Beating the cultural bind of segregation. . . .


Growing up in the segregated City Between Two Rivers, I missed a rich segment of American culture.

Fortunately this just past Black History Month gave me the opportunity to make amends. I have been savoring two outstanding works, both of which I recommend.

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Harlem Speaks by Cary Wintz (Sorcebooks 2007) is a collection of portraits of writers and artists from the Harlem Renaissance---that outburst of brilliance which lasted from the end of World War I, when Harlem was becoming the Black Metropolis until the early years of the Great Depression. Along with the book is a CD where you can hear the voices of these artists.

What a range of personalities! The expatriate song stylist Josephine Baker. The pianist Eubie Blake. What a range of politics and lifestyles! The scholar and editor W.E.B. DuBois, who in his last days joined the Communist Party and moved to Ghana. The folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who after her star had dimmed became a right-wing Republican. The Jamaican immigrant Claude McKay who was a communist before he was an anti-communist. The great gay poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. The incomparable Duke Ellington.

Harlem Speaks is the story of literary salons, exciting night clubs, interracial venues, the relations with white publishers and patrons, and cultural debates, such as place of jargon in Black writing.

I lost my copy on the subway after getting through half the book. It was worth spending $30 to get a replacement.

One of the writers mentioned in Harlem Voices is Richard Wright, who never graduated high school but reached the top of the literary world. A native of Mississippi, he matured in Chicago, joined and quit the Communist Party and spent his final years as an expatriate in France.
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His most famous work
Native Son, (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005, introduction by Arnold Rampersad) has had me gripped for the past week. Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old good for nothing, who lands a job as a chauffeur for one of Chicago's wealthiest and most liberal families. He accidentally kills their college student daughter.

I find the book most interesting for its historical context. It addresses oppression by whites, patronization by white liberals, resentment by the black underclass, crime, the Popular Front, crime, and the anticipation of tantalizing sex.

The book is a time warp, as it describes movie theaters before they were multiplexes. It explains the state of technology, where the ultra-rich still heated their homes by coal, but had a device which automatically loaded the coal every day. The book showed how rich and poor lived in 1930's Chicago. I hope the social commentary in Native Son is outdated and that American society has changed.

I am reading the restored version. In 1940, the Book of the Month Club insisted on changes as a condition of publication. Wright agreed to delete passages dealing with raw sex and put a less sympathetic spin on Communism. The original galley proofs were discovered and the restored text was published in 1993.

I'm one quarter through the book, and eagerly await the next chapter.

Black history is now part of the required curriculum in the Philadelphia public schools. The content of such teachings can be political and controversial. I do not know what is taught. However, anyone who does not learn about the Harlem Renaissance is deprived of a vital chapter in American history.