Institution: University of Aberdeen

Author: Christopher John Grundy


Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance

“This is an era of war and revolution, of struggle and revision, of contest and change.” – Masthead Modernist, 1919

The Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming in the creative arts during the 1920’s, has intrigued, confounded and exasperated a host of scholars as a social phenomenon of the highest complexity.

If the leading intellectuals of the day bickered over the essential make-up of the Renaissance, hindsight has shown that academic work since then has found it even harder to characterize the Movement. Instead, the majority of scholarship on this issue too readily accepts certain constructions, allowing “a handful of the editors and arbiters. . . to direct current interpretations, chronologies, and genealogies,” instead of going back to the primary evidence and re-evaluating predispositions inherent in these narratives.

This ‘critical bias’ or the ‘academic selection process,’ as Daylanne English calls it, can be traced back, certainly in part, to the interpretations offered by the stars of the Renaissance, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Du Bois especially, has been seized upon by academics as the paragon of the Renaissance’s intelligentsia, far removed from values and beliefs of the working class.

This trope, unfortunately, has blinded post-World War II studies of the Renaissance to the importance of Radical influences in controlling and shaping the Zeitgeist. As Barbara Foley has argued particularly vigorously, the significance of Leftist impulses is still hugely underrated, with recent studies by “Ann Douglas, Steve Watson, Mark Helbling, Michael North, and J. Martin Favor,” largely ignoring ‘New Negro leftism.’

With the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and the founding of the Third International in 1919, the words first expressed by Engels and Marx in the Communist Manifesto were brought to life. Indeed, Communist ideas and principles were suffusing not only the political elite of the USSR, but the hearts and minds of many ordinary Americans.

With the conclusion of World War I, and the imminent return of U.S. Soldiers, President Wilson remarked to a confidant in 1919 whilst returning from Versailles, his fear that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”

The radical socialist W.A. Domingo’s proclamation that Negroes might be “formed by the capitalists into a mercenary army for the suppression of social revolution,” was taken seriously enough for it to be reprinted in its totality in the Lusk Committee’s Revolutionary Radicalism.

As the Lusk Committee’s 4,000 page report was being published, the Bureau of Investigation, fronted by J. Edgar Hoover, was busy compiling lists containing the names of more than 450,000 “subversives”. The New York Times seemingly alarmist prophesies of a “Planned Negro Uprising” and an “Increase in Mob Violence,” were tragically fulfilled during the race riots of 1919 – the inspiration behind Claude McKay’s seminal If We Must Die. This poem, more than any other, highlights the race and class tensions that were so prevalent in 1920s America.

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Thus, it seems beyond dispute that the permeation of Communist principles and ideas throughout American society, and therefore throughout the Harlem Renaissance, during the inter-war period, was a genuine concern for the U.S. elite. As Foley, author of Spectres of 1919, has stated:

“To an extent that many readers in the beginning of the twenty-first century may find difficult to imagine, left wing ideas enjoyed a mass influence in the period following World War I, significantly affecting the ways in which radicals and non-radicals alike perceived historical developments and construed the relation between race and class. “

Understanding different interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance

The neglect with which the importance of Communist ideals, throughout the inter-war period, has been treated, has proven detrimental to the scholarship, with rare exceptions such as Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left functioning as solitary beacons of light.

Maxwell’s magnum opus, published in 1999, delivers a vital and timely reassessment of leftist American radicalism in the early decades of the twentieth century. Here, he manages to collapse the “universally accepted…uncomplicated narrative of black Marxist theory,” which built its understanding of the relationship between Negro emancipatory activity – including the Renaissance – and socialism as inherently dishonest.

Modern scholarship has built on Maxwell’s work, with Barbara Foley eruditely conveying the transition from “political radicalism in 1919 to romantic culturalism in 1925”, to the final deterioration with the Great Depression in 1929. Foley, shows convincingly how the Renaissance’s intelligentsia re-articulated the demands of the working-class into bourgeoisie concepts; exemplified by Alain Locke’s The New Negro.

Robert Stepto and Carla Cappetti on the other hand represent the traditional scholarship of the period, giving an insightful point of view regarding the compatibility of the terms ‘New Negro Movement’ and ‘Harlem Renaissance’ yet completely failing to recognize the importance of political orientation in its construction.

Even George Hutchinson, who in works such as The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, has been essential in revising opinions on the Renaissance’s inter-racialism, fails to identify leftist ideals as playing a significant part throughout the inter-war period.

Marlon Ross has astutely argued for the power of gender-specific assumptions permeating the fabric of the movement, creating pressures within the political debate, which essentially fostered anti-feminist, sexist dispositions. Ross goes on to argue that the art, music and literature during this period was synonymous with racial representation, in contradiction of the conclusions of Hutchinson.

Nathan Huggins, in his seminal Harlem Renaissance, has shown the detrimental consequences of patronage on culture’s ability to impact the contemporary political discourse. Huggins argues against Foley and Maxwell’s interpretation of the significance of the left, by stating that the New Negro Movement was “doomed to be shattered because of its naïve assumptions about the centrality of culture unrelated to economic and social realities.”

Robert Worth takes issue with Huggins’s reading, pointing instead to the achievements of fiction novels such as Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, McKay’s Home to Harlem, and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand in provoking debate on issues as wide-ranging as the socioeconomic status of African Americans, gender-politics, and the interracial construction of the movement.

The Cry Was Unity by Mark Solomon is a highly nuanced and finely researched work, aiming to elaborate on the ‘theory’ of national oppression and the road to liberation worked out by U.S. Communists, Black and white, in the 1920s. Furthermore, this book covers extensively the intentions and functions of media outlets such as Cyril Briggs’s The Crusader, and is therefore, as will be shown in chapter 3, of supreme importance to this study, due to Solomon’s usage of substantial literary documentation.

