Black Women Writers Reclaim Their Past

Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
March 1987

When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Mar­shall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — ex­cept, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunate­ly, in the years since then, books like Mar­shall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.

During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent obser­vation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writ­ers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, pro­moting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for in­stance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger point­ers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.

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Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tra­dition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current con­troversies into perspective.

Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fic­tion by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunc­tions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear pro­gression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.

Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the dad­dies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of es­says and articles, the critics debated as Elli­son battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Bald­win. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way­ — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against wom­en. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.

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Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they re­jected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predica­ment.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been in­cluded in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”

While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative ap­proach, or content.

Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.

Each generation of black women has cer­tainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condi­tion readily at hand.

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Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a signifi­cant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of wom­en. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resur­rection of their own tradition.

This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novel­ist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jor­dan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Char­lotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.

So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Mor­ton of the Harlem Renaissance.


Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Rob­ert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a flood­gate of possibilities, both for the imagina­tions of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.

Zora, as writers affectionately call her, be­came the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrong­ly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.

Zora shows up as an influence in inter­views with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The im­prints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the con­versations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.

By making her African-American story­teller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from ear­lier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by em­phasizing the effects of racism and oppres­sion. Janie strikes home with women be­cause she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluc­tantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Ja­nie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.

For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Pur­ple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color pur­ple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.


Hurston’s canonization does skew the pic­ture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folk­lorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”

Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Re­viewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging re­spect as the most able black women novel­ists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in antholo­gies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in liter­ary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Le­vering Lewis. But their work has been large­ly ignored for almost 50 years.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tenden­cy among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably rep­resented the Renaissance’s genteel intelli­gentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and col­lections they put out.

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But this probably discouraged later schol­ars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confu­sion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The China­berry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Har­lem Renaissance a front-runner of the Re­naissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)

Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipat­ing the concerns of the Depression.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey­day of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggen­heim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusa­tion and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.

Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Say­brook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet over­take her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part be­cause critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.

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Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unful­filled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradi­tion popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional fe­male socialization and emphasizes the reali­ties that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.

Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely differ­ent from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless envi­ronment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. An­gela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.

She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of inepti­tude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particular­ly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the reali­ties of sex and race.

Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her prob­lems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.

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Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a bi­racial person, she shows a deeper under­standing of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autono­my and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sas­safras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.

At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a south­ern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandina­via — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.

While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hell­ish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.

Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing no­tions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.

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McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Al­though Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is sig­nificant to the tradition.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual as­sault, and her own dreams of upward mobil­ity. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to aban­don the son she tried to keep off the streets.

The writing in The Street is grim, unre­lenting, and contrived to strip the environ­ment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s charac­ters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female commu­nity, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for in­stance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not en­snare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a gen­eration which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.

Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.

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A small group of scholars who have poli­ticked with presses and written some excel­lent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Lar­sen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fic­tion (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.

Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage in­dustry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two ma­jor collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collabora­tion with the Schomburg Center for Re­search in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.

Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Mar­tha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly re­garded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest nov­el by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprint­ing of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conver­sation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differ­ences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.

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What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary wom­en — European and American. (Schizophre­nia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.

The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic lan­guage unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, mag­ic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.

It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t mov­ing toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■

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QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers Uni­versity Press, $25; $7.95 paper.

THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.

PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.

CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana Uni­versity Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.

From The Archives Uncategorized

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke
December 1986

Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life, I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism — accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture. Anybody who’s read Harold Cruse’s scathing dissection of black leadership, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, knows his argument that each generation of black leaders has failed from an inability to conceive black liberation totally and systemically. Meaning they failed to develop agendas that fused protest and reform politics with self-­help economics, sophisticated cultural critiques, and a Marxian take on the political economy of capitalism. Twenty years later, the void Cruse railed against remains. If you think I’m going to try to fill it, you got another think coming. I’m bold but I ain’t that bad. This whatchamajiggy here is about how black aestheticians need to develop a coherent criticism to communicate the com­plexities of our culture. There’s no periodical on black cultural phenomena equivalent to The Village Voice or Artforum, no publication that provides journalism on black visual art, philosophy, politics, economics, media, literature, linguistics, psychology, sexuality, spirituality, and pop culture. Though there are certainly black editors, journalists, and academics capable of producing such a journal, the disintegration of the black cultural nationalist movement and the braindrain of black intellectuals to white insti­tutions have destroyed the vociferous public dialogue that used to exist between them. Consider this my little shot at opening it up again.

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Given the lack of debate and discussion among educated blacks today, Harold Cruse’s remedies for the black intelligentsia’s failings seem more quixotic now than 20 years ago — particularly because back then the civil rights and black power movements were pro­ducing a generation of artists and activists who could be provoked into getting hot and bothered. (You ask a buppy mofo his stand on the race, he’ll tell you he favors Carl Lewis.) Cruse presaged the black cultural nationalist movement as conceived by Amiri Baraka and Ron Karenga. While the founding fathers have long taken deserved lumps for the jiver parts of their program (like the sexist, anti-Semitic, black supremacist, pseudo-African mumbo-­jumbo paramilitary adventurist parts), to their credit they took black liberation seriously enough to be theoretically ambitious about it. Perhaps their most grandiose scheme involved trying to transform a supremacist sense of black cultural difference into the basis for a racially bonding black American zeitgeist — one that would serve blacks as Judaism was believed to have solidified Jews. The plan was to convince 30 million people they constituted a nation, not only because they were an oppressed minority, but also because they were superior to the corny white man and his Western civilization. 

A considerable amount of this philosophy was developed by Baba Baraka, formerly a prized black stepchild of Western mod­ernism. Baraka has acknowledged that he derived his black su­premacist gumption from African-American music, which definitely represents the one modernist arena blacks are the masters of. (It is our music, especially jazz, which confronts Western culture with its most intimidating and improbable Other: the sui generis black genius. But that’s a whole other dissertation.) The leap from per­ceiving the genius of jazz to envisioning an Afrocentric master race is quite a doozy. Generously, it could be understood as an extrem­ist’s reaction to blacks being classified for centuries as subhumans without culture and history. Given that context, let’s be generous. Two decades ago, Malcolm X implored blacks to cast aside their differences and unite against the common foe we all caught hell from, the white man. Yet that dream of black unity addressed racial oppression more meaningfully than it did the more crucial dilemma of cultural identity. (If being black meant nothing but being oppressed by white people, black liberation would have no meaning. Like if white people weren’t around to be mad at, people into being black would be out of a job.) 

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What the cult-nats made possible is a conception of black culture where anything black could be considered an aesthetic object of contemplation more beautiful than anything produced by the white man. In this sense the cult-nats were our dadaists. While the dadaists tried to raise anarchy to an artform and bring Western civilization down with style, the cult-nats figured a “black is beau­tiful” campaign would be enough to raze Babylon, or at least get a revolution going. The cult-nats’ black-übermensch campaign obviously didn’t do much toward liberating the masses, but it did produce a post-liberated black aesthetic, responsible for the degree to which contemporary black artists and intellectuals feel them­selves heirs to a culture every bit as def as classical Western civilization. 

This cultural confidence has freed up more black artists to do work as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself. The impulse toward enmeshing self-criticism and celebration present in the most provocative avant-garde black art of the ’70s and early ’80s (cf. Miles Davis, David Hammons, Senga Ngudi, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ishmael Reed, Charles Burnett, Pedro Bell, George Clin­ton, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Pryor, Charles Johnson, Octavia Butler, Jayne Cortez, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison) owes a debt to the cult-nats for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor. (Admittedly, most of these artists have at one time or another confused a passion for black exotica with detached representation. On the other hand, we all know there’s not a single freak in their work without a counterpart even more out-the-box somewhere in the kinky wilds of black America. Such is our mutant diversity.) What’s unfortunate is that while black artists have opened up the entire “text of blackness” for fun and games, not many black critics have produced writing as fecund, eclectic, and freaky-deke as the art, let alone the culture itself. (Some exceptions: Henry Louis Cates, David Levering Lewis, Lor­enzo Thomas, Nathaniel Mackey, Adrian Seaward, Clyde Taylor, Houston Baker.) For those who prefer exegesis with a polemical bent, just imagine how critics as fluent in black and Western culture as the post-liberated artists could strike terror into that bastion of white supremacist thinking, the Western art world. 

