-Sukla Basu Sen
This paper wishes to investigate whether readings from history shall support the thesis that it is World war I or the Great War as it was primarily known, the ‘war to end all wars,’ that created the New Negro consciousness, leading up to the Harlem Renaissance dating from 1919 to 1940. Such an argument, of course, is made of a number of simple assumptions but which together make for a compound idea, that of the rise of the New Negro with his new found belief in his own ability to carve out the identity of its mental and spiritual hinterland, the ‘nation within a nation’ chronotaope. It may also be argued that the ‘lost generation’ of Gertrude Stein and Scott-Fitzgerald was, in fact, for the African Americans, the generation that ‘found’ itself as the “New Negro” of Alain Locke and others, who likewise believed in the age’s powers to regenerate itself. “For the younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology; the new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of of contemporary Negro life” (Locke 984).
All over the world, and especially in America, World War i was perceived as a blot on “white” civilization and its civilizing discourses, of rationality and progress, for example. Black people had enlisted for the war and after their return they chafed at the constraints of social behaviour that white people insisted on in their relations with people of colour. After battling for a war that wished to make the world free for democracy, the war veterans returned to Jim Crow laws, but this time they were ready to battle it too. It is not surprising to learn that Black political ideology was behind the Black participation in the war. In the summer of 1918, the year of America’s entry into the European war, appeared a controversial editorial in the Crisis, the monthly journal of the NAACP, in which W.E.B. Du Bois, editor and the country’s spokesman for equal rights, advised Black people to “Close Ranks”, and stop agitation for equality for the duration of the War. “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy,” he wrote (qtd. In Jordan). This sounds to our ears very much like Gandhi’s advocacy of unconditional cooperation with the British during the Second World War, even in the midst of the Non-Cooperation movement as the British were fighting against the Nazi totalitarianism of Germany. British Indian soldiers, of course participated in large numbers and earned distinction in battle. Similarly, we have ample proof that the African American soldier was much respected on the soil of Europe, especially France, which already had proved to be sympathetic to coloured causes. In The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro by Mark Whalan argues that the war empowered the African American “with a sense of masculinity and cosmopolitanism that set the stage for the New Negro movement, and explains that this particular cultural narrative has been largely excluded from the studies of modernism and the war…” (Davis 234).
The black press responded to the dilemma in various ways. Some newspapermen like P.B. Young followed Du Bois’s policy while most criticised American racism while strongly supporting the war. At the crisis its editor not only faced military censors, but an internal NAACP committee as as well. More significant, most in the community implicitly followed Dubois’s injunctions to show their loyalty during the war. Also, after the armistice, Tuskgee principal Robert Moton travelled to France to advise Black soldiers to keep a low profile after their return home. However, Du Bois, who learned in France that Black soldiers and officers were systematically degraded and discriminated against by the White officers with whom they had closed ranks, fuelled the growing militancy in spring 1919 when he called on soldiers to “return fighting” from the war. He had now seen that his earlier shift towards accommodation had not brought about the desired result and he changed tactics.
