Harlem Flights

After all this time, we still have Harlem on our minds. Close to a century after the first waves of mass migration from the American South into uptown Manhattan, movements to, from, and around Harlem ...

After all this time, we still have Harlem on our minds. Close to a century after the first waves of mass migration from the American South into uptown Manhattan, movements to, from, and around Harlem continue to stir scholarly inquiry. We tend to think of these journeys in large-scale terms: African Americans searching for better livelihoods; slumming white bohemians descending upon cabarets; migrants departing the West Indies. But within these group histories are the individual journeys, some stranger than fiction, that remind us of the exceptional singularities that make up any Great Migration.1

Consider but four of the people mentioned in the works under review: a queer white man from the American heartland, a pioneering dancer from Trinidad, a wealthy white Texan who crossed the color line by marrying an African American member of the right-wing John Birch Society, and a voyeuristic tourist from East Asia eager to see the neighborhood’s redeveloping sites. As these books make abundantly clear, flights to Harlem flourished during the Great Migration, and continue well into the 21st century.

The originality in these narratives is that they draw our attention to factors other than the Great Migration as the root causes of Harlem’s cultural remaking. It is a critical bromide that bears repeating that the Migration buttressed the New Negro Renaissance, which was perhaps the most generative scene of aesthetic innovation in modern American letters. Producing artists such as Langston Hughes (from Missouri), Zora Neale Hurston (from Alabama by way of Florida), Richard Bruce Nugent (from Washington, DC), and Nella Larsen (from Chicago), the Renaissance relied on an inflow of creative talent from outside Manhattan from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. Each of the works under review pays respect to this movement and to the flight patterns that enabled it. Edward White’s psychobiography The Tastemaker deems the Renaissance “one of the most vibrant and important American cultural moments of the twentieth century”; the introduction to Carla Kaplan’s intellectual history, Miss Anne in Harlem, lists a Who’s Who of “Renaissance contemporaries”; the beginning of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s cultural biography Harlem Nocturne nods to the New Negro; and Camilo José Vergara’s coffee-table book Harlem invokes “the citadel of black achievement and culture,” only to lament that there has been “no second Harlem Renaissance.”

These books record the complementary (and contradictory) emotional and psychic needs that propelled voyages to Harlem then and now.

Yet each book also homes in on different flights to Harlem beyond those commonly associated with the Renaissance. Griffin, for one, dispenses with the beginning of the Great Migration to focus on three artists at the start-up of “the Second Great Migration,” when, “between 1940 and 1970, over five million black southerners migrated north and west.” Griffin’s reorientation reveals there were several Great Harlem Migrations. Each author also charts alternate desires of getting to Harlem, staying there, and, in several instances, moving on or returning back. Their books record the complementary (and contradictory) emotional and psychic needs that propelled voyages to Harlem then and now. But all these books also have a blind spot that I address at this essay’s end: other great places get left behind, even as these analyses unsettle the prototypical Harlem migration narrative.

Subtitled Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, White’s The Tastemaker is a good example of how varied the routes to Harlem were. In a hefty 400 pages, the British biographer doesn’t mention the Renaissance in detail until almost halfway through his narrative, even as he traces the controversial author of Nigger Heaven’s various motives and relentless self-aggrandizement during his career as a doyen of Harlem nightlife and its literary scenes. Van Vechten’s great migration was, it almost goes without saying, light years removed from the socioeconomic constraints that impelled many racial minorities to Manhattan. The third child of liberal white parents, whose father acquired wealth via “a lucrative career in the insurance industry,” Van Vechten was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and “treated to the finest of everything.” He made his way to the University of Chicago as a student and from there to New York in 1906. Wheedling his way into the Renaissance, he forged friendships with Hughes, Larsen, and James Weldon Johnson. He also struck up erotic dalliances with men throughout his difficult marriage to Fania Marinoff. Van Vechten—Carlo, he sometimes nicknamed himself—found the city in general and Harlem in particular to be “a place where any appetite could be sated and any sight experienced.”

As White walks us through this life, however, it becomes clear that his interest lies less in Van Vechten’s role in the Renaissance per se (critics such as Emily Bernard and Kathleen Pfeiffer have proven far more successful at this task) and more in what anthropologist Kath Weston terms the “Great Gay Migration.”2 2000) ] Weston’s coinage refers to a historical moment starting in the 1970s in which gays and lesbians traveled from regions such as the American Midwest to major cities on the nation’s coasts. Though I court anachronism by applying Weston’s phrase to Van Vechten’s flight in the first decade of the 20th century, The Tastemaker does so as well, by impressing a later flight pattern onto an earlier era. Awash in platitudes, the biography finds that its subject’s “one burning desire was to ditch the life of a bourgeois midwesterner for the glamour and grime of the big cities,” that Van Vechten treated “the Midwest as a cultural desert,” and that “New York was filled with contradictory impulses to shorten the breath and quicken the blood.” Sloughing off heartland family ties for queer metropolitan excitement, Van Vechten’s rose-colored migration allowed the bon vivant to partake in New York’s abundant homoerotic offerings.