In Art After Modernism: Essays on Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis laments that there’s never been a serious study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art. (Like don’t nobody know that since Cubism, black culture and Western mod­ernism have been confused for conceptual kissing cousins; that since bebop’s impact on Abstract Expressionism and the Beats, black modernism has been confused with white alienation and social deviance; that since Duke Ellington compared Picasso to Miles Davis, black genius has been confused with the formal ex­haustion of Western art; that since Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro, black cool has been mistaken for a figment of white heterosexual anxiety; that since Thomas Pynchon shabbily dis­guised Ornette Coleman as McClintic Sphere in V., black alienation has gotten confused with existential parody; that since Ornette Coleman called Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” the most beautiful since Toscanini’s, the power to impose cultural democracy has fallen into the hands of black people with strange ideas; that since I heard a snotty white DJ say he stopped thinking Parliament/Funkadelic was stupid disco when Brian Eno cited them as an influence, I’ve known George Clinton was right when he said that as soon as white folks figured out funk was intellectually acceptable they’d try to hop on board the Mothership.) To this post-liberated black aesthetician, Wallis’s whine sounded like an invite to bomb the white bastion rather than know my place relative to it. At first I thought I’d have to go it alone, but then I discovered a smart, empathetic white man I could cannibalize — one all ready to see MOMA collapse in the dust with an Air Jordan high-top at its throat. 

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A big round of applause, then, to my host culture-bearer, Hal Foster, senior editor at Art in America, editor of the post-mod col­lection The Anti-Aesthetic, and now author of Recodings: Art, Spec­tacle, Cultural Politics (Bay Press, $9.95 paper), a primer in poststructuralist discourse and debate with its sights on bringing about the end of Western civi­lization in theory. Taking aim, he blasts away at those involved in rationalizing capitalism through the culture industry. For people who look toward critical theory as a way to outthink the powers that be rather than to disguise fuzzy thinking behind hermetic verbiage, Foster makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t see theory as an end in itself, but as a “toolkit” to pry apart the hidden collusion between the corporate class and its artsy running dogs, like big bad MOMA and those messy Neo-Expressionist painters. Having arrived at the astounding conclusion that criticism is of marginal value to the art marketplace, Foster prizes his marginality as license to speak “out of place.” 

The margins from which Foster speaks are indeed extreme — so extreme that by book’s end he’s set himself up against not only pluralism, Neo-Expressionism, postmodern architecture, primitiv­ist-modernism, and The New Criterion crew, but Barthes, Baud­rillard, Hegelian dialectics, and the very idea of Western history. (The “enemy” identified throughout Recodings is “the white, pa­triarchal order of western culture and its pretenses of sovereignty, supremacy and self creation.”) In the early sections Foster goes about exposing those postmodern artists who profess autonomy from corporate power or pretend to be political by acting like social outlaws. To this end he is such a thorough deconstructionist that not even artists he admires escape his powers of dissection. Though his demolition of Neo-Expressionism (“The Expressive Fallacy”) comes as no surprise, it’s unexpected when an infatuated appre­ciation of Robert Longo’s work ends on the downbeat. “A utopian principle of hope may be evoked here but no actual community is engaged. This work has no social basis (other than the dominant class whose representations are collided). Its mix of archaic and futuristic forms attests to this absence — as does its apocalypticism, which is symptomatic of the failure of the dominant culture (and its ‘artist guardian’) to conceive social change in terms other than catastrophe. In the absence of such a social basis utopian desire may well become a will to power — or an identification with the powers that be.”

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Behind the facades of the postmoderns, Foster never fails to detect the presence of the corporate class. Echoing Baudrillard’s crucial revision of Marx, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Foster opines that the corporate class, having achieved mastery of accumulation, now desires mastery of “symbolic production,” meaning mass media and modern art. The “penetration of the sign by capital” is a major theme of Recodings, along with the problems that penetration represents for those committed to “cultural resistance,” Foster’s favorite form of theory-mongering. 

Where others find total freedom in the pluralistic postmodern marketplace, he finds no more than the franchised freedom of the commodity. Here artists suppress all desire for social change and are rewarded for producing consumable art, “safeguarding social inertia by participating in an illusion of democracy.” Equally sus­pect is the return (through Neo-Expressionism) of the myth of the modern artist as bourgeois transgressor and last refuge of “humanist values.” (This gets kinky when you consider how much transgressive shock value, and hence “humanism” in modern art, derived from the moderns’ primitivist ideas about Africa.) Though these myths once served early modernism by making the artist an adversary of the bourgeoisie, today they serve the corporate class by making artistic transgression “a posture available to everyman.” (Reading this brought to mind the Jean Michel Basquiat behind the bar in the Palladium’s Michael Todd room.) Attacking post­modern architects for elitism, Foster finds in their vernacular re­vivals not a populist modernism but a supercilious lowbrowism, not a regeneration of modernist ideals but a regression to classic architectural forms for the myths of authority they sing to the powerful. 

For Foster, the most provocative American art of today situates itself at a crossroads where representations of sexual identity and social life can freely intervene in critiques of institutional art, mass culture, and the corporate class. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman are artists Foster finds significant because they don’t just make consumable objects but also manip­ulate signs, seeking to make “the viewer an active reader of mes­sages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.” The history of these artists’ practices begins in the adversarial site-specific work done in the ’70s by Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren. At that time their work centered on confronting the power of the museum to marginalize radical art, updating Duchamp’s antiaesthetic. Yet Buren believed that the real perfidy performed by galleries and museums was not aesthetic but economic: they protected the very idea of the art market by supplying exchange-value to art. Foster notes that this critique became particularly crucial once the bourgeoisie had abandoned its classical culture for a consumerist one, and reinvested in the museum as modernism’s warehouse. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Hol­zer, and other feminist manipulators of “sign-value” revise the work of these male artists by mocking the power invested in official language. In “For a Concept of the Political in Contemporary Art,” Foster draws on Baudrillard’s critique of a belief held clear by Marx, Walter Benjamin, and the Russian constructivists: that political art must be aligned with the production of the industrial worker. Baudrillard found that model faulty because it identified the white male worker as the sole force for social progress. This denied the significance of struggles by those outside or subordinate to production: students, blacks, gays, women. Because the site of their struggles is as much for representation, for significance and signification within academia and the media, their active resistance of patriarchal and racist practices must take place there. The intent is not to segregate the struggles of blacks, gays, and women from those of the white male worker under capitalism, but to equalize them. Rethinking political art today means recognizing that per Foucault, power derives its authority not only from social consent and economic determinism but from those “disciplinary institu­tions” which control behavior and the body through “social regi­mens” (at work, school, the corporation) and “structure our lives materially.” 

