds whisper the words, “I want to be white.” This is the racial mountain that Hughes said the black artist must climb.

In addition to standardization, the black artist hears this:

  • the black middle-class: “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are.”
  • whites: “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you.”

Both would have kept Jean Toomer from writing “Cane” (1923), one of the best works of Black American prose in those days.

Hughes:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.

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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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Written: 1929
Read: 2008

“Passing” (1929) is a novel about passing for white. It was written by Nella Larsen in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of Clare Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and marries a white man who hates blacks. It is the tale of a tragic mulatto, of someone who tries to escape her race and comes to a bad end.

Because Nella Larsen herself, the author, could pass for white and because she lived in the Harlem Renaissance, the book gives you an insider’s view of both. That alone makes it worth reading.

Black high society in Harlem in the 1920s seems surprisingly English: a thing of drawing rooms, tea parties and beautiful dresses. The book has that general cast to it, even the spelling! (Ntozake Shange calls her writing “exquisite”. I did not find it so, though it did have its moments.)

It is also a book about blackness and what it is, about the nature of race in America – which is probably why I have been writing so much about those things lately.

What makes you black? Is it in your blood – that one drop, as they say. Or is it a matter of your background and upbringing? Maybe it is a little of both – or something completely different.

Clare Kendry looks white, but she is dark like a Gypsy or a Jew. You would never think she was black unless you saw her with other black people – even if she does have “Negro eyes”.

Clare thinks that if she can live as a white woman she will be happier. She will have more money and life will be easier. People will not look down on her. She can go wherever she wants, eat at the nicest places and so on.

Her friend Irene Redfield could also pass for white, but she chose to marry a black doctor and live as a black woman in Harlem. There is something inside her that does not let her turn her back on her race.

She thinks Clare is playing a dangerous game: if she is ever found out she will lose everything: her husband, her daughter, her wealth, maybe even her life. Clare knows it is dangerous but she likes to live on the edge.

Whiteness does not buy happiness, as Clare finds out. Instead it makes her unhappy. She always feels out of place, she does not feel like she belongs, she does not feel free. She wants to be with black people, if only to hear them laugh again. And with blacks she can be free in a way she never can with whites.

So even though Clare acts white and talks white and even looks white and lives white, something deep inside her is still black. And that in the end is what counts.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for two books, “Quicksand” (1928 ) and “Passing” (1929). Her characters are women like herself who are part white, part black and not quite sure who they are.

For years she was out of print. In the 1970s she started to be read again. Those who teach courses in black and women studies at American universities like her books because her characters question who they are as women and as blacks.

In America there is the One Drop Rule: if you look part African, then you are considered to be black. If you look pure European, then you are seen as white. Most people fall squarely on one side or the other. But some, like Nella Larsen herself, lie on the colour line. Some pass for white.

“Passing” is about two friends who are on that line. One marries a black man and lives as a black woman in Harlem. The other passes for white: she marries a white man, who has no idea she is part black, and lives as a white woman. She thinks it is the answer to all her troubles, but in the end she finds she would rather be poor and black than rich and white!

Helga Crane, the hero in “Quicksand”, is also on the colour line. Much of the book is based on Larsen’s own life. Crane goes from place to place, but she does not feel like she belongs anywhere. Not with whites, not with blacks. She goes from man to man but never finds love.

Larsen’s books were so good that in 1930 she got a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first black woman ever to get one. But soon after her life started to fall apart. First people said her short story “Sanctuary” was copied from someone else’s story. Not true. Then in 1933 she went through a very public divorce.

She left Harlem. She said she was going to South America. Some thought she never left the country but changed her name and passed for white. No one knew what became of her till 1964 when she turned up dead in the Lower East Side, a poor part of New York. She had been working as a nurse in Brooklyn all those years.

Her father was a black man from St Croix in the West Indies, her mother a white woman from Denmark. Her father left and her mother married a white man (some say it was her own father passing as white). Larsen grew up in a white part of Chicago, the only black person in a white family. It was not till she got to Fisk, a black university, that she found herself among blacks.

She went from place to place till she came to New York in 1912. In time she became part of the Harlem Renaissance.

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