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Last Refuge of a Rock Critic: A Bicentennial Search for Patriotism

Editors’ note, July 2, 2021: There was so much happening in New York City during the Bicentennial all those years ago that the Village Voice spread its coverage over two issues, spanning June 28 to July 12, 1976. The Big Apple was ready to party: King Kong had just left town and the Democrats were rolling in, preparing for their quadrennial convention two years after a Republican president — a liar, cheat, and bully who attempted to use his office to punish political and personal enemies — had resigned in disgrace. There was some sort of cosmic justice in Richard Nixon flaming out after winning re-election in a landslide but before he could preside over the Bicentennial, that nationwide celebration of American democracy’s survival after one civil war, two world conflicts, and countless cultural battles.

It was in the Spirit of ’76 that Greil Marcus, author of the previous year’s Mystery Train — a monumental collection of essays delving into the heart of rock ’n’ roll to reveal a luminous chunk of America’s soul — undertook a wide-ranging disquisition on the meaning of patriotism in the pages of the Village Voice. (Mark Alan Stamaty’s boisterous, labyrinthine cartoons added to the wild and woolly mood.) As they do in Mystery Train, Marcus’s references, digressions, and footnotes shoot off like fireworks. Radiant as a rocket’s red glare — think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” aurally transmuting Francis Scott Key’s “bombs bursting in air” into bombs dropping on screaming Vietnam civilians — Marcus’s Voice article asks us to look at America’s full history, both glorious and savage. He finds beauty in “an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared,” but also quotes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered shortly before the Civil War reached its bloody end. The president, who would be assassinated just 42 days later, was acknowledging that the carnage was penance for allowing slavery to have been a part of the nation’s founding. “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”

Marcus also quotes W.E.B. DuBois from 1897, when America’s freed slaves were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to help them start new lives more than three decades earlier. “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

And in typical Marcus fashion, we get a bonus line of dialogue from Claude Rains, in his role as Captain Renault in 1942’s Casablanca: “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Marcus was in some ways less concerned with whether patriotism is truly “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson so famously put it, than with the divisions that were fracturing the nation into the broken mirror we gaze further into today. “America may be breaking up into separate ‘patrimonies.’ The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does the widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities.”

In November 1972, shortly after he’d won re-election, Nixon — whose somber Quaker facade in public was belied by the profane conniver heard on the Watergate tapes — discussed cabinet changes with an adviser, noting that he might keep one lawyer on to be the “house Jew” and to “handle the Bicentennial and all that nonsense.” Such nasty cynicism has long permeated the political right — consider Coolidge’s desiccated view, “the business of America is business” — because it cannot reconcile lust for unfettered profit with government’s role of legislating for the common good. Marcus worked on Mystery Train as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In his author’s note, he points out, “To do one’s most personal work in a time of public crisis is an honest, legitimate, paradoxically democratic act of common faith.” Although this book about the music that bound America together across generational, racial, class, and political divides was not published until 1975, Marcus signed his note with a precise date: “August 9, 1974.”

Certainly not coincidentally, that was the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

So, sometime this week, between helpings of apple pie and baseball games, take a few moments to revisit the 200th birthday of a great, if forever flawed, nation as seen through the typewriter of an ever-thoughtful writer grappling with the meaning of patriotism in these United States. Note how he praises conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for the impeachment of a conservative president whose lies, capriciousness, self-aggrandizement, and intimidation tactics they could no longer stomach: “They made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country.”

My, how times have changed. —R.C. Baker

***

In America Even the Humblest Harmony Is an Incredible Dream

By Greil Marcus
July 12, 1976

…In America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” 1922 (1) 

“Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot!”
— Claude Rains to Humphrey Bogart, at the close of Casablanca, 1942 (2)

To claim patriotism in America, where the thing is so undefined, is to claim a very great deal. It is to claim, in one way or another, to embody the republic. So as I thought about what I might say regarding patriotism, which seemed to me an appropriate subject in a week that falls between the Fourth of July and the opening of the Democratic Convention, one conviction that took shape very early was that one could not claim to be a patriot and that anyone who does should be instantly suspected.

This no doubt sounds familiar — patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” (3) as Dr. Johnson put it — but that is not at all what I mean to get at. Rather it is what I mean to get behind me, and to do that it’s necessary to deal at least briefly with the People’s Bicentennial Commission.

The PBC, organized by activist Jeremy Rifkin, presupposes to offer the real, people’s, revolutionary-at-its heart America, as opposed to the official America promulgated for Bicentennial purposes by various hucksters and governmental agencies. The PBC has received some media coverage for its “counterdemonstrations” held alongside various commemorative exercises and dress-up shows.

PBC members are self-described “New Patriots”; you can become a “New Patriot” simply by joining the PBC. According to the PBC line, America is divided into “Patriots” and “Tories” — in fact, all American history, and the American present, can be seen this way. “Patriots” past and present are those the PBC aligns on the side of social and economic justice, defined in the usual radical/liberal manner; Tories are all those who are perceived by the PBC to have resisted such goals. Thus Alexander Hamilton, despite his role in the Revolution, was really a “Tory,” as are Republicans, bankers, factory foremen, and mean high school principals (I’m not making this up).

This approach is indistinguishable from that of the American Legion. There’s nothing troublesome or ambiguous about PBC patriotism; all it takes is a correct stand on the issues, and maybe a membership card. What’s the PBC program? “Patriots” should publicly expose “Tories.” Political candidates should be forced to sign oaths affirming their loyalty to the creed of the revolution.

The PBC makes me think of James Mann of South Carolina, Walter Flowers of Alabama, and Caldwell Butler of Virginia, three conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who were crucial to the successful impeachment votes against Richard Nixon. In PBC terms they are quite obvious “Tories”; in a PBC America is it irrelevant that in working out their decisions on impeachment they made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country. (With Mann there was perhaps no “effort” — that line may have always been visible to him, as it clearly has been to, say, Sam Ervin and William O. Douglas.)

Though the PBC is not to be taken seriously (“Have your political club ask that the Declaration of Independence be displayed at the polling place, so that citizens may spend their time thinking about self-evident truths,” they suggest), the PBC mode of thought is to be taken seriously, if only because it is a mode liberals and radicals often fall into. These days especially, we want our political affairs simple, clean and above all pure. Politics may be many things but it is narcissism first and foremost, because there is more safety in the certainties of separation than in the contingencies of wholeness.

The belief that patriotism is a question of the correct stand on vital social and political issues is not only the most hollow but the most invidious version of the concept; it empties the concept of all possible meaning. The truth is that patriotism makes stranger bedfellows than politics.

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Rather than something that can be easily fixed on individuals for the asking or that adheres to issues because of their necessity, and rather than something that can be claimed, awarded, or withheld, patriotism in America is a conundrum. Most who consider themselves sophisticated in their politics think patriotism is something to outgrow, preferably by the age of 12; many more Americans of all sorts, as John Scholar has written, “are simply without patriotism.… They do not think unpatriotic thoughts, but they do not think patriotic thoughts either. The republic for them is a vague and distant thing.” Yet it seems to me that patriotism should be explored, evoked, doubted, acted, and written out. The language of patriotism needs to be retrieved, invented, nurtured, and spoken, but we should not be too quick to decide who is a patriot and who is not, nor be too careful about establishing standards for the virtuous to meet. It isn’t my purpose here to prove my patriotism to you nor to provide guidelines with which you can prove yours to yourself — should you wish to. Instead I simply want to make the idea real; and I will try to do that by focusing on two themes central to an understanding of the possibilities of the patriotic spirit in America: wholeness, or harmony, and division, separateness.

***

Three texts:

One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
— W.E.B. Du Bois (4)

When I think of Greenwich Village, it is almost with tears. For there this battered battalion dress their guns against a whole nation… From the darkest corners of the country they have fled for comfort and asylum. You may think them feeble and ridiculous — but feebleness is always relative. It may require as much force of character and as much independent thought for one of these to leave his Kansas home and espouse the opinions of Freud as for Wagner to achieve new harmonies or Einstein to conceive a finite universe. The thought of them makes me respond with a sharp gust of sympathy, precisely because they are ridiculous and yet stand for something noble. And one is touched by something like reverence when one finds among this strange indifferent people, to whom the rest of the world is a newspaper story, history a tedious legend, and abstract thought a form of insanity, a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast. By his realization he makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting: for the drama of humanity, in a sense, no setting can be trivial or mean. Gopher Prairie itself, in all its ludicrousness and futility when the human spirit rears itself there, has its importance and its dignity. 

And now that a breach has been made what a flood might sweep off the dam! — what a thundering torrent of energy, of enthusiasm, or life! Things are always beginning in America; we are always on the verge of great adventures. History seems to lie before us instead of behind.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” The New Republic, March 12, 1922 (5)

…The patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts: One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods, memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines who he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its hopes and fears goes from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those will come after. 

But… we are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. 
— John. J. Schaar, “The Case for Patriotism,” American Review 17, May 1973

I suggest that to truly “read” these passages, which is what I will be doing for the remainder of this piece, it’s necessary to pay as close attention to the voice of each writer as to his words. Du Bois, meditating on truths that predated his time and which he does not seem to expect to change, is stymied, perplexed, quietly angry, yet full of a sort of determination that perhaps suggests the bridging of gaps he is telling us cannot be bridged. Schaar, with his eyes on the past (not merely the American past, but the past per se, the past as something that constantly informs the present), speaks in tones of regret; his cadences are measured and restrained, and what is measured out is the pain of loss, the loss of the “way of being in the world” he is describing. All this is evident well before his final disclaimer: that we are not taught the rich and complex values that make patriotism possible but cheaper values that imply the separation of each man and woman from every other as the positive basis for American society.

But Schaar and Du Bois speak as realists; their words communicate an almost tragic refusal to grant a single assumption they do not see as justified by the disappointments and betrayals of the American story. They will not speak a word they cannot prove. But they will whisper. Wilson’s “in America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream” — and not harmony as consensus, or lack of crucial disagreement, but an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared — is at the heart of what both men are saying. They are saying that whatever the American reality, or even the American fate, the possibilities of such harmony cannot be decently abandoned; that harmony is an absolute necessity if Americans are to keep the promises on which America was founded: the promises that flowed instantly from the original justification of America in 1776 as something new under the sun, and perhaps even the promises as they were reclaimed in 1865, with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, when he incorporated the truth that the betrayal of those promises in fact preceded the promises themselves into the fabric of official American thought, where it has been officially buried ever since. (See box.)

To turn from the fundamental gloom of Du Bois and Schaar to late-night meditations of a young Edmund Wilson, thinking of America from a distance, where a good deal of the best of such thinking has been done, is a shock. One may have to read what he wrote carefully to appreciate how bizarre it is.

When I first came to Berkeley, in 1963, a campus veteran told me that Berkeley and Greenwich Village were the only places in America where a person could be really free. Wilson begins with this cozily embattled fallacy; a farther shore from the kind of patriotism Schaar speaks of can hardly be imagined. And yet — or perhaps, “and so” — Wilson then drives straight back into the “darkest corners” of the country, to what Fitzgerald called “the dark fields of the republic,” and embraces them with all the restraint of a Fourth of July orator. Suddenly he has delivered himself from the repression of the American present, as only the future is of any consequence. But there is the slightest hint of condescension in Wilson’s “Gopher Prairie itself” — and, perhaps in flight from doubts that not even the most visionary moment can banish, Wilson abandons the fatal pull of specifics for a virtual manifesto of American mysticism. It’s as if he is seeking, against the terrific odds he has been careful to establish in advance, to fix precisely those things Americans can recognize — those attributes by which they can recognize each other — the feeling that “things are always beginning in America,” blown up suddenly with exclamation points into images of a great dam breaking and a flood of — not ideas, not justice, not even freedom (which was what Wilson started with, but which is somehow no longer exactly the question) — “energy, of enthusiasm, of life!” And this is because what Wilson was working out of in Paris was not a “feeling,” but a leap of faith — a leap straight across what were to Lincoln the almost predestined American crimes and divisions, the crimes and divisions that were the source of Du Bois’s torment.

The desperation in Wilson’s voice is as palpable as the joy. A moment later in the essay he will pull back again; America will become a monster of banality. But he can’t quit with this. He returns as an American St. George come not to slay the dragon but magically to transform it. The passage continues: “Our enemy offers huger bulk than the enemy in Europe, but he is much less firmly rooted. Two generations might rout him. To arms then! Let me return; I shall not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword rest in my hand till intolerance has been stricken from the laws, till the time-clock has been beaten to a punch-bowl!”