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It is the realization that disciplinary institutions produce “so­cially adjusted individuals” which has brought poststructuralist concerns with representation, sexuality, textuality, and totalization to the foreground of contemporary political art. Baudrillard rec­ognized that the commodification of culture has rendered obsolete the distinctions between art and commerce, culture and economy, and any reading of signs (art and media) as if they were impene­trable by capital. Since the corporate class dominates symbolic production, art has become a capitalist comprador, out to protect commodity values rather than those of classical bourgeois culture. “According to this position, the bourgeoisie no longer needs a traditional culture to impress its ideology or retain its rule; the commodity no longer requires the guise of a personal or social value for us to submit to it: it is its own excuse, its own ideology.”‘ 

Traditionally, modern art has sought to resist collusion with capital or shock the bourgeoisie through either primitive transgres­sion or formal elitism. But these strategies failed to be truly radical because they didn’t intend to better society and may, says Foster, even have prepared society to consent in the “social transgressions of capital.” He believes that the shock-of-the-new impulse of early modern art contributed to “subtly reconciling us to the chaos of the late-capitalist world.” Nostalgia for avant-garde transgression Foster finds not only nihilistic but of little value to political artists today. What he proposes is a practice which views culture as an arena where “active contestation is possible.” From this vantage point, capital would not be seen as a megalith to be shocked and liberated by, say, “primitivism,” but as a network of disciplinary institutions and sign systems to be constantly targeted for adver­sarial deconstruction. Resistance, then, doesn’t aim for transcen­dence of corporate culture’s limits into some mythical liberated zone, but for critical intervention in the process by which capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism.

Foster believes these interventions could become more than merely theoretical if Western political artists were able to forge cultural revolution alongside subcultural Others — those whose col­lective practices not only create new languages of representation but signify a disbelief in mass culture, modernism, and the West. Among these subcultural practices he cites reggae, black gospel, and Latin American fiction. Where others such as Barthes, Baud­rillard, Deleuze, and Guattari have sought out subcultural codes to call the West’s supremacist ideas of history and difference into question, Foster closes Recodings by pronouncing that Western theorists should chill, and open the field for blacks, gays, and feminists to command the critical foreground of cultural resistance. 

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What Recodings has to say about cultural resistance, commo­dification, representation, and Western supremacy is fascinating to mull over from a black perspective, particularly since so much black aesthetic and political debate has for years been concerned with these issues. If I’m so gung-ho about integrating Foster’s poststructuralist toolkit into a discussion of black culture, it’s not because black culture lacks Foster’s mind but because it lacks his bent for knowing and dissecting his subject in total. In the past, the sectarian nature of black art and politics has worked against a “unified field theory” of black culture. The person who seems to be moving most determinedly in that direction is, ironically, a white man, Yale’s Robert Farris Thompson, whose books and lec­tures on African art and philosophy in the “Black Atlantic tradition” are milestones of comparative analysis on the continuum which runs between black culture in Africa and the New World, spiri­tually, aesthetically, and philosophically. 

Thompson’s work disproves and demolishes at every turn the myth that classical African culture doesn’t derive from as systematic and highly evolved a tradition of critical thought as Europe’s. (Yoruba sculpture, for example, is no less a product of conscious conceptualization than art in the Greco-Roman tradition. The dif­ference isn’t a matter of intellect but of intention.) Thompson ar­ticulates the critical infrastructure at work in classical African art, music, and dance, and its impact on the New World. Yet even that breadth of learning barely touches on what black culture has evolved to in 20th century America. I’m pushing for a popular black poststructuralism because we need theoretical and critical tools as exacting as those that produced a work like Recodings: writings which ask hard questions about where our culture stands in history, what total liberation means to black people living now, and how black art can continue to express that desire for freedom. Another reason, more self-involved in nature, is that I’m part of a generation of bohemian cult-nats who are mutating black culture into something the old interlocutors aren’t ready for yet. 

Though nobody’s sent out any announcements yet, the ’80s are witnessing the maturation of a postnationalist black arts movement, one more Afrocentric and cosmopolitan than anything that’s come before. The people in this movement find no contradiction in de­riving equal doses of inspiration from influences as diverse as Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and George Romero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lisette Model, Zora Neale Hurston and Akira Kurosawa, William Burroughs and Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman and Sun Ra, Jah Rastafari and Johnny Rotten, Toni Morrison and Laura Mulvey, George Jackson and Samuel Delany, Albert Ayler and Andrei Tarkovsky, Rudy Ray Moore and Nam June Paik, Black Elk and Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor and Joel Peter-­Witkin, Chester Himes and Jacques Tati, Ishmael Reed and Maya Deren, Anthony Braxton and Bruce Lee, Jean Rhys and Nona Hendryx, Antonin Artaud and Amiri Baraka, Robert Farris Thomp­son and Professor Longhair, Julia Kristeva and Chaka Khan, Kurt Schwitters and Coptic scrolls, Run-D.M.C. and Paolo Soleri, Fred­ric Jameson and Reverend James Cleveland, Katherine Dunham and Meredith Monk, Darryl Dawkins and Ndebele beadwork, Ra­mayana and Elegba-Eshu, Kathy Acker and Nina Simone, Audre Lorde and the Maasai, Duane Michals and John Coltrane, Skip James and Bill Viola. Cornucopia for a New Negro Bohemia? Hey, every generation’s got to have one. And that list of odd couples only represents those favored by the freaks I know about. (No telling what kind of black bizarro worldviews are being cooked up by members of the cadre still underground.) But even though quotation is the postmod thing to do, I’m not just namedropping here. The point is that the present generation of black artists is cross-breeding aesthetic references like nobody is even talking about yet. And while they may be marginal to the black experience as it’s expressed in rap, Jet, and on The Cosby Show, they’re not all mixed up over who they are and where they come from. 

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These are artists for whom black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary, for whom “black culture” signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices; they feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of their inheritance. No anxiety of influence here — these folks believe the cultural gene pool is for skinny-dipping. Yet though their work challenges both cult-nats and snotty whites, don’t expect to find them in Ebony or Artforum any time soon. Things ain’t hardly got that loose yet. 

Black culture as these artists know it is a debased commodity within black and white popular media, and even within the avant­-garde. Their targets for the kind of “cultural resistance” and “in­tervention in codes” Foster speaks of are complicated by the artists having to take on racist representations and black self-hate si­multaneously. For these reasons Spike Lee’s success, in both commercial and artistic terms, with She’s Gotta Have It, represents a coup of staggering proportions. It is in fact a populist black post­structuralist’s dream. 

Not only does Lee overload his “joint” with black in-jokes and semiotic codes (I’m thinking now of the references to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Eleanor Bumpurs, Edwin Perry, and Black Reconstruction that turn up, as well as things like using straight-­ahead jazz to underscore hiphop humor, and the conjugation of “drugs” and “jheri curls” to mark them as equally vile) but he pushed such an uncompromisingly black vision to blacks through mainstream distribution, exhibition, and media channels. Lee’s making a success out of a film shot for jackshit with a collectivist cast and crew demolishes Hollywood’s mega-budget mystique. Now, if all that’s not culturally resistant, I don’t know what is. And Lee’s staunch raceman interviews have been even more rad, breaking on Whoopi’s blue contacts, Michael’s nose, The Color Purple, as well as threatening letters from Quincy Jones’s office (not to mention the MPAA, which he says tried to give him an X because softcore black sexuality tweaked their uptight, racist nerves). The sweetest aspect of Lee’s success is that the only formula it offers for those who’d desire to emulate or exploit it is faith in the brilliance of black culture. What we need now is black criticism as balls to the wall as She’s Gotta Have It.

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Because black people don’t have institutions for serious, so­phisticated study and advancement of our culture, my dream of a populist black poststructuralism is actually kind of loony, but every man needs his own Moby Dick. What I envision is an Afrocentric cross between MIT, MOMA, MGM, Macmillan books, and Motown, a self-supporting facility equipped to bankroll a braintrust of B-boys, feminists, philosophers, visual artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, theologians, historians, political activists and economists, and produce their findings and artifacts for mass audiences. Since I can’t underwrite this black tower of Babel, I can at least target a few white whales for it to harpoon, a few black holes for it to get sucked up into. First off, if it were to take up the Brian Wallis project, a study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art, there’d be a need for an encyclopedic reference book on black visual culture. 

