Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Edited by Alain Locke, a Howard University professor of philosophy, The New Negro was a compilation of poems, short fiction, essays, and illustrations. It celebrated the appearance of a new contingent of African American writers and artists, following the Great Migration of rural southern African Americans to northern urban meccas in the early twentieth century. An expression of the creative energy and ferment of the postwar Jazz Age, the volume was both a collection of literary and visual artifacts and, in its ideological function as a racial manifesto, a cultural artifact in its own right. It hastened the emergence into public consciousness of the so-called Harlem Renaissance—Harlem was both its site and sometime subject—a phenomenon of spontaneous cultural combustion in this international capital of the “Negro” world.

The volume featured novelists, poets, playwrights, critics, scholars, and artists. Its contributors made up a who’s who of black literati, with cameo appearances by representative white sympathizers. Of the thirty-eight contributors, eight were women, among them writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and novelist Jessie Fauset, who was also the literary editor of The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Alain Locke apart, the most notable male contributors to The New Negro were Jean Toomer, the author of Cane (1923), a book of vignettes of racial subject matter and formal inventiveness that had anticipated the Harlem Renaissance; the irascible West Indian poet Claude McKay, whose militant poem “If We Must Die” spoke for the younger generation; Countée Cullen, a poet more polished and conventional than the globe-trotting McKay; and the wordsmith Langston Hughes, in many respects the conscience of the younger artists. Among the elder statesmen represented were W. E. B. Du Bois, the chief editor of The Crisis; Kelly Miller, a professor at Howard University; the educator Robert R. Moton; and the widely esteemed racial diplomat James Weldon Johnson, coauthor of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Negro national anthem.” An intermediate generation was represented by the sociologists Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier, the former already established, the latter soon to make his mark. The four white contributors were Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy connoisseur and collector whose taste for European impressionist paintings coexisted with an early appreciation of African and African American art; Paul U. Kellogg, director of the famous Pittsburgh Survey (1908-1914) and editor of The Survey Graphic, a progressive monthly journal; Melville J. Herskovits, a young anthropologist and pioneer Africanist, later to be celebrated and controversial for the suggestion that African American culture was marked by African survivals; and Winold Reiss, an Austrian illustrator and graphic artist who specialized in the delineation of folk types in Europe and the Americas.

For students of American intellectual history, The New Negro is noteworthy for the circumstances surrounding its appearance, its rhetorical purpose, and its editorial packaging, all of which are related. Appearing in 1925, The New Negro was an expanded version of a special Harlem issue of the magazine, The Survey Graphic. Underwritten in part by the Russell Sage Foundation, which had been established in 1907 to support progressive social initiatives, The Survey Graphic was the semiofficial journal of a multidimensional urban reform movement that had grown out of scientific charity and social settlement concerns. Those earlier movements were distinguished both by their attention to the so-called new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and by their early recognition that rural...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Garber, Eric. “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem.” In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin B. Duberman et al. New York: NAL Books, 1989. A pioneering discussion of a long-ignored but integral dimension of the lively club scene in 1920’s Harlem.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A useful, comprehensive discussion of the literary work of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Notable for the author’s concern to situate the texts in their American cultural context.

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. A representative act of literary “recovery,” highlighting the important role played by women artists in the cultural ferment of the time.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. The single best evocation of the fascinating figures and kaleidescopic world of the Harlem Renaissance. An important and immensely readable book.

Locke, Alain LeRoy. The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture. Edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart. New York: Garland, 1983. A useful way to unpack the cultural assumptions Locke brought to the task of editing The New Negro.

Meier, August. “The Social and Intellectual Origins of the New Negro.” In Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963. A classic interpretation of the historical background and social foundations of ideological currents in black communities in the early twentieth century. The “nationalist” stirrings and differing constituencies of the Marcus Garvey and Harlem Renaissance movements are perceptively compared.

Perry, Margaret. The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary. New York: Garland, 1982. A useful starting point for further investigation of all aspects of the Harlem Renaissance. Highly recommended.