In the great tradition of John Wesley Harding, who never made a foolish move, Wilson does not choose a foolish word. The struggle he is lining out is a matter of spiritual life or death for him, and — in the sense that a true patriot, one who truly perceives and accepts a patrimony, embodies the republic — for the country equally so. Thus Wilson’s language is overblown, with every pretension undercut by self-parody (“my sword” a seemingly absurd weapon for a “mental fight”; “till intolerance has been stricken from the laws” taken down a peg by “till the time clock has been beaten to a punch bowl”). Only with a frame of the ridiculous can Wilson get away with the absolute and discomforting seriousness of every word he is speaking. He is dedicating — like Lincoln in 1865, rededicating — himself, and his country, to the liberating destiny that his country, like no other before it, set out for itself; he recognizes and affirms that the republic, along with itself, invented a birthright each American would, in a way of his or her own determining, have to accept, as a burden, before he or she could fully claim to be American.

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This overblown way of speaking is the language, or a language, of American patriotism, and its affirmation also a settling of affairs. It sweeps right by Du Bois’s analysis of what cannot be resolved, even though Wilson’s words do not quite leave Du Bois’s statement of the facts out. “How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?” Du Bois wrote at another time. “And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?” (7) Here and above, Du Bois speaks of black people, but the question he insists on contains all Americans who have been, and are, systematically refused America’s promises and excluded form its patrimony. That exclusion has been and is more widespread in terms of class than of race — and it is equally as subtle, as debilitating, and as resistant to fundamental change. As Du Bois would have said, the question of racial oppression is also a question of class. My attempt to follow the meaning of Du Bois’s idea applies, as metaphor, to Americans of all kinds who are excluded — and given that America was once known as “a good poor man’s country,” there are many whites who were included in the past who are excluded now.

Du Bois says that any resolution a black man or woman can make of Wilsons’s contradictions will by necessity be very different from and properly fall far short of, the glorious unity Wilson saw. The black American patrimony is separation and division; not simply because the “American” side is so full of horror and crime, but at least partly because it is so alive with promise. As Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Daughters, the life of Ned Cobb, a black Alabama sharecropper, makes clear, a full recognition of “the injustice of the laws” does not preclude the deepest recognition of that promise nor the determination to fulfill it precisely on its original, 200-year-old terms. But the laws refuse to recognize Cobb’s claim to his “American” patrimony, and without that double recognition Du Bois’s words hold.

It is very questionable whether the burden I spoke of Wilson accepting, or the debts and obligations of which Schaar writes, can be set forth by me, or anyone, as a necessary part of the patrimony of a black man or woman in America. Black men and women have made their own history in America, which America ignored or did not even see, and the evidence is strong today that it is in that specific history that black men and women are finding their patrimony — their debts, obligations, promises, possibilities — finding what it is they have to live up to, finding a way of being in the world. In Lincoln’s terms of crime and punishment, it is a measure of the price white Americans of any sort must pay for the forced odyssey of black people in America that a black American patrimony, which grows out of an altogether different kind of heroism and resourcefulness than white Americans draw on — different in kind and in quality — may not only be impossible for whites to connect to, but wrong for them to connect to. With Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Lucille Clifton’s family memoir Generations (which begins with the story of Clifton’s great-great grandmother, born in Dahomey in 1822, brought to the New Orleans slave markets and made to walk to Virginia at the age of eight, whose message to her family, into this century, was “Get what you want, you from Dahomey, women”), Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, or the film of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a white American may feel that he or she is somehow violating these tales simply by responding to them. To say, this is part of my legacy, my patrimony, too, which is to say that the “American” patrimony is, or should be, that of a black man or woman is to go much farther than any white can decently go.

Because of such history, and because the language of patriotism in America has not flourished — because it is not easily spoken nor easily understood when it is spoken; because the “way of being in the world” of which Schaar writes is foreign to most of us, so foreign as to be hard to imagine clearly — ­America may be breaking up into separate “patrimonies.” The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does a widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities. I don’t mean such groupings are always in explicit conflict, but that people are locating their primary loyalties away from “America,” as a place, a society, a republic, an idea, a promise, whatever. Historian William Appleman Williams’s recent Bicentennial book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, takes this movement apart to one conclusion: He argues that America can best be true to its best self by returning to the Articles of Confederation, and fragmenting, by secession (violently if need be; “I will meet you on the barricades,” he says) (8), into regional socialist republics. This is a bad moment in the work of a valuable historian. But there is some truth in the book — as a skewed metaphor for retreats from America that are already well advanced.

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It may be that this is not a problem to “solve” but a reality to accept or struggle against, on an individual level, at least in the beginning. Schaar writes of America, an invented political and moral society, as a place where patriotism is not simply a matter of inheritance or lack of it — in America, patriotism is an earned choice, an earned recognition. Wilson, 51 years earlier, agreed when he spoke as baldly as he dared of a “mental fight,” of a battle he would carry on, in American letters, as a critic and a reporter, to rout the enemy, to make the wisp of American harmony he glimpsed one night in Paris more real.

When we speak of patriotism in America we must recognize an inevitable division of self in the very act of speaking, and in that sense Du Bois’s statement can serve for anyone. America is big, conformist, monolithic, faceless, cruel, and its economic game is rigged. For any sense of freedom the first impulse is to separate oneself, either following the trail of countless American lone-wolfs, solitaries, and Ishmaels, or settling for the homogeneous familiarities and protections of “one’s own”: family, religion, nationality, race, region. Yet America is still astonishing — too big, too complex, and too various for any mind to take in, and in that astonishment, in the realization of an enormous place finally justified and held together by little more than a few phrases from an old document, comes the yearning to make America whole by seeing it clearly; by pursuing that patrimony, discovering it, retrieving it, inventing it, or simply affirming it. What is it that Americans share? In what images, of crime or beauty, do Americans uniquely recognize themselves as no others would, recognize that in an essential way they are linked, that they can carry on certain conversations about certain things that others could not or would not think to enter?

One probably cannot raise such questions without realizing that if they are asked with the utmost seriousness of intent there may be no encouraging answers. But one cannot wear such questions out either. Schaar’s statement, like Wilson’s, points toward a way of being in touch with America; com­bative, suspicious, and yet deeply accepting of something like a common fate, that cannot, and should not be avoided.

***

There are two ideas around which this piece revolves, no mat­ter how erratic the orbit has been.The first is the idea of the patriot as one who embodies the republic. This is not as grand or pretentious as it might seem. A civil rights worker linking people to the re­public by convincing them to vote is embodying the republic, in many ways. Many of those on the House Judiciary Committee, by what they said and the manner in which they said it, embodied the repub­lic, for a time. James Agee, writ­ing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, embodied the republic, in all of its mystical and factual complexity. Those who honestly and visibly refuse to let the repub­lic stop short of itself embody it.

Visibly — publicly — is the key word. Wilson spoke almost mys­teriously of “a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast,” who “by his realization… makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting.” To say that this can mean anything is to point to the strength of what Wilson said, not its weakness; Wilson himself took this conviction to its extreme only 21 years after he first set it down. He wrote of Lincoln, in “Eight Essays”: “It was as if he had not only foreseen the drama [of the war] but had seen all around it, with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view the world must take toward its protagonist. In the poem that Lincoln lived, Booth had been prepared for, too, and the tragic conclusion was necessary to justify all the rest. It was dramatically and mortally inevitable that this prophet who had overruled opposition and sent thousands of men to their deaths should finally attest his good faith by laying down his own life with theirs.” The patriot is a man or woman, who, in embodying the possibilities of American life, dramatizes them in view of others. That is both an instinct — the yearning for and affirmation of wholeness — and a role — the act of wholeness.

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The second idea is that of “a whole way of being in the world.” Schaar has defined it in the lines I quoted; I cannot really set it forth more fully without a long, close consideration of how specific indi­viduals, or a group of people, made their choices and lived their lives. It is both the treasure of patriotism and the key to it. It is a constant, renewing sensitivity to questions I asked earlier: What do Americans share, what is essential and unique, in their history, experience, fate? It is a state of mind that Edmund Wilson caught as well as anyone.

In Paris, in 1922, he began his meditation on America thinking of Futurism, “born in Italy, where the weight of the past lies heaviest.” “But I can scarcely adore the locomotive,” he wrote. ” I know it all too well.” He went on to wonder at his dreams of America, to criticize America as brutally as he could manage, to pull away, back and forth, back and forth, the double vision of the American pa­triot at work, searching for at least a night’s truce with itself. Wilson turned back finally to that image of the rails: “Where there is a petu­lance and a sadness in the piping of the French engines, I shall hear in the American ones an eagerness and a zest: They have elbow room here for their racing; they can drive on as far as they like; they have an unknown country to explore, a country that no one has ever heard of — What sort of men are these who live in nameless towns? At a distance, they seem, neither intelligent nor colorful nor fine — scarcely members of the same race as the beings who have built civilization. But I know that in the wide spaces of all that wilder­ness, in the life of that loose abun­dant world, for all the reign of mediocrity and the tyranny of in­tolerance, there is a new freshness and freedom to be brought to the function of mankind — the function which, in the long run, we shall never be able to get out of: staring out in wonder and dismay at the mysterious shapes of the world, either to ask ourselves what laws move them or, combining those shapes anew, to makeshift to create a nobler world in which our souls may find a home.”

Footnotes 

  1. In Keywords, Raymond Williams’s recent book on the etymology of fundamental con­temporary social concepts, the word “patriotism” is missing (so are “roots” and “fraternity”). But because I like Williams’s idea, if not his choices, I have pulled out words from the quotes I refer to that seem to me keys to an Ameri­can language of patriotism — words that in some way signify an aspect or element of “patriotism.” Here, the keywords are “humblest,” “harmony,” and “still.”
  2. Keyword: “sentimentalist.”
  3. Keyword: “refuge.”
  4. Virtually every word in this statement is a keyword. Still: “two-ness,” “souls,” “ideals,” “dogged,” “keeps it from.”
  5. Keywords: “tears,” “against,” “nation,” “corners,” “comfort,” “character,” “inde­pendent,” “home,” “espouse,” “new,” “harmonies,” “finite,” “sympathy,” “stand for,” “noble,” “reverence,” “indiffer­ent,” “history,” “legend,” “drama,” “spirit,” “dignity,” “enthusiasm,” “beginning,” “adventures.”
  6. Again, since essentially Schaar is writing a brief on the keywords of patriotism, only a few of the less obvious: “a whole way of being in the world,” “defines life by,” “one acknowledges,” “men­tality,” “tone,” “rhythm,” “shapes,” “texture,” “taught.” The grace and civility of Schaar’s writing tells one as much about patriotism as any of his words.
  7. Keywords: “how far,” “accord,” “loyalties,”
  8. Keyword: “I will meet you.”     ❖

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Langston Hughes Rides a Blue Note

The burden of the past plays itself out rather differently in the white and black literary traditions. For the scholar of West­ern literature, the authority of canonized texts and interpretations can hobble cre­ativity. How many years would it take just to read all the commentaries on Shake­speare, let alone make the corpus one’s own — and then to transcend it through a novel interpretation? The scholar of main­stream Western culture quickly collides with an enshrined collective memory that can confine just as surely as it preserves continuity and enables the extension of tradition.

The curse that the scholar of African and African-American studies bears, by con­trast, is the absence of a printed, catalogued, collective cultural memory. Despite the interest in Black Studies since the late ’60s, we still have relatively few reference works — biographical dictionaries, annotat­ed bibliographies, disciplinary histories, and especially encyclopedias, concordances, and dictionaries of black language use. The absence of these tools almost always forces one to recreate from degree zero the histori­cal and critical contexts that mainstream scholars can take for granted (imagine a critic of Shakespeare having to do primary research just to identify the poet’s allusions and his historical contemporaries). The ter­rible excitement that scholars of Black Studies feel stems from the knowledge that virtually everything they see or write can be new — free of the burden of the canonical past, the prison house of tradition. To pub­lish criticism still feels like making a fresh inscription on a large tabula rasa. Too of­ten, African-Americanists must reinvent the wheel, their work forever trapped in the paradox of “repeating themselves for the first time.”