Given the kind of money the de Menils are sinking into their Eurocentric project, Images of the Black in Western Art, I’d hire a staff of editors, designers, and critics (Richard Powell, Judith Wil­son, Kellie Jones, and Rosalind Jeffries come to mind) to produce a multivolume bricolage of black images from every source con­ceivable: police mugshots, graffiti, Cubism, race riots, newspapers, hair product ads, comics, black independent cinema, advertising, music videos, lynchings, minstrelsy, break dancing, iconic jazz photography, Bauhaus furniture, images of blacks in Western art, modern art by black artists such as Twin Seven Seven, Leroy Clarke, Skunder Boghossian, Calvin Reid, Al Loving, Senga Nen­gudi, Daniel Dawson, Charles Abramson, Janet Henry, Houston Conwill, Ed Love, Rikki Smith, Nelson Stevens, Selim Abdul Mubdi, Edgar Sorrells-Adewale, Emilio Cruz, Martha Jackson­-Jarvis, Lorna Simpson, Jack Whitten, Randy Williams, Sandra Payne, Jules Allen, Pedro Bell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Chong, Romare Bearden, Wilfredo Lam, plus the art of every black ethnic group in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The text for these volumes would be drawn from as varied a collection of sources — all making for a veritable postmodern bible of black visual rep­resentation and critical difference. Publish that bad boy and all this bulljive we hear about the impoverishment of black visual culture would have to cease. Next on the agenda would be a series of symposiums on topics like Institutionalizing the Production of Black Musical Geniuses; the First Annual Conference on Black Mother Wit, Phylogeny, and Dub; Zen and the Art of Skip James; Harlem as Hyperreality: Reading Chester Himes; Rags, Hickeys, and Wops: The Etymology of Doo; Jazz and the Heat-Death of the Universe (A Comparative Analysis of the Death of the Author in Postmodern Painting and Jazz); Breakdancing as Telemetry; Genii in the Genome: George Clinton and Jeremy Rifkin’s Rhythm The­ories of Evolution; Race Mutation Theory and Quantum-Black Myth; The Mathematics of Graffiti: Ramm-El-Zee’s Ikonoklast Pan­zerism; The Political Economy of Scratch; and Beat the System to Death: Bootstrap Capitalism and Guerrilla Warfare. The possibil­ities are frightening. You fill in the blanks. 

Now I know some people are going to read all this and level charges ranging from silliness to rank sophistry to Bakuninism. Let them come on with it. My mission is clear. The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs and stay in the black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon. 


This is the beginning. We’ll be inviting some of the people you’ve just read about to get together and tackle issue raised in this essay. The results will appear in future issue of VLS.




Harlem When It Sizzled

Harlem When It Sizzled
December 1982

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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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? ■



Alan Lomax’s Haitian Time Capsule

Haiti’s cataclysmic 7.0 earthquake is, unfortunately, just the latest in a long line of tragedies to befall the country since its Spanish and then French colonization, portending centuries of slavery and exploitation for the indigenous Taino people. Once the Europeans were finally kicked out in 1804, things didn’t improve: One of the first predominantly black countries to gain its freedom, Haiti has endured 32 coups since.

In light of terrible events recent and otherwise, what to think of Alan Lomax in Haiti, a new 10-disc set that collects unreleased Library of Congress field recordings from Lomax’s travels there in 1936-7? Beyond a new charitable hook ($15 from the box’s revised $110 retail price goes to Haiti relief efforts), the perspective here is unchanged: This is a time capsule of music and culture from a country enjoying a new freedom after 19 years of U.S. occupation, and already casting those traditions aside as it struggles to redefine itself. Acutely aware of this, and at the urging of folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, Lomax (then just 21) and his wife, Elizabeth, spent four months there trying to capture the music before it faded into the past.

Hailing mostly from West Africa and the Congo, recently arrived Haitians brought the rhythms of their homeland with them: the same percussive underpinnings that show up in Dominican merengues, Cuban danzón, and Martinique beguine. Drums and voice dominate much of this collection, though Lomax offers an impressively varied mix of agricultural work songs, boy scout troops, Carnival drums, Catholic canticles, classical pianists, Creole song-stories, French romance songs held over from the occupation, jazz bands, violin societies, and Vodou songs.

The lavish packaging features a replica of Lomax’s field journal, alongside a second book of essays, translations, and notes by such luminaries as curator and noted Haitian-music expert Gage Averill. The material is grouped thematically by CD with such titles as “Rara: Vodou in Motion,” “Mardi Gras and Carnival,” and “Rustic Troubadour Music.” Embedded as MP4’s onto the fifth disc are six short films (totaling 10 minutes) of ceremonies, dancers, and musicians, alongside footage of those who gathered to watch them.

A passionate egalitarian, Lomax was never one to record big stars, instead fixating on local, everyday folks of varying talent. As such, not all of the 287 songs included here (of the 1,500 tracks he recorded onto aluminum discs) are great music—the children’s disc, with its choral nursery-rhyme singing, tends to drag. (“Pinga Way-o” consists of kids singing the title over and over for 1:48.) Conversely, those wondering how the well-heeled elite partied can look to the “Meringue and Urban Music” disc, which approximates both the Creole music and swing jazz of the time. A highlight is Surprise Jazz’s version of “Mesi, Papa Vensan,” a popular merengue at the time dedicated to Haiti’s then-president Sténio Vincent, who actually hosted the ball where this was recorded.

More unique and certainly less political is the hugely important “Breaking-of-the-Cakes” disc, which includes parts of the Saturday-night dance ritual (the party goes on all night) and the more subdued 45-minute Sunday-morning ceremony. Vodou is still a big part of Haitian culture today, and this is believed to be the first audio recording of a Vodou ceremony recorded in an ounfu (temple). While much has been made of the members becoming possessed by various Vodou Iwa (spirits) during these ceremonies, it is truly haunting to hear the call-and-response as it occasionally evokes, in sound and cadence, Christian prayer.

There is also a disc devoted entirely to the couple’s housekeeper, Francilia, graced with some of Lomax’s highest-quality recordings. As innocent and pure as a mother singing to her children while she hangs up the wash, Francilia has a good range and was strong enough to carry a melody on her own, though she occasionally breaks out in laughter as she sings songs mostly culled from Vodou ceremonies. She accompanies herself on maracas, with the assembled audience joining in to clap occasionally (when not doing a proper field recording, Lomax often recorded at whatever house he was staying in). Adding to the purity of the moment, you can hear car horns and other sounds of everyday life.

While probably only scratching the surface, this is still an impressive, 75-year-old portrait of ancestral voices in a bygone country. The fact that it exists at all is important—imagine all the cultural artifacts lost to the earthquake and past upheavals—and it’s done with such care that it’s a golden key to understanding Haiti’s past, present, and future.


Whiteness Invisible

In “The Sad, Sweet Story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, the Man With the Portable Promised Land,” author Touré crowds the streets of New York with invisible folk. Unlike Ellison’s titanic invention, however, these invisible men and woman are white, and they happen to be invisible solely to Sugar Lips Shinehot. Sugar Lips is but one of the bemusing characters in The Portable Promised Land, a debut collection that limns with a fine confidence and cheeky humor the fabulous, the fantastical, the incantatory.

Before all of Manhattan began looking to him like Negro Heaven, Sugar Lips had been a legendary sax player in the making. Then he got his pleasure-giving puss remolded into “a mangled ol’ fist” by a couple of white sailors. Soon after this beat down, Sugar is approached by an associate of Reverend Doctor Bernard Z. LeBub. Touré delivers this meeting as deft comedy by way of chitlin’ circuit repartee and Zora Neale Hurston folktales.

“It was them crackers tore you up, right?” [asks the minion.]

“Yeah,” [says Sugar.]

“You can’t play your horn?”


