Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Remade in America

The New Negro Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892-1938; Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Gene Andrew Jarrett; Princeton University Press: 608 pp., $29.95 paper

December 23, 2007|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

WHEN I was in first grade, I wrote in an assignment that I wanted to be "a poetess like Phillis Wheatley" when I grew up. I'd seen only one drawing of Phillis Wheatley, but it made an impression -- a black woman in a frilly cap, quill pen poised in one hand, chin in the other. She was prim, serious, purposeful. In the mid-1700s, she'd somehow gone from being a slave to being a poet, who mastered complicated forms of poetry that had been the exclusive domain of the white folks who once owned her. This felt like the height of heroism to me, and I resolved to become a Phillis Wheatley in my own time. I would be a New Negro.

Wheatley lived long before the official age of the New Negro, a long-standing trope that came into vogue in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when a critical mass of black writers based in New York broadened the narrow definitions of black literature and black artistry in general. But the concept goes as far back as Wheatley; slavery's dehumanizing legacy demanded a New Negro, who would literally throw off the chains of history to become something different, as Wheatley had. Of course, in her time, Wheatley was seen as an "exceptional" Negro, not the vanguard of a new one.

The 1920s might have brought a renaissance, but this was only 50 years after Reconstruction: How far had that perception of the "exceptional Negro" moved? How "new" was the Negro anyway? These are among the uneasy but fascinating questions raised in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Gene Andrew Jarrett's anthology, "The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture." Because "New Negro" is really just a catchphrase for the capacious topic of race in America, this is less an anthology than a mix of articles, criticism, essays, theories, calls to action and commentary by people both black and white, ranging from famous (Richard Wright, James Weldon Johnson, H.L. Mencken) to those lesser known but prominent in their time (Alain Locke). The result is a spirited, if sometimes redundant, dialectic tracing the most intense period of New Negro discussions, between 1892 and 1938.

Much was happening then to fuel the discussion: the fading promise of Reconstruction and black freedom, the rise of lynchings and Jim Crow, the deepening disagreement among such black leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey about the best way forward for the race. There was also World War I. Black soldiers who fought tyranny overseas came home with heightened expectations that racial tyranny might finally be fought at home. It wasn't.

"New Negro," therefore, became a rallying cry, a public-relations campaign meant to convince whites -- and blacks -- that black people were worthy Americans, or even just plain Americans. It was the counter to the white South's successful campaign to claim a moral victory in the years after the Civil War and excise the newly freed Negroes from its future. New Negro advocates were not trying to reinvent blacks but simply to insert them into meaningful daily life -- not just in the South but throughout the country. The task was daunting; while the Negro had been reborn, America had not. As black educator William Pickens noted in 1916, "The 'new Negro' is not really new: he is the same Negro under new conditions and subjected to new demands."

Those conditions and demands were often as intolerable as those under slavery, because now blacks had to evince an Americanness and intellectual competence that had been thwarted for centuries. "The New Negro" is thus full of impassioned oratory about how the race deserved a chance, oratory that strove to meet or exceed the Victorian standards of the day, the more soaring the better. In "An Appeal to the King"(1895), addressing the "invisible" monarch who held "a front seat in the halls of legislation"), theologian J.W.E. Bowen declared: "Finally, oh king! a new Negro has come upon the stage of action. . . . With this new birth of the soul, he longs for an opportunity to grow into the proportions of a new and diviner manhood that shall take its place in the ranks of one common humanity."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|