In celebration of World Book Night, we present this exclusive excerpt from Ibram X. Kendi’s book narrating the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the origins of the one of the most everlastingly popular antiracist strategies in the US (and across the world). Harlem Renaissance leaders called for media suasion: the production of more positive portrayals of Black people in the media to persuade away racist ideas. Offering a fresh historical perspective, this excerpt shows why media suasion was unfortunately a lost cause from the start.
ON THE EVENING of March 21, 1924, W. E. B. Du Bois walked into a dazzling artistic gathering at Manhattan’s Civic Club. Howard University philosopher Alaine LeRoy Locke was master of ceremonies. Cultural advancement would “prove the key to that reevaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further betterment of race relationships,” Locke prophesied in the era’s definitive anthology, The New Negro (1925). He proposed media suasion by “our talented groups” to persuade away racist ideas. Twenty-year-old New York University student and poet Countee Cullen, who was also committed to media suasion, was one of more than a dozen Black artists—most notably novelist Jessie Fauset—present to meet and receive advice from the Talented Tenth and the White publishers in attendance that evening. Cullen, who was dating Du Bois’s daughter, Yolande, ended the Harlem Renaissance’s coming-out party in a flurry of poems and ovations.
A cadre of Harlem’s young and talented Black artists refused to take direction from W. E. B. Du Bois. They called themselves the “Niggerati” in 1926, clearly showing little interest in assimilation or in media suasion. The Niggerati included novelist Wallace Thurman, who was best known for his fictional tribute to dark beauty, The Blacker the Berry (1929), and Florida native Zora Neale Hurston, who would study with Franz Boas, reject his assimilationism, and become the penultimate antiracist mouthpiece of rural southern Black culture. These youngsters were formulating a literary and social space of total artistic freedom and tolerance for differences in culture, color, class, gender, race, and sexuality. The Niggerati was quite possibly the first known fully antiracist intellectual and artistic group in American history. Its members rejected class racism, cultural racism, historical racism, gender racism, and even queer racism, as some members were homosexual or bisexual. Not that they were bold enough to come out as such: Alaine LeRoy Locke, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey were among the many Harlem Renaissance headliners leading double lives in closeted homophobic America, privately affirming negated Black sexualities as they publicly affirmed Black negated artistry.
In The Nation in June 1926, a twenty-four-year-old poetic sensation — another headliner who was quite possibly in the sexual closet — laid out the Niggerati’s antiracist philosophy in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The “urge within the race towards whiteness . . . and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” was the “mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art,” wrote Langston Hughes. Hughes was reacting to the words of another poet who had told him “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” probably referring to Countee Cullen, Du Bois’s future son-in-law. Hughes went on to describe the upbringing of the “young poet” in a typical Black middle-income home, where the mother often told misbehaving children, “Don’t be like niggers,” and the father married the “lightest woman he could find” and told them, “Look how well a white man does things.” In the home, they read White newspapers; they attended White theaters and schools; and they favored churches for light-skinned blacks. They aspired to “Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art,” said Hughes, as “the whisper of ‘I want to be white’ runs silently through their minds.” This was “a very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself.” It stopped the Negro artist from seeing the “beauty of his own people,” Hughes added.
In the lives of the “low-down folks,” who did not “particularly care whether they are like white folks,” there was “sufficient matter to furnish a black artist,” as his friend Zora Neale Hurston’s career would show. The Negro artist did not have to touch “on the relations between Negroes and whites.” The only duty Hughes dropped onto the “younger Negro artist” was to “change through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful” — and “ugly too.”
If Langston Hughes focused his antiracist creative energy on persuading Black people away from assimilationist ideas, and if Countee Cullen focused his assimilationist creative energy on persuading White people away from segregationist ideas, then Du Bois remained doubly focused on both. But in 1926, Du Bois’s attention veered much more into persuading White people. And so Du Bois viewed Hughes’s essay, and then his endorsement of Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, released in August 1926, as utterly traitorous.
Van Vechten was the Harlem Renaissance’s most ubiquitous White patron, a man as curiously passionate about being around and showing off Black people as zookeepers are about being around and showing off their exotic pets. In the past few years, European artists arriving in New York had been calling on Van Vechten to take them on the “safari” of Harlem, as the tourists and tour guide more or less understood it. Now, Van Vechten gave them the tour in a book, Nigger Heaven.
