The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters
by Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar
Reviewed by John Pistelli
For those educated in the last several decades, a number of figures and texts once marginalized on the basis of race and gender have entered consciousness as themselves canonical -- or, in other words, as required reading. In American arts and letters, the works of the Harlem Renaissance hold pride of place among the new classics of an expanded canon. But that 1920s artistic flowering, now secure in its place on syllabi and in museums, has undergone the baleful paradox of canonical survival: like Shakespeare or Mozart, its key figures may be assigned more than read, venerated rather than understood. This collection of scholarly essays edited by Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar aims to rescue the Harlem Renaissance from this frozen appreciation by recalling the era and its men and women in all their particularity and contradictions -- what Ogbar labels the period's "promise, anger, and cynicism."
Ogbar's book offers essays in and across a number of disciplines, from social history and humanistic geography to film studies and music criticism. Like so many "revisitations" of canonical epochs, the authors tend to want to get behind the familiar classics in search of either rarer works or a broader context. The latter goal is most readily achieved here by Jacob S. Dorman, whose essay provides the needed Marxist reminder that most labor in 1920s Harlem was not abstract (i.e., broadly cultural) but everyday -- often physical or manual -- and that the neighborhood's "hegemonic social standards," administered by its wealth-owning middle classes rather than by bohemian poets and jazz musicians, were accordingly bourgeois through and through. In other words, Harlem may have endured racial marginalization and produced a great artistic rebellion, but it was run on predictable class lines. Jacqueline C. Jones's piece on the lavish celebrity wedding of poet Countee Cullen to W. E. B. DuBois's daughter wittily varies this point by showing Harlem's intellectual and artistic vanguard at play as a true cultural elite.
Essays on individual figures and episodes -- of which there are too many in Ogbar's book to discuss in this review -- tend on the whole to be more celebratory. The irrepressible Zora Neale Hurston figures in two pieces. Monica Gonzalez Caldeiro first reintroduces Hurston as a playwright hard at work to gain legitimacy for black culture on the stage; Hurston is then reframed, along with Claude McKay, as a pioneering artist of diaspora and post-colonialism by Myriam J. A. Chancy. Ousmane Kirumu Power-Greene recovers the forgotten literary critic Hubert H. Harrison, while Claire Oberon Garcia suggests that the prolific novelist and essayist Jessie Redmon Fauset should be re-read for the challenge she poses to our own thought: "Could it be we, the readers, who are stuck in our own conventions of understanding 'feminism,' 'modernism,' and liberation writing rather than Fauset herself?" This self-questioning strikes me as a more productive critical approach than the debunking that cultural icons sometimes understandably call forth.
The volume's final and most entertaining essay balances criticism and empathy in equal measure. In "Harlem Globe-Trotters," Maxim Matusevich charts the ultimately doomed romance between African-American intellectuals and the young Soviet Union. Matusevich remains clear-headed about the Soviet government's propagandistic use of anti-racism, as well as the real horrors that beset the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, but he also succeeds in evoking Communism's promise, especially for Jim Crow America's black citizens, of "a new type of state...ostensibly founded on egalitarian principles of class unity and an ideology opposed to Western racism." Perhaps the most moving essay collected here, Shawn Anthony Christian's "Between Black Gay Men," argues for the continuing necessity of such visionary hopes, even if past or present reality can be shown to fall short of them. Christian explores Rodney Evans's Brother to Brother, a fictional film about real-life Harlem writer Richard Bruce Nugent's late friendship with gay youths in the 1980s. Brother to Brother, in Christian's account, illustrates the inevitability of nostalgia: "We project an ideal that is not being experienced now into the past that is the Harlem Renaissance."
So it is with canons, and no less with the Harlem canon: they always exclude somebody, and usually occlude the labor that went into their making, but even so, when properly read, the works they organize stand up in their splendor to rebuke the present. The Harlem Renaissance Revisited offers a rich and various account of how we might go into the future from that partially but unavoidably reimagined past.