Solomon’s approach is elaborated on by Anne Elizabeth Carroll’s Word, Image, and the New Negro, which in Carroll’s own words, aims to “return our attention to the collaborative illustrated volumes of the Harlem Renaissance and to use them as a basis for a reconsideration of the movement.”

This is achieved by paying particular attention to Randolph and Owen’s Messenger, Alain Locke’s Survey Graphic, Thurman’s Fire, the Crisis Magazine published by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The New Negro edited by Locke, especially in relation to the use of cartoons and stereotypes in representing non-whites.

The eminent scholar and autobiographer David Levering Lewis gives credence to Du Bois’ ‘Talented Tenth‘ thesis, seeing the clashes comprising the Red Summer of 1919, as the catalyst for a movement “that sublimated African American revolutionary energies into textual – and therefore safe – channels of expression.”

Thus, Lewis finds himself in agreement with Foley’s observations about the ‘re-articulation’ of socialist demands into bourgeoisie concepts, differing however from Foley in believing this to be advantageous to the movement as a whole.

The notion that the Harlem Renaissance may have been sabotaged from the inside, is one shared and defended by Calo’s brilliant essay African American Art and Critical Discourse between World Wars, in which she pinpoints the reasons for the ‘exclusion’ of the Renaissance’s art in the 1920s.

Specifically, Calo argues that by inhibiting the discourse on African American art, and delimiting it to issues of race, “American art criticism acted as an agent of exclusion.”

Finally, Martha Nadell’s analysis of the conjunction between the literary achievements of the period and their influence in the formulation of New Negro Politics delivers a good understanding of the correlation among images and expectations.

In Enter the New Negroes, Nadell’s offers perhaps the most insightful examination of American racial perception to date, re-evaluating the images found in Locke’s Survey Graphic as well as Thurman’s Fire!

Given the wealth of primary and secondary sources on the matter, this dissertation will accept as a priori that Communist ideas, such as the abolition of private property and the creation of a classless society, were widespread in the U.S. in the 1920’s.

It will focus instead, on how the pivotal figures and institutions of the Harlem Renaissance – regardless of race – were moulded by these principles and how this expressed itself in the literature, art and music they produced. Moreover, this dissertation will discover if Communist ideals, expressed in the seminal works of the Harlem Renaissance, had the power to act as a catalyst for change.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of the topic, one or two clarifications need to be made at this point in order to avoid offense or undue provocation.

Setting the framework for this dissertation

This Dissertation will draw from Hutchinson’s The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, in which he successfully conveys the interracial nature of the movement. Despite the achievement of equal civil liberties for African American citizens clearly being the fundamental aim, it is too simplistic to reduce the significant events and works of the period only to African Americans.

Hutchinson has convincingly argued that Caucasian and foreign individuals played an important part in formulating grievances and bringing them to the mainstream, Carl Van Vechten and Claude McKay being two of the most salient examples.

Furthermore, it should be noted that ‘Communism’, as the word is used here, does not imply any ties to the official party, but instead signifies a group of core tenets, such as the common ownership of the means of production and the abolition of the state, money and economic classes. It is the concept of class – as denoting ones socioeconomic status in society – which is focused on in this work.

Finally, the Renaissance – as a cultural movement intent on showcasing and changing the plight of African Americans – will not be seen as exclusive to Harlem. The reasoning behind this is drawn from the understanding that Harlem, although acting as a magnet for non-white cultural efflorescence, was not the only city depicted in books, paintings and music as well as not being the only location inhabited by authors, musicians and artists significant to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Cary Wintz’s observation that “almost everything about the period . . .that is typically termed the Harlem Renaissance has been contested,” is more insightful than ever but with these parameters in place an attempt to answer the question can begin.

Chapter summaries – To What Extent Was the Harlem Renaissance shaped by Communist Ideals between 1919-1929?

In chapter 1, the perception of social classes will be analysed and discussed through the lens of novels in the genre of fiction. Three literary milestones of the Renaissance: Quicksand by Nella Larsen, Nigger Heaven by Carl Van Vechten, and Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, will be used to highlight the attitude toward – and projected by – the protagonists’ socioeconomic standing.

These novels will serve as analogous critiques of the world their authors inhabited, offering a fascinating insight into the prevalence and acceptance of leftist ideals in 1920’s urban, segregated America.

Chapter 2 sets out to illuminate the Zeitgeist of the inter-war years, emphasizing in particular the influences W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke brought to bear on the contending schools of thought prevalent at the time.

These two giants of the Renaissance, will be reassessed in this segment, analysing Du Bois’ ‘Talented Tenth Thesis’ along with the propositions contained in Locke’s major works, concluding that Communist ideals serve as a firm underpinning of their foundational philosophies.

Chapter 3 highlights the position and relevance of the numerous literary magazines such as The Messenger, The Call, The Crisis, Fire!, Opportunity and The Liberator. These played an indomitable part in shaping and informing the opinions of the public, offering a stage for some of the Renaissance’s radical geniuses and directing academic debate.

This chapter will provide evidence for the importance of two major news outlets, which helped shape the Renaissance, yet were suffused with communist proclivities, namely The Messenger and The Call.

Without the benefits of a Census or opinion polls, contemporary Newspapers offer the most reliable reflection on the opinions, beliefs and values held dear by the average U.S. citizen, and allows an insight into the pervasiveness of Communist ideals throughout society.

