Is Another Harlem Renaissance Possible?
with John McWhorter
The Harlem Renaissance is one of the high watermarks of American culture. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, black writers, musicians, and artists based in New York produced a remarkable body of work that fused black vernacular forms with traditional and avant-garde American and European techniques. Some of the major Harlem Renaissance figures, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, are still regularly taught and read. These were serious thinkers engaged in representing and reimagining what it meant to be black in America at a time when African Americans faced real, often brutal political and social oppression.
One wonders whether a similarly concentrated, sophisticated, vital cultural efflorescence of black culture is possible today. Certainly there are plenty of black artists working now who have mastered their craft. But do the prevailing, overly confining notions of blackness that dominate the discourse about race allow for the kind of imaginative expansiveness that comes to mind when we think “renaissance”? In the following excerpt from my most recent conversation with John McWhorter, we consider whether the present (in my view, mistaken) equation of black identity with discrimination prevents us from matching the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance.
Then again, I’m not as current with contemporary art and culture as some. Perhaps there are pockets of innovation where this sort of work is being done. If you’re aware of exciting (dare I say heterodox?) work by groups of black artists, let us know in the comments!
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JOHN MCWHORTER: I enjoyed being among the people we were with in Cambridge, where we didn't even have to pretend that anything like that makes sense. It felt like being at a black conference in about 1935. Right now I'm doing something that I should have done 30 years ago. I never got to it. I'm reading Arnold Rampersad's biography of Langston Hughes. I had never gotten through it, partly because it's two volumes and it always looks kind of intimidating. But I realized, you know, it's time. I need to do Langston in a way that I never have.
GLENN LOURY: I'm old, John. I remember when Arnold Rampersad was writing that book.
Yeah. Nathan Huggins, the historian, Harlem Renaissance, was my colleague when I was in Afro at Harvard in the early 1980s, and he talked about Rampersad all the time.
It's a damn good book. And the thing that I'm always struck by reading about his era—well, right now I'm in the ‘20s and the ‘30s—is that there was so much less of a sense that you were unblack to, for example, write a sonnet the way white people write a sonnet, that you were unblack if you didn't talk in a certain way. There was more of a flexibility. And partly it was because no matter what level of society you occupied, no matter how accomplished you were, you were gonna deal with brutal and pitless racism from whites. So there was no question as to whether you were black or not, no matter how accomplished you were. So I get it.
But it meant that there was more flexibility within the black community, and there seems to have been much less of a sense that, in order to be celebrated, you needed to argue that standards needed to be changed. The white establishment wasn't interested in knuckling under to that. And it's maybe the one thing that I would enjoy about living in that time, that there was much less of that idea that the essence of enlightened black Americanness is to insist that what's considered excellence be changed for you. No, Langston Hughes wouldn't have understood that. And I enjoy that part of his era.
And neither would W.E.B. Du Bois have understood it.
Not at all. No.
These guys and gals, they wanted to play the real game. They wanted to actually be in the mix, in the real game. Now, there were very few, but they knew what the real game was.
And you know, it's not as if Hughes wasn't changing the art form. He's writing a vernacular kind of poetry. He's getting away from what say Alain Locke thought of as poetry. And so all of that is fine. He is changing the form of art, but he wasn't arguing that it was supposed to be easier. He worked just as hard as somebody writing a sonnet on his poems. The idea wasn't, “Let's dumb it down, because what we black people are about is spontaneity and heat.” No, he wouldn't have gotten that. And as such, whenever I read about these people, these Harlem Renaissance heroes. Du Bois—I'm having a brain shut-out—Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman ...
And you don't wanna forget the woman who was the anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston.
A lot of today's enlightened black thinkers could not get through dinner with most of those people, including Zora, because she was a black conservative. Couldn't get through dinner. They'd be thinking, “Oh, let me sit down and talk to girlfriend.” They'd be thinking, “Oh, I'm gonna sit at the feet of Wallace Thurman.” But what those people thought of as standards, what those people thought of as achievement, what those people thought of as the Harlem Renaissance would really rankle a lot of people today who see themselves as representing black authenticity. And I hate to say that, in some ways, today's black orthodoxy is advanced. I can see that these old timers were blinkered in some ways. But in other ways I think those people were secure on their skin.
I'm sorry, I was about to ask whether the advent of Black Studies was part of a step in the wrong direction away from engaging with the very best of whatever the field is that you might be at the highest level and instead of having your own separate track. I mean that to be a question or a hypothesis, not a conclusion. But I think it's at least worth entertaining.
Yeah, I think that idea that what the blackest thing to do is to smoke out evidence of racism, that you build an identity around that. Unfortunately, my impression is that Black Studies departments focus on that. Now, I don't know. Really to say it, you would have to do a study of probably about a hundred of them. But my impression based on, for example, having been a member of one of them at UC-Berkeley for about ten minutes 30 years ago and nosing around, my sense is that those programs tend to be centered on racism. It would be one thing if they were really interested in exploring blackness in general, where racism would be maybe one out of ten things focused on. I get the feeling that's not true, and that most of those departments are called Black Studies, but what they're really about is identifying and exploring discrimination and racism, and that's a very narrow subject.
Yeah. I mean, that may be the case at, I don't know, a Cal State-Fullerton or something like that. I wonder whether or not it's the case at a Harvard or a Yale or a Princeton. And I mean, having taught in a Black Studies department way, way, way back in the, in the early ‘80s, there's serious people. My colleague, the late Nathan Huggins, was a very serious historian. My colleague at that time, Werner Sollors, a German national, literature guy. Very serious guy.
That's probably not true of every of every Black Studies department. The students are gonna be playing some kind of role in what the department is doing. The very idea that the racial identity comes into the pedagogy causes me a little bit ... you know what I'm saying? We're there to educate kids at the college. And when you partition it off, it's like you think there's some kind of racial epistemology, if there's something to know that's a kind of black way of knowing and a black way of learning and things like that, rather than integrate the themes of race and black history and literature and art and music and whatnot into the curriculum more broadly. I mean, American Studies makes all kinds of sense to me.
Mm-hmm. It's where you learn a synthesizing way of thinking. I mean, one would have to do a study. I did a very, very small one, I think about 15 years ago, where I looked at the syllabi of a couple of Black Studies departments. And that's not a study. I wrote about this, people can look it up in City Journal. And what I found was that it's not that the people weren't intelligent. It's not that the scholars were undertrained or something like that. But the whole curriculum was based on racism rather than race. There were some exceptions, but it was clear that the mission of this Black Studies program was to teach people about discrimination.
And I just say that's not enough. That's not a real subject. It's too small. And also, of course, all of the black thinkers who were given any real play were on the left. There's nothing about black people who think differently, and I'm not talking about myself, but you would think that there was only one black way to think. That's not right. It's not true that there are only two black conservatives and both of them are crazy. And yet, you wouldn't have known that from this program.