DURING THE 1920s Harlem, U.S.A. was transformed into a myth. As James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1930, it grew into "Mecca . . . for the entire Negro world . . . known in Europe and Asia . . . talked about by natives in the interior of Africa . . . [and] proclaimed in story and song."
Less than two square miles in uptown New York City, no more than 30 percent black in population, but housing two-thirds of the city's Afro-Americans, Harlem became identified as the Negro capital of the world. Even more importantly, it became the symbolic center for the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that commanded attention for Afro-American creative artists and entertainers on a scale unprecedented in American history. Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Florence Mills in theater; James Europe, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson in music; Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston in literature: These were only a few of the newly recognized artists blinking in the spotlight shining on black America during the 1920s.
Now, in a brilliant work, When Harlem Was in Vogue, David Levering Lewis has interpreted that glittering era through intimate portraits of the most prominent literary and intellectual personalities. Lewis, author of books on Dreyfus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Washington, D.C., reveals the contrasts and the subtleties that frustrate efforts to examine the city of the Renaissance from any single perspective. Black veterans, returning proudly from the first World War, marched through cheering crowds into a year of race riots and a decade of lynchings. Working class blacks from the South, artists, and the affluent moved optimistically into a district that was becoming an overcrowded ghetto, but "no slum," even while they gloried in their new homes. Residents and visitors strolled from the sophisticated soirees at The Dark Tower, home of A'Lelia Walker, a millionaire, to the rent parties of those struggling economically. They listened to the classical concerts of the Harlem Symphony, then danced to the jazz tunes at such nightspots as Happy Rhone's, "the millionaires' club." Writers proclaimed their lofty artistic aspirations, then giggled at the petty gossip about feuds, patrons, and scandals. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and of the National Urban League announced the improved condition of Afro-Americans, but Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Movement Association exhorted followers to prepare to emigrate to Africa. Above all, Lewis reveals, the Renaissance that "seemed to flash into being like a nova" was actually an experimental flight carefully guided by black intellectual leaders.
Beginning his history in February, 1919, when the black soldiers of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment, accompanied by Jim Europe's band, triumphantly marched from their ship through Manhattan up to Harlem, Lewis ends in March, 1935, when "ten thousand angry Harlemites" destroyed "two million dollars in white-owned commercial property."
No brief summary can adequately reveal the effectiveness of Lewis' blend of scholarship and anecdote. He presents facts, statistics and historical background to satisfy the scholars, but he makes the period memorable through its personalities. A few examples may illustrate his technique. The first chapter, a history of the soldiers' return into the riot-scarred year of 1919, focuses on W. E. B. Du Bois, who, having exhorted Afro-Americans to fight the war to save democracy, now vowed that Afro-Americans would win the war for democracy at home. In the second chapter, Lewis introduces readers to conflicting visions of Harlem by centering on three men: Jim Europe as an example of the black musicians popular among whites who thought of Harlem only as exotic entertainment; Marcus Garvey as a black leader who appealed especially to the working classes by proposing a black nationalist solution for the economic and political problems of the race; and Charles S. Johnson, perhaps the major hero of the book, as a black cultural leader who hoped to improve the condition of Afro-Americans by winning recognition and respect for the artistic potential of the group.
By emphasizing individuals, Lewis disguises the chronological ordering that provides a basic structure for the book. Thus, chapter three, "The Stars," examines four major authors of the era -- Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Similarly, chapter five, "The Six," studies the Afro-American whom Lewis identifies as the "midwives" responsible for the success of the Harlem Renaissance: Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, Casper Holstein, Walter White, Charles Johnson and Alain Locke. Lewis also portrays such white Americans as Carl van Vechten, Mabel Dodge, Charlotte Mason, and Joel Spingarn, who helped promote Afro-American culture during the era.
Any interpretation of history -- especially one aimed at both a scholarly audience and a popular one -- will provoke some questions. Some readers may wish that Lewis had given more attention to popular entertainers or to the working classes rather than concentrating on the world of belles-lettres. Others may question his interpretation of certain figures, or may wonder whether social histories successfully distinguish anecodotal material that illuminates from gossip that merely titillates. Some scholars may wish for a more traditional style of documentation or for a conventional bibliography.
Despite any minor reservations, however, When Harlem Was in Vogue is an impressive presentation of materials gathered from manuscript collections, books, correspondence and interviews. As an interpretation of one of America's major eras, it should be indispensable for the student of America's 1920s and exciting for any reader