Great War veterans have been earlier regarded as history’s unsung heroes, but in recent years writers like Chad Williams, Adrienne Lentz-Smith and Mark Whalan and others try to focus on the role of such men in the cultural stories of America. For Williams, the sacrifices of the African American soldier, his tenacity, his fortitude showed the way to ordinary men how to cope with the worsening Jim Crow laws. The Black veteran also represented the African American’s willingness to embrace militancy as a means of protest. Again, even before America embraced war the idea of the soldier had inspired Black journalists and writers to advance the idea that Black men’s military contributions would finally convince the White man of his Black brothers’ worth and engage them in an effort to grant full civil rights to the sable race. Black intellectuals also warned the white supremacists of the danger lurking for them if the Black man’s prowess was not acknowledged and rewarded, for then the Black soldier would turn his deadly training against the Southeners behind the Mason-Dixon line in order to defend his community. Williams is set on charting the obstacles African American soldiers found in travelling from Paris, Texas to Paris, France and how he never fully believed that Europe’s imperial war had much to do with him and along with the average American propagated a cautious isolation. But led by DuBois and other Black intellectuals , African American intelligentsia promised war for democracy abroad in the hope that it would help America ensure democracy at home after realizing the race’s merit. Like othe younger European men they fought for the ideals of manly valour and the women girded up to be white cross nurses, YWCA workers ans Red Cross volunteers. They wished to resolve conflicts at home with their heroic acts of self-sacrifice. Lentz-Smith in her Freedom Struggles weaves her way through biographies and events to locate these in the great vortex of happenings – the Great War. Responding to the Houston riots of 1917. Black women and men repeated their new resoluteness in various , often spectacula rways in Washington D.C. and Chicago. Houston’s racial interfaces prodded the African American’s determination to obtain full manhood and citizenship rights during the Great War years. According to Whalan, the age’s frustrations and thwarted idealisms were relived in Black art and literaure. In the works of Neila Larsen, Walter White and Jesse Fause can be found the age’s defining principlesr. “ Within the pages of the Harlem Renaissance’s great works stood the black soldier:impetuous, isolated, seething, disillusioned, desired, dejected, disappointed, romanticized, rejected, docile, dangerous. But ALWAYS there.” (Mathieu 414) Whalan seems to demonstrate that the African American veteran became a towering figure whose experiences in war was the cause of a new martial standard in the annals of black heroism. Whalan perhaps makes the most provocative point concerning the African American memory of the Great War. He traces the recurring notion in African American literature that the Unknown Soldier buried at Arlington Cemetery could be Black. “This struggle to remember” he claims, “against a ‘dormant memory’ that was often a hegemonic, racially strategic forgetfulness on the the part of the nation was, of course, part of the much bigger question of how and whether African American history and contributions to the making of the United States would be recognised and recorded.”(Whalan 194)
Geophysically too, the Great War contributed to the Great migration of black people in the southern United States to cities in the north, specially New York and Chicago where new opportunities could be had of work and education. A relocation of cultural spaces and foci took place as new publishing firms (that had burst upon the scene since the inception of the War) turned to new kinds of literatures. Many of these were founded by Jews who favoured writing by African Americans. Black music in the form of the Blues and Jazz found popularity in the music halls and bars, often catering to the national demand for masculinity in sound in keeping with the heroism expected of the soldiers, both Black and White , who were fighting in France an international war for the ideals which America professed to be its own from the time of the Revolution. The new recording industry, too, played its part in this re-collecting of the the Negro spirit that appealed across lines of race, class, region and nation. Young Black authors were published in new Black periodicals. White liberals and radicals began to be interested in Black writers as never before while Black organisations like the NAACP and the National Urban League featured Black writing and art in their own magazines an d often held great balls and literary banquets for mixed crowds. The War on foreign soil came as a boon to inland inmates whose consciousness seemed to be jolted into hyper activity by the Black presence of America in Europe. By the early to mid-thirties , all the glitter went out of the movement , what with the Depression and the end of Prohibition (which had fostered so much of the life at the night-clubs), and critics, the greatest being Richard Wright (with his “ Blueprint for Negro Writing”), identifying certain naive assumptions of the Black artist and wishing to show what the modernist Black writer could do with his own legacy, decried the ‘ideology’ that had inspired the movement.Yet much later writing could really free it self of the various strains of the Renaissance as they thought they were doing from the end of the third decade of their century.
