LANGSTON HUGHES hated black Washington. "I have seen Washington," the famous black poet, author of "The Weary Blues" and other great verse, wrote about the city in 1927. "[It is] a city of which I had heard much, and I have looked at something called 'society' of which I had heard much, too. Now I can live in Harlem where people are not quite so ostentatiously proud of themselves, and where one's family background is not of such great concern. Now I can live contentedly in Harlem."
This quote doesn't get much play anymore, but it's worth remembering for what it can teach us about genuine intellectual diversity. Since the 1960s American blacks have metastasized into a leftist adjunct of the Democratic Party; today it is assumed that any black figure of any prominence in history was an enlistee in the liberal fight against what radicals call white skin privilege. But once there existed in America a very powerful, conservative - even Victorian - black elite. It was this elite that Hughes condemned in the quote above. They were well dressed, well mannered, and conservative; as I explain in my book If It Ain't Got That Swing, they would have been speechless at gansta rap and Al Sharpton. Indeed, they were against the 1920s modernism of James Joyce, jazz, and the Harlem Renaissance - the artistic movement Hughes was a part of and which is now celebrated in museums and on campuses as a high point of black aesthetic achievement
The home base of this black elite was Washington, D.C. In the 1920s there was a fierce struggle in the intellectual circles of America about the meaning and nature of art, a clash between modernists like Hughes, writers like Georgia Douglas, and artists like Aaron Douglas, who loved jazz and blues and believed that "authentic" black art should be sensual, realistic and edgy, and those, including African Americans, who thought that work like Hughes's was risque, animalistic, and injurious to the race. They also thought that the claims that there was a unique black art with its own sensibility was bunk.
As one black conservative, the once-prominent journalist George Schuyler, wrote at the time (in The Nation!):
As for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans - such as there is - it is identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans - that is, it shows more or less evidence of European influence. In the field of drama little of any merit has been written by and about Negroes that could not have been written by whites. The dean of Aframerican literature is W.E.B DuBois, a product of Harvard and German universities, the foremost Aframerican sculptor is Meta Warwick Fuller, a graduate of leading American art schools and former student of Rodin; while the most noted Aframerican painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is dean of American painters in Paris and has been decorated by the French Government. Now the work of these artists is no more "expressive of the Negro soul" - as the gushers put it - than are the scribblings of Octavus Cohen or Hugh Wiley.
This, of course, is easily understood if one stops to realize that the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon. If the European immigrant after two or three generations of exposure to our schools, politics, advertising, moral crusades, and restaurants becomes indistinguishable from the mass of Americans of the older stock (despite the influence of the foreign-language press), how much truer must it be of those sons of Ham who have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years. Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American. Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same. Because a few writers with a paucity of themes have seized upon imbecilities of the Negro rustics and clowns and palmed them off as authentic and characteristic Aframerican behavior, the common notion that the black American is so "different" from his white neighbor has gained wide currency.
One is not only struck by the Menckenesque velocity of Schuyler's prose (he was in fact a protege of the sage of Baltimore), but the sense of absolute, exhilarating freedom. The piece first ran in the Nation, but it's difficult to imagine it in any newspaper today. It's not only politically incorrect, it actually has some style to it. It keeps the reader awake. Compare it to the last op-ed you read in the Washington Post or The New York Times.
Perhaps the fiercest battleground in this early black culture war was Washington, D.C. By the time Langston Hughes penned his obloquy in 1927, Washington's black population was well-established in the city, or at least in the Shaw district where most blacks lived. The capital had been one-quarter to one-third black since its inception in 1791, and the city's sizeable population of free blacks had established churches and schools before the Emancipation Proclamation. According to historian Kathryn S. Smith, after the Civil War "the black intelligentsia of the nation congregated in Washington." Howard University, which had been founded in 1867 by the Freedman's Bureau as the first bi-racial university south of the Mason-Dixon line, was only one of a handful of colleges in the country that offered opportunities for blacks. "Howard University drew exceptionally able students in law, medicine, and sociology," noted Constance Green in her "The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in Washington, D.C."