The stories of individual African-Ameri­can lives are not exempted from this dearth of basic information. As Arnold Rampersad demonstrated in the Yale Review a few years ago, very few blacks have written full-­length biographies of black subjects. This is particularly curious because remembering is one of the cardinal virtues of black cul­ture — from subtle narrative devices like repetition of line and rhythm (the sermon, black music, oral narration) to more public commemorations such as the observation of “black” holidays (“Juneteenth,” Black His­tory Month, Kwaanza) or eating “Hoppin’ John” on New Year’s Day or reinterpreting the Fourth of July to make it analogous to Good Friday rather than Easter … from Founder’s Day ceremonies and family re­unions to the naming of institutions and places — Wheatley, Carver, Dunbar, and Washington public schools, Martin Luther King boulevards — to repeated historical concepts or metaphors, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Remembering characterizes African­-American culture because blacks have been systematically denied access to their histo­ry, both during and after slavery. Under slavery, of course, they were forbidden the tools of formal memory — reading and writ­ing. They were also denied their native lan­guages and even the drum itself (deemed subversive by many masters, and correctly so, as it was the “home” of repetition and contained a Pan-African language many blacks could understand). The intent was to deprive blacks of their memory, and their history — for without history, as Hegel said, there could be no memory, and without memory there could be no self. An aboli­tionist described in his memoirs this en­counter: he asked after one slave’s “self,” and the man responded, “I ain’t got no self.” Without hesitation the abolitionist asked, “Slave are you?” ”That’s what I is.”

This connection among language, memo­ry, and the self has been crucial to African-Americans, intent as they have had to be upon demonstrating both that they had common humanity with whites and that their own “selves” were as whole, “inte­gral,” educable, and noble as those of any other ethnic group (including, among the historical twists and turns, sundry “white ethnics”). Deprived of formal recognition of their subjectivity in Western arts and let­ters, in jurisprudence, and in all that signals full citizenship, African-Americans sought the permanence of the book to write their rhetorical selves into language. I write therefore I am. The perilous journey from object to subject is strewn with black auto­biographies; “Unscathed by Slavery” could very well be the subtitle of the hundreds of memoirs published by ex-slaves between 1760 and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in 1901.

This passionate concern with the self makes Rampersad’s discovery — the lack of an individual biographical impulse in the black tradition — especially fascinating. Al­though over 300 collective black biographies were published between the late 18th centu­ry and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the domi­nant genre in the African-American tradi­tion), only a handful of black writers have recreated the lives and times of other blacks.

It is as if the very vitality of autobiogra­phy produced a concomitant nonvitality of black biography; the energy necessary to proclaim “I am” could not be dissipated in making that claim for another. One’s public initiation was a most private act; one crossed, alone, the abyss between nothing­ness and being — positing humanity, self­hood, and citizenship with the stroke of one’s own pen. Only in biographical dictio­naries was this isolation overcome; biogra­phy was collective, a testament to the exis­tence of “the Negro” from A to Z, alpha­betically ordered parts amounting to an African-American whole. Nurses and churchmen, club women and members of fraternal orders, freemasons and free citi­zens of Cincinnati — each group had its own collective testimony.

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Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Lang­ston Hughes has ended this trend. For Rampersad, in elegant but understated prose, has rendered the world that Lang­ston Hughes made and the world that made him.

The recreation of detail is Rampersad’s most stunning achievement. He has ar­ranged volume two in 16 chapters, each of which addresses one, two, or three years between February 1, 1941, Hughes’s 39th birthday, and May 25, 1967, the day of his memorial service at Benta’s funeral home in Harlem. The book opens with a descrip­tion of Hughes’s gonorrhea and its painful cure, and ends with a meticulously recreat­ed account of his prostate surgery, brief recovery, then ultimate deterioration. Be­tween these rather intimate frames we learn who Hughes is, reading over his shoulder as he reveals his likes and dislikes, whom he admires and envies, when he is brave and when not so brave, when he is petty and jealous and when he is noble, when he writes for art and writes to eat, and his concerns and anxieties about his own im­mortality, the place of his icon in African­-American letters.

Of the several rhetorical techniques Rampersad employs, none is more effective than his use of “free indirect discourse.”

Emotionally more content, Langston also spoke now with a clearer voice on politics. Attending a Carnegie Hall memorial to W. E. B. Du Bois, undeterred by the fact that Du Bois had died a communist, he also published a tribute to him in the New York Post and in black newspapers through the Associated Negro Press. To interviewers from Italian televison and the Voice of America, and in an appearance for CORE at Barnard College, he spoke confidently, but in the interests of moderation, about the freedom movement. The present turmoil was a good thing, because it was making people think. Those who did not think, but wailed apocalyptically, were doing little good.

The “voice” in those last two lines reveals thoughts that are those of both Hughes and Rampersad, and, strictly speaking, of nei­ther. Rampersad merges, to great effect, the third-person narrative voice of the biogra­pher with the first-person voice of his sub­ject. He is able to tell us what Hughes thought and felt without resorting unduly to direct quotations from Hughes’s notes or letters The technique is effective preciselely because it is scarcely noticeable amid so much detail.

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I have to confess that in reading this book I fell in love with Hughes, the person, for tht first time. The more I learned of his complex emotions about his peers and ri­vals (Du Bois, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, a mad Ezra Pound sending him fan letters from the asylum) the more I admired him. My respect and affection for Hughes grew so much that I found it difficult to finish the book because I knew he was going to die. I mention these feelings because I think they’re symptomat­ic of a literary-critical generation that rec­ognized Hughes as icon and little else­ — failing, among other things, to read his po­etry closely, a mistake that led to glib asser­tions about a body of work that was actually unfamiliar. Rampersad has removed Hughes’s cardboard cutout from the Black Hall of Fame, and replaced it with a three­ dimensional figure who created a specific vernacular idiom in African-American po­etry, one informed by the blues and jazz — ­by both the classic and the urban blues and early jazz in his two masterpieces, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and by bebop, the cool, and even postmodern, poststructural, early/transitional Coltrane in Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961). Ask Your Mama is to Hughes’s canon as Duke Elling­ton’s longer compositions are to his earlier, shorter, popular pieces — that is, either ma­ligned or ignored. Hughes’s experiments with vernacular music and speech, and their combination into a new idiom of American and African-American verse, in­sure for him a permanent place in both canons.

Just as important was Hughes’s role in mediating among African cultures in the old world and the new. Only Du Bois, as both convener of the Pan-African congress­es and epitome of African intellection, can possibly rival Hughes in being the conduit between black poets and their poetry in Spanish, French, and English. Aimé Cé­saire and Léopold Senghor read Hughes:­ Hughes translated them into English, just as he did Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (with Mercer Cook). He also translat­ed Nicolás Guillén and García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads from the Spanish. Hughes’s role in creating a Pan-African literary culture, where poems by black authors in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English directly inform the shape of other poems by other black authors, has no rival in our intellectu­al history. Hughes’s poetry and his transla­tions forged a direct line between the new Negroes in Harlem and the Pan-Africans in Paris, Havana, Rio, Lagos, Dakar, Kings­ton, and Port-au-Prince. He worked to cre­ate a Pan-African intellectual culture just as Latin and the Church forged a Pan-Eu­ropean culture in the Middle Ages, even when peasants in what is now Germany or France knew not one jot about a ”European” anything.

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Hughes preserved his letters and memo­rabilia as if he were his own historian or archivist, with one eye on his correspon­dent, and the other on the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, where Carl Van Vechten had arranged for Hughes’s papers to be housed. Over almost a decade, Rampersad patiently pored over and sifted through the voluminous documentation, supplementing the testimony of the corre­spondence with thousands of hours of taped interviews. The result of such diligent labor, rendered in a highly readable narrative style, is a splendid thing to behold: Ram­persad has published the most sophisticat­ed biography of a black subject, and set the example by which all other biographies of black subjects will be judged. He has in other words, defined a standard of excellence and simultaneously created a field: the success of these books, as measured in sales, accolades, and well-deserved prizes, will certainly make biography a central field in African-American literary studies. Meet­ing the standard he has established, howev­er, will be extraordinarily difficult.

Rampersad’s two volumes have been reviewed extensively, from Greg Tate’s fasci­nating essay in these pages (VLS, July 1988) and Darryl Pinckney’s meditation in The New York Review (February 16, 1989), to two full-length reviews in the Times Book Review by two black women Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove — surely a coup of sorts in the history of black literary criticism. It is a tribute to Rampersad’s skill that each of these reviews has become a basis for dis­cussing the implications of Hughes’s life and art, as if the biographer’s own work could be taken for granted or was, somehow, transparent. Of course, one measure of successful biography as Rampersad practices it is just this “transparency,” this ab­sence of methodological discussion in favor of a full-scale engagement with Langston Hughes, or rather with ”Langston Hughes” as lovingly recreated by this subtle biographer.

Rampersad brings us into Hughes’s world, feeling as he feels, seeing as he sees. Not once do we feel the hand of the author on our shoulder, pushing us to interpret this way or that:

The day was cool, the sky above the Monterey Peninsula murky with rain and winter mists when Langston rode from the hospital to the grounds of his friend and patron Noel Sullivan’s estate, Hollow Hills Farm some five miles away in Carmel Valley. Since September, he had been living there as a guest of Sullivan’s in a one-room cottage built especially for him, where he could write and sleep free from most distractions. Now, however, he unpacked in an upstairs room in the main house where, over the next two weeks or so, he would nurse himself back to health. The room was comfortable, and soothingly decorated entirely in blue. On a side table was a gift sent form New York by his loyal friend Carl Van Vechten — a flowering plant, ”a kind of glowing little tree growing out of white pebbles in a white pot…”

Imagine how much research was necessary to recreate these scenes; the lines read like passages from a novel. Rampersad shows us what it was like to be Hughes as a human being, a human being who smells and breathes and hurts, who dreams and is am­bitious, who can be loving and peevish and jealous, who laughs rather too much when he is most anxious or full of dread, and who cares enormously about maintaining a love affair with the entire race.

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If ever a loving concern for “the race,” and a concomitant concern with its regard for him, defined what it means to be a “race man,” then Hughes was the example of it. Hughes cared passionately about regular Negroes, and about the importance of not appearing distant from them; as Ramper­sad says, “Langston psychologically needed the race in order to survive and flourish.” What’s more, he was “one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspira­tion for black artists.” Hughes earned the right to call himself the poet laureate of the Negro race. And Rampersad’s art as a biog­rapher lets us understand why.

Rampersad explains how the “depth of [Hughes’s] identification with the race” helped free him

not only to understand that the profession of writing was distinct from the “subject,” but also to see his race in a rounded humane way, rather than mainly as a deformed product of white racism. To Langston, Baldwin was tortured by a sense of an “all but irreconcilable” tension (in Baldwin’s words) between race and art because he lacked confidence in his own people and certainly did not love them, as Langston did. To Hughes, only a deep confidence in blacks and a love of them (two qualities that could not be divorced) would allow a black writer to reach the objectivity toward art that Hughes saw as indispensable. Baldwin was undoubtedly more troubled by race than he was, but Langston was far more what blacks regarded approvingly as a race man, far more involved with other blacks on a daily basis as a citizen and an artist, far less willing to estrange or exile himself from the culture, as Baldwin had done in going to live abroad.

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Rampersad treats Hughes’s attitudes to­ward Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and other black peers at fascinating length. For exam­ple, in 1953 a young Ralph Ellison, whom Hughes had befriended early on, emerged almost overnight as the dominant black voice in American letters:

Ellison’s triumph with Invisible Man was crowned when he accepted the National Book Award in fiction. Present at the cere­mony but obviously alienated in spirit, Langston reported to Arna Bontemps [a black novelist and Hughes’s closest friend since the Renaissance] that the proceedings were “mildly interesting,” dull really, with all the speeches stuffily delivered from pre­pared texts. Not long afterwards, at a cock­tail party at the Algonquin Hotel in mid­Manhattan to welcome Ellison as a new member of PEN, he begged the new star of Afro-American writing not to read a long, dull paper when he visited Fisk University soon — long papers were so dull. As he had with Wright almost fifteen years before, Langston was feeling the chill of his own eclipse.

But it was Baldwin with whom Hughes had the most difficult relations:

He shivered again early in February when an advance copy reached him of the latest sensation in black literature, James Bal­dwin’s dramatic first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a black boy’s troubled passage to manhood in the face of raw con­flicts with his domineering father and the terrifying pressures of black “storefront” religious fundamentalism. Worse yet, from Hughes’s point of view, the book was being published by Knopf, who for all practical purposes had dropped him (the reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred had gutted its interest in his volume of selected poems). Criticizing Baldwin’s sometimes unstable blending of gritty realism and refined rheto­ric in the novel, Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, “with her feeling for the folk idiom,” had been its author, “it would probably be a quite wonderful book.” Bal­dwin, however, “over-writes and over-poeti­cizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them,” in what finally was “an ‘art’ book about folks who aren’t ‘art’ folks.” Go Tell It on the Moun­tain, he concluded, was “a low-down story in a velvet bag — and a Knopf binding.”

