WHEN WASHINGTON WAS IN VOGUE by Edward Christopher Williams


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Long-lost fiction, written in the 1920s by the first professionally trained African-American librarian, about a young man’s romantic adventures among the black elite of Washington, DC.

Williams (1871–1929), a minor figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was a mulatto (his mother was Irish) who serialized this story in The Messenger in 1925 and 1926. Published now as a novel, it consists entirely of letters written by WWI veteran Davy Carr describing his first impressions of Washington to his old army buddy Bob Fletcher back in Harlem. Davy is light enough to pass for white, and he moves somewhat self-consciously through the upper echelons of the District’s black society (where nuances of “lightness” or “darkness” take on an almost Talmudic importance) as he researches a study of the African slave trade. At his boardinghouse, Davy becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with his landlady’s daughter, Caroline Rhodes, a kind of African-American Sally Bowles who smokes cigarettes, flirts shamelessly, and knows all the latest dances. Serious and high-minded—and, frankly, something of a stuffed shirt—Davy disapproves of Caroline and tells her so. But he’s drawn to her in spite of himself. The story is basic boy-meets-girl, with the ending a foregone conclusion by the second chapter and no really convincing obstacles in the way, so that the only distinguishing features to speak of are race and class. The fact that Caroline is dark-skinned while Davy is light may throw in a dramatic frisson for historians and Black Studies scholars, but for most of us this will have little engaging power or lift. Meanwhile, Williams’s petty snobberies are aggravating enough without the addition of his bad imitation of Jane Austen (“The ladies, except Mrs. Wallace, are all very fair, and would not be likely to be taken for colored, and in manner and dress they all of them showed real class”).

Of academic interest only.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-055545-9
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2003