“You can’t kiss your women?”

“No, sir.”

“Make you mad?”


“Make you mad at all crackers?”

“Uh, sometimes.”

“So mad you hate them?”

“I don’t know about all that.”

“Wish you could wipe them honkeys off the earth as you know it?”

“What Negro hasn’t once or twice?”

“Well then . . . This here’s your lucky day.”

The bamboozling is a familiar one: another clueless soul suckered into an eternal swap. Much like the wishes granted by genies, the pact immediately demands revision. White people don’t really disappear from Sugar’s world. He just can’t see them. For Sugar this not-seeing is believing the world a haven. It’s a faith he enjoys even after he’s hammered by some invisible cops. They, after all, can see him. But Sugar relishes his newfound role as non-seer. So much so, he feels compelled to offer the folk of Harlem a new miracle: a Negro flying. This is when the story of Sugar Lips Shinehot gets sadder, sweeter, and lethally fanciful.

Sugar’s not the only one of Touré’s characters to take wing in these vivid urban folktales. During a Sunday sermon at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls, the Right Revren Daddy Love gets to floating above his pulpit, which unhappily turns out to have been built atop a rancid pool of extra-strength frying oil. Then there’s Negritude College’s hoop star Falcon Malone in “Falcon Malone Can Fly No Mo.” He of the hoodoo-blessed Nikes loses his mojo to a similarly gifted player in a Soul City playground shootout.

Quite a few of The Portable Promised Land‘s citizens reside in Soul City, a sister city to Italo Calvino’s invisible metropolis. In Soul City, the sublime and the ridiculous knock boots. There, Huggy Bear Jackson routinely takes a slow ride in his “pristine money-green 1983 Cadillac Cutlass Supreme custom convertible with gold rims, neon-green lights underneath, and a post-state-of-the-art Harmon Kardon system with sixteen speakers, wireless remote, thirty-disc changer, and the clearest sound imaginable.” So what if this ride clocks a molasses 15 mph. In “The Steviewondermobile,” the soundtrack is more important than making tracks. When his car stalls, does Huggy rethink his priorities? “Did he know,” wonders the narrator, “that if the backup battery was connected to the electrical system instead of the sound system that he could’ve kept on driving? Sure he did.”

The stories here—with their flip-o’-the-script comeuppances and Technicolor folly—could be called morality tales. Except judgment and superiority get tossed on their butts by the vibrant, the messy, the absurd. Not that the author’s wry fondness for his characters stops him from wrestling with their contradictions. And nowhere is this more affecting than in his story-cycle about the Black Widow, a revolutionary MC straight outta . . .

When first we meet the Black Widow, née Isis Jackson, her 32-track debut album, You Are Who You Kill, is set to break out. She totes a pink Uzi she calls Lil’ Sis. She’s buffered by gal pals who’d dethrone a queen bee in a nanosecond. She drops this bit of wisdom on the magazine scribe profiling her: “There is only one antidote for white supremacy. It is a bullet, delivered swiftly to the cranium. The higher the caliber, the more effective the treatment.” Is she for show or for real? A Black revolution incarnate or a brilliant and deadly strutting of bad faith? The interviewer may not be skeptical enough, but for his inventor this is a familiar quandary. Touré, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, likely knows a thing or two about the tussle between performance and authenticity when profiling a celebrity.

Still, in the darker tales of the Black Widow as in the brighter vignettes, Touré is in no rush to resolve the existential tangles of his characters. Grasping identity—Isis Jackson’s, or for that matter, hip-hop’s—is a layered operation. If there’s a moral to be had, it would go a little something like this: You could peel this onion just enough to think the sis’s message reeks. You could carve it a bit more to know it stings. Or, as Touré does: You could keep working it until it makes you cry for the pain that the contradictions of race can cause for the tender among us.


The Largesse of Zora Neale Hurston

We are in a state of perpetual discovery about Zora Neale Hurston. For years her novels lay dormant, her grave unmarked, her birthdate unknown, her papers languishing in basements. Her patron was domineering, and a primitivist. Hurston’s old age, when it came, was unsupported. She died poor in Florida, in 1960.

What we save shapes our recollection. Relics of our national memory are housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a most holy burial place. Hurston’s unpublished folklore manuscript lingered for 30 years in a basement at Columbia University in a file that once belonged to anthropologist William Duncan Strong. The files were then moved to the Smithsonian, where they waited another 20 years to be discovered. In 1998, the Zora Neale Hurston estate announced that the manuscript had been found. It was published in book form earlier this year.

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro FolkTales From the Gulf States (HarperCollins) is the lost manuscript, a collection of folktales from Hurston’s research in the late 1920s, in the Gulf States. The collected stories include”God Tales,” “Preacher Tales,” “John and Massa Tales,” and “Talking Animal Tales.” They all involve the Negro’s often humorous quest for survival against the plagues of insects, heat, holy order, and white people in the swamplands of the American South.

Hurston spent her life preserving the culture Negroes made in America. In Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography, and in Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most acclaimed novel, Hurston wrote about travails similar to those in the folktales, but her more personal books are infused with wide-armed treatises on love. The folktales in Hurston’s new book sport symbols and morals and worlds fully invented: God sometimes walks the earth, wearing tattered pants and boots.

The oral character of Negro culture was waning in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as was its romance with the name “Negro.” Every able head leaned forward trying to master American letters, so great, grand, and until then, hoarded, kept away. The stories we told each other, shaped and seasoned across creeks and rivers, repeated and retold to every chick and child, were getting shunted, disavowed, disregarded. Going the way of the slave shack. In Every Tongue Got to Confess, we hear stories about knowledge and possession, God and the devil, and the teachings of gnats and mosquitoes.

Folklore is inside knowledge. There’s no absence of secrets, of wisdom, of warning, in the folktale. The more you make yourself present and open to folklore as an art form, the deeper an immersion you allow yourself to take, the easier it becomes to perceive what folktales have to tell. Hurston often spoke about studying “the Negro farthest down.” Perhaps she chose those words because she understood that the oral tradition was fading, that in time the remains would be thinned to invisible. A certain posterity evolved through Hurston’s ink.

Hurston, maybe more than any other 20th-century author, wrote in Ebonics before it was so called, often resulting in criticism by her contemporaries. Stories Hurston collected for Every Tongue offer a perspective on the Negro’s predicament in a changing world: “I seen a railroad so crooked till de fireman be throwing coal in de headlight instead of de fire-box.” Her publications were peppered with “black speech”—odd spellings, oral syntax not adjusted for the formal written text; the author rightly perceived that the “errors” matched her genre.

The peak attribute of folklore as genre involves its “mega-meaning.” Zora Neale Hurston did not miss this reality in the way that the Ebonics debate seemed to. The purpose of black speech was often to say one thing and simultaneously mean something else, or something more. The purpose of altered syntax, symbolic storytelling, and the use of fable allows me to say, “The porch couldn’t talk for looking,” and mean that the sight before people stunned them. Some shock is beyond comment.

Folklore has been prayed over and prayed into. And this work of devotion and distillation turns the stories into fables—all about the moral order, all about, well, God. In the section “God Tales” Hurston presents a story of creation, where God, who gave man greater strength, is one-upped by the devil, who gave woman three keys: to the bedroom, the cradle, and the kitchen. And so, power was redistributed. The god stories are all about power and re-creation.

Because Hurston invoked religion, which has three sons—civics, speech, and everybody’s secrets—she landscaped posterity based on the language of spoken word. These folktales are once again available to people who relinquished the aural language in favor of the constrained, restrained, suspended written word. What is written automatically predates what is spoken. The present tense is improvised.

