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Los Angeles Times Interview : Dorothy West : A Voice of Harlem Renaissance Talks of Past--But Values the 'Now'

January 01, 1995|Danica Kirka | Danica Kirka, formerly an articles editor on Opinion, is a free-lance writer. She spoke with Dorothy West from the writer's home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass

\f7 A: Oh, of course. We thought we were going to be the greatest writers in the world . . . . We were all young, and we fell in love with each other. We were all the same age, and we all had the same ambitions--writers or painters or so forth. We had all come from small towns. We were free . . . . We were young enough that food didn't bother us . . . . But when you're young, you can stand a lot . . . .

Wallie (writer and dramatist Wallace Thurman), we called him our leader . . . . (In Harlem) there was a woman, a black woman who sold food on the street. She had this cart that she pushed around and . . . she got very well-to-do doing that. And she liked Wallace Thurman--because he was educated and so on--and she gave him this loft. That's where we could go. And company would come and buy the liquor. I was the youngest, so I sat on the floor and listened. I never opened my mouth.

Then (one night) these well-to-do people invited me to their house . . . . I come from a good family. And they were proper . . . . Color is important--but class is more important. They knew who I was--that I was from Boston and I knew the right people. I had dinner with them and went back to Wallace Thurman's place . . . . I talked that night for the first time, I talked and told funny stories . . . .

I always say the Harlem Renaissance ended when Wallie died (1934), because then we could see that we could die. We didn't know that before . . . . (Some) went back to school. I came back to Massachusetts. We all went our (separate ways.)

Q: What sort of lasting impact did the Harlem Renaissance have on African-American culture?

A: It was very important. For one thing, we all got together. We knew that there were many blacks like us who wanted to write, who wanted to paint and so forth . . . .

So many people ask me now if there could ever be another Harlem Renaissance. We were all young and poor. But we had an innocence that nobody can have now. We don't love each other the way we did. We don't care about each other any more.

Q: So younger African-American writers have lost sight of that time?

A: I rather think so. Every generation thinks they are vastly superior to the generation that comes before. (But) the younger people . . . they want to know what it was like--older people don't want to know people like me because it makes them feel old . . . . (Young people) come (to see me) not knowing what to expect. We're quite sentimental about each other. They can't imagine themselves my age. And every time I say goodby to them, we know it may be the last time we see each other . . . . I love young people. They will remember me when I'm gone.

Q: Why is it that you waited almost 50 years to write a second book?

A: Oh my dear child, I did write another book. I sent (some pages) to the publisher. (But) books by black people weren't selling. But I think that things are better for black writers now . . . .

Q: So you intended to write your second book sooner.

A: There was a contest. . . .I got a grant. And I was very happy about that because it was for $1,000--which was quite a bit of money at that time . . . . But there was a group of blacks that were very intimidating to whites--they were black doctors and lawyers and they were called the handkerchief heads. That probably doesn't mean anything to you. But a handkerchief head was a black person who tied his kinky hair in a handkerchief so white people would not be annoyed . . . . I knew these critics would be intimidated by these black people--these handkerchief heads. They were a force (on the white literary Establishment).

I knew the (the critics) would be intimidated and would not give it a good review--and would clobber the book.

Q: What do you think about the fact that you are the lone noted literary survivor of the Harlem Renaissance?

A: (Some critics say) I should have been recognized more than I have been and I don't know. I only wrote the one (other) book . . . . In the meantime, people say, "Well, you haven't written anything." Well what they meant is, that "You haven't sold anything." You may have written something, but (it) did not sell.

Well, I told you about the "The Living Is Easy" in the South, didn't I?

Q: No.

A: The phone rang (years ago) and (my agent) said to me, "Are you sitting down?" And I said, "Yes, I'm sitting down." Dorothy, he said, a magazine well known across the country, the "(Ladies) Home Journal" is taking your book and they're going to give you what--I don't (remember) what, but it was quite a sum of money for the book. And it was to be serialized. A month later, my agent called me, very disappointed. (The magazine was) afraid they would have canceled subscriptions. That was the end of that.

Often people ask me, "Why did you stop writing?" But what they should have said is, "Why did you stop selling?" You have no idea how different it is now.

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