A Black Writer on the Harlem Renaissance
From "When the Negro was in Vogue" by Langston Hughes
The 1920s were the years of Manhattan's black Renaissance. It began with the musical revue Shuffle Along. It reached its peak just before the crash of 1929, the crash that sent Negroes, white folks, and all rolling down the hill.
Shuffle Along was a honey of a show. Swift, bright, funny, carefree, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. Everybody was in the audience-including me. People came back to see it many times. It was always packed.
To see Shuffle Along was the main reason I wanted to go to Columbia. When I saw it, I was thrilled and delighted. From then on I was in the gallery of the Cort Theatre every time I got a chance. Shuffle Along gave just the proper push-a pre Charleston kick to the Negro vogue of the 1920s that spread to books, African sculpture, music, and dancing
The 1920s brought the rise of Roland Hayes, who packed Carnegie Hall; the rise of Paul Robeson in New York and London; the booming voice of Bessie Smith on thousands of records; and the rise of that grand comedienne of song, Ethel Waters. The 1920s brought Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker.
White people began to come to Harem in large numbers. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and rich whites. They did not want Negro customers, unless you were someone famous like Bojangles (a dancer). So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing numbers of whites in Harlem after sundown, filling the little cabarets and bars. Formerly only colored people laughed and sang there. Now strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers-like amusing animals in a zoo.
The Negroes said: "We can't go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won't even let us in your clubs." But they didn't say it out loud - for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there. They firmly believed that all the people who lived in Harlem left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in nightclubs, because most of the whites saw nothing but the nightclubs, not the houses.
Some of the small clubs had people like Gladys Bentley, who was something worth discovering in those days, before she got famous. For two or three amazing years, Miss Bentley sat and played a big piano all night long, without stopping. She slid from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous underbeat of jungle rhythm. Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy - a large, dark, masculine woman, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard - a perfect piece of African sculpture, made alive by her own rhythm.
But then the place where she played became too well known, she began to sing with an accompanist, became a star, moved to a larger place, then downtown, then to Hollywood. The old magic of the woman and the piano and the night and the rhythm are gone. But everything goes, one way or another. 1920s are gone and lots of fine things in Harlem night life have disappeared like snow in the sun since it became completely commercial, planned for the downtown tourist trade, and therefore dull.
The dancers at the Savoy even began to practice acrobatic routines. They did absurd things for the entertainment of whites that probably never would have entered their heads to attempt just for their own amusement.
Some critics say that that is what happened to certain Negro writers, too. They stopped writing to amuse themselves and began to write to amuse and entertain white people. In so doing, they distorted their material and left out their American brothers of a lighter complexion. Maybe it's true, since Negros have writer racketeers like any other race. But I have known almost all of them, and most of the good ones have tried to write honestly and express their world as they saw it.
All of us know that the happy, sparkling life of the so-called Negro Renaissance of the 1920s was not so happy and sparkling beneath the surface. But it was a period when, at almost every Harlem uppercrust dance or party, one would be introduced to various distinguished white celebrities who were there as guests. It was a period when preachers opened up shouting churches as sideshows for white tourists. It was a period when every season there was at least one hit play on Broadway acted by a Negro cast. And when books by Negro authors were being published with much great frequency and given much more publicity than ever before or since. It was a period when white writers wrote about Negroes more successfully (commercially speaking) than Negroes did about themselves. It was the period when the Negro was in vogue.
I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long. For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some people in Harlem thought the race problem had at last been solved. They were sure the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke.
I don't know what made any Negroes think that - except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking. The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any. And for all those white folks in the speakeasies and night clubs of Harlem - well, maybe a colored man could find some place to have a drink that the tourists hadn't yet discovered.
Questions about "A Black Writer on the Harlem Renaissance"
1. (A) What if any effect did white audiences have on the work of the black writers and entertainers?
(B) What evidence did Huges present to support his conclusion?
2. (A) What was Hughes' attitude towards black intellecturals?
(B) What was Hughes' attitude towards the ordinary people of Harlem?
3. (A) Why did some people feel the race problem had been solved?
(B) Did Hughes agree with this assumption? Why or why not?