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The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White.

Reviewed by

Claudia Tate Princeton University

The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, by George Hutchinson, is a book of monumental scope. It documents the development of a segment of African American literary tradition, generally known as the Harlem Renaissance, by placing that tradition within an encyclopedic genealogy of modern American literary culture. Hutchinson contends that the famous precursors to his study, namely Nathan Huggins's Harlem Renaissance (1971) and David Levering Lewis's When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981), limited their critical parameters "with too exclusive a focus upon issues of race, inadequate notions of American modernism, insufficiently particularized narratives of the intellectual and institutional mediations between black and white agents of the Renaissance, and curiously narrow conceptions" of the social conditions "in which those agents acted" (3).

By understanding the Harlem Renaissance as an integral part of American cultural nationalism and its discourses of modernity, Hutchinson connects the histories of American modernism and American interracial culture. In the role of "the satirical genealogist tracing the illegitimacy of origins," Hutchinson explains his purpose as "tell[ing] a new story of the contexts, crosscurrents, and the effectiveness of the Harlem Renaissance" by recovering "the meeting of black and white intellectuals on the grounds of American cultural nationalism" (2). In this way Hutchinson critiques Huggins's story of the generational, masculine conflicts of "the rear guard" of "the talented tenth" and "the young Turks," on the one hand, and Lewis's social history of "Harlem's Golden Age," on the other. Neither a social history of an age nor a cultural manifesto, Hutchinson's Harlem Renaissance in Black and White challenges the assumed opposition between American and African American cultural nationalisms and that between assimilationism and multi-culturalism. He makes his point about the hybridity of the Harlem Renaissance and American literary modernism by surveying an expansive field of the modern cultural institutions of the United States. In doing so, he reveals the complex interplay of literary text and social context at a time when black and white intellectuals met under the exegesis of modern U.S. print culture to construct an American cultural nationalism not entirely defined by racial segregation or represented in subsequent literary studies.

The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White is an impressive study in scope, detail, and analysis. Part I surveys the intellectual milieu that helped to engender the Renaissance: the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, Franz Boas's anthropological studies of cultural pluralism, and the literary magazines that defined the emergence of both a national literature and the intellectual left. Part II surveys the literary institutions that influenced and were influenced by the Renaissance. These include magazines (such as The Crisis, The Nation, The New Republic, The Modern Quarterly, The Messenger, and The American Mercury) and publishing concerns that featured Harlem Renaissance works. Part III focuses on the production history of Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro (1925) and the events leading up to the (in)famous 1924 Opportunity dinner. Hutchinson uses the circumstances surrounding the dinner to re-interpret the significance of Locke's anthology and "the New Negro" movement. Hutchinson concludes by arguing that the 1920s' writers used their "critiques of the 'Harlem movement' to establish their positions" (435-36) and thereby constructed what Van Wyck Brooks had already termed "a usable past" for their own personal literary histories. What Hutchinson makes clear is that the Renaissance did not just die or become simply a prologue for the Black Arts Movement. Neither did the Renaissance become a simple staging of the conflict between the primitive and the assimilationist Negro.

Even though the white literary establishment of the 1930s expressed a continued preference for primitive black exoticism, black writing, according to Hutchinson, generally turned to examining issues of class and capitalism. Ironically, he fails fully to contextualize this desire in the development of American literary modernism. Had Hutchinson provided an intertextual discussion of Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo (1912-13) and Boas's works, for example, he could have provided a stronger basis for explaining why the cult of the primitive captured the popular imagination of the West. In addition, the absence of Freud seems a curious omission for a work that focuses on surveying the intellectual currency of the period, for as many cultural critics have persistently explained, Freudian theory appears prominently in literary works of Harlem Renaissance writers and the white modernists. Despite this oversight, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White presents the rich and complex interplay between the modern cultural nationalisms of black and white America that characterized the decade of the 1920s and its aftermath.
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Author:Tate, Claudia
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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