In the immediate aftermath of the War, the term New Negro denoted angry self-defense against White supremacy, intellectual ambitions and political radicalism. With the publication of Alain Locke’s The New Negro, the term came to mean an affirmation of Black cultural identity which was to be found in poetry, fiction, drama and the other arts. But before it came the reification of the idea of citizenship in America. The Great Migration of the War years was an achievement of the Black people’s “right” of federal citizenship, a “right” denied to them (the free Negroes, that is) earlier, in the nineteenth century. One outcome of the exercise of the right to move during World War I was that, by migrating north, African Americans entered urban and industrial voting districts that were signifiers of the future of America. Thus the line of action of the post-war Negro was a directness, forthrightness and uprightness of the confrontational men and women willing to demand rights. This was characterised by the spirit of “self-determination” and made the demographic movement revolutionary in look and nature. For Locke , there were two New Negroes – one, the poor peasant masses changing the geographic map of American citizenship, and two, the young writers reflecting their aspirations in literature. Harlem acted as a crucible – the uneducated migrant and the writers were sequestered in ghettos and the sense that they were there in the same place because of race, increased the bonding between the two intellectual classes. “By linking middle-class black writers to the agency of the black working class, Locke defined the New Negro as a metaphor that structured a set of oppositions and allowed a mixture if not a synthesis of divergent perspectives as well as personalities. (Stewart 16) According to him, the Black artist was a cultural translator, who worked on the segregated reality of Black life and turned it into a unique American art. For Locke race it was the creative space in American culture.
McKay wrote in”If We Must Die”:
“If we must die, letit not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an unglorious spot…
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain” (1919)
And in “America”:
“Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth” (1921)
Locke found revolutionary ideals in the migrating Black masses because they had stopped forcing their way into an uncongenial South, and gone deep into their selves, into the Black experience, where they found a folk culture, self –respect, and an inspiring vision of what they should do. Also, Black immigrants from the South, other parts of New York, other parts of the world, had established in Harlem a community that nurtured a new modernist culture, folk and individualistic, at once naive and sophisticated ,that educated White people wanted to copy, to assimilate and market as the”new American Culture of the twentieth century.” ( Cambridge Companion p. 17) New Negro writers included the folk and funky cultures of people arriving in Harlem in their Black modernism. Works of poetry and fiction foregrounded the Black poor as America’s culture bearers, such writing also announced the arrival of a new kind of educated American subject who had assimilated both the culture of the masses and the culture of a universal modernism. New negroes were complex personalities and never racial identities.They were also equal to the White intellectuals who tried to influence them. They were inspired by the new anthropological theories of Franz. Boas Locke influenced Boas’ prodigy, Melville Herskovits ,whose groundbreaking history,The Myth of the Negro Past , changed the world’s assessment of African survivals in the United States. Langston Hughes influenced Carl Von Vecten’s understanding of Negro spirituals, while he was at the same time, lyricist, playwright, fiction writer and one of the finest thinkers of the age.
The New Negro, inspite of being thought as a male iconic figure, did also comprise women, gay and lesbian intellectuals who were sometimes outpaced by the Black, male oligarchy. Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Anne Spencer created a new poetry of love, intimacy, and maternal sacrifice that crafted together metaphors of Black women’s experience in America. Though much of it was to go undiscovered and unpublished till the end of the century it goes to show that that although White and mainstream publishers passed these by, the women had continued undeterred, writing straight from the heart.
A short poem by Spencer,talks about Paul Lawrence Dunbar, whose Lyrics of Low Life was published in 1896:
Ah, how poets sing and die!
Make one song and Heaven takes it;
Have one heart and Beauty breaks it;
Chatterton, Shelley , Keats and I –
Ah, how poets sing and die. (Spencer 972)
To be new Negro meant at least these things: To live in the present with echoes of the past, of records of criminality, and silent evidences of repressed community life with a consciousness not necessarily reflected in the thoughts of the general american public. It meant also that in the 1920s there was another kind of citizenship, a feeling of at-homeness, located in a large Black urban space that could also accommodate feminist and homosexual identities in a way that was far advanced in its multi-culturalism than other parts of the country, in a way that was resistant of total Americanism but also gender bias and homophobia within the black community.