Finally, the study of the major schools of thought as well as their perception and portrayal in the most widely read Newspaper’s and fiction novels of the age, allows an inference which leads on from modern historiography on the topic, shedding a far more radical light on the cultural movement as a whole, than has traditionally been the case.

With the help of recent advances in the field, it is the aim of this dissertation to build on the achievements of Maxwell, Solomon, and Foley by showing that the desire for the abolition of social and economic classes played a vital part in the creative output of the Harlem Renaissance.

Chapter 1 – Culture as a form of class disruption during the Harlem Renaissance

“The two books about Harlem that were most widely read and discussed were Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. Mr. Van Vechten’s novel ran through a score of editions, was published in most of the important foreign languages, and aroused something of a national controversy.”

McKay’s Home to Harlem, although causing less disputation than Van Vechten’s novel, was an equally shocking work, departing “from the dominant fiction of the Harlem Renaissance,” portraying in new colours the arguments of Langston Hughes’s masterpiece, “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”

Winner of the Harmon Foundation’s second prize for literature, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand inhabits less polemical fiction, and therefore caused less controversy, yet won much better critical reviews and quickly became one of the Renaissance’s most well-known works.

This chapter will bring to light the Communist undertones of these books; allowing a re-evaluation of the central messages held therein, by analysing the attitudes toward the socioeconomic systems the protagonists find themselves in. This will be achieved by scrutinizing the novels themselves as well as the context in which they were composed.

“Mr. McKay made no attempt to hold in check or disguise his abiding contempt for the Negro bourgeoisie and ‘upper class.” This excerpt from James Weldon Johnson’s review of Home to Harlem, came as little surprise to those who knew McKay. Former co-editor of the Liberator magazine and frequent attendee at communist-led events, McKay designed to tackle both the issues of race and class in poems and novels such as If We Must Die and Home to Harlem. In Home to Harlem, the topic of race is dealt with only superficially however, whereas concerns regarding class-consciousness powerfully come to the fore. Exemplifying this, is McKay’s use of a plethora of fashion colours, blurring the delineation between the colour of clothing and colour of skin:

“The broad pavements of Seventh Avenue were colourful with promenaders. Brown babies in white carriages pushed by little black brothers wearing nice sailor suits. All the various and varying pigmentation of the human race were assembled: dim brown, clear brown, rich brown. Chestnut, Copper, yellow, near white, mahogany and gleaming anthracite.”

Here McKay seems to be making the point that the colours of fashion and colours of skin are equally various and inhabit a purely decorative quality; a point made by Kimberley Roberts who states that, “race does not signify an essential quality, but rather has meaning only in the most superficial sense.” Roberts stops her critical analysis of Home to Harlem with this point, failing to discuss McKay’s message concerning class. This seems almost like wilful neglect, considering the same passage quoted above, is followed by Jake, the main protagonist of the story, saying “the girls passed by in bright patches of colour, according to station and calling”; an unveiled statement on the nature of class-consciousness in Harlem.

Here McKay seems to correlate the brightness; waking in the reader associations of beauty and purity, with “station and calling”. Although he disavows the importance of skin colour as an indication of value, this quotation seems to suggest that the value of girls passing by, is determined by their socioeconomic standing. That this is not a frivolous, throw-away remark is emphasized by the role afforded to women throughout Home to Harlem. Indeed, the essential plot point is Jake’s search for Felice, a prostitute who reimburses him after he enlists her services at the beginning of the work.

Having the only relationship in the book based on love rather than egocentric opportunism begin with Felice’s refusal to accept money from Jake, speaks volumes about McKay’s pessimistic attitude toward capitalism and the class-system it engenders. This is not to say that Jake abhors work in general however; it is quite the opposite, as shown when Rose propositions Jake, “If you’ll be mah man always, you won’t have to work,” an offer he curtly declines.

The interpretations surrounding the interaction of the protagonists here are manifold; examined in part by Roberts, who correctly identifies a “gender reversal of the typical prostitute/client relationship.” However, she again fails to take issues of class into consideration. Specifically, supplanting Jake into the role of the prostitute disempowers him by incurring a financial dependence which would, in effect, turn him into a commodity; a point hammered home when Rose refers to Jake as her “big, good slave.”

These are only a few of the numerous passages throughout the novel which suggest, imply and openly state that the desire for the abolition of social economic classes is at the heart of Home to Harlem. Further evidence for this can be found at the end of the work, when Felice

“looked behind the curtain where his clothes were hanging and remarked his old English suit. Then she regarded archly his new nigger-brown rig-out. ‘You was moh illegant in that other, but I likes you all the same.’”

This seems to be an overt rejection of placing the quality of garments over the quality of character, and socioeconomic status over individual personality. Thus Felice’s acceptance of Jake as what he represents as a person, rather than which social class his clothes attribute him too, is hugely indicative of a call for a classless society. That this call was misunderstood or plainly rejected by W.E.B. Du Bois, and others, is evident from his review, stating McKay, “has used every art and emphasis to paint drunkenness, fighting, lascivious sexual promiscuity and utter absence of restraint in as bold and as bright colours as he can.”

Interestingly, Du Bois’ reading is largely correct, yet he misunderstands the protagonists rejection of social norms and etiquette as an embrace of narcissistic self-indulgence, rather than as a repudiation of the class system which has denied Jake and Ray the privileges afforded to white’s for centuries. A leftist reading of Home to Harlem is long-overdue, with scholarship traditionally dealing with the themes of primitivism, race and gender-equality, and even Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left, dismisses McKay’s novel as “a bad, but dim memory.” This does a huge disservice to a novel which became massively successful, despite staying true to the grit and hardship experienced by Harlemites; offering “extensive descriptions of the poor, downtrodden and the working class, the novel paint[s] a vivid picture of blacks who have not made it in US society,” and was thus the first “real proletarian novel.” of the Harlem Renaissance.

