A RENAISSANCE IN HARLEM by Lionel C. Bascom

A RENAISSANCE IN HARLEM

Lost Voices of an American Community
edited by

KIRKUS REVIEW

Urban archaeological discoveries of the lost world of the Harlem Renaissance. Journalist and English professor Bascom (Western Conn. State Univ.) presents over 45 pieces written by WPA Writers— Project artists from Harlem. Contending that the Harlem Renaissance was deliberately misrepresented by elite intellectuals who mimicked establishment literary standards, Bascom has chosen stories that represent the common folk of the emerging 1930s ghetto. The lives of maids, prostitutes, fish vendors, railway porters, hairdressers, and their clients are vividly depicted. Pimps and other cheats, in or out of the community, get theirs. Other pieces describe Harlem rituals and everyday happenings largely unknown to outsiders—for example, the rent parties colorfully reported by Frank Byrd. To raise the rent, residents of Harlem raised the roof at Saturday-night parties, where guests “partook freely of fried chicken, pork chops, pigs feet, and potato salad, not to mention homemade ‘cawn’ liquor that was for sale in the kitchen or at a makeshift bar in the hallway.” Spirited bands and frenzied dancers helped black Harlemites forget they were charged rents that were 40 to 60 percent higher than whites paid for similar apartments. Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, as described by Dorothy West, was an institution that attracted not only “swaggering blacks” and “holidaying hardworking Negroes,” but “sightseeing whites” and intruders called “jitterbug whites.” West disdains a white Amateur Night winner who sings, “Someone had to plow the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to work while the white folks played, That’s why darkies were born.” Many of the characters here fascinate, especially the charismatic Father Divine, who even recruited Jews into a spiritual empire that offered hope, salvation, and good food. A unique and valuable addition to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, recovering works by notables like Dorothy West and Ralph Ellison as well as relative unknowns like Frank Byrd and Vivian Morris.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1999
ISBN: 0-380-97664-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Avon/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1999




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