Renaissance in Harlem

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Established to create jobs during the Depression, the Work Projects Administration sent writers into the neighborhoods and alleyways of Harlem to capture its distinctive voices during its most flamboyant, socially active and aesthetically vibrant era. It was a time when Harlem was Mecca, as vital as any world capital, surging with a tide of Negro migrants in search of the American Dream. The 1930s heralded the greatest period of self-discovery in African-American history after ...
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New York, NY 1999 Hard cover First edition. Stated First Edition New in new dust jacket. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 302 p. Audience: General/trade. A rich collection of ... essays written on Harlem's daily life as part of the famed WPA Writer's Project including unpublished essays by Dorothy west and Ralph Ellison. Read more Show Less

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Overview

Established to create jobs during the Depression, the Work Projects Administration sent writers into the neighborhoods and alleyways of Harlem to capture its distinctive voices during its most flamboyant, socially active and aesthetically vibrant era. It was a time when Harlem was Mecca, as vital as any world capital, surging with a tide of Negro migrants in search of the American Dream. The 1930s heralded the greatest period of self-discovery in African-American history after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In this illuminating document, we are introduced to a West Indian conjure man known for his infallible charms and herbal remedies; a dancer at the Apollo Theater who mourns the untimely death of the entertainer who inspired her; a domestic worker determined to fight for fair wages and better treatment. And we meet Matt Henson at his retirement from his government job, still denied official recognition for his status as the first American to plant the United States flag on the North Pole.

Enter the bars, the nightclubs, the beauty shops, the street markets, the employment offices and homes. Visit with fish vendors, war veterans, Pullman porters, prostitutes, and countless others. Come listen to the memorable sounds of swing music, the singing and shouting of church choirs, and the lonely plea of a mournful spiritual.

A Renaissance In Harlem is an essential addition to the historical record of the African-American experience, a startling re-creation of a lost era in the life of New York City, and a valuable look at the early writings of two masters of American literature. Filled with humor, compassion, outrage and hope, it is anuplifting celebration of a place and people integral to the American story.

"To say Bascom has unearthed a buried treasure would be a cliche, but also correct."(— The Advocate, Stamford, CT)

"The precisely rendered testimony [in this book] . . . is by turns heartrending, enraging, strange, and hilarious."(—The New Yorker)

"These are the ordinary folks of Harlem telling their storise in their voices . . . In short, this collection of long-lost work adds contrast, texture and realism to what undoubtedly remains the most creative time in black history."(—St. Petersburg Times)

"Lionel Bascom has done yeoman service by uncovering these lost stories. [He] brings the truth of ordinary folk back into the spotlight."(—Nikki Giovanni)

"A delightfully engaging and diverse portrait of an almost legendary black urban community."(—Publisher's Weekly)

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Editorial Reviews

Stamford CT Advocate
To say Bascom has unearthed a buried treasure would be a cliche, but also correct.
Mannie Baron
The period now regarded as the Harlem Renaissance produced a literary chorus of voices. Unfortunately, there was a flatness in the timbre of this chorus, since the day-to-day struggling, trying-to-survive-by-any-means-necessary voices of many Harlemites were not included. This omission is reminiscent of the position of W.E.B. Du Bois who felt black literature would be better served if the words and lives of these everyday people weren't included in the artful expressions of the "New Negro." Though the interviews collected in Lionel Bascom's superb A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Voices of an American Community took place long after the Harlem Renaissance's demise, the voices raised here for the first time are a welcome postlude to the sym-phony of the earlier period.

In a move to stimulate the lethargic economy and employ the masses during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as an integral part of his New Deal program. Using the un-employed to perform public services su>ch as street sweeping and road and building repairs to get relief monies from the government, the WPA was the forerunner of today's "workfare" programs.

The Invisible Man) and Dorothy West. They chronicled the lives and pains of everyday Harlem residents like the "Thursday girls" (as domestics were called because they had Thursdays off), hookers, gamblers, homeless craftsmen, and Pullman Porters. Though Ellison and West deliver as usual, the true finds in this volume (and well worth the price of the book) are Vivian Morris and Frank Byrd who conducted the bulk of the book's interviews.

Whether it's the sorrowful songs from the women who line up daily for the domestics' "slave market," the foot-stomping sermon of a deacon whose church is above a jazz club, or the laundry women who sing spirituals to forget the heat they're working in, Ms. Morris' people will grab you and hold you. Frank Byrd's vegetable peddlers may have been the predecessors to today's rappers, and Bess the prostitute –looking for love–will tear you up like Billie Holliday wailing, "Good Morning, Heartache."