Nella Larsen’s Quicksand deals with many of the same themes as Home to Harlem. Prostitution for example, is an issue which crops up in both novels; Quicksand’s main protagonist, Helga Crane, being constantly mistaken for one. Larsen’s portrayal of prostitution is a more vivid expression of the complexities of class-consciousness than McKay’s however, intertwining Helga’s relationship to consumer culture and her interaction with the male protagonists. In particular, Larsen’s depiction of Helga’s weak psyche makes her a more complicated character to understand than Jake, yet clear allusions to the pitfalls of capitalism are discernible.

“She came back to her own problems. Clothes had been one of her difficulties in Naxos. Helga Crane loved clothes, elaborate ones. Nevertheless, she had tried not to offend.” Here, Larsen showcases the ambiguity of a society which encourages frenzied spending on superfluously elaborate clothing on the one hand, while believing the ability to do so a class-privilege, ignorance or rejection of which being sure to “offend.” The situation is worsened by Helga’s inability to find work, leaving her in a catch 22 situation were she “must search for work by roaming the streets, but her very presence there leaves her open to the unwelcome advances of men.”

This dilemma is brought home by the passage:

“She traversed acres of streets, but it seemed that in that whole energetic place nobody wanted her services. At least not the kind that she offered. A few men, both white and black, offered her money, but the price of the money was too dear. Helga Crane did not feel inclined to pay it.”

Illustrating the oppositional tone of the novel, Helga finds herself at odds with the tastes and customs of her environment. This is manifested in her refusal to be ‘commodified’ as a prostitute, despite the lure of money which she sorely needs. Mary Ovington, co-founder of the NAACP, highlights the relevance of the struggle the female protagonist finds herself in, by saying: “The history of many [girls] shows an unsuccessful struggle for congenial work, ending with a choice of material comfort however high the moral cost.” Helga refuses to sell herself however, leaving her not only in pecuniary trouble, but her love for “rich attire” in times of economic hardship is perceived as “frivolous, even dangerous, by those around her.”

Furthermore, it becomes clear early in the novel that the clothes are not perceived as merely decorative garments but instead represent a reflection of moral quality in the eyes of others, who “detect the subtle difference from their own irreproachably conventional garments,” which they judge to be “positively indecent.” In a ‘Copernican turn’ from Home to Harlem, Larsen uses fashion to represent the rejection of the norms of Helga’s economic class, allowing her to be “proud” despite having to walk the streets in search of work.

This more complex expression of class-consciousness, contrasts with McKay’s treatment of fashion, which sees Jake don “his new nigger-brown rig-out” in favour of more elegant and socially rewarding garments. Both authors therefore use fashion analogously as a rejection of socioeconomic status, Helga by pursuing her “love” of clothes despite causing offence to her peers, and Jake by giving up the benefits bestowed on him through social mobility in favour of clothes more to his own liking.

This reading of Quicksand finds traction in the biography of Nella Larsen. As Hutchinson has convincingly shown, Larsen “expected ‘uplifters’ at the NAACP to take umbrage at Quicksand,” a claim evidenced by letters sent to her friend Carl Van Vechten. Specifically, she wrote “on May thirteenth [1928], Sunday. The Woman’s Auxiliary [sic]of the N.A.A.C.P is going to give a tea for me!!!” continuing, “the good God only knows why.” Larsen’s astonishment at the invitation is understandable as Quicksand casts aspersions on the idolaters of social ‘uplift’, many of which could be found in the N.A.A.C.P women’s auxiliary. Indeed, Van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven treats issues of social mobility with even more criticism than Quicksand, leading Larsen to write to Van Vechten that he was “the best thing that ever happened to the Negro race.”

This was by no means the only source of encouragement Van Vechten received in response to his novel. James Weldon Johnson, leader of the N.A.A.C.P, described it as “the most revealing, significant and powerful novel based exclusively on Negro life yet written.” The New York Times, The New Republic, and other magazines were quick to express their appreciation of the work. Yet praise was far from universal, and even friends of Van Vechten, such as Alain Locke seemed to have misgivings. Thus, Locke conveyed in a letter to the author his belief that it was “a good corrective sketch for the white reader who takes Negro life under-seriously,” yet emphasized in another correspondence that the explication of Harlem-life must come “from the psychological intimacy of the race experience itself,” suggesting that a white person could not fully convey the lives of Harlemites.

The title alone proved highly controversial, Nigger Heaven being a reference to the places in the gallery of a theatre where non-whites were required to sit “and watch the white world sitting down below in the good seats in the orchestra.” This seems to have escaped many commentators however, including Du Bois, proponent of the ‘Talented Tenth’ thesis, who misunderstood the title to mean “a nasty, sordid corner into which black folk are herded, and yet a place which they in crass ignorance are fools enough to enjoy.” It appears obvious that the vitriol Du Bois dished out to Nigger Heaven, calling it “a blow in the face,” was spawned by more than simply artistic considerations.

More specifically, the book follows the lives of erudite and ambitious Harlemites, depicting their lives “as a pathetic, almost futile endeavour, stifled by black snobbery on one side and white bigotry on the other.” This would have cut close to the bone for Du Bois, in whose opinion the success of the Harlem Renaissance as an emancipatory cultural movement was reliant on ‘the talented few’; which comprised the ‘educated Negro bourgeoisie.’ However, Van Vechten’s description of class-consciousness in Harlem is one of race rather than ability.

