WHEN HARLEM WAS IN VOGUE by David Levering Lewis

WHEN HARLEM WAS IN VOGUE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Lewis (Prisoners of Honor, King) brings strong socio-political perspectives to his study of the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1924-1933)--in a well-researched, sturdily written account which is, however, uncertainly organized and somewhat lacking in flavor. Starting off with the disappointing state of black rights after WW I--their patriotic service and demands for better treatment seemed to bring only more lynchings--Lewis presents the black Élite's new championing of culture as an inevitable alternative to the perils of militancy: ""the sole battle plan affording both high visibility and low vulnerability. . . . Each book, play, poem, or canvas by an Afro-American would become a weapon against the old racial stereotypes."" Thus, with leadership from such exquisitely educated blacks as W. E. B. Du Bois (""Afro-America's greatest mind and most eloquent pen""), Charles Johnson of the Urban League's Opportunity magazine, and Howard U. prof Alain Locke (""the Proust of Lenox Avenue""), the emphasis was on class and polish: ""too much street-geist and folklore. . . were not welcome."" And this esthetic was at first served well, if sometimes reluctantly, by the available talent: Jamaican Claude McKay, light-skinned Adonis Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and others. Help came from white publishers and philanthropists (Jews especially); the tone was set by black socialites like A'Lelia Walker (the ""dekink heiress""); Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington (at the Savoy and the Cotton Club) brought in droves of white enthusiasts. But this couldn't last, of course: provoked by Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, black artists turned to plebeian, ""folk-centered"" material; feuds broke out; the Depression ravaged Harlem; communism became more attractive; and it became clear that the ""Niggerati"" had ""deceived themselves into thinking that [US] race relations. . . were amenable to the assimilationist patterns of a Latin country."" A workable enough premise--but Lewis' narrative, largely dependent on a series of bio-profiles, never quite focuses. And the emphasis on fiction short-changes the period's music and art. Still: this is informative, literate social history, occasionally--if erratically--spiced with anecdote and personality.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1981
ISBN: 0140263349
Publisher: Knopf