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From the Wild, Wild West to Harlem's Literary Salons.

Wallace Thurman started out as an outsider in Mormon Utah and brought his own uniquely witty satire to the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance

Wallace Thurman was a genius to his friends and colleagues of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes records his admiration for Thurman in his autobiography, The Big Sea (August 1993). Noting that Thurman had an enviable critical mind, Hughes described him as "a strangely brilliant black boy, who had read everything." By the time of his death in 1934 at the young age of 32, Thurman could only be described as a revolutionary pioneer given the enviable record he left as his legacy.

He published three novels: The Blacker the Berry, 1929; Infants of the Spring, 1932; and The Interme, 1932. His play Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem (written in collaboration with William Jourdan Rapp) had reached Broadway. Perhaps most importantly, Thurman, along with Aaron Douglass, Bruce Nugent, Hurston and Hughes, founded Fire in 1926. The publication was so named, according to Hughes, "to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past ... into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication not available in the limited pages of the small Negro magazines then existing...."

For many critics, Fire, more than Locke's anthology The New Negro in 1925, launched the Harlem Renaissance. Born on August 6, 1902, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Thurman grew up in predominantly white Boise, Idaho and Salt Lake City at the turn of the century. In Utah, Jim Crowism, although primarily identified with the South, was not only practiced but sanctioned by the Mormon settlers of the Great Salt Lake Basin and Utah Territory, many of whom had brought their black slaves and servants with them in the middle of the nineteenth century. In Salt Lake City, the Mormon Zion, Thurman had far from escaped the suffocating tentacles of the Supreme Court's 1895 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing and endorsing the color line of "separate but equal."

Although not a Mormon, Thurman grew up and was educated in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' (LDS) controlled community and public school system. In this theocracy, followers of its founder Joseph Smith and prophet Brigham Young, who envisioned themselves as God's "chosen" argued that "the Negro" was a clear descendant of the Lamanites, dark-skinned and unenlightened people who God had deemed unworthy of His grace. Segregation, a cardinal principle of the Church, made sure that, although allowed to join the LDS Church, African Americans were denied access to the priesthood, a significant venue for empowerment and validation within its tenets.

The clear sense of marginalization, if not outright erasure, known by Thurman and his family, added to the isolating effects of his mother's unstable domestic relationships, which placed him in the custody of Emma Jackson, his maternal grandmother known as "Ma Jack." Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood he was shuttled between Idaho and Utah, with additional stints in Chicago and Omaha. Two other factors indelibly shaped young Thurman's life: his fragile health and his dark complexion, which proved problematic among both blacks and whites. Hughes described Thurman as a "quite dark young Negro" in The Big Sea.

Doris Frye who remembers attending the young ladies missionary society in Ma Jack's living room where Salt Lake City's Calvary Baptist Church was founded 106 years ago. The sickly and very shy Thurman would occasionally poke his head to get his grandmother's attention--"it was very, very hard to grow up in Utah in those days." Still deeply troubled by the taunts of her classmates, and profoundly insulted by her outsider status, Mrs. Frye, now a distinguished widow in her nineties and the oldest member of Calvary Baptist Church, recalls: "It was alright for [whites] to call us niggers to our face."

Despite numerous setbacks, Thurman graduated from Salt Lake City's West High School, whose current principal, Joyce Grey, is African American. He worked at the Hotel Utah, an establishment infamous for barring Marion Anderson's entrance through its front doors, and attended the University of Utah as a pre-med student, before transferring to the University of Southern California to study journalism.

While in Los Angeles, he was the associate editor of The Pacific Defender, a black newspaper, and started his first artistic journal, The Outlet. He also became acquainted with the up-and-coming leaders of the black literati like Arna Bontemps who worked, like Thurman, as a postal clerk. Three years later, he moved to Harlem and started his second magazine, The Looking Glass, and worked as reporter and editor for the Messenger, formally the journal of Harlem's radical socialists. He would later become the first black reader at Macaulay Publishers.

In a letter to Claude McKay, Thurman describes his early activities and experiences in Harlem. "I have become a poet, because I once wrote a poem which gained honorable mention in an Opportunity [magazine] contest and was used by the honorable Mr. Braithwaite in one of his anthologies. I have also become a critic, because I wrote two articles, one for the New Republic and one for the Independent, in which I tried sincerely to debunk this Negro literary renaissance." Thurman biographer Eleonore Van Notten describes him as the leader of a rebellion against the "propagandist motivation" of old guard (W.E.B. DuBois' "talented tenth"), who were driven by a desire to promote their integrationist agenda for racial equality by promoting African American art.

What remains true, however, is that Thurman and his cohorts, unlike Locke and DuBois, wished to celebrate unrestrictedly the spectrum of blackness: the beauty and the ugliness. Through his dark-skinned heroine, Emma Lou Johnson, Thurman chose to focus critically on the ugly intraracial conflicts within African American culture based on skin color in his first novel, The Blacker the Berry. As Hughes candidly declared in The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain, "We know we are beautiful. And ugly too."

Although he lacked the scholarly and academic credentials of DuBois or Alain Locke, who have historically been placed in the vanguard of this movement as intellectual leaders, Thurman's commanding role, intellectually and artistically, coupled with his commitment to celebrating, like Hughes and Hurston, the experience of ordinary folk, must not be gainsaid. Ironically, until recently his reputation as a significant twentieth-century African American male novelist--a forerunner to Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison--has remained unknown. Despite this fact, Thurman stands in the vanguard of a tradition of black revolutionary writers.

Renaissance Rites

Wallace Thurman's elegant fiction and nonfiction illuminate the vibrant and diverse culture of the Harlem Renaissance.

Infants of the Spring (Black Classics Series) X-Press, February 1999, $10.95 ISBN 1-874-50961-1

The Blacker the Berry Scribner, February 1996, $11.00 ISBN 0-684-81580-X

Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists Edited by Wallace Thurman Fire Press, June 1985, $18.00 ISBN 9-995-36412-3

Wilfred Samuels is president of the African American Literature & Culture Society and coordinator of this year's conference on Thurman. For more information contact: or log on to

Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels is an Associate Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah as well as the Director of the African American literature program. His published works include a book he coauthored about the Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison. An award winning author, Dr. Samuel is president of the African American Literature and Cultural Society, is an executive board member of the American Literature Association (ALA) and is hosting "Looking Back With Pleasure II: A Celebration," honoring the work of Wallace Thurman. He pays tribute to the author on page 14.
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Author:Samuels, Wilfred D.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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