Thus Mary Love, the main female protagonist, complains bitterly early in the novel that “her race spent more money on hair-straighteners and skin-lightening preparations than they did on food and clothing.” Mary correctly sees these attempts at assimilation into white America as an implicit admittance of guilt, laying the blame for segregated buses, theatres, shops etc. not at the feet of white bigotry but instead at the feet of those born with more pigment in their skin than their white counterparts. Van Vechten strives to convey the immorality of this way of life, having one character acerbically state, “a white prostitute can go places where a coloured preacher would be refused admission.” As in Home to Harlem and Quicksand prostitution highlights the injustice of segregated society.

In this case, Van Vechten uses prostitution as the lowest possible benchmark for a persons moral quality, employing a profession of the faith as the opposite. Interestingly, the two types of work chosen by Van Vechten also represent extremes in a capitalist system; namely the prostitute who endorses a form of wage-slavery, selling her body and her honour, in Van Vechten’s opinion, in the pursuit of money, whereas the preacher dedicates his life to the service of god, leading an ascetic life devoid of superfluous luxuries. This exemplifies therefore, the fruitlessness of separating citizens into social or economic classes, due to both the preacher and the prostitute usually experiencing a similar income, yet representing opposite ends of society. Implicit in the quotation given by Van Vechten’s character is then a criticism of a class-system which discerns individuals by the size of their wallet rather than by the content of their character, and is thus a call for the abolition of class.

Reading Nigger Heaven, it becomes clear that this is not merely a work of fiction but instead, like Home to Harlem and Quicksand, a venomous critique of the world Van Vechten lived in. Clues can be found in the aspirations of the main character Byron Kasson, whose dreams of being a writer lead him to compose melodramatic thrillers, completely outside of his own experiences, representing a betrayal of his own heritage and people. Most strikingly however, is the relationship between Byron and Lasca Sartoris, a character introduced with the passage:

“It could hardly be said that Harlem, generally speaking, had received the tidings of Lasca’s wayward adventures with approval, even equanimity, but those who knew her apparently liked her, and the rest . . .would be won over by her money.”

From the beginning the reader is instructed to associate the character of Sartoris with wealth and money. This awakens negative connotations, especially when it becomes clear that people can “be won over” by her staggering financial means rather than her wit or charm. These negative undertones prove to be justified toward the end of the novel, when Byron’s virtuous passion for Mary collapses, with Byron instead becoming one of Sartoris’s play-things.

Byron recognizes too late that Sartoris’s free spending nature and dramatic sensuality are merely an expression of her vacuousness, leaving him to fully comprehend his mistake in turning away educated yet lower-class Mary, for the decadent heiress. This realization is brought home when Byron bitterly grasps onto the thought that “she didn’t love him at all. She just wanted to possess him, to own him, to boss him. He strode away in a renewed fit of fury.” This final rejection of meaningless luxury by Byron, must be read as a rejection of the bourgeoisie as a whole, and therefore an endorsement of its dissolution.

Nathan Huggins, author of the seminal Harlem Renaissance expressed the opinion that many novels of the 1920’s missed “a clear moral or intellectual perspective that might engage the reader in the dramatic issues of Negro life.” On this rare occasion Huggins can and must be refuted, as this chapter has shown three of the most influential and talked about works of the period to have inhabited resonant critiques of the class system the protagonists, and by extension authors, saw around them. Indeed, Nigger Heaven, Quicksand and Home to Harlem must be understood as ‘primitivist’, and therefore oppositional novels, which strive to reject the societal norms of their environment. At the heart of this repudiation stands the call for the abolition of social and economic classes, and it is because of this claim that these works stand out as the most important works of fiction produced during the Harlem Renaissance.

Chapter 2 – Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Socialism during the Harlem Renaissance

“Of course, the thinking Negro has shifted. . . toward the left with the world-trend” – Alain Locke, The New Negro (1925)

It would be to jump the shark, if after the discussion of three works of fiction – no matter how influential – one were to conclude that the abolition of socioeconomic strata dominated the creative output of the Harlem Renaissance. Chapter 1 has shown however, that Werner Sombart’s parochial quip, “Why is there no socialism in America?” has fragile underpinnings. The prevailing scholarship on the subject since Sombart, has embraced the core tenets underlying his rhetorical question, and has thus understood this cultural phenomenon to be only “peripherally influenced by leftist politics.” Intellectual elite’s such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke flocked to Harlem prior to the outbreak of World War I, massively influencing the direction the Renaissance took, and thus offering the cursory evidence needed for scholars to depict it as a movement devoid of lower-class interests.

This argument is traditionally epitomised by Du Bois’ ‘Talented Tenth’; a moniker bestowed on “the cadre of college-educated Negroes whom he charged with providing leadership for the African American community during the post-Reconstruction era.” Seemingly bereft of proletarian influences, Alain Locke’s The New Negro, published in 1925, aimed to transform the perception of the obsequious ‘Old Negro’ to that of the creative and self-assured ‘New Negro’, on equal footing with his white counterpart. This representation of Locke forces itself through the logical contortions necessary, to avoid paying issues of class their due. Chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance have depicted Du Bois and Locke as representing the intelligentsia of the movement who, in the words of John Childs, gave crucial weight to “that long, liberating march against oppression.”

It is by no means the design of this chapter to eschew the importance of the intellectual throughout the Harlem Renaissance. The claim that will be made however, is that serious Communist tendencies underlie the philosophies of the two afore mentioned individuals. This claim will be verified by exegeses of their major works, the context in which they were written and the biographies of their composers; shedding light on the prevalence and popularity of Communist ideals – such as the creation of a classless society – amidst the elite of the movement.