Van Vechten’s book is a melodramatically tragic love story of boy meets girl, but with all that genre’s affection, seduction, obstruction, betrayal, and death winding through the pitfalls of racial discrimination. It portrays the vivaciously lurid debauchery of the jazz clubs and cabarets of Black commoners; the solemn pretentiousness of the finely lit homes of educated, assimilated Black elites; and the politically correct intellectuals who debated “the race problem.” The bitter racial line of negative Black reviews and positive White reviews could not have been starker. Nigger Heaven — from its outrageous title to the outrageous extremes of Black decadence and pomposity it delineated—felt like “a blow in the face” to W. E. B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth. It was nearly as powerful a blow as the one that had been delivered by William Hannibal Thomas’s The American Negro in 1901. A Black professorial character in Nigger Heaven claims, in a dig at media suasion, that the advance of Black artists in White circles will not change White opinions: “Because the white people they meet will regard them as geniuses, in other words, exceptions.”
Nothing worse rained down from Nigger Heaven than Van Vechten’s outrageously untrue indictment of assimilated Blacks as spoiled, along the same line of thought that globe-trotting racists like to frame tropical “exotic” lands as being spoiled by White developers. The virginal and pure (and assimilated) gospel singer Mary Love, for example, had “lost or forfeited her birthright, this primitive birthright . . . that all civilized races were struggling to get back to,” Van Vechten wrote in Nigger Heaven. She mourned that loss and yearned to rediscover it: “This love of drums, of exciting rhythms . . . this warm, sexual emotion. . . . We are all savages, she repeated to herself, all, apparently, but me!”
In reducing Negro artists’ gifts to their racial nature, Van Vechten was implying that there was no intellectual ingenuity, or constant rehearsing, or endless refinement of the ear, needed to master the sophisticated grandeur of music and dance performance in blues and jazz. Blacks were natural singers and dancers and musicians (and all those Black people who could not sing, dance, and play were apparently not really Black). It was an idea later reinforced by John Martin, who became America’s first major dance critic when he joined the New York Times in 1927. He reasoned that for Blacks, the ability to dance was “intrinsic” and “innate.” They had natural “racial rhythm,” and struggled to learn the more technical dance styles, such as ballet. What Van Vechten and Martin posed as assimilated Blacks’ tragic dilemma was stingingly racist: they could never quite reach the greatness of White civilization, but they were running away from the greatness of their natural savagery.
Van Vechten made Harlem seem so exciting and exotic that White readers made Nigger Heaven a runaway best seller. Whites started pouring into Harlem — into Black America — to see, hear, and touch the supposed primitive superior birthright of Black artistry and sexuality. They flooded into clubs like Harlem’s “Jungle,” or went over to watch an exhibition of the newly established Harlem Globetrotters. In 1927, these Black showmen started running up and down the basketball court in a “natural rhythm,” emitting jungle sounds and wild bursts of laughter like frivolous, dishonest, lazy children in need of “mature white handling.” They found that handler in the club’s founder, Abe Saperstein.
In Nigger Heaven and in the blues art form in general, Black commoners were sometimes portrayed before White Americans as sexual, uneducated, lazy, crude, immoral, and criminal. These images brought on debates about uplift and media suasion. Many Black elites agonized every time they saw “negative” Black portrayals in the media, convinced that these portrayals were reinforcing stereotypes and constituted the lifeblood of racist ideas. They religiously believed that if only Whites saw more “positive” Black portrayals, ones that were chaste, educated, refined, moral, and law-abiding, then racist ideas would wither away and die. And although Black elites did not want Whites to view the negative media portrayals of Blacks commoners as representative of Black elites like them, they themselves often viewed such portrayals as representative of Black commoners.
Black commoners and their elite antiracist defenders, in contrast, saw the diverse truth of Black people in the portrayals and in their artistry. They cared little about the impact on racist ideas and enjoyed Nigger Heaven and the blues. And they should not have cared. The Americans who were generalizing the “negative” behavior individual Black characters in Nigger Heaven or the blues were showing that they had already consumed racist ideas. The Talented Tenth’s attempt at media suasion was a lost cause from the start. While “negative” portrayals of Black people often reinforced racist ideas, “positive” portrayals did not necessarily weaken racist ideas. The “positive” portrayals were simply dismissed as extraordinary Negroes, and the “negative” portrayals were generalized as typical. Even if these racial reformers managed to one day replace all “negative” portrayals with “positive” portrayals in the mainstream media, then, like addicts, racists would then turn to other suppliers. Before Nigger Heaven and the blues, racists found their supply of reinforcing drugs in the minstrel shows, in science, in generalizing any negativities they saw in their interactions with any Black person.
Excerpted from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.
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Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida and author of the new book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He also authored the award-winning book The Black Campus Movement. Kendi has received research fellowships and visiting appointments from a variety of institutions and associations, including the American Historical Association, Library of Congress, National Academy of Education, Spencer Foundation, Brown University, and Princeton University. A frequent public speaker and writer of commentaries, Kendi lives in Gainesville, Florida.
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