For White, Van Vechten’s Harlem flights in the 1920s uncannily mirror a stereotypical gay flight to the post-Stonewall metropolis. No matter how sexually, socially, or psychically needed his migration was, or how queer Van Vechten may have been in this pivotal moment of American sexual modernity, during which a heterosexual / homosexual binary came to define life within the white middle classes, he appears in The Tastemaker as a stereotype: the gay man-child desperate to leave his home in the sticks. Stuck in this genre, White punishes Van Vechten for his travels to and within New York City. Carlo is rife with “essential immaturity,” “self-indulgence,” “essential selfishness,” “chronic self-obsession,” an “arrested development that manifested itself in this inexhaustible—and sometimes exhausting—obsession with sex.” He carries himself “as if he need never grow up or grow old.” By the biography’s close, you can’t shake the sense that White has used Van Vechten’s Harlem flight to lambast 20th-century urban gay male migrations. As the book reaches deeper into its subject’s head, its insights grow shallower. For the most part it also ignores the variety of queer black experience in Harlem—or any nuance of interracial contact—as it pillories its main subject.

This moralizing tale is the inverse of Kaplan’s impressive achievement in Miss Anne in Harlem, which aims to recuperate—with a dollop of ambivalence—“the well-intentioned, monstrous white woman found throughout Harlem Renaissance literature.” Kaplan, like White, concentrates largely on white flights to Harlem, as reflected in her book’s title, which refers to popular slang for white women. Weaving together six biographies, she mentions departures from families in Texas (Josephine Cogdell Schuyler), Missouri (Fannie Hurst), and the English countryside (Nancy Cunard), to name but three. She too is interested in what she terms “Harlem’s erotics of race,” especially as they applied to women “who had transgressed whiteness in ways that now made them ineligible for it.” Unlike White, she’s not invested in moralism, though Miss Anne does dissect the intricacies of its subjects’ errant desires.

Kaplan beautifully illustrates how African Americans in Harlem incorporated the everyday influx of new persons.

What’s useful about Kaplan’s take on these exceptional flights is her refusal to reduce them to a psycho-script. Rather than denounce white flights to Harlem as a suspect eroticization of alterity, she often approaches these frisson-inducing crossings of color lines as living, breathing modernist interactions. The best example of this is Cunard, lover of the African American musician Henry Crowder and the editor of Negro (1934), a massive compilation of essays and poems featuring contributions by artists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Louis Zukofsky, Theodore Dreiser, and Sterling Brown. Despite her defense of serious causes such as the Communist Party’s Scottsboro Defense Fund, Cunard “never succeeded in erasing the taint of sexual lunacy from her embrace of black politics and culture.” Kaplan’s book may achieve what Cunard never did, as she details how this version of Miss Anne used media spectacle to “do battle” with Jim Crow politics.

Even more interesting, Kaplan’s focus on Miss Anne’s flights to Harlem grants insight into those already entrenched—geographically and professionally speaking—in the district during the Renaissance. In her overview of philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, Kaplan outlines the queer friendship between Mason, a wealthy New Yorker who resided on Park Avenue, and Alain Locke, one of the Renaissance’s elder promoters. According to Kaplan, the two struck up an “unlikely intimacy”: a gay African American proponent of racial uplift on the closest of terms with a widowed white female proponent of racial primitivism. Focusing on Locke’s cross-racial affection for Harlem’s self-termed “Godmother,” Kaplan beautifully illustrates how African Americans in Harlem incorporated the everyday influx of new persons “different in age, class, race, background, and style,” and how these intimacies complemented the “erotics of race” that marked a life such as Cunard’s. While it sounds odd to think of Mason and Locke as long-term lovers, Kaplan notes that their relationship was “not unlike falling in love.” In a gentle twist to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s important claim that the Renaissance “was surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these,” Miss Anne shows that an aging and straight white woman’s migrations within and without Harlem were foundational for improbable affections “in a world that cautioned against intimate interracial relations.”3

Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Harlem Nocturne bypasses the Renaissance by concentrating on three cutting-edge artists who made their names in early 1940s Harlem, before the “devastating impact” of the 1943 riots, which were kindled after an African American, Robert Bandy, was shot by a white police officer. It traces the lives of modern dancer Pearl Primus from Trinidad, novelist Ann Petry (née Anna Houston Lane) from Connecticut, and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (née Mary Elfrieda Scruggs) from Georgia. As idealized in her accounts of these women as White is denunciatory in his depiction of Van Vechten, Griffin draws upon their respective “body of work and personal archive” to show how all three migrants managed “to leave their mark on New York.”

