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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)
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
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.