In spite of this criticism, Langston duti­fully mailed a blurb for the novel to Knopf.

Nine years later Baldwin still troubled him.

To Langston, there was little that was truly creative, much less visionary, about Anoth­er Country. Privately to Arna Bontemps, he described Baldwin as aiming for a best-sell­er in “trying to out-Henry Henry Miller in the use of bad BAD bad words, or run [Har­old Robbins’s] The Carpetbaggers one bet­ter on sex in bed and out, left and right, plus a description of a latrine with all the little­boy words reproduced in the telling.” In the same letter, Langston linked what he saw as Baldwin’s excesses to the trend of integra­tion sapping the strength of black youth. Paying a stiff price for the modicum of inte­gration allowed them, young blacks were abandoning the old values and practices in the rush to be like whites. “Cullud is doing everthing white folks are doing these days!” Langston mocked … “Integration is going to RUIN Negro business,” he predicted — as it apparently threatened to ruin the finest young writer of fiction in the race.

Rarely have we been privy to the real feel­ings of black creative artists and intel­lectuals toward one other. The disagreement with Baldwin was, sure, one of many. Indeed, Hughes’s reactions to Melvin Tolson, Robert Hayden, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka — in addition to Wright, Bal­dwin, and Ellison — reveal how fraught with rivalry life “behind the veil” is, just as Jessie Fauset’s comments to him (“I’ve suffered a good deal from colored men writers from Locke down to Bontemps­ you know”) begin to suggest the degree of sexism that also has characterized African-­American literary relations.

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I had never realized that Hughes inter­acted with so many major figures in the artistic world between 1925 and his death in 1967. Hughes knew everybody, if almost no one knew him, or was able to penetrate the veils and masks that the truly vulnerable fabricate to present public personas to the world. Leafing through Rampersad’s index, one finds a veritable Who’s Who of 20th century art, from Stella Adler and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thomas Mann and Dorothy Maynor, to Ezra Pound and Allen Tote, Mark Van Doren, Kurt Weill, Max Yergan, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In so many ways and to so many people, Hughes was “the Negro,” or at least “Negro literature,” its public face, its spoken voice and cock­tail-party embodiment as well as the source of its printed texts. Reading Rampersad’s volumes makes it clear how deeply in­grained American Negro literature was in the larger American tradition, even if schol­ars, until very, very recently, bracketed it into a ghetto apart, the Harlem of the American canon.

In rendering Hughes’s reactions to and interactions with his equally famous con­temporaries, Rampersad’s biography chron­icles almost half a century in the history of both American art and the life and times of one of its most important figures. Through him we see and feel exactly how the great events in black history — the Harlem Re­naissance, the Depression, World War II, McCarthyite repression, the civil rights movement, the emergence of Africa and the larger process of decolonization as the Age of Europe came to a close with the lifting of “the color curtain,” and the rebirth of black nationalism in the Black Power era — how all of these large forces simultaneously de­limit and open up individual choices in the daily events that, taken together, define a life. Never has an account of a black human being revealed more vividly the particular­ities of a life within the context of large, public forces and events. No life, no matter how great, can possibly escape its context, its historical moment. For all his political ambivalences, Hughes saw this clearly, say­ing in one unpublished reflection:

Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.

What is poetry? It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words. The ethnic lan­guage does not matter. Ask Aimé Césaire. He knows … Perhaps not consciously — but in the soul of his writing, he knows … The Negritudinous Senghor, the Carib­beanesque Guillén, the American me, are regional poets of genuine realities and au­thentic values. Césaire … takes all that we have, Senghor, Guillén and Hughes, and flings it at the moon, to make of it a space­ship of the dreams of all the dreamers in the world.

As a footnote I must add that, concerning Césaire, all I have said I deeply feel is for me true. Concerning politics, nothing I have said is true. A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics?

Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.

Rampersad deftly creates a sense of the social, the political, and the historical as these are locked in a dialectical relationship with individual choices, determining their range of response yet determined by such responses as well. Nowhere in black biogra­phy has this relation between “text” and context been rendered as sensitively and truly.

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For most of his professional life, Hughes lived hand to mouth, his choices circum­scribed perhaps even more by economics than by racism. He was supported by pa­trons like Noel Sullivan, a dependence necessitated by the insulting treatment he re­ceived from publishers and the pittance he earned for his writings and readings.

Hughes’s books were widely reviewed in mainstream journals by mainstream writ­ers, even if few understood his experiments with black vernacular forms. His newspaper character, Jesse B. Semple (a/k/a “Sim­ple”), who appeared in a regular column Hughes wrote for the Chicago Defender, was remarkably popular; he was the vox populi persona of Hughes the “race man.” Simple once spoke eloquently to an obtuse friend on the meaning of bebop music:

That is where Bop comes from, … out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-Bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That’s why folks who ain’t suf­fered much cannot play Bop, and do not understand it. They think it’s nonsense — ­like you. They think it’s just crazy crazy. They do not know it is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY­ — beat right out of some bloody black head! That’s what Bop is. These young kids who play it best, they know.

Simple’s discussion of bebop shows how rich the Defender columns were, and how crucial jazz was to Hughes. Accordingly, we must learn to read him in new ways, “through” or “against” the African-Ameri­can vernacular.

As Rampersad puts it:

At varying, unpredictable times witty, sardonic, ironic, expository, whimsical, docu­mentary, and tragic, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is an expansiue poetic statement on the fate of blacks in the modern, urban world. The manuscript was Hughes’s an­swer in 1948 to the overwhelming question of the day in Harlem and communities like it, and possibly, prophetically, of the Afro­-American future: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a rai­sin in the sun?” “This poem on contempo­rary Harlem,” Langston wrote as a preface, “is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.” The poet’s love for the community is paramount, but his brooding intelligence is such that the wooden phrase “community in transition” is really portentous.

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In “Jazztet Muted,” for example, the 11th section of Ask Your Mama, Hughes introduced the poem with a musical cue that called for “bop blues into very modern jazz burning the air eerie like a neon swamp-fire cooled by dry ice”:

IN THE NEGROES OF THE QUARTER
PRESSURE OF THE BLOOD IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
WHERE BLACK SHADOWS MOVE LIKE SHADOWS
CUT FROM SHADOWS CUT FROM SHADE
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
SUDDENLY CATCHING FIRE
FROM THE WING TIP OF A MATCH TIP
ON THE BREATH OF ORNETTE COLEMAN.
IN NEGRO TOMBS THE MUSIC FROM JUKEBOX JOlNTS IS LAID AND FREE-DELIVERY TV SETS ON GRAVESTONES DATES ARE PLAYED.
EXTRA-LARGE THE KINGS AND QUEENS
AT EITHER SIDE ARRAYED
HAVE DOORS THAT OPEN OUTWARD
TO THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
WHERE THE PRESSURE OF THE BLOOD
IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER —
DUE TO SMOLDERING SHADOWS
THAT SOMETIMES TURN TO FIRE.

HELP ME, YARDBIRD!
HELP ME!

Rampersad’s assessments of Hughes’s poetry are always judicious; he never claims more for Hughes the poet than the poetry can deliver, yet his sensitive analyses of the poems should dispel forever the whisper among our critical generation that Hughes’s poetry does not withstand the rigors of for­mal analysis. Quite the contrary, Ramper­sad’s readings of Hughes’s best work — his vernacular poetry, cast in “the idiom of the black folk” and found especially in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and Ask Your Mama — should go a long way toward generating interest in rereading, closely, Hughes’s work, since as Hughes himself recognized, “only poetry can be [the poet’s] resurrection.” As Senghor wrote, Hughes excels in the creation of “images, analogical, melodious, and rhythmical, with assonance and alliteration. You will find this rhythm in French poetry; you will find it in Péguy, you will find it in Claudel, you will find this rhythm in St. John Perse … And it is this that Langston Hughes has left us with, this model of the perfect work of art.”

Hughes was wrong when he wrote that only his poetry could possibly resurrect him, for it is also true that a great biogra­pher resurrects the poet and the poetry, a life and a body of work — the latter “as frag­ile as pottery,” as Hughes put it. One of Arnold Rampersad’s great gifts to Hughes, and to all of us who love literature, is that never again shall the poetry or the poet be silenced.

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Rampersad’s other great gift is that he has made biography a glamorous pursuit within the new black criticism, which has been dominated recently by feminist and poststructural theorizing. This two-volume biography will go a long way toward generating other biographies and thereby build­ing up an African-American cultural memo­ry. We need good biographies of so many figures, from Phyllis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs to Du Bois and Alain Locke, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry — virtual­ly everyone who was anyone in the tradition remains to be written about, honestly.

For far too long, each of us has been imprisoned by peer pressure, forced to rep­resent only certain images of the Negro in order to avoid inadvertent reinforcement of racist stereotypes. This sort of tortured logic has surfaced most glaringly in mis­guided protests against key black feminist texts: Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls … , Alice Walk­er’s The Color Purple. “What will white racists think of black men?” the protesters asked, barely managing to keep a straight face. (Since when does a racist read The Color Purple — or anything at all, for that matter?)

No, we no longer need to sanitize the black past as we set about the complex business of generating our own African­American icons of the near and distant past. For it is our generation of African­Americanists that, at last, has the where­withal to encode the cultural memory in print, in video, on compact disc and on-line, freed at last from forever reinventing the wheel.

Rampersad has made a breathtaking start in treating Langston Hughes, who suffered more than most from the cramped solitude of iconography. Hughes’s public face(s) — and although he sought and found refuge in his beloved Harlem, he was cer­tainly our most public poet, speaking in one week alone to some 10,000 people — were crafted such that his true human substance could not be seen among his carefully man­ufactured shadows. He was a lonely man, and he suffered this isolation in the most private ways, almost never voicing it. The irony did not escape him; he fondly quoted Dickinson’s famous lines — “How public­ — like a Frog —/ To tell your name — the live­long June —/ To an admiring Bog!”

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The ironies hardly end there. Hughes protected — censored — himself as a racial icon; Black Studies scholars have censored their treatment of many figures in the in­terest of positive images; and black artists today, indeed most any black public figure, must contend with the tradition of self-censorship. Consider the impact this had on Langston Hughes’s sexuality. As Ram­persad judges, with great sensitivity:

The truth about his sexuality will probably never be discovered. If Hughes indeed had homosexual lovers, what may be asserted incontrovertibly is that he did so with al most fanatical discretion. On this question, every person curious about him and also apparently in a position to know the truth was left finally in the dark. He laughed and joked and gossiped with apparent abandon but somehow contrived to remain a mystery on this score even to his intimates. His ability to appear to be at ease and defenseless, and at the same time to deny certain kinds of knowledge to those with him, was ex­traordinary. All his life he prized control far too highly for him to surrender it in his most mature years. Control above all meant to him the preservation of his position as the most admired and beloved poet of his race. That position, which he saw as a mor­al trust, and which intimately connected his deepest emotional needs to his function as an artist, may have meant too much for him to risk it for illicit sex.

Rampersad was unable to prove our as­sumption about Hughes’s homosexuality, despite his impressive research skills. Had it been provable, Rampersad would have done so. His bolder conclusion is that this most basic “fact” about Hughes remains elusive after two volumes precisely because of Hughes’s determination to be a racial icon, to be presentable as the public face of the race. “Don’t go to that swimming pool,” my mother used to say, “without that mois­turizing cream. I don’t want you to embarrass the race by turning ashy.” That’s one part of black history we need to bury, the urge to produce a public Negro somehow more palatable to white people than the real thing. In defining the standard by which literary biography in our tradition, and in every tradition, shall be measured, Ramper­sad has helped to do just that. As Hughes and his alter ego, Arna Bontemps, liked to say, Rampersad has “done himself brown.” ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I, TOO, SING AMERICA, Volume I: 1902-1941. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $27.50; $9.95 paper.

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I DREAM A WORLD, Volume II: 1941- 1967. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $24.95.

SELECTED POEMS OF LANGSTON HUGHES. Vintage, $5.95 paper.

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Harlem When It Sizzled

Harlem When It Sizzled
December 1982

WHEN HARLEM WAS IN VOGUE
By David Levering Lewis
Knopf, $17.95; Vintage, $7.95 paper

THIS WAS HARLEM, 1900–1950
By Jervis Anderson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.95

Reading David Lewis’s and Jervis Anderson’s histories of Harlem sent echoes of Countee Cullen through my head. Those with Black Lit 101 in their upbringing will probably recall Cullen’s “Heritage.” For those more culturally deprived, that’s the one where Cullen waxes pathetic over whether Christian conversion has cost him an African soul. Put Harlem on my mind in place of the Motherland and similar con­cerns go off in my head. Only unlike Cullen I’m not worried for my soul. No, what I’m missing on account of dope, desegregation, and the new diasporan gospel, namely as­similation, is the Harlem they used to call Black Mecca. That Harlem ain’t what it used to be is obviously no news: it’s been the nation’s handiest model of urban ethnic ruin for damn near three decades. Understanding that black folk once considered the place about as close as they were going to come to the promised land in this motherfucker here takes some leap of faith — especially if your fix on its present state is somewhere between gentrification and cultural decay.

