How Black is It? Renaissance Man George S. Schuyler vs. the Harlem “Renaissance”
March 7, 2002
Toogood Reports/A Different Drummer
How black is Spike Lee? Are his movies the expression of an authentically black consciousness, or is Lee merely the marionette of the rich, powerful white men in Hollywood pulling his strings?
The questions I posed above regarding black authenticity are based on absurd premises. That is not because I asked the questions of Spike Lee, but because there is no such quality as “racial authenticity.” And of course, if one could question a black’s racial authenticity, one could — indeed, must — ask the same question of whites.
Being black is a matter of skin color, just as being white or oriental is. If blacks did not enjoy a veto right over discussions of race in America, white critics would be able to point out, within the mainstream culture, that all talk of racial authenticity is racist, and on a par with Nazism.
Most Americans assume that talk of “authenticity” and black “roots” began in the 1960s. In fact, this particular plague goes back to 1920s’ Harlem and Greenwich Village.
In the Gospel According to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1920s saw the greatest flowering of black creativity in America’s history. What was then known as the “New Negro Movement,” was later renamed by academics, the “Harlem Renaissance.”
And though racially correct, tenured academics, and racist black writers and editors have for generations airbrushed him out of the picture, George Samuel Schuyler was there, front and center, attacking the dogmas of the “renaissance”:
... 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 the sons of Ham who have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years.
Harlem was the site of a seemingly unlimited supply of race-oriented, literary hack work, as urban negroes sought to plant “roots” in the cracks in the concrete. What black literature professors call a “renaissance,” was creatively speaking, a zombie jamboree. To borrow from the Chris Rock movie, CB4, one black writer after another said, in effect, “I’m black, and I’m black, and I’m black ...,”
One of the most oft-quoted poems of the Black Renaissance is Countee Cullen’s (1903-1946) “Yet Do I Marvel”:
I doubt not G-d is good, well-meaning, kind And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
Customarily, only the last two lines are quoted, and indeed, they are apparently all that mattered to Cullen, for whom the previous twelve lines were mere pretext. Cullen did write some good poetry, but he is revered for his racial hack work.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), the poster boy for the “Renaissance,” wrote a, um, “poem” in 1924, “Theme for English B,” which today appears in countless literature anthologies:
The instructor said,
“Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you —
Then, it will be true.”
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me — we two — you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me — who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records — Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white —
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me —
although you’re older — and white —
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
As sophomoric as the preceding exercise — really an essay in poetic drag — may seem, it represented a high point in Langston Hughes’ racial thinking. If at age 22, he realized that a purely “Negro art” was impossible in America, by the time he was 24, he had struck ebony, and was a prominent, “New Negro.” Hughes had by then adopted the view that any black poet not consciously striving to be “black,” was an Uncle Tom.
(Postscript 2011: At some point, a reader informed me that Hughes had actually written the foregoing doggerel over twenty years later than the, er, thing suggests. If that is so, so much the worse for Hughes and his promoters. What could be forgiven as a sophomoric exercise by a 22-year-old, is unforgivable amateurism in a middle-aged “poet.”)