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The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters

by Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar (Editor)

Johns Hopkins University Press | 2010

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

jeffrey ogbar

The Harlem Renaissance has always been an appealing moment in American history, but never more so than in times of economic hardship, when little distraction from uncertainty and dull necessity seem to exist. In a period of contraction and austerity, any flowering of culture serves as a powerful reaffirmation of a society’s value and provides something to counteract the apparent meaninglessness of the daily struggle.

In light of the current recession, Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar’s recent collection of scholarship, The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters, is well timed. One essay in particular, Back to Harlem: Abstract and Everyday Labor during the Harlem Renaissance, by Jacob S. Dorman, strikes a chord in the attention it devotes to “the masses of people who lined [Harlem’s] streets”—the majority of whom faced backbreaking labor and wearying unemployment alternately, as well as a prohibitively high cost of living (Dorman observes that many Harlem residents, especially families with children, were forced to take in boarders) and consistent discrimination. Dorman rightly notes that “the abstracted Harlem of the literary imagination” has overshadowed the reality of life for most of the neighborhood’s inhabitants in the public mind.

Despite this insightful chapter and the concluding essay of the collection that focuses on the fascinating phenomenon of African American travel and involvement in Soviet Russia from the 1920s up to the beginning of World War II (Maxim Matusevich’s Harlem Globetrotters: Black Sojourners in Stalin’s Soviet Union), most of Ogbar’s articles focus on the art and literature produced in Harlem during this era. It is possibly because these subjects have been treated so thoroughly within the canon that this focus seems detrimental to the book as a whole.

What new insight is Ogbar able to unearth in this volume—what in these pages makes Harlem worth “revisiting”? There are certainly a number of reasons for such a trip, but Ogbar seems to have not been able to choose one—and so, jamming them all between two covers, the final product lacks focus.

The volume thus raises two important questions: First, why does Ogbar’s collection seem so little concerned with what aspects of the Harlem Renaissance we can bring to bear upon American society at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Second, what are these aspects?

Regarding the first question: Literature and arts scholarship can all too easily fall into the trap of insularity. In the humanities disciplines, scholars pride themselves on a certain purity of approach that examines the works in question under a microscope, as if they existed in a vacuum. Even those studies that do take into account societal currents and the flaws and desires of the work’s creator—seeing the work as both a product of the times and as something to be interacted with and that affects change in the world at that moment—still fail to extend this consideration to the present time. How does the work affect and interact with us today? Why and how does it continue to have meaning for us? These problems aren’t helped by the need of our academics to secure tenure; for many, the solution on which they fix is to study, in exhaustive detail, minor works that have been ignored—often with reason. Ogbar’s collection seems to fall into this trap.

The second question is probably more important and more open to interpretation. Last autumn, I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the City University of New York on the Depression that addressed the question of how an economic crisis impacts the arts. The panel of speakers offered three examples: a crisis exacerbates critique of the present circumstances; the arts receive new sources of support; and a crisis leads to the construction of a new kind of audience and public. Art becomes more accessible during a crisis, because people start to understand the vital necessity of the arts and literature to their lives.

Although the Harlem Renaissance predated the Depression, the economic reality faced by black Americans in the earlier era was similar to the later period faced by the nation as a whole. The art that was produced during the Harlem Renaissance was created in the face of great hardship and yet it was able to break new ground in modes of communication, in intensity of critique, and in the transformation of its audience.

We live in an era when marginalized groups are increasingly raising their voices, but we have not yet seen the same kind of artistic outpouring that the Harlem Renaissance saw. It would have been interesting had Ogbar’s collection consistently investigated not only the inner workings of the literature, but also the kind of response that they received. Essays such as So the Girl Marries, concerning the DuBois-Cullen marriage, touch on both points and are able to provide insight into the perspectives of people at the time (and how similar many of their reactions seem to those expressed today!). But others are sorely lacking in this department and risk pushing the Harlem Renaissance onto the back burner of a dusty academic shelf, which would certainly be a loss to us all.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor and freelance writer living in Washington, DC.