By 1920 Washington was a financial, spiritual and cultural stronghold of black America. The first black bank, the Industrial Savings Bank, was born here. Unlike New York's Harlem, whose black population inherited many of its buildings from previous white owners, many of the institutions in Shaw were paid for by black businessmen and built by black hands: The True Reformers Building, the Laborers building and Loan Association, the Whitelaw Hotel, the twelve Street YMCA and the Prince Hall Lodge. The writer Albert Murray summed up the town's pedigree nicely in a piece last in the Nation magazine: "the Washington of [the 1920s]...was not provincial in matters of entertainment and the arts. It was not as cosmopolitan as New York, to be sure, but even so, it reflected much of the New Yorker's taste, perhaps comparable to a suburb of Manhattan." In every way, Washington was what the blues singer Leadbelly described it as: "a bourgeois town."
Yet not everyone appreciated black Washington's high standing, and not all of the dissenters were racist whites. In the 1920s, modernism hit America, causing scandals that are hard to imagine today. Modernism set out to shake free of the restriction of Victorians, much to the shock of Victorians themselves. The hot jazz being played in places like Harlem - and by a young Duke Ellington in Washington - was renounced by alarmed authorities as nothing more than "jungle music" suitable only for reverting man to primitivism.
Dancing became more erotic, and books by James Joyce, DH Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald and black writers like Hughes, George Schuyler and Washingtonian Rudoph Fisher depicted street life and human desires as well as what was considered open sexuality in blunt, frank language. This rift in the white world over modernism was reflected in black Washington. In an August 1928 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, psychologist, author and Washingtonian Allison Davis took aim at the modernists: "For nearly ten years, our Negro [artists] have been 'confessing' the distinctive sordidness and triviality of Negro life, and making an exhibition of their own unhealthy imagination, in the name of frankness and sincerity. Frankness is no virtue in itself, however, as any father will tell his son, nor is sincerity. A dog or savage is 'sincere' about his bestialities, but he is not therefore raised above them....It is a question, then, of the purpose for which one is being sincere. It is quite evident that the sincerity of Milton, of Fielding, and of Dr. Johnson is different in kind from the sincerity of Mr. DH Lawrence and Mr. James Joyce. If sincerity is to justify one in exploiting the lowest traits of human nature; and in ignoring that sense in man which Cicero says differentiates him from other animals - his sense of what is decent - then sincerity is to pander to a torpid animalism."
One doesn't need to agree with Davis's assessment of Joyce to understand that he might have been prescient and understood slippery slopes; in a brief eighty years we have travelled to a world of genuine barbarity in manners and the arts and created a tyranny of sensitivity police in which race-consiousness has made voices like Davis's impossible to hear outside of the conservative press. Davis and other critics of loosening social mores were writing in The Crisis, a magazine of the NAACP (an organization for whom the above-quoted conservative George Schuyler was financial officer; imagine Thomas Sowell holding such a post today), as well as the black newspapers and "Opportunity," the official journal of the Urban League. Talk about diversity.
Sadly, however, there was often an ugly form of racism behind remarks such as Davis's. Following World War I, any light-skinned blacks, known as "high yellows" and desirous of "passing" for white, were contemptuous of those with darker skin and less social standing. As the late historian Constance Green noted in "The Secret City, after World War I "Upper-class families, tired of making common cause with needy blacks, washed their hands of every group but their own...the creed of the high yellow ran: let the uninformed masses applaud Marcus Garvey, the 'black Moses"....Let the vulgar loaf on 7th Street"
Fittingly, 7th Street was one of the few places in Washington where Langston Hughes felt welcome. He called the corridor that ran up to Howard University the place where "they played the blues, ate watermelon, barbecue, and fish sandwiches, shot pool, told tall tales, looked at the home of the Capitol and laughed out loud." To him, "Seventh Street was always teemingly alive with dark working people who hadn't yet acquired 'culture' and the manners of stage ambassadors." Hughes would set many of his raw, earthy poems along the 7th. He would write many of them in New York, where he moved in 1927.