Our culture marshaled many forces to erase Hurston. And yet, here we are, 42 years after she passed on so quietly, many of us calling her name. Every Tongue Got to Confess again revives our study of the researcher, writer, and fighter for the record. What attracted me to Hurston in the past remains the same: her uncanny understanding, her dedication to elevating the vernacular, Black English, or—sin of sins—Ebonics, and her refusal to let the spoken word die. Hurston listened to, protected and handled our language with real understanding and true attention to the multiple meanings the dialect supports. That was, and is, the primary point of the English that African Americans came to speak: to be able to say one thing in the face of the culture(s) that oppress(es) us, and simultaneously communicate another meaning among ourselves.

Hurston first came to fame during the Harlem Renaissance, when Negroes were, as Langston Hughes termed it, “in vogue.” In her time, Hurston was as well known in inner circles as Hughes, her competitor and contemporary. Hurston remains an inner circle persona. To those who know (of) her, Hurston is worthy of holy words. Those who don’t know (of) her suffer from a lopsided canon. People who haven’t read her work are looked at askance by writers, feminists, word people, Afro-centrists, historians, and cultural studies mavens.

Both Hurston and artist Frida Kahlo have a kind of long-suffering memory fused to a high-drama, high-production personality. Their work and their take on it almost deifies them. Knowledge of Zora and Frida bestows a kind of password, a keen signal of an inside knowledge. Now, parents are naming their children Zora. Her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, holds an annual festival in her honor. She has been the subject of more than a dozen critical studies, and there is The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. Scholarships are given in her name by this foundation, which is dedicated to perpetuating black writing and to supporting black writers. You can call her first name and somebody else who has rediscovered her will, like you, find it incantatory. Zora.

We often talk about visionaries being “before their time.” This is our way of commending them for seeing what they explain. I perceive Hurston as more than avant garde, but also “over their heads.” Hurston researched, defined, and elevated the cultural praxis that others of her time were unable to celebrate. Excepted notably is Langston Hughes, who joined her in the work of defining who was beautiful in a world of ugly slurs.

Zora Neale Hurston and her hip, fringe, bohemian, Harlem Renaissance friends are credited for calling themselves the Niggerati. This play on Italian thrives, or is revived, in inside language today. Using the word “Niggerati” appalled the “Renaissance Fathers,” who Hurston believed merely emulated white bourgeois behavior. For all the references in Randall Kennedy’s recent book on the N-word, he does not cover this important, artistic variation, this play on “literati.” Niggerati—there is humor and playfulness in this swipe at academia, and at the cultural elite.

The only time I ever heard Zora’s voice she was singing. This too was a huge find for me, one that seems befitting. People who, like Hurston, make art realize that there is the lilt and arch of being inventive that can be compared to song. Hurston elevated the ordinary to position it for interpretation, thereby asserting its worth. On the song recording Hurston made, young girls sang accompaniment to a game they played. Hurston recorded them singing, and then recorded her understanding of what she heard. You can hear Hurston pause, the researcher inquiring, awaiting validation, a nod to authenticity. She uncovered and preserved their game. In an oral culture, such a risk of loss, of oblivion, prevails. Hurston recorded without being asked, often without being encouraged.

Hurston filled a void in history as the hole stretched open. Can’t you see her standing with her Barnard-fashioned shovel, holding her hunger for her culture to survive? Heave ho, go away, hole. Hurston sweat as she worked, but sweat wins out. “OK, this is how the song goes,” she said on tape. She sings. I couldn’t really hear—or more precisely, can’t remember—the specific words she sang. But hearing her sing so unexpectedly startled and confounded me, this new mystery. As yet, I haven’t been able to retire the sound of her to any place where we set the unremarked or unremarkable. Hurston sings again.


Another Country

Zora Neale Hurston called what she did wandering—showing up at a place and waiting for something impressive to just happen. The protagonist in Shay Youngblood’s novel Black Girl in Paris is on a similar mission. Eden, a 26-year-old Black girl from Georgia (whose family moved there from Birmingham after four little Black girls were bombed to death), shows up in Paris because of Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, and jazz. She chooses Paris hoping to lay eyes on her “literary godfather,” James Baldwin. She chooses Paris because her wistful aunt always wished she would. She chooses Paris because she wants to be a writer and she needs something impressive to just happen.

Eden’s arrival in 1986 coincides with the heavy bombing Paris endured when Lebanese and other postcolonial revolutionaries were seeking their retribution on France by planting plastic explosives on Parisian buses. The bombs, like Eden’s search for James Baldwin, are meant to be symbolic—of the hostile terrain she must negotiate as a Black woman in the world and of the potential land mines she must sidestep to find her inner voice.

Eden pays her rent day to day in a cheap hotel by working as a nude model for amateur painters, a nanny for an American couple, and as a companion to an eccentric English poet on her deathbed. She asks everyone she meets for an anecdote about Baldwin and hears plenty of tales about “Jimmy,” who stood wherever she is standing only a week or an hour ago. When she ventures to Vence, a small coastal town in the South of France where Baldwin keeps a home, a friend of Baldwin’s, a “feminine young man,” tells her he’s returned to Paris to work on his play The Amen Corner. She meets a semi-interesting cast of bohemians (after Moveable Feast, one’s Parisian bohemian cohorts are bound to pale). She has three casual love affairs—with a professional wanderer old enough to be her deceased father, from whom she learns Paris’s backstreets; and a white horn player from New Orleans from whom she learns jazz. But it is her platonic love affair with a West Indian girl named Luce—a kind of Black-girl Oliver Twist who teaches her to skip out on meals and jimmy her way into apartments—that is most sexy. When they realize their luck has run out they share a last decadence, an afternoon in a Turkish bath. As they lie naked with other women, Eden asks her if she’s ever been with one. “Of course,” Luce replies, ” . . . Maybe I can love you if you want? . . . You make me want to keep a part of you with me always.”

Luce, who is remembered by Eden in one of several episodic, dreamlike adventures, makes the reader wish Youngblood had imagined this complex woman and her ultimately tragic story more fully. For Black Girl, though exceedingly ambitious—the book opens with a passage from Beloved and uses Baldwin as a plot device—never quite breaks out of its travel diary form. Youngblood mixes poetry with recipes, childhood dreams with a step-by-step plan for becoming a good prostitute, but her writing never feels like much more than tourism. As with Hurston it is natural to conclude that these experiences belong to the author, and Youngblood does seem to remember Paris down to its every windowpane. She’s no Walter Benjamin but she works with images of Parisian light, mostly as a symbol of the illuminative effect her experiences have had on her uncertain journey toward becoming a writer. Observations like “in Paris all the houses have eyes that cry each time it rains” make it painfully clear that no transatlantic trip will make her heir to Baldwin’s legacy. She doesn’t listen enough to be a Hurston, and she’s too self-absorbed to tell a story other than her own.

The dialogue in Black Girl is often promising, like Eden’s conversation in the steam room with Luce, but the narrator always cuts it short to retreat into her own thoughts. Eden isn’t willful enough, like Luce, to be truly fascinating. But she can see. As Paris reveals itself, she learns it is no paradise, at least not for a Black girl, no matter how convincing Josephine may have been. Like her mother or aunt 30 years before her, she could have found work as a nanny to white children back in Georgia. She needn’t travel any further than Greenwich Village to pose nude for aspiring painters. In the end it is only her spotty subplot about finding James Baldwin that proves satisfying, because although Paris is a long way to go to lay eyes on the great novelist—who sends her back to her perpetual homelessness with a little light on her path—her trip was absolutely necessary.


Trial by Era

Clarence Darrow defended the big ones— Eugene Debs, Leopold and Loeb, and biology teacher John T. Scopes in the “monkey” trial. In Clarence Darrow Tonight, you can hear his eloquent perorations from these historical cases. But a lesser-known 1952 trial of a black woman accused of murdering a white doctor has, in playwright Thulani Davis’s deft hands, yielded up a complex and provocative drama, Everybody’s Ruby.