W.E.B. Du Bois initially sketched out his ‘Talented Tenth’ theses in Souls of Black Folks; published in 1903 it represented the first significant challenge to the ideas of Booker T. Washington. Specifically, Du Bois desired a more humanistic education “for at least a portion of the black population, while Washington had stressed the need for more practical training. Moreover, Du Bois idea of “a ‘cultured’ black person,” was met with understated scorn by Washington who stated:

“Someone may be tempted to ask, Has not the negro boy or girl as good a right to study a French grammar and instrumental music as the white youth? Yes, but in the present condition of the negro race in this country, there is need of something more.”

Thus, Washington saw the ‘Talented Tenth’ theory as replete with danger, potentially hindering progress toward the desegregation of American society. However, as Childs has comprehensively shown, culture, as “a luxury which the first generations of black pioneers . . .could not and should not expect to have,” had become a tenable proposition to those of Du Bois’ generation who would later claim the sobriquet of the New Negro. Intriguingly, the esteemed position afforded to culture by Du Bois is rarely – if ever – considered in an anti-capitalist light. Concomitant with his love of the fine arts, was his hatred of “commercial crassness” as well as those “seeking financial gain” inevitably leading to the loss of “the black businessman'[s]” soul. Here a clear criticism of the ‘upper classes’ can be identified, and indeed the ‘Talented Tenth’ thesis itself seems to inhabit the very essence of collectivism, in the sense that Du Bois expects gifted individuals to lead their lives for the benefit of others; denying themselves the “self-aggrandizing perspective,” capitalism affords to those of financial means.

This realization is particularly baffling once it becomes apparent that neither Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left, Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity, or Foley’s Spectres of 1919, take Du Bois anti-capitalist exposition of culture into consideration. That these sentiments might not simply be restricted to the fine arts becomes apparent from a passage of Du Bois’ Darkwater, which seems to suggest disdain for the capitalist system as a whole:

“Shameless and frank; great factories pouring out stench, filth, and flame – these and all other things so familiar in the world market places, where industry triumphs over thought and products overwhelm men.”

Thus, Du Bois conceived of his ‘Talented Tenth’ thesis not, as is often argued by current scholarship, as an elitist drive to drag the less privileged classes into the embrace of capitalism, but instead to create a single class of people which, through the help of the ‘talented few’, could

“Make their work more effective to build and fortify Negro homes, to educate Negro children, to establish institutions of protection, reform and rescue, and to make the Negro people able to help others as others have helped us.”

Thus, the vanguard Du Bois championed was to become cultured so as to be transformed into an agent of political change. For the sake of clarity it should be reiterated that Du Bois’ call for a more humanist style of education was not intended to create a ‘talented few’ which would imbibe the cultural fecundity necessary to ameliorate their financial situations, but instead advocates the prioritization of a cultural education, which will enable the promotion of “self-development” and “the refinement of the person,” as well as “the deepening off the intellect and spirit,” throughout their communities. Perhaps it was Du Bois’ obsession with culture which prevented him from conceiving and articulating a coherent economic doctrine, but it has nevertheless become clear, from the evidence given above, that he would have favoured a society devoid of socioeconomic classes.

Credence to this understanding of Du Bois is augmented by the fact that he, in his later years, joined the Communist party, and as his biographer David Levering Lewis has impressively argued, throughout the 1920’s Du Bois endorsed “the aims and values of socialism” A stark confirmation of which, can be found in the moniker attached to him by the Military Intelligence Division, which labelled him the “Karl Marx of Negroes.” Furthermore, Du Bois is not the only member of the intelligentsia under scrutiny here, whose biography contains sympathies with a political philosophy which endorses the creation of a classless society. In Alain Locke’s case however, attention must paid to the beginning, rather than the end, of his illustrious career.

As the editor of The New Negro, Locke made an indelible mark upon the Harlem Renaissance. In order to obtain an idea of what beliefs and necessities drove the creation of his masterpiece however, the scholar must venture back to his days at the University of Oxford, where he formed ties with radical anti-colonialists such as Har Dayalm Shyaman Krishnavarma, and Damodar Savarkar. Relying on Foley’s scholarly acumen, it can be concluded that his new-found friends “acquainted him with not just socialist internationalism but also debates within the Left over the relation of the class contradiction to the national question.” Moreover, during his post-Doctoral time in Berlin, Locke enjoyed the lectures of Gustav Schmoller, which acquainted him with the sophisticated debates surrounding Marxist political and economic theory.

That these experiences left a strong impression on the young intellectual becomes apparent when his essay The American Temperament, published in the North American Review, is examined in detail. Specifically, Locke criticises the capitalist engendering of social classes, highlighting the pernicious circumstance that “[s]ociety is quite at the mercy of the class that paints its portrait.” Here, Locke shows himself acutely aware of the dangers of – what Antonio Gramsci would later define as – class hegemony, meaning the ability of the ‘upper-class’ to determine the values and beliefs of wider society. Thus, Locke’s essay, published in 1911, shows his willingness to engage critically with the status quo, and to question the function of social classes within the U.S, at a young age.

Unfortunately, instead of his privileged education allowing him to explore and articulate the concepts of race and class as pertinent yet fundamentally different, he spends much of The New Negro conflating the two. This does not mean however, that an attack on the class system spawned and nurtured by capitalism, cannot be found in its its pages, an understanding buttressed by the following passage:

“The ordinary Negro has had until recently only a hard choice between the alternatives of supine and humiliating submission and stimulating but hurtful counter-prejudice. . . fortunately there are constructive channels opening out into which the balked social feelings of the American Negro can flow freely.”