In the 1930s this would be partially replaced by the Direct Action initiated by young intellectuals at Howard University and elsewhere who challenged the segregationist policies and discrimination in employment in Washington. This had the effect of redefining the New Negro as an activist,willing to picket, to boycott and undergo incarceration in order to force the A&P Stores to employ Black workers. Their campaign line “Dont Buy Where YouCan’t Work” was a radical approach signifying that black communities were served by White corporations and businsses dependent on Black consumers in a Fordist economy.(Ford and other capitalists had opened their factories to Black workers in the 1910s and thus facilitated the the movement of hundreds and thousands of Black Southern workers and their families to the North during the Great Migration)
Perhaps Paul Robeson in the 1930s best unified the two aspects of New Negroism – he was both a cultural citizen and a political rebel. Both in the US and in England and Europe he was able to , as singer and actor, transform himself from the “New Negro as a racialised subject to the new negro as global citizen”(Steuart 22).
The war had brought in, on a grander scale an upsurge of nationalistic propaganda that was on the same wavelength with the Harlem movement. Although the African Americans’ exclusion from the domestic programmes of cultural pluralism greatly disillusioned the post war leading black intellectuals,Waldo Frank and Jean Toomer still believed in America’s unique post-war position to make possible a dream of integration.
“As Cane demonstrates, Toomer was fascinated by Black preindustrial culture in the South, the work songs that set the tempo for the field labour and the spirituals that testified to the emancipatory yearnings – both physical and metaphorical – of an enslavedpeople. Along with many other authors and anthropologists in the 1920s, he was attracted to how these forms relied in improvisations and interpretation, in contrast to the increasingly standardised and schematized consumer economy driving both the post-war economic boom and the great migration.” (Whalan, Cambridge Companion 73)
In Our America (1919) Frank followed Van Wyck Brooks’ lead in in seeing America’s degenerating moral values in the “Pioneer” and “Puritan” mentality of privileging material gain over spiritual connection. Frank saw this legacy as being racialized, the outcome of an Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Along with Edward Sapir, Frank felt lessons could be learnt from what they perceived to be, more culturally and spiritually rich and complex ways of life in North America, especially from the Native American tribes and their interactions with the Spanish, which had been buried by Anglo-Saxon cultutural dominance. Frank hoped that such explorations could effect a revolution in a way that was similar to that which had taken place in Europe. Frank and Toomer’s literary comradeship is a proof great comradely activity during the Renaissance, as it led to Frank’s introduction to the African American culture of the rural South and Frank’s introduction of Toomer to the publishers Boni and Liveright and other connections to the White avant-garde.
Jessie Fauset in 1919 became the literary editor of Crisis. She could and did publish most of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Essays and poems by Marita Bonner, Arna Bontemps, Langston hughes and Anne Spencer appeared regularly. In Harlem Fauset and her sister Helen Lanning became popular hosts. Langston Hughes once remarked that at their parties when guests spoke about Florence, they meant Italy and not Alabama. She also ushered the popular Broadway show, Shuffle Along and her social standing was taken as seriously as her novels. It was difficult for a Black woman to be accepted as a serious artist but her essays project her as a person of acute understanding of political issues. She reported on nationalism and Egypt as well as the Convention of the National Association of Colored Women, an activist group of black women reformers. In 1921 she attended the Second Pan-African Congress and shared her impressions with Crisis readers she described the conditions in various parts of Africa and drew broad parallels between the problems of colonialism in Africa and segregation in the United States. In a joint venture with Du Bois, she published The Brownies’ Book, a magazine for children, which had had standards of sophistication in credible for children’s books. The historical features presented as profiles Alexander Dumas, Harriet Tubman, Alexander Pushkin, Benjamin Bannekker and Phllis Wheately. Fauset solicited manuscripts from a list of contributors that seem like a veritable who’s who of the Harlem Renaissance. Weldon Johnson published poetry; Willis Richardson contributed two plays; Hughes was represented by not only his poetry but by an early play, “the Gold Piece”. Neila Larson’s “Scandinavian Games” was first published here. Both Hughes signature poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Toomer’s “Song of the Son” , the central song of Cane , were ‘discovered’ by her. She represents perhaps what Marita bonner writes in “In Being Young – a Woman – and Colored”:
So – being a woman – you can wait.