Davis tells her story in overlapping layers that richly detail the small-town Florida atmosphere, customs, and racial tensions of the time. Ruby McCollum’s murder of Doc Adams is at the center; trial coverage by the writer Zora Neale Hurston revolves around it.

The literal facts are not in question. Ruby, a stylish black housewife, shoots the politically ambitious, young white doctor at point-blank range. The whys are what the play seeks to unravel. We soon learn that Ruby and the doctor were longtime lovers. Ruby, who is married to Sam, a successful numbers operator, was first raped by the doctor during a medical exam. But their repeated sexual encounters develop into an obsessive mutual passion— and produce a child. Threads of lust, revenge, and greed connect the blacks and the whites who mutually profit from Sam’s gambling operation. The trial is a cartoon of justice and an attempt to suppress the unpalatable truths that everybody knows.

Hurston arrives to cover the story for The Pittsburgh Gazette. A much-published author, she is down on her luck when she shows up in a wartime suit, treasured typewriter in hand. The hostile white citizens ridicule the notion she’s an author; the blacks alternately welcome her or warn her off. Stalled in her reporting, she begs help from a friend, the white reporter William Bradford Huie. The tensions that emerge between white and black, male and female, rich and poor, come in as many shades as the colors of the “black” folks’ skin.

The play is staged as a series of flashbacks or “visions” of Zora’s, which punctuate the more ambling narrative. In the first, Ruby points her pistol, fires, and the doctor falls dead. Backing up, we see Ruby and Doc late one night in an erotic dance of daring and desire. Later, the doctor taunts Sam one time too many, and the abused husband catches him in a stranglehold and presses a knife to his balls. Heart-stopping stuff.

Interpreting Davis’s intuitive and eloquent script, Viola Davis gives a searing performance as Ruby, defiant, intelligent, smoldering with a passion she knows is destructive yet is helpless to escape. She is equally persuasive in her terror at the doctor’s initial rape as in the fatal pull toward him: “When he spoke to me, I could feel his breath on my eyelids. . . . It made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.”

Zora is also a character of subtlety and dimension, played by Phylicia Rashad with earthy warmth, wisdom, and self-deprecating humor. But Davis does not flesh Hurston or her story out enough for us to understand the drama of the writer’s descent into poverty and obscurity. A scene late in the play where convicted murderer and “has-been” writer bond over their dismal fate as black women just misses, although there is a touching tenderness to it.

The play’s dramatic tension ebbs and flows, but Everybody’s Ruby is never lacking in interest. Davis provides a satisfying variety of secondary characters who depict the many nuances of the town’s social structure. There is the gushing black librarian Beau (Bryan Webster), the weasly white deputy sheriff Barkley (Raynor Scheine), the autocratic white Judge (Bernie McInerney), and the saucy black waitress (Crystal Fox), among others. The performances are uniformly good in roles small and large. Beau Gravitte’s Doc Adams simmers with sensual heat and recklessness, and Bill Nunn’s stolid, dignified Sam breaks out in a frightening rage. Tuck Milligan’s rough-edged Huie makes a perfect impervious foil to Rashad’s sensitive Hurston.

From evocative semidarkness, drenching rain, and blistering thunder, to foot-tapping blues music, director Kenny Leon’s production works the atmosphere for all its worth. Though the play’s weather is occasionally tepid, it sizzles whenever Leon stages one of its visceral love-triangle scenes.

Unfortunately, there’s not much dramatic heat in Clarence Darrow Tonight, although Laurence Luckinbill does work up a sweat as the old crusader retailing his war stories for a fee. Ambling down the aisle, hands in pockets, flirting with the old ladies in the audience, Luckinbill, who also wrote and staged this one-man show, tells Darrow’s story, summarizes the great cases, and delivers what sound like the legendary orator’s actual speeches. Hamming it up mightily, he rails against capital punishment and capitalism. There are dramatic pauses, signals to
applaud— a lackluster performance of a pedestrian script. The actor begins with a question: “You here for entertainment or edification?” The audience the night I saw Darrow obviously felt they got a little of both, and that was enough for them. As for me, I was hoping for a play.


Looking Blackward

Walking on Water was culled from a heroic enterprise: the author’s six-year crisscrossing of these United States in search of the meaning of Blackness today. What It Doth Feel Like Being Black Right Now. Randall Kenan’s interviewees (born from 1910 to the 1980s) represent African American identity’s evolution from a period to an exclamation point to a question mark— that historical movement from the Jim Crow Era to the Black Is Beautiful Era to the present, perhaps best described as The Nigga
Realness Era, where one’s ethnic legitimacy is determined by psychic and physical proximity to all my peoples in the projects.

Hiphop and Black youth culture are noticeable by their absence in Kenan’s book, as they generally are whenever middle-class Black people get serious about the condition our condition is in. Kenan purports to wonder whether “television and technology and expansion robbed black culture of any inherent meaning.” Since hiphop represents Black culture throwing that taxonomy of globalization back in whitey’s face, how can any Black thinker try and sweep it under the rug? When even Time magazine acknowledges that hiphop culture is changing the way We Live and that “we” ain’t referring to you and me, how can Black intellectuals continue to act like hiphop can still be reduced to That Rap Shit The Kids Like?

My hiphop issues aside, Walking contains hell-a-material that is fascinating, maddening, illuminating, and revelatory. Some of
Kenan’s target sites alone function like epiphanies. Besides the usual suspects— Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles— we are also treated to such unknown oases of New World Afrikan flava as Burlington, Vermont; Bangor, Maine; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Maidstone, Saskatchewan; and Anchorage, Alaska.

It is in such assumedly race-barren outposts that Kenan encounters his most striking subjects. Folk who might best be described as Ralph Ellison’s people, that genus of self-starting, self-sufficient, race-minded African Americans who never believed in asking white people for nothin’, were raised to believe they could do anything, took no guff, and generally excelled in whatever their chosen profession was with the understanding that to get half as far in life as a white man they’d have to be three times better qualified.

The subjects of Kenan’s book therefore weigh in more from the Talented Tenth side of the culture than from the proletariat quarters. Partly this is due to a mandate the author adopted from Zora Neale Hurston— documenting the forgotten middle of the race over the parade of petty criminals and sucker MCs that mainstream media generally flashes across the screen— partly this is due to the author’s own angst about not being Black enough. In one vulnerable anecdote he relates being dissed online for not being a real nigga after hand-wringing over his lack of skills on the basketball court. It’s enough to tell you how deep his approach-avoidance issues are with real-life Negroes who might lay the same charge on him.

There are some riveting volleys of the Black shuttlecock dialectically tossed throughout Walking‘s pages, though. On the subject of Are We an African or an American People, for example, Walking contrasts cultural nationalist John Tucker with Edward Gordon, a historian of the Black West, and the Irvins, a married couple from Oakland. Tucker’s a return-to-Africa advocate, Gordon felt anything but African while he was there, while the Irvins, after an academic year in Ghana, cried upon leaving. There’s
also the cases of two Anchorage teens: Eugene Helfin adroitly details how he resolved his identity crisis over whether it was blacker to be a petty criminal or aspire to state senatehood, and the unnamed young man of mixed parentage, living in Burlington, elides his racial identity crisis with a mohawk and a cello.

Perhaps the most poetic, poignant, Ellison-ian, and ironic of Kenan’s experiences involves his incredulous encounter with a man in Burlington named Jack Guilles, who claimed to be Black.

He kept talking, but I had stopped listening, latching onto that word: us: looking at his unmistakably yellow hair and reddish white translucent skin and profoundly Teutonic features; he could have been a Viking. . . . If I had closed my eyes I would have sworn he was as dark as I.
. . . Was Jack black?