Here Locke denotes the “humiliating submission,” experienced by those destitute at the bottom of America’s social ladder. That this is not merely a criticism of the Jim Crow laws becomes clear, when the “constructive channels” Locke mentions, are investigated in more depth. Moreover, the preponderance of creative output with Socialist or Communist proclivities during the Harlem Renaissance, such as the poetry of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Andy Razaf, the Call, Crisis, Messenger, Fire, and Opportunity magazines, as well as the critical essays of W.A. Domingo and E. Franklin Frazier, to name but a few, credit the conviction that Locke was making a statement about the fecundity of Communist ideals for the empowering of an oppressed people and class.

A further paean to the proletariat can be found in Langston Hughes’s The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, which was published as a chapter in The New Negro. In this seminal critique of Harlem Renaissance art, Hughes chastises the conformist non-white middle-class, who shower their white counterparts with fawning adulation, and attempt to emulate their values, tastes and beliefs. As the editor of The New Negro, Locke’s inclusion of this essay is a profound statement on his disillusionment with the division of people into social and economical classes. From the racial perspective Locke typically inhabits, he can bestow no greater mandate on the working-class, than that of being “the repositories of an authentic black culture, since they still hold their own individuality, and can furnish black artists with the proper subject and expressive forms.
Thus, it becomes apparent that both W.E.B. Du Bois’ and Alain Locke’s creative output relies on a class-critical underpinning, which has at its crux the emancipation of the worker into an economic system in which class boundaries are vitiated. Calo’s African American Art and Critical Discourse between World Wars, argues compellingly for the inimical influence of white patronage of artists and intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance; a critique which sheds some light on Du Bois’ and Locke’s insistence on shirking brazen expositions of the American class-structure. Nevertheless, this chapter has shown that both scholars envisioned a future in which socioeconomic strata are a thing of the past. The final chapter will focus on the major news outlets of the period, discussing their location on the political spectrum, the influence they exuded, and their importance in shaping the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural movement.

Chapter 3 – Socialism and public news outlets during the Harlem Renaissance

No race has less of the idle non-producing rich than the Negro race.
No race would be more greatly benefited proletariat than themselves
Negro race, which is essentially a race of workers and producers.
With no race are the interests of labour so clearly identified with
racial interests as in the case of the Negro race. – Andy Razaf as quoted in Maxwell

The above quoted pericope of one of Andy Razaf’s many radical poems, first burst onto the scene in the pages of the Crusader, a highly influential “Red black” magazine. Founded by Randolph and Owen in 1917, the Messenger, along with periodicals ranging from the Call, the Crusader, the Liberator, Workers Monthly and the Negro World, aimed to frame the anti-racist discourse in class terms, while skilfully avoiding reticulating the two.

Indeed, William Maxwell has argued persuasively, that the Messenger introduced and helped promulgate Communist ideals into Harlem’s cultural fruition. Barbara Foley, on the other hand, has highlighted the Call, as the primary organ of class-conscious revolutionary literature, pointing to its vast readership and the unequivocal statement of its intent: “The New Negro is here; and there will be more of them to enrich the Socialist movement in the United States.” Foley points out that, the Call, more than any other publication, comprehended the importance of overcoming racial antagonism in the attempt to obviate the American political, economic and social class-structure. Furthermore, Foley contends that the Call’s commitment to leftist principles – such as the creation of a classless society – was “cognizant of the role that art and literature could play in generating, concretizing, and reinforcing revolutionary ideas and attitudes.”

The attentive observer can deduce from the interpretations elucidated above, that critical debate on the role and efficacy of magazine’s and news outlets is a hotbed of conflicting opinions. However, Maxwell gives insufficient consideration to the ramifications of his inferences, in relation to the cultural phenomenon labelled the Harlem Renaissance. Instead, he deliberates over the Communist party’s utilization of propaganda as well as the representation of gender-roles permeating the cover sheets of studied periodicals, yet fails to pinpoint their relevance to the Renaissance.

Foley singularly stresses the paramountcy of magazines in bringing issues of class into the mainstream, and de facto, to the attention of ordinary Americans, who, otherwise, may have found the Renaissance to have been arrogated by the intelligentsia. Spectres of 1919 falls short in its breadth however, focusing on the Call’s cynosure and merely paying lip-service to other, equally important periodicals. Thus, it is of paramount importance to re-evaluate the major journal’s of the period in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, while accentuating their attitude toward class.

Featuring interlocking hands of black and white workers, the Messenger’s trademark emblem, proudly embossed on the cover-sheet, set the bombastic tone with which it aimed to convince its 150,000 readers of the nefariousness of capitalism and the feracity of a classless political system. Through the use of clever satirical illustrations and cartoons, the Messenger managed to amass a huge readership sympathetic to the travails of the International worker. One such cartoon is described by Foley as illustrating

“Two large dogs labelled ‘Negro Labour’ and ‘White Labour’ fighting over a meatless bone, while a smaller white dog labelled ‘Capital’ feeds greedily off a large ham and an ‘Agitator Dog’ warns ‘Drop That bone, and get the ham! You are just working dogs!” (emphasis not added)

As is apparent from this description, the cartoon offers a caustic remark on the racial practices of the white capitalist, consequently amalgamating, as Locke was prone to do, the struggles of class and race. Furthermore, Foley fails to illuminate the cultural significance of the cartoon for the contemporary cultural movement of the 1920’s, a shortcoming remedied by Carroll’s Word, Image and the New Negro. As clarified by Helbling, Carroll “provides a fresh, exciting, and insightful perspective on how African Americans sought both to come to terms with and to change the ways they were understood – and misunderstood – in the first three decades of the twentieth century.” Therefore, the illustration of cartoons and comics were fruitful methods with which to convey the core – anti-capitalist – tenets of the Harlem Renaissance, especially to children, illiterates or simply those with little taste for the fine arts or essayed critiques.