You must sit quietly without a chip. Not sodden – and weighted as if your feet were cast in the iron of the soul. Not wasting srength in enervating gestures as if two hundred years of bonds and whips had really tricked you into nervous uncertainty.
But quiet; quiet, Like Buddha – who brown like I am – sat entirely at ease, entirely sure of himself; motiomless and knowing…
Motionless on the outside. But on the inside?
Silent Still… “Perhaps Buddha was a woman.”
So you too. (Bonner 1247)
The War can thus be said to have ushered in the Renaissance, with the New Negro man and woman sharing the responsibilities of expressing in creative and discursive writing the first, initial, overwhelming thrust that propelled the new Black identity forward into the not always sympathetic world of White, patriarchal, heterosexual, hegemonic aspirations. The Great War had questioned and challenged the notion of order, both moral and spiritual, entrenched in the West’s idea of itself. Segregation and discrimination had, both between the ‘civileged’ society of European ethnicities and American with its coloured population, the majority of whom had been erstwhile slaves for the better part of three centuries, had bored holes in the ideological foundations of questions of racial superiority/inferiority. With the discovery and explorations of anthropologists cam e the actual, mostly volitional presence of African Americans on the soil of Europe, in France and elsewhere. The militancy evinced in the Black community after the return of the Black war veterans found inevitable expression in literature and culture. The influence of the War was both direct and indirect . It had whipped up a furore in the Black intelligentsia over participation in the actual overseas war. Men and women were exposed to a life beyond their city/state/country walls where the history of White colonisation of Black people could be contextualised by colonisation abroad and internal terrorising of powerless Black masses. I wish to end with lines from a poem by James D. Corrothers written before the Great War (1913) and another by Gwendolyn Bennett written in 1927 to show how events transformed the Old negro into the new Negro – both man and woman – one of the main agents of such change being the Great War,
“At the Closed gates of Justice”
To be a negro on a day like this
Demands forgiveness. Bruised with blow on blow,
Betrayed like him whose dimmed eyes gave bliss,
Still must one succor those who brought one low, To be a Negro in a day like this… (Corrothers 790)
The poem by Bennett is titled “Hatred”, which can be interpreted as being personal or racial.
I shall hate you
Like a dart of singing steel Shot through still air
Memory will lay its hands
Upon your breast
And you will understand
My hatred. (Bennett 1269)
The African Americans had now not only found a new self, but a voice in which to proclaim it.
Bennett ,Gwendolyn. “Hatred.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Junior and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 1269. Print.
Bonner,Marita. “In Being Young – a Woman – and Colored.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Junior and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 1244. Print.
Corrothers, James D. “At the Closed Gate of Justice.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Junior and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 790. Print.
Davis, David. “A Racial Desire(s).” MELUS 34.3 (2009): 234-237. 19 Mar 2015. Web.
Jordan, William. “The Damnable Dilemma.” The Journal of American History 81.4 (Mar. 1995): 1562-1583. 19 Mar. 2015. Web.
Locke, Alain. “The New Negro.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Junior and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 984-993. Print.
Mathieu, Sarah Jane. “Great Expectations:African Americans and the Great War Era.” American Quarterly 63.2 (2011): 409-417. 19 Mar. 2015. Web.
Spencer, Anne. “Dunber.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Junior and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 971. Print.
Stewart, Jeffrey C. “The New Negro as Citizen.” A Cambridge Companion to The Harlem Renaissance. Ed. George Hutchinson. UK: UP of Camebridge, 2007. 13-27. Print.
Whalan, Mark. The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro. Gainseville: UP of Florida, 2008. Print.
__________. “Jean Toomer and the Avant-garde.” A Cambridge Companion to The Harlem Renaissance. Ed. George Hutchinson. UK: UP of Cambridge, 2007. 71-81. Print.