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Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, and the establishment of Black literature [excerpt]

 In March of 1924, Charles S. Johnson, sociologist and editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, approached Alain Locke with a proposal: a dinner was being organized with the intention to secure interracial support for Black literature. Locke would attend the dinner as “master of ceremonies” with the responsibility of creating the bridge between Black writers and potential White allies. Both Johnson and Locke recognized that a literary movement centered on the Black experience in America would need White support in order to gain momentum. The following excerpt from The New Negro details how Locke secured a space for Young Black writers within the larger literary community.

As March 21 approached, participants became nervous. A week before the dinner, Bennett wrote Locke, “I am so glad that you have agreed to come. I feel the utter necessity of your being there.” Bennett was even more grateful he would be out front when the day of the event arrived. “You are particularly appreciated,” she wrote to Locke, “because of the tremendous and unswerving confidence that you have in us. Your faith in our utter necessity is particularly helpful as I find that my mind is not clear on the eve of this momentous event.” Even Johnson seemed nervous. After confiding in Locke that “the thing has gone over big, nothing can be allowed to go wrong now,” Johnson asked him to come up early that day to help him finalize the evening’s program. “I would like to see you as early as possible to have the first talk about plans, and probably, we shall have to do most of the arranging of the program then.” After a short introduction by Johnson, Locke would discuss the significance of these new writers, and then introduce Carl Van Doren who would outline his hopes for the Negro writer. Then, Horace Liveright, the publisher of Cane and There Is Confusion, would make a few remarks about the publishing scene for Negro books, a market-reassuring strategy most likely recommended by Johnson. After, Gwendolyn Bennett, Countee Cullen, and a few others would read poems and give testimonials. Jessie Fauset would give the closing remarks.

Work on the program concluded, two of the smallest African Americans—Johnson was only 5´2˝—proceeded to the Civic Club dinner, dressed to the nines that Friday evening. Locke began his remarks by arguing that a new sense of hope and promise energized the young writers assembled, because they “sense within their group—meaning the Negro group—a spiritual wealth which if they properly expound will be ample for a new judgment and re-appraisal of the race.” Although Locke’s optimism has led critics to claim that he promised Black literature would solve the race problem, his language was actually quite cautious. Negro literature would “be ample,” that is, sufficient, to contradict those Whites who claimed Blacks were intellectually inferior “if they [i.e., the Black writers] properly expound [it].” Their success would allow “for a new judgment . . . of the race” if Whites were willing to render it. But there are no guarantees.

“Carl Van Doren then laid out what the White literary press wanted from the younger Negroes: art not anger.”

More powerfully expressed was Locke’s belief that by avoiding a literature of racial harangue, the new group of writers could make a broader contribution than those who had come before them. Locke advanced a new concept, that of generation, to suggest this was a new cohort of Black writers possessed of a devotion to literary values that set them apart from their forerunners. For example, Locke introduced Du Bois “with soft seriousness as a representative of the ‘older school’ ” of writing. That seemed to put Du Bois slightly on the defensive and felt called upon to justify writers of the past as “of necessity pioneers and much of their style was forced upon them by the barriers against publication of literature about Negroes of any sort.” Locke introduced James Weldon Johnson—a writer of poetry, music lyrics, and a novel—“as an anthologist of Negro verse”—another dig, since Johnson was a novelist, a lyricist, and a poet, in addition to editing The Book of American Negro Poetry and writing a powerful introductory essay. Locke did acknowledge him for having “given invaluable encouragement to the work of this younger group.” By defining these NAACP literary scions as elderly fathers and uncles, Locke implied their virtual sons and daughters were Oedipal rebels whose writings rejected the stodginess of their literary parents. Against the backdrop of an ornate Civic Club dinner, with its fine china, polished silverware, and formally attired White patrons, Locke issued a generational declaration of independence for the emerging literary lions of the race.

Carl Van Doren then laid out what the White literary press wanted from the younger Negroes: art not anger. Gingerly but tellingly, Van Doren ventured that the literary temperament of the African American, whether produced by African or American conditions, was distinguished by its emotional transcendence, its reputed ability to avoid haranguing White America for its obvious wrongs and turning suffering into works of unparalleled beauty. Young Black writers had to sit and listen to Van Doren declare that “long oppressed and handicapped, [Negro artists] have gathered stores of emotion and are ready to burst forth with a new eloquence once they discover adequate mediums. Being, however, as a race not given to self-destroying bitterness, they will, I think, strike a happy balance between rage and complacency—that balance in which passion and humor are somehow united in the best of all possible amalgams for the creative artist.” A certain amount of condescension was the cost of liberal White support.

Featured image credit: “Books Notepad Pen Education Notebook Student” by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay

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