Besides comic strips, the Messenger published numerous series of poetry, countenanced by acerbically critical and daringly Communist works. One of particular note in this respect is Claude McKay’s “Labour Day,” which was a devastating response to the race riots in Chicago:

“Once poets in their safe and calm retreat
Essayed the singing of the fertile soil,
The workman, bare-armed in the noonday heat,
Happy and grateful at his peaceful toil;
Like imitated music, false and strange,
Or half truths of a day that could not hold
Its own against the eternal tide of change.”

Here, McKay does not try to coax the reader into a convoluted analysis of the hardships of the proletariat, but instead makes his message abundantly clear, depicting the worker as “happy and grateful at his peaceful toil,” whilst warning the capitalist – regardless of race, it should be added – of the “the eternal tide of change.” It is correct then to understand the Messenger as a vital conveyor of communist-inflected culture, with McKay, Randolph and Owen providing vital contributions to the movement.

Despite the Harlem Renaissance being a cultural movement, it was essential for it to not disregard the ugliness of life, especially for those least capable of beautifying it. Of particular importance in this regard was the Call, which was “the most widely read socialist daily in the United States,” and undertook laudable attempts to cover lynchings in order to pressurise those responsible into reneging on their miss-informed beliefs. In order for the Renaissance to retain its validity as a resonant cultural movement, it needed to critically grapple with the realities of life for a vast majority of its audience. Therefore the Call’s coverage of a choreographed lynching in Ellisville, Mississippi in 1919 was imperative, and its coverage of the events, helped supply the material for the poetry of Langston Hughes, Andy Razaf, and Claude McKay whose rancour would prove so effective at stimulating debate and outrage.

“American capitalism is about as foul as will be found anywhere in the world. . . Not until our black brothers are free to walk the streets of American cities unmolested . . . not until they are free to organize politically in the South and to vote without being clubbed and shot, will this country be anything else than an autocracy to them.”

The Call was not only valuable in its reportage of lynchings, but was of inestimable worth to the fine arts, attempting to educate its readership on matters of race and class. It attempted do so through creative means, publishing poems and songs which would prove thought-provoking to the reader. One such anti-racist and anti-capitalist poem was Anna Louise Strong’s “The Negro Worker”:

[H]e went out hunting
In the shipyards
From some of these patriots
Who made a lot of money
From the war.
But the employment managers
And the men
To take on a NEGRO
[Lines 11-19 missing] I wonder why
[Lines 21-29 missing] They are forcing a worker
to be a SCAB
to be used AGAINST THEM.”

Here Strong conveys the white capitalist’s racist hiring policies, coupling it with the sarcasm implicit in lines four to six, the poem casts vitriolic aspersions on the moral qualities of the capitalist employer, inviting the reader to extrapolate from this, the general licentiousness of the capitalist class system as a whole. More importantly however, the poems final line draws inescapable associations with the ineluctable proletarian revolution, as espoused by Marx and Engels.

The need for relevance being paramount to every cultural movement, Foley compellingly examines the correlations between Strong’s poem and the American Federation of Labor’s hypocritical desegregation pledge, which was reneged upon prior to the composition of this poem in 1919. Thus, the Call and the Messenger served as a mouthpiece for the disadvantaged worker of either colour, whilst supplying a stage for many of the Renaissance’s crucial poets, cartoonists, and essayists; all the while calling for the abolition of social, political and economic classes as the fundamental tool of racist oppression in U.S. society.

Conclusion – The Harlem Renaissance was impacted by ideas of a classless society

“”When newcomers [to the cultural field] are not disposed to enter the cycle of simple reproduction.. . .but to bring with them dispositions and position-takings which clash with the prevailing norms of production and the expectations of the field, they cannot succeed without the help of external changes. These may be political breaks, such as a revolutionary crisis, which change the power relations within the field.”

This pericope of Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice provides the conceptual foundation, which must be understood if seemingly-random cultural efflorescence is to be studied in an academic fashion. Indeed the creation, fruition and consequent demise of the Harlem Renaissance, can be comprehended satisfactorily in Bourdieu’s terms. Whether it was the conclusion of World War I and the subsequent return of the Harlem Hellfighters, the Jamaican Claude McKay’s penning If We Must Die, or the founding of the Third International, the crucible of 1919 offered the “help of external changes” which could bring about the “change in power relations,” Bourdieu would later come to conceptualise.

Furthermore, it is the Great Depression, another external change, which effectively transformed the context of the cultural movement, emphasizing economic privations over cultural flowering, causing even some of the Renaissance’s greatest geniuses to renounce its achievements, Langston Hughes famously stating that, “ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.” Discerning the Harlem Renaissance in the terms prescribed by Bourdieu, leaves an appropriate definition of class as the only hurdle to be overcome, in the pursuit of a satisfactory conclusion. Thus, a passage from Das Kapital, will elucidate ‘class’ as Bourdieu has illuminated ‘culture’:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e. does production take place.”
Therefore, Marx understands ‘class’ to be best defined as the shared position in relation to the means of production of a group of individuals. As chapters 1,2 and 3 have shown, the desire for the abolition of socioeconomic strata inundated the leading news outlets of the period, were stated openly in the major works of fiction, and supplied the fundamental basis for the philosophies of the intelligentsia. Armed with this information, it is accurate to conclude that the racial and economic oppression of white capitalists, coupled with changes in the external relations of power, precipitated by the Russian Revolution, caused a “channelling of energy from political criticism into poetry, music, and art,” which aimed to create a classless society, by universalising the position of groups in relation to the means of production.


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