Perhaps the third greatest talent, after Hughes and Duke Ellington, that Washington lost to New York was Jean Toomer. Toomer was a young writer who would gain fame in New York, largely because he felt unwelcome in Washington. In 1925 Toomer, who had grown up in the district and been the assistant manager of the Howard Theater in Shaw, published a novel, "Cane," that gained wide recognition in New York. It made a splash in New York, but Washington barely noticed. According to Langston Hughes, no one in "the cultured colored society of Washington...seemed to know anything about the book and cared less." According to Constance Green's "The Secret City," Washington's black elite thought "Cane" and a similar work, Rudolph Fisher's "City of Refuge," were too "black," depicting characters without refinement or education. Green claims that by 1925 many artists had left Washington for New York to avoid being "throttled by the dead hand of the past," as one historian put it. African-American and Washingtonian writer Dixon Wecter blasted the elite Washington's "pseudo culture, their slavish devotion to Nordic standards, their snobbishness, their detachment from the Negro masses and their vast sense of importance to themselves."
As for the conservative black intelligentsia, the proper attitude was obvious: modernism was lascivious garbage. Perhaps the most splenetic condemnations of the Harlem Renaissance came in 1927 from Kelly Miller, the chairman of the sociology department at Howard. In 1926 a white man named Carl Van Vechten had authored a novel called "Nigger Heaven" that claimed that Harlem was the home of black culture. Miller fired back in the pages of the Urban League's magazine "Opportunity." He was unsparing: "The New Negro of whom we have heard so much is nothing but the old [southern] Negro exposed to the Harlem environment." "Nigger Heaven" was "merely an artistic portrayal of the Harlem Negro, in his gayer mood for joy and jazz...the Negro life in Harlem is mainly effervescence and froth without seriousness or solid supporting basis. The riot of frolic and frivolity is characteristic of Babylon on the verge of destruction rather than of Heaven, the blissful abode of tradition." If every black were removed from New York, Miller concluded, "nothing would be missed but the jazz and the blues." Miller didn't realize at the time that, compared to the sewer of pop music around today, jazz and blues seem like the essence of high art.
Despite opinions like those of Miller, there was a small, if ultimately unsuccessful, effort to foster avant-garde black talent in spite of the conservative backlash. In 1912 Alan Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, joined the faculty at Howard University. Described as "a man of immense organizing energies," Locke would become a devotee of modernism and the force behind many Washington literary clubs that helped keep black talent from heading north. In 1916 he formed a literary group called the Stylus, which published a magazine of the same name. One of the young talents Locke encouraged was Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston would also eventually go to New York, but she credited the Stylus with being an important beginning to her career.
It was in the 1920s, however, that Locke hit his stride as a literary mentor. In 1925 he edited a special "Harlem Issue" of the magazine "Survey" which sold an astonishing 40,000 copies. (No one seemed to notice that this special Harlem issue was edited and published in Washington.) That same year he edited "The New Negro," a compilation of plays, short stories and essays by black writers that became a benchmark of the Harlem Renaissance. Of the thirty-five contributors, sixteen had an affiliation with Washington, either by birth, education or work.
Locke was sidelined for two year in the mid 1920s when he was fired form Howard over a salary dispute, but his work was taken up by the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. In the early 20s Douglas formed the Saturday Nighters, a pro-modernist literary group that met at her rowhouse on S and 15th Northwest, just down the block from the YMCA where Langston Hughes lived.
Hughes would show up to, as he later put it, "eat Mrs. Johnson's cake and drink her wine and talk poetry and books and plays." Also present was the writer Albert Rice who claimed he found refuge in Douglas' home from Washington, which was "a center of Babbitts, both black and white." Jean Toomer attended until he left for New York, but he would often stop in for a surprise visit when he was back in Washington. Frequent guests included the writer Charles S. Johnson, the poet Lewis Alexander and playwright Willis Richardson. Less regular were visits from Alain Locke, WEB Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, the father of black history.
Such luminaries, however, couldn't prevent the District from bleeding talent. Duke Ellington left for New York in 1923, and he was shortly followed by a host of young writers: Hughes, Jean Toomer, Rudolph Fisher (who would become one of the best novelists of the Harlem Renaissance), Albert Rice. Soon the numbers of the Saturday Nighters had dwindled, its luster lost to New York, which to this day had not acknowledged siphoning much of the best and brightest to spawn the Harlem Renaissance.