Lewis and Anderson allowed me to con­nect with the mythic Harlem my mother grew up hearing about. In her day, says Mom, the living knew they wanted to go to Harlem just as surely as the dead knew they wanted to go to heaven. Still, after reading When Harlem Was in Vogue and This Was Harlem, 1900–1950, I’m less nostalgic for Harlem as the promised land than as a striv­ing black community that once upon a time bristled with the daily discourse of poets, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, and day workers. If the geography of segregation was meant to keep blacks and whites out of each other’s sight, it also made the black communities my parents’ generation grew up in places where Afro-American ambitions weren’t stifled by poverty before they even met up with overt racism. Principally be­cause the most brilliant talents of the race didn’t have any place else to go. Locked in the community, they kept a stiff upper lip and passed dignity around.

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—2—

Jervis Anderson’s look at Harlem from 1900 to 1950 arrived on the heels of David Lewis’s tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, so I wonder how often these two tripped over each other doing research in the Schomburg collection or the National Archives. They certainly managed to run up on the same reference material. (In fact a few bon mots I’d thought were Lewis’s turned up in Anderson too, spliced in from some other wise guy.) Lewis’s book is a dashing, pithy read, Anderson’s a long-winded tome. After gliding through Lewis’s catty, chatty skeins of sarcasm and scholarship, Anderson’s more prolix sophistries only benumb. This pollyannaish bit on Joe Louis being a prime example: “During what remained of his life, however — as in much of what had gone be­fore — Louis showed by his conduct that his spirit was not confined to ‘the colored sec­tion’ but inhabited broader areas of Ameri­can experience which were shared by all men and women of civility and good will.” Brother, that’s a mouthful and not too easy to swallow either.

The one major plus of Anderson’s book is that wading through his section on Harlem’s origins will put you on a more proletarian footing than Lewis’s exposé. Lewis does such a diverting job of damning the effete snobs you hardly notice how peripheral the masses are. And what with the Talented Tenth and all running around forging the conscience of the race in the smithy of their souls, you kinda forget everybody in Harlem wasn’t a poet or a race leader back then. While I wouldn’t say Lewis lacks a common touch, he can’t be said to do much with it.

What he does do brilliantly is bring to life the legends who made the Harlem Renais­sance happen. In the ’20s, Harlem emerged as the political and cultural locus of Afro-American urban life, the stronghold of the­ race’s best and brightest. Within an intricate mural of this burgeoning black universe, Lewis sketches revealing narratives about the interactions and motivations of the com­munity’s most prominent artistic and politi­cal figures. The glittering roster of racial icons aren’t names easily encountered with­out awe — particularly if you’re a contem­porary black artist, academic, or activist: Du Bois. Garvey. Hurston. Robeson. Star play­ers in a cast of thousands.

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Lewis is provocative because he doesn’t hesitate to reduce these bronze figures to human scale — or even knock them down to size. In this sense, he has ushered in a genre new to the relatively genteel tradition of Afro-American belles lettres. Namely, liter­ary gossip. In some quarters of black in­telligentsia, Lewis’s divulgences of political backbiting, color-caste snobbery, and pederasty have brought him under fire for indiscretion if not blasphemy. Among the juicier of his intimations is that Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Har­lem dandies Richard Nugent and Harold Jackmon liked each other more than they liked girls. Among the more dumbfounding is the revelation that protean egghead W.E.B. Du Bois married his befuddled, virginal daughter Yolande off to a known homo­sexual (Cullen) — and then apologized for her failings on the honeymoon.

While there may be some truth to the charge that Lewis only threw this stuff in to spice up the narrative, scholarship seems like his primary motivation. For all its tawdry tidbits, his cunningly phrased book contains the only portrait of the Renaissance that doesn’t shy away from addressing the petty but crippling conflicts among Har­lem’s politicos and social hierarchies in the ’20s. Besides which, there’s simply too much evidence of scrupulous research. He appar­ently read not only all the poetry and fiction of the ’20s but also every scrap of magazine and newsprint and personal correspondence he could dig up. Not to mention six years interviewing witnesses. What he’s managed to do is separate the myth of Harlem from its history without making the truth read any less glamorously than the legends.

Consider Harlem’s ’20s as a kind of funked-up Weimar Republic for bloods, and you’ll have a grasp on why that era has gone down in Afro-American lore and literature as a time of grand cultural renaissance. Which is to say, one where radical trends in Afro-American art and politics converged with the black bourgeoisie in a bacchanal of strident nationalism, new money, and bohe­mian revelry. While whites who’ve written on Harlem’s ’20s have nostalgically recalled its carnal nightspots and darky entertain­ments, Lewis describes how Harlem’s black population saw their community as an oasis of racial salvation: “Quarreling bitterly among themselves about the right road to deliverance, Garveyites, neo-Bookerites, so­cialists, utopian cultists, and all manner of integrationists shared in equal measure what might be called Harlem nationalism — the emotional certainty that the very dynamism of the ‘World’s Greatest Negro Metropolis’ was somehow a guarantee of ultimate racial victory. To a remarkable degree that collective optimism touched ev­eryone — the humble cleaning woman, the illiterate janitor, even the criminal ele­ment.”

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Some of the more uppity brothers and sisters of the day went around proclaiming themselves the New Negroes. They weren’t about to take shit off the white boy, and they tended to act and dress the part. Black postwar militancy and spanking new brownstones gave this vanguard its initial social daring; the “Red Summer” of 1919 tempered it with political pragmatism. Home from the French front, all the brave brothers, like those in Harlem’s valorous 15th National Guard, were talking about turning in some of those dead Germans and decorations for jobs and justice or picking up the gun. The response of more than a few racist white citizens to this rebellious if ro­mantic threat was a bucket of blood — the Red Summer — a nationwide orgy of mob violence against blacks that rampaged through two dozen cities and left thousands lynched or burned out of their homes. As planned, this pogrom cured other survivors suffering from pre-Newtonian (Huey, that is) delusions of revolutionary suicide. What it didn’t quell was Afro-American demands for the kind of social and economic gains anticipated as payment-in-kind for wartime patriotism.

In the aftermath of the Red Summer, moderate black leadership faced the problem of devising political strategies that were both vociferous and nonaggressive. An elitist cadre of liberal-arts damaged Afro-Ameri­can intellectuals assumed the task of trans­forming this pragmatic paradox into praxis. Foremost among them was William Ed­wards Burghardt Du Bois — W.E.B. to you — living embodiment of the nascent NAACP; editor and chief propagandist of the organization’s influential organ, Crisis (under Du Bois’s editorship it regularly sold 100,000 copies monthly — astounding in an age of predominant black illiteracy, astound­ing, in fact, today); and author of The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays that kindled intellectual ambition in a generation of young black artists and academics.

Du Bois’s persuasive pamphleteering had almost singlehandedly rallied black men into the First World War — just as the feisty black brain trust’s lobbying to integrate the American armed forces had eventually won blacks the right to serve. (Imagine that­ — back then brothers had to beg their way onto the front line. So thank god for integration, right?) Yet, for all his appeal to the masses to sacrifice life and limb for the advance­ment of the race, Du Bois was no populist. As formulator of the notorious Talented Tenth doctrine, W.E.B. believed equality should first be granted to worthy Ivy League educated blacks like himself. This dincty delusion put him at loggerheads with the ideologies of the three other leading black political strategists of his time: first with Booker T. Washington’s plan to create a separate-but-equal class of Afro-American yeomen (a dream that inspired legions of southern black academics years after his death in 1905, and equally enthralled the patrician hearts of white philanthropists); then with Marcus Garvey’s African repatriation movement and A. Philip Randolph’s Black Bolshevikism (an ideology which got Randolph branded “one of the most danger­ous men in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, so you figure he must have been doing something righteous).

Debate between these factions, and espe­cially between Garvey and Du Bois, often got more mutually destructive than constructively critical. The barbed exchanges Lewis digs up between these two are hilarious, if embarrassing in the extreme. Du Bois once wrote an article branding Garvey either “Lunatic or Traitor.” Garvey’s reply to that was that he didn’t have to ask whether the “cross-breed, Dutch-French­-Negro Editor” was a traitor. For punish­ment Garvey recommended horsewhipping. Common in the Du Bois camp was the revulsion expressed by Robert Bagnall, who described Garvey as a “Jamaican Negro of unmixed stock, squat, stocky, fat and sleek.” ’Course if that sounds like high yellow hi­jinks at their worst, Garvey’s arguments for a pure black race purged of its blue-vein aristocracy aren’t much closer to unity in the community.

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Controversy rages to this day about how much of a hand the Talented Tenth’s leader­ship had in the downfall of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which at its peak claimed a membership worldwide of two million. The evidence Lewis presents about Du Bois and other black moderates asking to enlist in the government’s cam­paign against Garvey is sickening stuff. But as Lewis also notes, J. Edgar Hoover had already assigned a specially recruited Uncle Tom to Garvey, and both the British govern­ment and the United Fruit Company had asked for U.S. intervention to curb Garvey’s rabble-rousing in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Whatever the backstage machinations, Garvey’s trumped-up tax fraud conviction and deportation in 1925 left Du Bois’s Tal­ented Tenth a clear shot at mandating the destiny of black America. Or at least the destiny of those Afro-Americans with col­lege degrees or white philanthropists. This perspective gave them a comprehension of racism that was narrow, selfish, and skewed. “The error of black leaders like Du Bois,” Lewis writes, “transcended skin color; they were rebels in America only to the degree and duration of their exclusion from it.” To the Tenth’s Oxford-educated aesthete Alain Locke, for example, the key to racial harmony was interracial elitism: “The only safe­guard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully enlightened minorities of both race groups.”

Yet for all their selfishness when it came to race and caste, the Tenth’s leadership made remarkable gains for blacks in higher education. At a time when many black col­leges were generously endowed based on their adherence to Booker T. Washington’s vocational training program, Du Bois and crew gained economic parity for black liberal arts schools. Behind this lobbying lay the belief that only through educational ac­culturation would the barriers to racial ad­vancement be swept away. To this end, the NAACP and the Urban League enlisted culture as the first line of defense after chari­table WASP guilt and circumspect Jewish benevolence. (Lewis throws his two cents into the ever-prickly matter of black-Jewish relations by producing evidence that the early 20th century Jewish leaders viewed blacks as a lower-on-the-totem-pole buffer between themselves and American anti-­Semitism. Not exactly a novel notion in the black community.) Regardless of motiva­tion, such patronage gave the NAACP and the Urban League the wherewithal (and the time) to devote themselves to their dream: they would bring about integration by prov­ing how sophisticated they were.

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— 3 —

The artsy wing of the Harlem Renais­sance was Charles Johnson’s brainchild. Johnson, editor and chief sociologist of the Urban League’s publication, Opportunity, understood that in the lynch-mad ’20s art was the only haven of opportunity for blacks. Johnson, says Lewis, “gauged more accurately than any other Afro-American intellectual the scope and depth of the na­tional drive to ‘put the nigger in his place’ after the war, to keep him out of the officers corps, out of labor unions and skilled jobs, out of the North and quaking for his very existence in the South — and out of politics everywhere. Johnson found that one area alone — probably because of its im­plausibility — had not been proscribed. No exclusionary rules had been laid down re­garding a place in the arts… it was left to the Afro-American elite to win what as­similation it could through copyrights, con­certs, and exhibitions.”

Opportunity’s May 1925 literary awards dinner put art on the barricades in the race war. White notables there to shore up the ranks included judges Fannie Hurst, Eugene O’Neill, Alexander Woollcott, Van Wyck Brooks, and Clement Wood. Among the win­ners, prophetically, were Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, E. Franklin Frazier, and Eric Walrond. Publicity from these awards brought publishing offers from major houses, and as Johnson hoped, attention from well-heeled whites. Support for the New Negro literature became highly fash­ionable, its authors’ presence at downtown soirees de rigueur. The Lost Generation hoped New Negro blood would bring joy to a Caucasian race in its death throes.