A Renaissance in Harlem is a wonderful collection that belongs on your shelf, next to the family Bible. Though it has taken a long time for these voices to be heard, you will recognize their songs, for they are our songs.
Black Issue Book Review

New Yorker
The precisely rendered testimony [in this book] . . . is by turns heartrending, enraging, strange, and hilarious.
Nikki Giovanni
Lionel Bascom has done yeoman service by uncovering these lost stories. [He] brings the truth of ordinary folk back into the spotlight.
St. Petersburg Times
These are the ordinary folks of Harlem telling their storise in their voices . . . In short, this collection of long-lost work adds contrast, texture and realism to what undoubtedly remains the most creative time in black history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Between 1934 and 1939, the Work Progress Administration sent thousands of writers around the country to document local communities, and Harlem, the unofficial capital of black America, was one of them. The Harlem writers produced hundreds of slice-of-life vignettes that provide an intriguing view of ordinary African-Americans as they struggled to cope with the Great Depression and the pervasive racism of the times. Journalist Bascom has rescued 45 of these forgotten essays from WPA Archives. They include works by young luminaries-to-be, such as Ralph Ellison and Dorothy West, as well as talented unknowns like Vivian Morris. Ellison's "The Street" is a hilarious profile of a young musician unafraid of white hecklers. Often using fictional techniques, these nonfiction stories capture aspects of Harlem life during and after Prohibition: the backbreaking, poorly paid labor and union organizing; and such irresistible characters as Pullman porters--the train-riding cosmopolitans of the black working class--and an urban colony of ingenious black pushcart vendors. Although Bascom claims that the book corrects an overly middle-class, privileged view of Harlem life left to us by the Harlem Renaissance elite, these accounts are not quite a revelation. Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes and Rudolph Fisher also left many gritty, colorful sketches of working-class Harlem life. Nevertheless, Bascom has produced a delightfully engaging and diverse portrait of an almost legendary black urban community. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Digging beneath the glitter of the African American artistic outpouring early in this century dubbed the Harlem Renaissance, journalist Bascom unearths another Harlem from forgotten WPA Writer's Project manuscripts in the Library of Congress. Selecting 50 pieces by 11 WPA writers who worked in Harlem in the 1930s, Bascom challenges standard versions of the Renaissance's dimensions--everything from when it began and ended to its content and style. His selections take us beyond the close-knit circle of black intellectuals usually credited with producing the fruits of the most celebrated post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights season of African American self-discovery. The pieces resound not with the voices of the glitterati but with a vernacular chorus about everyday life during the Great Negro Migration. (That migration, which brought blacks from the rural South to the urban North in massive numbers, changed not merely the complexion of upper Manhattan but transformed it into the world's black capital.) This important book promises to shift discussions about Harlem, the Renaissance, New York, and Depression-era America in popular culture, literature, history, and folklore. Highly recommended.--Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The New Yorker
The precisely rendered testimony—preserving the vernacular of beggars, pushcart peddlers, washerwomen, Pullman porters, night-club entertainer, and Father Divine disciples—is by turns heartrending, enraging, strange, and hilarious.
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380976645
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Minstrel Show

Harlem, like any other large community in America, was diverse and multifaceted. But the variety that could be found in Harlem was too often edited out of most published anthologies about this part of New York during the Harlem renaissance.

Zora Neale Hurston's complaints about the stories she saw being published by her colleagues were well known uptown, and she was not alone. Langston Hughes, a luminary of the era who would become one of America's most respected writers, was softer on but no less critical of his colleagues than Hurston.

Hughes himself wrote about the real Harlem in his book The Big Sea. After the gay 1920s, Hughes said the 1929 stock market crash left an imprint on all Americans. Blacks and whites found themselves swept away by an economic tidal wave that rocked the nation. This event ended a period of great optimism in America and sent all Americans racing toward the back-towork policies of the Works Progress Administration. In The Big Sea, Hughes characterized the good and bad times Harlemites saw:

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like (dancer) Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow polity in the very heart of their dark community, nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars whereformerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo.

The Negroes said, "We can't go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won't even let us in your clubs. " But they didn't say it out loud-for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.

I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long. (I remember the vogue for things Russian, the season the Chauve-Souris first came to town.) For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some Harlemites thought the millennium had come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus (entertainer) Gladys Bentley. They were sure the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke.

I don't know what made any Negroes think thatexcept that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking. The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any.

WPA writer Levi Hubert captured a similar sentiment. After white socialites read the Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, they began to swarm uptown to see this black renaissance first hand. In this WPA piece, Hubert offers a more biting perspective.

A Renaissance in Harlem. Copyright © by Lionel Bascom. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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