Dreams Deferred: Hearing the Harlem Renaissance

[I have watched in horror over the past couple weeks at the continued violence against the black community. In the interest of amplifying black voices, over the next week I’ll be promoting black theology past and present, with hopefully as little commentary from me as possible.  May we all hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church through these powerful voices of faith.]

There’s a tendency when white people think about African American history to leap over the century between the eras of the Civil War and Civil Rights. And yet those were not empty years. They were filled with hopes that were squashed as Reconstruction collapsed and the white population lashed out against any sign of black success. These were the years of the KKK, public lynchings, and anti-black race riots. But they were also the years of the establishment of black institutions, academies and universities, of the Negro Leagues, the Harlem Renaissance, of ragtime and jazz. And so, today I’d like to spend some time in this in-between period, with W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, two poets of the early twentieth century. While not theologians, these figures nonetheless spoke truths, which reached back into their spiritual heritage while looking into the future of their community.

W. E. B. Du Bois was concerned throughout his life by the question of what it meant to be black in America. In his most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he spoke of a fundamental ‘twoness’ that he saw within himself, a division between his identity as an American — believing in the ideals of the American Republic — and his identity as a black man in America — being consistently failed by the institutions of that same Republic. He wrote:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (The Souls, Chapter 1).

This same sense is expressed in his poem “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” In the poem’s preamble, he describes the questioning glances cast in his direction when a patriotic song is announced. “What shall you do?” he asks. “After all, it is your country and you do love its ideals if not all of its realities.” He decides that no one will notice a slight change in lyrics and he sings an ironic version of the anthem articulating the black experience. The ‘song’ ends in a prayer:

Our fathers’ God to thee
Author of Liberty,
To thee we sing
Soon may our land be bright,
With Freedom’s happy light
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

This aspect of W. E. B. Du Bois’s thought anticipates, albeit in a limited fashion, what we now know as intersectionality: the complicated array of identities — some privileged, some marginalized — within each of us that don’t always play nicely together. (Later this week, we’ll be hearing from Womanist theologians, who would note the limitations of double consciousness.)

While this idea of double consciousness plays out mostly for Du Bois in the political sphere of his country, there is a hint of it too in his sense of what it means to be black and Christian — to be beloved by God yet hated by one’s neighbours. In response to race riots in Atlanta in 1906, Du Bois wrote his chilling lamentation, “A Litany of Atlanta“:

Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery
Hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days —
Hear us, good Lord!
Listen to us,
Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery in
Thy sanctuary
Bewildered we are, and passion-tost, mad with the madness of a mobbed and mocked and murdered people;
straining at the armposts of Thy
Throne, we raise our shackled hands and charge
Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers,
by the very blood of Thy crucified Christ:
What meaneth this?
Tell us the Plan; give us the Sign!
Keep not thou silence, O God!

In the generation following Du Bois came Langston Hughes. If Du Bois can be said to have been driven by the question of what it meant to be black in America, Hughes simply didn’t care. He wanted to express the good, the bad, and the ugly of black experience without reference to anyone else: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too” (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”). This put him into conflict with the African American cultural gatekeepers and his early work was roundly attacked in the black press. And yet some of these early poems have been among his most lasting because he insisted on portraying life as it was. Take for example, “Mother to Son,” which uses a stylized language evoking the under-educated older generation to articulate the deep wisdom of black elders:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps […]

Unsurprisingly, Hughes was also a good deal less sanguine than Du Bois about the future opportunities for blacks within the United States. In his most famous poem, “Harlem,” he writes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Here we see none of the tenacious hope of the spirituals and the black church. Here, hope has spoiled along with so many other dreams. In light of this it’s no surprise that Hughes got himself into trouble (again) with his poem “Goodbye, Christ,” in which he told the God of the black church to “Beat it on away from here now” to “Make way for a new guy with no religion at all.”

Holding these two poets side-by-side, we see the tension that often plays out in minority or marginalized communities, between the desire to belong and the desire to remain separate. Something is to be gained in both approaches, and something is lost too. When it came, integration opened up many opportunities for American Americans, but is also saw the collapse of many of the institutions which had helped them survive as a people. What is the cost of belonging?

Hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.

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