Summary of Book
When Harlem was in Vogue, David L. Lewis’s celebrated account of the Harlem Renaissance, was published by Knopf in1981. The latest edition, a Penguin paperback with a luminous new preface added by the author, appeared in 1997. In Lewis’s view, the1919 Fifth-Avenue parade celebrating the return to Harlem from World War I of the famed 369th Regiment of the New York National Guard signaled the arrival of a black America ready for the phenomenon that became known as the Harlem Renaissance; and the bloody 1935 Harlem riot reflected the dramatic abruptness with which the Great Depression had already prematurely extinguished the Renaissance’s brief starburst. The heroic 369th - entirely black except for the18 white officers who led it in combat - had so impressed the French High Command that (contrary to the expressed wishes of senior American commanders) they chose it among all Allied forces as the regiment to lead the final march to the Rhine. It was the only U.S. unit awarded the Croix de Guerre. Its only black commissioned officer was Jim Europe - a widely-known bandleader - who conducted the regimental band. When America entered World War I, the most influential black intellectual – W.E.B. DuBois – counseled blacks of fighting age to serve their country unstintingly despite the nation’s bitter history of racism and a succession of insulting decisions by the U.S. military demonstrating that they had little confidence that American Negroes had the courage or intelligence to serve in the armed forces in any but the most menial noncombat roles.
DuBois emerged as the guiding spirit of the Renaissance. Lewis describes him as “the senior intellectual militant of his people, a symbol of brainy, complex, arrogant rectitude,” who, although short of stature “ towered over other men, defiant, uncompromising (but maddeningly inconsistent.)” DuBois was a fervent integrationist. His older rival, Booker T. Washington, was not. Washington, a descendant of slaves who was born to poverty, had counseled American blacks to be patient, accepting, hardworking and humble. He had led Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from its founding as a one-room school to its evolution into a first-quality trade school training American Negroes for success in the kinds of jobs they could expect to find. Fisk University in Nashville was a black college more to DuBois’s taste. Fisk’s goal was to be for blacks a liberal arts college in the finest American traditiion. Washington died in 1915. The next decade and a half belonged to DuBois and his Talented Tenth: the black intelligentsia ( novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, composers, academics and the like.) And a fascinating lot they - and those they interacted with - were. DuBois believed that if educated, enlightened whites were properly exposed to a continuing stream of first rate art from a wide array of black artists, they would come to recognize a black Talented Tenth every bit as intelligent, cultured and creative as the brightest, best educated, most cultivated whites. And that, he believed, would be the catalyst for ending racism and inequality not only for the Talented Tenth but for blacks of all classes. He would prove painfully wrong.
During the “ madcap twenties,” there was a close bond between Manhattan’s black and white bohemias : Harlem at the northern tip of the Island and Greenwich Village at the southern end. It was a time, according to Langston Hughes: when at almost every Harlem upper-crust dance or party, one would be introduced to various distinguished white celebrities there as guests. . . .when almost every Harlem Negro of any social importance at all would be likely to say casually: ‘As I was remarking the other day to Heywood’ - meaning Heywood Broun. Or: ‘As I said to George’ - referring to George Gershwin. . . . [a time] when local and visiting royalty were not uncommon in Harlem.