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Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination.

Most of us are familiar with the white media's image of Harlem. Exploited by slum landlords, drug dealers, and worn-out merchants, its inhabitants are largely unemployed and on welfare. They smoke dope, drink Colt-45, and carry concealed weapons. Those who play basketball or make rap music may get out. White people who wander north of 125th Street between Park and Amsterdam in search of Sylvia's chicken and peach cobbler take their lives into their hands. James De Jongh would not deny that life in Harlem can be hell for inhabitants as well as visitors, but he offers serious insight about why the Harlem on CNN is not Black Harlem: Africana writers have taken Harlem as their own to define.

What De Jongh gives us in Vicious Modernism is a history of the evolving political consciousness of Africana writers. He arranges his material chronologically into three major sections of four chapters each, beginning in the twenties after Harlem, once an affluent white suburb, became the legendary capital of blues and jazz, "the landscape and dreamscape" Langston Hughes celebrated in The Weary Blues, much to the consternation of the black establishment who regarded spirituals as the standard art form and who disapproved of the sexual immorality they believed implicit in cabaret life. This is the New Negro Harlem that represented joy, exhileration, and exuberance, the inspiration for white modernist writers and painters to celebrate " the uninhibited, primitive quality of Negro joy," the exotic opposite of their post-World-War-I alienation and melancholy. However, with the exception of Jean Toomer's Cane and the works of Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance did not produce, according to De Jongh, worthy indigenous literature - a controversial opinion. Instead, a "generic Harlem novel" was created with requisite themes of passing, intraracial color prejudice, and class divisions set against "atavistic and exotic local color." And by the thirties, influenced by left politics, Hughes was publishing in such journals as Negro Worker and New Masses poems that were inferior (in De Jongh's estimation) because they were written in the language of the "European proletariat." Black writers outside the States were the ones who properly defined the New Negro Harlem: Haitian poet Jean Brierre envisioned Harlem as a "human personality representing all of Black America"; Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor prophesied that New York would be saved by the "African humanism of black Harlem." That they wrote in French deserves more discussion on De Jongh's part, but they did articulate before many others the perspective that Harlem could embody the African experience for all Africans.

De Jongh reveals the complexity of this conflict between Africana perspective and white modernist perspective. He introduces the section called "The Emerging Ghetto: The 1940s and 1950s" with a historical chapter about Harlem's economic decline, how after the riots of 1935 and 1943 Harlem lost its romantic public image, its exotic charm. However, during these same years, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin looked to Harlem as a means for articulating and verifying the African American experience, endowing it with "transcendent and enduring literary history." They produced outstanding novels - The Street, Invisible Man, and Go Tell It on the Mountain - works that portrayed Harlem in vivid terms, with its rich vocabulary, and the various if chaotic possibilities it presented for making a meaningful life.

In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Langston Hughes returned to a lyrical mode, his way of confronting the desperation of the Harlem ghetto, turning around grim, hopeless outlooks by giving younger poets a Harlem that could embody their yearnings for fulfillment. De Jongh believes that Amiri Baraka picked up on this in his only Harlem poem, "Return of the Native":

Harlem is vicious

modernism. Bangclash.

Vicious the way it's made.

Can you stand such beauty.

So violent and transforming.

Rejecting his beatnik phase, his time as an "antibourgeois individualist," Baraka was discovering a new way to express hope and affirmation for his community despite the suffering and oppression that permeated the neighborhood. Salvation would be inevitable once the people of Harlem realized that a new and good life could be found in the destruction of the old and corrupt one. Unlike his colleagues', Baraka's brand of modernism was an aggressive aesthetic, as militant as it was metaphorical.

It is precisely this difference that marks the divide between Baraka and his hip white friends, between Black Harlem and Harlem. Just when Black writers were figuring out new ways "to revise the trope of Harlem as a city of refuge from American racism," the Beat poets turned to the metaphor of Harlem as an "icon of suffering" to help them express their own sense of suffering. Citing poems by Auen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, De Jongh asserts that this image of Harlem is a white image, useful for expressing the alienation of middle-class whites growing up in America during the forties and fifties. Their image assumes a "fundamental otherness of Negro life," but De Jongh sells many Beat poets short by implying that they lacked a social conscience. On the other hand, Africana writers outside the United States get a higher rating: Oyarzun, Huerta, Florit, Kurtz, and Lara Filho saw how to incorporate the ghetto of Black Harlem into a perspective of Pan Africanism that challenged racial oppression. By the end of the fifties, De Jongh believes the challenge to African American writers was clear: Keep the "culture symbol of black Harlem alive" without sacrificing the political imperatives of everyday reality.

In the third section, "The Inner City: The 1960s and 1970s," De Jongh's dialectic coalesces into a vibrant description of a new kind of Black literature, inspired to a great extent by the Black Arts Movement's use of Harlem as an inner landscape of the spirit that grew out of the "ironic disjunction between possibility and actuality in Harlem," a phenomenon that already existed in the twenties. However, the legend of Harlem would not rest on its famous cabaret life but on such heroes as Langston Hughes and Malcolm X. Its literature would reflect a "collective spirit and racial voice," as described by Vashti Lewis. This literature is nationalistic, topical, written in everyday language in order to inspire change. De Jongh cites the work of Charles Cobb, Gil Scott-Heron, David Henderson, James Emanuel, and Ted Joans as first-class examples of a mode that charts "a map of moral geography of American oppression" with Harlem as its place of return and departure. Other writers such as Charles Wright, Ishmael Reed, Chester Himes, and Henry Dumas are also excellent examples, their work endowed with a surreal quality that emphasizes impending and welcome change. De Jongh also cites the work of Martin Glass, Abeylard Pereira Gomes, Anne Sandowski, and Diane Di Prima as examples of non-black authors who successfully use Harlem to indict world racism.

At times De Jongh's language is repetitive and overly abstract. However, his is a prodigious piece of scholarship. De Jongh provides his readers with extensive checklists of Black Harlem in poetry and novels. His notes illustrate how exhaustive his research is. Moreover, he rarely makes the reader feel that he is forcing the works he cites to support his thesis. At the same time, he has articulated a perspective that is essential to understanding why there is still so much racial conflict and oppression in the United States, and why the reality of the media is one version only.

James De Jongh. Vicious Modernism., Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 280pp. $34.95
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Article Details
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Author:Hamalian, Linda
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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