Kenan is savvy enough to know the liquid and mercurial nature of Black identity makes his a fool’s task and his self-mocking epiphanies throughout, when his own blackness, masculinity, and machismo rear up or are threatened, lend the book some of the psychological dimension you’d expect from a novelist. Yet there is a disembodied quality to Kenan’s reporting that is to some degree a matter of his real-nigga anxieties and to a larger degree a reflection of the problem serious Black writers face now in being able to construct compelling narratives about Black consciousness, Black struggle, and Black alienation, be they essayists or fiction writers. There is a chasm between Great Literature about race and Good Writing on the subject that Kenan never crosses in the manner of a James Weldon Johnson,
Du Bois, Ellison, Baldwin, Hurston, Walker, Morrison— a gulf requiring the writer’s race obsessions and obsession with language to result in work that makes those obsessions our obsessions and their language our racial lingua franca. Walking is not epochal, then, and mainly because the author undershot the zeitgeist, musically, metaphysically, and existentially. Therein lies the rub— Walking is good on what some isolated Black people feel about being Black now, but less informative on what it feels like being a Puffy Combs, an Allan Iverson, or a Randall Kenan right now.


Kenan is a formidable reporter and portraitist, but far less engaging or fully engaged when he speaks as a race philosopher. Frequently when life throws him a racialized American curveball, especially in the realm of relationships and intimacy, he appears flat-footed, a mute witness to that hard knot of twine gone flying over his head. When, for example, Kenan touches on the touchy subject of a male versus female maturity and accountability crisis in our communities via a conversation with one Edith Jackson of Las Vegas, a literacy tutor and mother of three, he incomprehensibly retreats from giving us his opinions on the topic—
instead recalling his sinus headache that day— after she drops a heavy load on him:

As far as she was concerned black men no longer advocated for black women— regardless of their status. Whether they were Colin Powell, the president of the NAACP, school principals, bankers, doctors, lawyers, ditchdiggers— she never saw them standing up for the black woman. “They don’t have a commitment to my plight or my community or my children. I have to do everything, the feeding, the earning, the advocating. That leaves me in a quandary.’

Deeper still, this woman is in a relationship with a young Black man she calls an “experiment,” not just because he is a former gangbanger studying sociology, but because she wanted to see if she could manage her issues with Black men enough to sustain a nurturing relationship with him.

Novelists would commit murder for material this juicy and topical, but Kenan presents it without exploring what that bizarre domestic contract says about what it is to be black
and in a relationship today. Again and again, Kenan seems to have asked pro forma questions about racism and race-consciousness more appropriate to the ’60s and ’70s than now, blind to the issues that distinguish the racial present from the racial past— not just hiphop but Black Feminism, and sexual politics of other kinds as well.

Walking on Water is both fascinating and dull-edged at the same time because as preoccupied as Kenan is with race, he seems remarkably, if not disingenuously, disinterested in its constant historical companion, sex— not just his own feelings on the subject but anybody’s.

My mother believes that the most important thing you can know about another Black person is “Who are her or his people?” Kenan is very forthcoming on his small-town southern roots, his education at Chapel Hill, but repressively modest about his own life as a New York intellectual. To be honest, Kenan is so reserved on the subject of intimacy that I, typically enough for a Voice writer, began to wonder whether he was either asexual, closeted,
prudish— something. Kenan, who greatly admires the work of Prince and Isaac Julien, Star Trek (because it presented a future free of racism and diseases), and everything about New Orleans, certainly seems to lead a more multifarious life in mind, body, and soul than that of the indefatigable and reserved gentleman race reporter he gives us in Walking.

For middle-class Black intellectuals the racial present is probably best defined by what we do with our leisure time, what we think about when we’re not thinking about race, and how well we’re paid for representing the race these days. Our sexual, spiritual, and family lives, our relationship to therapy and healing, are also primary focuses. As Kenan never goes interpersonal excepting one college friendship, the “I” echoing through his sentences strikes one as faint and hollow, making for an oddly bloodless book about bloods. Kenan’s writing never provides the sense of a spiritual and emotional connection to the race issues he explores, instead imparting a sense of his soul running deeper in the rivers less traveled. From this angle the book’s title begs to be read as self-
critique, an admission of skimming on surfaces posing as a drag of the muddy bottom.

As a paddle into the heart of Black American darkness Walking is something of a fizzle if only because Kenan doesn’t seem to have come back with more than some amazing snapshots from the diasporic heartland. The author’s mandate to search for the Everyman from Zora Neale Hurston is an honorable pursuit: working Black folks bent on raising their families and putting in the overtime to pay the costs are nearly invisible in the media. But the virtual absence of voices from the lower frequencies also creates an imbalance on the side of the bootstrap stories. It means that once again so-called poor Black folk are spoken about rather than being allowed to tell their own stories and strivings within the context of a diverse Black America à la the great Ellison model.


What Kenan does provide us with is an invitation into the hearts, minds, and homes of some rather remarkable citizens of the republic, who don’t just happen to be people of African descent. In their geographic dispersal and isolation they remind us of how psychically connected all African Americans remain, and of how alien and alienated our lives in this land continue to be.


Trial and Era

You can hardly compress a life into a two-hour play. One as rich with highs and lows as that of anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston— her trajectory from the backwoods to the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance, then to slander and obscurity— doesn’t really lend itself to abbreviation. Yet American Place Theatre’s revival of Laurence Holder’s Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography, riding on the charm of Elizabeth Van Dyke as Hurston, sidesteps these limits with sass and verve. Holder’s attitudinal script, coupled with Van Dyke’s revival-meeting performance, manages to capture a spirit something akin to Hurston’s own combination of smarts and cornpone.

Hurston could be the poster child for the controversies that wracked the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. An ambitious girl born in the Black-governed town of Eatonville, Florida, she brought with her to Harlem high society a steely confidence in the literary merit of African American folklore. At first praised, she was eventually disparaged by the mostly male writers she famously referred to as the “niggerati.” Her tenacity was unpopular among those who believed, like W.E.B. Du Bois, that the Negro was better served by Talented Tenth propaganda than earthy depictions of country life. In the face of such adversity, Hurston still produced four novels and numerous short stories. Later, she was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy, a false charge from which her career never recovered. After a stroke, she was confined to a Florida nursing home. She died penniless in 1960.

Hurston is not Patti LaBelle, but don’t tell Van Dyke, who portrays the writer as a nearly contemporary soul sister. That Hurston and Langston Hughes would be caught dead doing a shuffle step and chanting “We are Negroes!” at an awards dinner, for example, seems Disneyfied. But just when you think that Holder has flattened Hurston’s struggle into an uplifting tale of finger-wagging spunk, he lets the facts speak for themselves. Hurston may strut around the stage, and cry out for separatism, but her character’s opportunistic streak— a search for patronage from rich whites, for example— brings her right back down to earth, where even the most politically infallible Negroes still have to eat.

The racist caricatures sued by a buppie in The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae make an even greater leap from ignominy to righteousness than Hurston, but a far less believable or welcome one. This extended skit concerns a lawsuit brought by a businesswoman who claims that images of the two defendants have ruined her career. The two stereotypes, child-rearing loyal matron and slave-quarter seductress, are called to the witness stand by two female lawyers, one in a suit, the other in a suit and a head wrap. After much stumbling over her lines, the one in the head wrap gets the evil buppie who has forgotten her history to drop the case, having convinced her that— Lordy!— these stereotypes aren’t real representations of women’s lives. The buppie then sees the light of negritude, and lifts her flaxen wig to reveal the Cornrows of Righteousness as everyone recites a litany of slave-ship names.

Much is made in identity politics about the power of negative media images. But, like this play, that view usually fails to take into account the low number of people— especially blacks— who blindly accept what the media shows them. Despite a few amusing moments, Marcia L. Leslie might as well have written a play telling Negroes not to trust the police.