Given proper encouragement, some black authors were more than happy to liven up the wake. A lot of black fiction from the ’20s is unreadable today because it was geared to the tastes of such white primitivists as Carl Van Vechten or — like the writing of Du Bois’s Sorbonne-grad girl friday — it suffered from class preciousness. Lewis critically ex­amines the stellar exceptions to these ten­dencies: Nella Larsen’s near-forgotten nov­els of psychic unmasking, Quicksand and Passing; Rudolph Fisher’s Harlem satires; George Schuyler’s comic sci-fi treatment of American color-mania, Black No More; Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death; Langston Hughes’s The Ways of the White Folks, and Jean Toomer’s Cane. Published in 1923, Cane instantly won praise as the most sophisticated work of fiction ever written by an Afro-American and also as a major piece of experimental modern writing. Paul Ro­senfeld ranked Toomer with Joyce and Proust, while critics as diverse as Allen Tate, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Frank, and Kenneth Burke went equally gaga. A collage of poems, episodic sketches, short stories, and drama, Cane is an evocative rendering of a black pastoral South doomed to extinc­tion and a black Urban North characterized by schizzy surreality. It is also one of the few books by an Afro-American male that seri­ously addresses the psyches of black female characters.

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The book’s rescue from obscurity by the ’60s Black Arts Movement is an irony Toomer probably wouldn’t have ap­preciated: the author of Cane, you dig, never wanted to be known as a black author. A surviving letter to his publishers upbraids them for calling him a “promising Negro writer,” and goes on to say, “If my relation­ship with you is to be what I’d like it to be, I must insist that you never use such a word, such a thought again.” Well, la-de-dah. The critical success of Cane drew Toomer into the Lost Generation’s inner circle, company more to his liking. Alfred Stieglitz and Geor­gia O’Keeffe became his friends (O’Keeffe’s biographer hints of a short affair) as did Marianne Moore, Edmund Wilson, and salon maven Mabel Dodge (with whom Lewis suggests a strange sexual liaison). But if all this charismatic genius makes Toomer sound fast on his way to one helluva literary career, think again. Or better yet, think Gurdjieff. After a mesmerizing encounter with the Russian mystic, Toomer became a zealot and never published again.

Like Toomer, Claude McKay is generally recognized as one of the Renaissance’s star products. And also like Toomer, McKay spent hardly any time in the thick of it. Sailing to Russia in 1923, the roustabout Jamaican emigre spent six months there as the black toast of the Bolsheviks, then a decade traveling Europe and North Africa. His contacts with the Harlem movement were maintained through correspondence and the publication of his poetry and fiction. McKay’s politics were as contradictory as Toomer’s racial identifications. The most politically educated Renaissance writer chose to live more like a free spirit than an engagé rebel and was a Socialist who espoused Garveyite nationalism — even though he found Garvey’s central vision of African redemption “puerile.” Which in itself may not be surprising, since as a Ja­maican in exile McKay longed for the days of British paternalism. Equally confusing is the fact that while McKay was, for a time, co-editor of Max Eastman’s The Liberator, he despised propaganda. His literary output was consistent with his political vacillations. The anti-propagandist wrote some of the most biting protest verse in the language —­ Churchill ripped off McKay’s Red Summer–­inspired “If We Must Die” for a wartime speech — while the man who left Harlem to escape its “sex and poverty” and “hot, syn­copated fascination” and “color conscious­ness” shamelessly sensationalized all that tawdry stuff in his novels, which are perhaps the worst examples of the Harlem primitivist school.

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As Lewis tells it, the young black writers who did hang out in Harlem during the ’20s probably had more fun than either grumpy McKay or zonked-out Toomer. Being younger, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and their peers took to Harlem’s fast lane as often as they took to their type­writers. They mockingly referred to themselves, in Hurston’s coinage, as the Nig­gerati, and upon occasion left their elders aghast. Fire, a one-shot collaboration, brought hateful reviews from Talented Tenth guardians disgusted by its celebra­tions of black street life and folklore. Fire represented the younger writers’ declaration of independence from the effete tradition of black literature favored by the Tenth. For Hughes and Hurston especially, life in the Black Bottom outranked life on Sugar Hill as source material. Though not just because life in the lowlands was more interesting — as literature it moved more product among a white audience looking for Negro exotica.

Well provided for by white patrons, they could afford to disrespect their elders and revel in rebellion and raunch. Charlotte Ma­son — Hughes, Hurston, and McKay called her “Godmother” — was a wacky Park Ave­nue widow of means who had thrown her lot in with the “Negro cause” to help save the world’s primitives from contamination by Western civilization. Ironically, her chief bursar and head talent scout, Alain Locke — ­she called him her “precious Brown boy” — ­couldn’t get civilized by the West fast enough. Oxford’s first black Rhodes Scholar spent his summers soaking in the museums and spas of Europe. Occasionally Mason worried that Locke’s overweaned intellect would cause him to lose his racial in­heritance on the “slippery pond of civiliza­tion.” But Locke and Mason learned to ex­ploit each other with tolerance: she because he secured her the patronship of Hughes, Hurston, McKay, and sculptor Richmond Barthé; he because her dollars allowed him to influence these bohemian welfare cases.

In return, artists were required to write fawning poems and pay house calls. Hurston fell into the role with gusto, says Lewis, “delighting the old lady with ethnic capers and ‘coon’ stories that would have been the envy of Joel Chandler Harris.” Even wild­man McKay wrote picaresque narratives ex­tolling the primitive. Prized pet Langston Hughes got ousted from Godmother’s little acre when his muse drew him closer to the proletariat. An anti-capitalist Christmas poem he published in New Masses in 1931 so upset Mason that he couldn’t get a chas­tened shuffle in edgewise. Soon, though, Hughes would have company; he wasn’t go­ing to be the only Renaissance man to find himself out on his ass in Depression America.

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With the country declared an economic disaster area, racy Negro literature got un­fashionable, and the sources of its patronage dried up. But it was a while before the Renaissance artistes found their mis­fortunes coinciding with those of less elo­quent brethren and sistren on the breadlines. Hughes, for example, following his banishment from Mason’s fold, toured Haiti and Cuba on a Harmon Foundation grant. A year later he joined a boatload of young black Com symps and sailed to Rus­sia, where all aboard had been invited to star in a Soviet anti-slavery musical(!). (This project got stymied when the Soviets dis­covered that not all Afro-Americans could carry a tune as well as their beloved Paul Robeson.)

Inevitably the economics and politics of the ’30s drastically reordered the Talented Tenth’s program. Du Bois embraced a con­fusing new policy of socialism abroad and separatism at home that got him booted out of the NAACP. The organization’s presiding leadership lost two potentially prestigious civil rights cases — the Scottsboro Boys’ and Angelo Herndon’s — to the Communists because of caste snobbery. As the economic and political state of black America grew dimmer, aristocratic integration schemes seemed like the product of minds more out to lunch than merely highfalutin.

Even as late as 1933, NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson could write, “A little bit more here and a little bit more there and the dam will break and the waters will no longer be segregated.” If Johnson believed racism only a nudge away from oblivion — ­well, he obviously didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Because, as Lewis observes, Harlem’s impoverished majority was hardly living a stone’s throw from Utopia: “For Afro-American urban dwellers the more things changed, the more they worsened. Despite its vaunted Renaissance and distinguished residents, Harlem was no exception. In this ‘city within a city’ almost 50 per cent of the families were out of work, yet a mere 9 per cent of them received government relief jobs. The community’s single medical facility, Harlem General Hos­pital, with 273 beds and 50 bassinets, served 200,000 Afro-Americans. The syphilis rate was nine times higher than white Manhat­tan’s; the tuberculosis rate was five times higher; two black mothers and infants died for every white mother and infant.”

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 — 4 —

For Jervis Anderson, Harlem begins not with Du Bois but with how your average brother and sister got up there in the first place. Harlem’s transformation from a haven for wealthy white New Yorkers into a black community is, in Anderson’s nar­rative, a story of tragicomic intrigue. New York City’s black population had been on the move uptown since the early 1800s, pushed out by every hostile immigrant group or business interest in need of space. The 1890s found most bloods settled in the Tenderloin, from the Twenties to the low Sixties on the West side, which quartered moneyed blacks, southern immigrants, and a redlight district known as Black Bohemia. Two catastrophes in the first years of the century gave blacks the boot from there: the destruction of the Tenderloin for Penn Sta­tion, with its resultant commercial-property landgrab, and a mad dog police-led riot in Hell’s Kitchen. After those two throwdowns, blacks packed up and made out for the West Nineties quick.

What opened the gorgeous brownstones and wide boulevards of Harlem to this ex­odus was a combination of white greed and a hustling young black realtor named Phillip Payton. As legend has it, Payton ran up on two white landlords of adjacent buildings, in heated discussion. To settle the score, one gave Payton his property to fill with blacks. “I was successful in managing this house,” Payton recalled later, “and after a time I was able to induce other landlords to… give me their houses to manage.” Payton’s parlay of his initial gambit into the creation of the hugely successful (even by today’s stan­dards) Afro-American Realty Company flooded Harlem with blacks. Remembered now as the father of Harlem, Payton also helped give rise to a host of other black property management firms. Their success had as much to do with business savvy as with white landlords’ customary readiness to jack up rents for black clients.

Not all of Harlem’s older residents were happy with the new neighbors. Anderson quotes one of them: “Can nothing be done to put a restriction on the invasion of the Negro into Harlem? At one time it was a pleasure to ride on the… elevated. Now you in­variably have a colored person sitting beside you.… Why cannot we have Jim Crow cars for these people?” One white Harlemite sug­gested that his fellow landed gentry erect 25-foot fences to protect them from the very sight of the invading black hordes. But as frequently happens here in the land of the uprooted and the home of the highest bid­der, mean green won out over neighborhood purity in the end.

The community that transplanted itself to Harlem contained every human type im­aginable. From the Tenderloin came your smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers, your pickpockets, peddlers, panhandlers, thugs, pimps, and pushers; all your big moneymakers. With them they brought the nightclub owners and innovative musicians who were to make Harlem so chic and alluring in the ’20s. What the nouveau bougies who represented Harlem’s educated and/or mercantile classes brought with them besides new money was moral propriety and, when it came to the masses, an attitude. As in that expressed by black businessman John B. Nail, explaining why his class hired European servants: “If there is one thing the negro of the servant class doesn’t know it is that the color of his skin doesn’t make him the equal of his master. You know what a fresh colored servant is in a white family? Just imagine the hell that would be raised by a fresh colored servant in a colored family.”

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Anderson’s digs unearthed tons of quirky quotes like these. But they also led him to irritating excesses. He heaps in whole para­graphs of reference material where a few quotes or a summary would do, and he fa­vors the obit page when it comes to trans­mitting biographical information. And why are there so many lists in his book? I mean we’re talking a building occupants list, a list of churches, a list of preachers, a list of boxers, a list of bars, a list of popular period­icals, a list of Harlem notables, a list of dead Harlem notables, a list of occupations, a grocery list, even a list of bootleg liquor ingredients, fer chrissakes.

As Anderson moves toward the ’50s, his material gets skimpier, his aims more dif­fuse, his organization more scattershot. Fascinated by Harlem’s cavalcade of celebri­ties, he ignores the everyday people of the community. Since more than a few folk who lived there in the ’30s and ’40s are still alive, I have to wonder why some of their stories aren’t included. And Anderson’s cutoff date of 1950 seems like a panglossian move to avoid tainting his glitzy portrayal of Harlem with what heroin turned it into — which is some horrorshow. By ignoring Harlem’s pre­sent, Anderson has written not popular his­tory but popular showbiz romance. And to a certain extent the same could be said of Lewis, even given his iconoclasm and sophis­tication.

The two books share a failing: both Lewis and Anderson refuse to analyze where the historical myth of Harlem fits within the context of Afro-American reality in the 1980s. For contemporary Afro-American professionals and intellectuals, the Harlem of legend is at best a Utopian cultural myth: about the segregated but self-contained black community of the past, isolated from white America but strong enough to sustain itself thanks to the talent caged within its boundaries. Unlike Du Bois and Johnson, however, today’s black braintrusts don’t have to work or live in the “black com­munity”; thanks to affirmative action they can braindrain themselves out to the highest corporate bidder and cop a squat in the suburbs. Which is cool up to a point. Except that what remains unresolved for this gener­ation’s upwardly mobile blacks is just how much assimilation they dare risk at the expense of alienation from the Harlems of today, especially given that the terms of this assimilation are enforced only by fragile tol­erance and easily eradicated legislation. Because in the face of Harlem’s decay, the question is this: Just where do you go when you can’t go home again and baby it’s cold outside? ■

 

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Knock Me a Kiss Does Divorce Harlem Renaissance-Style

With enough pomp and circumstance to befit royalty, the 1928 marriage of W.E.B. Du Bois’s daughter to his protégé, the poet Countee Cullen, was considered one of the shining moments of the Harlem Renaissance. But after two short years, the couple divorced. What went wrong is the fascinating subject of Charles Smith’s delightful play Knock Me a Kiss, a production of the New Federal Theatre and the Legacy Creative Arts Company.

In this complex and rather unflattering portrait of the Du Bois family, Obie winner André De Shields gracefully commands the stage as the brilliant but emotionally absent paterfamilias. Obsessed with building an elite “Talented Tenth” of African-Americans, the NAACP leader, in one especially humorous scene, shows Cullen how to create a chart to choose a wife: “Examine blood lines. Heredity, physique, health, and brains.” Meanwhile, Du Bois’s only child, Yolande (Erin Cherry), is torn between carrying on her father’s legacy and following the man she really loves—the dashing jazz-band conductor Jimmie Lunceford (Morocco Omari). The roughly two-hour production flies by thanks to skillful direction from Chuck Smith and terrific acting from the talented six-member cast (Gillian Glasco stands out as Yolande’s feisty pal, Lenora). Expect to go home with a happy swing in your step.

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The Ragged Edge

Founded in 1996 by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte, Cave Canem nurtures and supports the work of African-American poets writing across a wide aesthetic and generational spectrum. What started as a one-week summer workshop funded out of the organizers’ own pockets has evolved into an influential literary organization with year-round classes and readings, an annual first-book prize, anthologies, a board of directors, and more. Its faculty may constitute the most exciting and significant group of U.S. poets assembled under one “roof.” To a certain extent, then, Cave Canem is ably fulfilling its original mandate to counter a sense of isolation felt by many African-American poets.

Yet despite this concentration of forces, a quick perusal of current literary magazines, publishers’ book lists, or the faculty rosters of nearly any MFA writing program reveals that African-American poetry remains woefully underrepresented. Poets of color are frequently hired to fill out creative-writing departments long after they’ve been stocked with white writers. Most poetry journals and presses publish writing by minorities to a degree one step removed from tokenism. The reasons for this situation are many, not all of them nefarious. For more than a decade, spoken-word poetry and hip-hop have enticed younger writers away from the page and toward the stage. For many poets, conventional routes for professional success—published books parlayed into tenured creative-writing jobs—are inaccessible or unappealing.

Nevertheless, from Guggenheims to NEAs, from prestigious book contests to Natasha Trethewey’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard, a number of Cave Canem faculty and alumni have done quite well. Tracy K. Smith’s Duende received the James Laughlin Award, the only major U.S. prize given for a poet’s second book. Her 2003 volume, The Body’s Question, won Cave Canem’s first-book competition (as did Trethewey’s previous Domestic Work). In Smith’s earlier collection, real and imagined travel serve as metaphors for the discovery of self and other. Parts of the book take place in different countries, and nearly everyone—including the author—is an immigrant crossing linguistic, cultural, and national borders: “I speak another language, I told her. I love.”

Duende continues to expand Smith’s impressive range. One poem is written from a young Native American’s point of view as he’s shuttled between foster homes. Another is spoken through the voices of four abducted African girls forced to marry guerrilla fighters. Smith even imagines herself as a dog in Andalusian Spain. (Cave Canem means “Beware of the dog.”) There are love poems and divorce poems. There are more travel poems. There are poems incorporating documentary scraps from the U.S. Constitution, a captivity narrative, a Dwight Eisenhower speech on domino theory, and Frank Zappa lyrics. Throughout, Smith’s tone is ruminative, while grounded in the details of everyday life: “Sometimes, this poem wants to wander/Into a department store and watch itself /Transformed in a trinity of mirrors.” If W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness is regularly intoned during discussions of African-American culture, Smith’s poetry seems to ask: Why stop at just two?

Opening with the sweep of “History,” a mythopoeic encapsulation of human civilization in seven short sections, Duende concludes with “The Nobodies,” an elegy for those marginalized by these same forces of “development.” Smith conjures myth as the origin of various personal and collective experiences that eventually wend their way toward disillusion: “Every poem is the story of itself./Pure conflict. Its own undoing./Breeze of dreams, then certain death.” The result is a restless mode of belief in which redemption takes the qualifier “if.” Stylistically, this means Smith’s newer poems are more ragged around the edges, in the process shedding some of workshop verse’s imperative to finish every poem on the knowing note. After all, Lorca’s idea of the duende refers to what can never be fully spoken during those moments when life and death blur.

Although in the United States, the duende tends to be the province of intro-to- poetry students and male writers nearing midlife crisis, Smith renews its still-vibrant possibilities. She does so by embracing love as the most difficult knowledge, its pleasures inseparable from loss. “I won’t change. I want to give/Everything away. To wander forever,” Smith confesses during an imaginary conversation with her mother, whose death she threads through the book. To be perpetually hungry renders home—both literal and metaphysical in Smith’s work—elusive. Finding place within exile and individuality within community have always been central tensions of African-American life. Smith roots their interplay in the body—not as what one understands best, but as the surface upon which history is most intimately written.

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Last Best Hope

A mainstay of the ’80s avant-garde scene who hasn’t been heard from much lately, trombonist Craig Harris has re-emerged with Souls Within the Veil, a beauty of an extended work spread over two discs and inspired by a close reading of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folks. The all-star front line reads like a David Murray big-band reunion—Harris, trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes, clarinetist Don Byron, and saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett, Steve Coleman, and Oliver Lake. All are hot, with Coleman and Bluiett on fire. While allowing the players plenty of room, Harris’s writing is lustrous and propulsive by turns—very often both. He’s attempted something ambitious and pulled it off, capturing the variegated moods of the spirituals DuBois called “sorrow songs” without adhering to their form. The ensembles are occasionally a little rugged, and the live recording could be better, but none of this prevents Souls Within the Veil from soaring. Harris arrived in jazz during a time when the elevation of composition to an equal level with improvisation seemed the last best hope for the music’s continued growth, and so many of that era’s significant figures have fallen into neglect that it’s difficult not to be moved to nostalgia by a new work of this magnitude. Souls Within the Veil would’ve fit right in with the zeitgeist in 1984. It’s more welcome than ever in 2005.

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Listings

ART

MARK DION If you can’t make it to his big mid-career Aldrich Museum show, this small survey of Dion’s collaborations with Alexis Rockman, Nils Norman, Bob Braine, Jason Simon, Robert Williams, and a few other artists is a fine consolation prize. A deceptively casual mini-retrospective, it’s also a fascinating case history of the collaborative process, involving mutual influence, evidence of push and pull, and the persistence of what—however mock-ethnographical—can only be called style. The works range from the 1989 mobile chunk of rainforest that he did with William Schefferine to a communal coat-rack (co-creator: Jackie McAllister) and a sewing-room installation made with his mate J. Morgan Puett. THROUGH APRIL 26, American Fine Arts Co., 530 West 22nd Street, 212-727-7366. (Levin)

TOM FRIEDMAN Fiendishly inventive and infinitely manipulative, Friedman is back with a generous show of brainy, ditsy, and often semi-invisible new work. Floating a papier-mâché balloon, planting a hirsute apple-core figure on the floor, littering a corner with convincing autumn leaves (watercolor and speckled photo-collage), or leaning a big clumsy boy made from construction paper against a wall, he tosses off sly references to other artists and to his own work. The cut-paper scribble is amazing, the melting-lollipop monster is adorable, and the stack of Styrofoam cups is a self-portrait of sorts, as is the goldfish. It’s by appointment only: The pieces are that fragile. THROUGH MAY 3, Feature, 530 West 25th Street, 212-675-7772. (Levin)

DANCE

LATINO AMERICAN DANCE: NOT FESTIVAL PROJECT Five weeks of performances, classes, workshops and discussions assembled by Luis Lara Malvacias feature companies from Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, plus a host of local performers. This THURSDAY AT 6, join a discussion on “educating the dance audience” at the Greenspan Center, 39 Ainslie Street in Billyburg (call 718-387-4914 for directions and full festival info). Then get in the swim at a free concert displaying the work of students in the initial workshops, who’ve been studying with Kirstie Simson, Jennifer Monson, and Malvacias. MONDAY AT 8, Movement Research at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, 212-598-0551. (Zimmer)

TAMAR ROGOFF PERFORMANCE PROJECTS You’re burned-out on war news. Come and share Rogoff’s catharsis, as five terrific dancer-actors—who partnered with five veterans of the three past wars at a clinic for post-traumatic stress disorder in a local hospital—witness and re-create these emotional histories. Discover also the story of Rogoff’s dad, a physician who served in Burma during World War II, and who survived by writing passionate letters to his wife. In movement, words, and stunning visuals, the program captures some costs of violent conflict. TUESDAY AT 8, THROUGH MAY 10, Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, 212-627-2961. (Zimmer)

FILM

‘GOLDEN OLDIES OF MUSIC VIDEO’ Music videos before MTV, this selection of 14 pieces from the Museum of Modern Art archives includes work by the Beatles, Captain Beefheart, Devo, the Residents, Elvis Costello, and Alan Suicide. Laurie Anderson is the guest VJ. THURSDAY AT 8, MOMA at the Gramercy, 127 East 23rd Street, 212-777-4900. (Hoberman)

‘LOVE & DIANE’ Jennifer Dworkin’s years-in-the-making two-and-a-half-hour portrait of a former crack addict and her teenage HIV-positive daughter deserves the accolades that greeted its New York Film Festival premiere. From first shot to last, Love & Diane is a continuously absorbing, sometimes revelatory, frequently moving experience. The film feels like a collaborative enterprise; Dworkin’s subjects are in some respects the authors of their lives. The struggle for redemption is hardly an uncommon movie story, but Love & Diane redeems that cliché as an ongoing process. THROUGH APRIL 29, Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110. (Hoberman)

MUSIC

JOYCE BREACH An unbeatable combination. One of today’s saloon-iest singers nods appreciatively at one of yesterday’s. That’s to say, Breach sings Mabel Mercer, who constantly inspired Bart Howard. The occasion is a CD release, but there’s never any reason needed to listen to this soothing, evocative, low-key jazz-pop interpreter. There may be singers as good on the local scene currently but surely none better. If need be, beg her for “These Foolish Things.” THURSDAY THROUGH SATURDAY AT 9:30 AND APRIL 24 THROUGH 26, Danny’s Skylight Room, 346 West 46th Street, 212-265-8133. (Finkle)

CANDIDO CAMERO Candido had an enormous impact in popularizing the conga solo and Latin rhythms in jazz; his signature hands-and-elbows climaxes have had audiences roaring for decades. Now, at 82, he is the subject of a birthday celebration that will bring together the cream of Latin jazz, including Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow, Patato Valdez, Ray Mantilla, Bobby Sanabria, Giovanni Hidalgo, and others—all rhythm all the time. TUESDAY AT 9 AND 11, Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, 212-581-3080. (Giddins)

EVERCLEAR Art Alexakis may well go on forever, writing the same song he’s always written. Which is OK, because it’s a good song, and damned if anybody else will write it. On Everclear’s new Slow Motion Daydream, probably their most ignorable album ever, Art at least grazes the bull’s-eye in his ones about the porn actress turned Volvo-driving soccer mom, about the broken home that’s not enough like a TV show, about singing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” on acid in a Taco Bell, and about reading an old friend’s WTC obit in the Times. And live, his suburban lifestyle critique has plenty of middle-aged Nirvana-gone-Eagles legs to stand on. With the Exies and Authority Zero. FRIDAY AT 6:45, Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd Street, 212-777-6800. (Eddy)

IBRAHIM FERRER The lanky, Kangol-sporting septuagenarian was shining shoes in Havana’s streets when the call to join the Buena Vista Social Club came in 1997. Ferrer brought an intimate and hard-earned knowledge of the melodramatic bolero ballad form to the project, and his aged-in-wood voice became the multi-platinum trip down memory lane’s signature sound. His recent, Ry Cooder-produced Buenos Hermanos is an unexpectedly lively sequel to his 1999 solo debut. There’s more rumba this time around, and even the boleros swing with a pre-revolutionary sizzle. THURSDAY AT 8, Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, 212-307-7171. (Gehr)

HOWE GELB+THE MUSCULAR CHRISTIANS Gelb’s time-worn sunburned tweaky roots stylings have finally become fashionable (cf. Yankee Hotel, Yoshimi), although he’s never been that ambitious, or even really been able to sustain a backbeat (his bandmates in Giant Sand left him to become Calexico). This show is billed as solo piano, but last year Oldham, Dando, Chestnutt & Wagner dropped in. The Muscular Christians are his polar opposite on the alt-folk spectrum: urbane wisenheimers with the best song about Christgau that doesn’t involve his murder. TUESDAY AT 8, Tonic, 107 Norfolk Street, 212-358-7501. (Goldfein)

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS This salt-and-pepper trio featuring a couple of old-weird-Southerner Jim Dickinson’s lads broke the headlock the Allmans and their various offshoots once had on Southern rawk. Their loosey-goosey punk-blooze mash works better on record than onstage, unless you happen to be a connoisseur of the eternal choogle. But no group specializing in deliriously skanky R.L. Burnside covers should be easily dismissed. THURSDAY AT 9, Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, 212-777-6800. (Gehr)

HENRY THREADGILL A remarkable artist and one of the handful of composers who challenge preconceptions every time out, Threadgill introduced Zooid a few years ago on sudden notice, and was so pleased with the results he has continued the six-piece ensemble, which includes Liberty Ellman on guitar, Tarik Benbrahim on oud, Jose Davila on tuba, Dana Leong on cello, and the most recent addition, Elliot Umberto Kavee on drums. The group has tremendous energy and wit, and its intricate multiple-rhythm patterns buoy the leader’s unadorned and tenacious solos. SATURDAY AND SUNDAY AT 9 AND 10:30, Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson Street, 212-242-1063. (Giddins)

TIN HUEY Billed in one venue as “Ralph Carney Exhumes Tin Huey,” which seems a little, I don’t know—premature? The Akron-scene art-rock band that gave the world all-purpose saxman Carney (Tom Waits, Oranj Symphonette) and bassist-producer-gramophonologist Chris Butler (dB’s, Waitresses), wasn’t dead. It was just hibernating. And now it will roar like a bear in strange meters, scaring the bejesus out of young rock criticism fans. They could still rule the world if they only had the parts. Saturday with Gavin DeGraw. FRIDAY AT 8, Tonic, 107 Norfolk Street, 212-358-7501; SATURDAY AT 10, Maxwell’s, 1039 Washington Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, 201-653-1703. (Christgau)

THE WHITE STRIPES+LORETTA LYNN Supporting what may be their best album yet, the Stripes are so omnipresent nowadays that you might forget what oddballs they are. Granted, their new one banks on the same stuff as the previous three records—Son House, Nuggets, Led Zep, anonymous ’60s pop-country ballads, good songs. But their sound is all their own and their run is well deserved. Not only should much-revered Lynn appeal to the Stripes’ theoretically open-eared audience, just like Jack and Meg she’s made a career out of toying with the conventions of both domesticity and roots music. Also: Blanche. SATURDAY AT 7:30, Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 West 34th Street, 212-485-1534. (Hoard)

PHOTO

LYNN DAVIS Davis has been crossing the globe from Iceland to Egypt to Yosemite since 1986, bringing back serene, largely unpopulated landscapes and architectural studies, and reminding us that the wonders of the world number far more than seven. Her latest journey was to China, where she photographed Buddhist and Islamic sites along the Silk Road as well as the mist-shrouded Three Gorges of the Yangtze River. Her large-scale images, reproduced in rich, gold-toned black-and-white, often seem to pay homage to the 19th-century pioneers in the field, but her eye for austere elegance is timeless. THROUGH MAY 3, Edwynn Houk Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, 212-750-7070. (Aletti)

SLAVA MOGUTIN Poet, essayist, Bruce LaBruce star, and Index cover boy, the Siberian-born rude boy Mogutin may be persona non grata in Russia, but he’s been a welcome, lively presence at art fairs and group shows here. For this solo outing, he’s filled the walls with black-and-white, sepia, and color photos of young brutes—including skinheads, soccer fans, and toughs in Russian military uniforms—displaying their hard cocks and ripe asses for the camera and one another. Pornographic, obsessive, fetishistic, and hilarious in its send-up of macho-on-macho eroticism, the work also has fleeting romantic moments and energy to burn. THROUGH MAY 3, Rare Plus, 521 West 26th Street, 212-268-1520. (Aletti)

THEATER

‘CAVEDWELLER’ Dorothy Allison’s scorching 1998 novel, a saga of Southern family torment replete with abandoned children and abusive spouses, was a logical choice for stage scrutiny in NYTW’s “Cradle and All” series, examining the shifts going on in American family life. Playwright Kate Moira Ryan’s adaptation, staged by Michael Greif, boasts a strong cast, including Shannon Burkett, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Carson Elrod, Deirdre O’Connell, and Obie winner Adriane Lenox. PREVIEWS BEGIN FRIDAY, OPENS MAY 8, New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 212-239-6200. (Feingold)

‘LAST OF THE SUNS’ Always specific in her portrayals, Obie-winning actress Ching Valdes-Aran is at last getting a chance to generalize—or at least, to be specific in the role of a general. Whether the 100-year-old main character of Alice Tuan’s 1995 play, now getting its New York premiere, is a woman warrior or a male generalissimo, isn’t specified in the press release, only that s/he is a Chinese Nationalist, residing in the U.S., whose story traverses three generations. Ma-Yi Theatre’s production, staged by Chay Yew, features, among other faces familiar to theatergoers, Mia Katigbak, Katy Kuroda, and Ron Nakahara. PREVIEWS BEGIN FRIDAY, OPENS APRIL 27, Theatre for the New City, 155 First Avenue, 212-352-3101. (Feingold)

WORDS

‘ANNUAL MAUNDY THURSDAY READING OF DANTE’S INFERNO’ “You have to pass through the darkness before you can encounter the light.” This idea is the foundation for both Dante’s Divine Comedy and the upcoming Christian ritual of Easter weekend. In that spirit, St. John the Divine will host a three-hour reading of Inferno on Maundy Thursday during the very hours in which Dante’s characters descend into hell. New York poets and writers, including Honor Moore and Liam Rector, will read selections in English translation. THURSDAY AT 9, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, 212-316-7540. (Winterton)

‘THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK’ W.E.B. Du Bois famously declared that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.” Will this hold true for the 21st? David Levering Lewis (W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919) joins Columbia’s Eric Foner and Princeton’s Nell Irvin Painter for a panel looking at the legacy of Du Bois’s most enduring work, The Souls of Black Folk, now 100 years old. Will anyone have the courage to ask about the great man’s nomenclatural influence over the late lamented sitcom Benson? FRIDAY AT 4, New School, 66 West 12th Street, 212-229-5353. (De Krap)

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Twin Set

In The Souls of Black Folks W.E.B. DuBois opined: “One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro . . . two warring ideals in one dark body.” Substitute “Korean” for “Negro,” and DuBois is highlighting the thematic undercurrent of poet-Voice critic Cathy Park Hong’s first book, Translating Mo’um.

At turns seething, randy, and quixotic, Translating is as irascible as it is unclassifiable. While confronting how languages and cultures mesh and refract, Translating reads like a bi/cross-cultural Dadaist linguistic fugue with a tonal range that careers from lullaby to rant.

Hong’s verse combines projectivism’s unbridled ecstasies with Wallace Stevens’s abstract reveries—sans his lyricism. Her emotional versatility calls to mind Korean bard Kim Sujang’s whimsical stylistic liberties with the sijo form. Hong’s stratagems (fill-in-the-blanks, untranslated Korean phrases, “legal” exhibits) and scintillating, discursive leaps resemble UFOs hovering, then darting to points unknown.

Divided into three sections, Translating is anchored by poems about curios. “The Ontology of Chang and Eng,” “The Shameful Show of Tono Maria,” and “Hottentot Venus” all symbolize Hong’s awareness of both cultural and individual spectacle.

“Chang and Eng” serves as a seamless objective correlative for Hong’s self-proclaimed oddball status and dual consciousness. But rather than state the obvious, Hong invents a formal lattice to bolster her contentions. In the poem’s opening section, Hong uses slashes to depict the twins’ differences: “Chang spoke / Eng paused.” In the second part, Hong’s syntactic parallelism highlights the twins’ similarities—”both owned . . . forty slaves.” (Cathy, don’t think, especially with your oblique arguments for cultural empathy, that the “slave” line snuck past a brother.)

As stand-alones her curio poems are provocative. But Hong’s intellect makes the reader draw parallels between how the lazy gaze of the imperious “others” ogles the obvious (Hottentot’s steatopygia) and overlooks nuance (Venus’s polyglot gifts), and Korean American culture’s potentially marginalized, freak-show status.

Hong’s a cutup to the end. Her antics even surface in the title. In the endnotes, Hong explains, “Mo’um” means—ready?—mom. Why should anyone have to define they momma? But it’s Hong’s wry manifesto: You know I got Seoul. Translation, anyone?

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Where Kids Never Stop Learning

“We provide our students,” says Mary Ann Fagen, principal of P.S.110 on Delancey Street, “with an approach to education that affects the entire school environment. The climate and culture of the school are conducive to innovation.”

This is not the usual public relations spin. At the school, for example, I saw a bookmaking club. These kids create their own books, and one of them was so impressive it now resides in the Library of Congress.

I saw models produced by the fifth- and sixth-grade architecture club. At Boston Public Latin School, my classmates and I were forced to tediously construct a bridge described by Caesar in his Gallic Wars. At P.S.110, it was clear that the kids—having learned about elevation and scale—were taking great pleasure in inventing their own projects.

That club has remodeled the security officer’s desk at the entrance to the school as well as a concession stand for parents’ bake sales, and this year they redesigned the principal’s office. Each year, as a parting gift to the school, the sixth graders decide which part of P.S.110 needs enhancing and go to work.

Tony Alvarado, the most perceptive schools chancellor this city has ever had, used to assure me he could tell a lot about a school and its principal as soon as he walked in and looked at the bulletin boards. If they were sloppy, dirty, and cracked, he’d figure the kids were also getting shortchanged elsewhere in the building.

At P.S.110, the clean, orderly bulletin boards—mostly created by the kids—are filled with student artworks that are as lively and often as witty as a Dizzy Gillespie solo.

A sixth-grade bulletin board brought back memories of an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, whose students were largely black. A bulletin board there offered a list of distinguished black Americans—W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Whitney Young, and many more.

I asked the principal, who was black, whether the names of Duke Ellington and other creators of America’s world-recognized indigenous classical music were in some other part of the building.

The principal was shocked at the ignorance of my question. “Of course not,” she said. “They were just entertainers.”

At P.S.110, high on the list, along with Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry, there he is—Duke Ellington! Abovethe list is the question: “Who Am I?

Those kids know. They even know who the first published black American poet was. The list includes Phillis Wheatley, captured in Senegal and brought to Boston at the age of eight as a slave. Her work during the 18th century was used later by abolitionists to counter the customary racist claim that blacks were innately inferior intellectually.

For P.S.110’s annual science fair, the lower grades work on class projects in which they must follow the scientific method. The upper classes engage in individual and small group projects.

Visiting the fourth grade, I saw a precise, complex science project, originated by the students, that had won a district-wide first prize. While studying ecology in preparation for a state science test, the fourth graders had gone on a three-day camping trip to Harriman State Park, where the principles of ecology really come alive.

Coming down from that fourth-grade floor, Mary Ann Fagen and I met a student on her way up. Calling her by name, the principal asked the girl how her sick brother was. The news was not good.

P.S.110 has a very active parents’ group. “Proactive,” says the principal admiringly. There’s also a workshop where parents learn how most effectively to assist their children in homework—and many of the parents volunteer to help in the school.

It being near the end of the school year, I was interested in seeing how the first graders had come along in reading. Those from public-school kindergartens arrive in the first grade with some skills. Those from day-care centers usually do not, the principal told me.

But by May, when I was at the school, the first graders, with their three notebooks—a workbook, a journal, and a spelling book—were justly pleased with themselves. They do independent work—writing their own stories and reading them.

I’ve visited a number of private schools, and these first-grade kids could hold their own in those places.

I asked Mary Ann Fagen how the students from P.S.110 do when they go on to middle schools and high schools. “They do okay,” she said, “because here they learned not only skills, but the very love of learning.”

In the May 5 Education Week, S. Paul Reville, a lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, wrote, “Systematic reform that produces high achievement is a complex, long-term undertaking. This complexity is far removed from the rhetoric of quick, silver-bullet solutions that so many administrators and politicians put forth.”

Like the “magic” solution of vouchers. But reform of public schools need not be complex if it starts at the beginning of learning. That’s why I hope the mayor—rather than “blowing up” the public school system—spends time at P.S.110. More than 80 percent of the school’s students are from minority groups, and many are from low-income families. But they’re all learning.