Harlem Nocturne’s interpretation of these women’s soaring achievements is noteworthy. Each of the women included in the book “aligned her art with the aspiration of migrants,” a thematic decision that allows Griffin to braid their disparate lives into one overarching narrative. Yet what I found most intriguing about her biographies was not the book’s expressed desire to recuperate the African American arts and letters that have played second fiddle to the “better-known Harlem Renaissance,” but the rhetorical strategies Griffin uses to transport the reader to the early 1940s. Griffin’s introduction alerts readers that “throughout, we walk, ride the subway, and dance with” her subjects. In her chapter on Petry she becomes an author-flaneur: “So, let’s take a walk with Ann Petry through Harlem, circa the early 1940s.” Eight pages later she checks in on her reader-sightseers, who are “still on our tour of Harlem’s streets to see what Petry saw.” A tripartite biography conceived as a sightseeing trip into Harlem’s past, the book recreates a moment when a dancer such as Primus enraptured the district before it “watched its middle class move to Queens and the Bronx and its white habitués abandon its nightlife.”

What, I asked myself during my textual stroll, was the wish that guided Griffin’s framing of these intimate migrations? The book’s prologue and epilogue share the same premise—“New York beckoned, and they came”—and I wondered if Griffin wanted her readers to be equally seduced as they walk city streets from decades ago. The answer remains opaque, but part of Harlem Nocturne’s yearning to rehearse its subjects’ Harlem flights in the present may have to do with the book’s title, an allusion to a 1952 painting by Alice Neel. Reproduced in the epilogue, the painting features “two high-rise apartment buildings [that] sit on a barren landscape.” Griffin seems invested not in the tableau’s distress but in a desire to see “the sun rise again.” At its core, Harlem Nocturne hopes that the Second Great Migration did not result only in riot or suburban flight or poverty: it restages urban migrations in order to redo the urban migrations that got creative artists there in the first place. While realistic about “slum clearance, blight removal, and urban renewal,” it longs not for impossibly great movements but for historically better ones. Hence if one of her subjects, Pearl Primus, felt “through the dance she could also heal people,” so too does this book strive—however wistfully—to do the same with underprivileged communities who carried on well after the Great Migration was considered a thing of the past.

Capturing the blight to which Griffin refers with a camera, Camilo José Vergara’s Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto perhaps takes the idea of Harlem flights further than any of the other three texts in its historical account of the neighborhood. Marketed as a coffee-table book, Harlem shows how an “archivist of decline” tracks “the end of an urban era in a clear and simple fashion” via self-commentary on his color photographs from the 1970s to the 2010s. With images of this decline placed alongside images of recent redevelopment, Harlem records the new waves of migration made by gentrifying creative classes, “Africans … coming directly to Harlem from across the ocean,” and tourists “interested in Harlem’s ‘ghetto culture.’” The book is thus a feat and a threnody. “I miss many ghosts from the old days,” Vergara writes, as longingly as Griffin, almost forgetting that the neighborhood was always in transition.

Jacob Lawrence, <i>The Migration of the Negro</i>, panel no. 1 (194041). Wikimedia Commons

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro, panel no. 1 (194041). Wikimedia Commons

Vergara’s lamentation for a bygone era brings up an interesting question: what do each of these four books wish flights to New York to yield? White wants a more responsible erotic playground; Kaplan, an experimental social field; Griffin, a return to happier times; Vergara, a space unadulterated by global capital or urban disaster tourism. As mentioned above, each of these texts showcases alternate movements alongside the Great Migration. Yet one is left wondering about those who stayed in the American South and those who wandered outside Harlem’s circuits. I remember staring last spring at the anonymity of those framed in the first panel of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro, a stunning piece hanging on a wall at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Crafted in the early 1940s, the hardboard panel features abstracted African Americans rushing to Chicago, New York City, and St. Louis. What of those who made it to the Gateway to the West rather than to the City that Never Sleeps?

Two follow-up questions: first, how does Harlem continue to travel in the 21st century as an idea? Second, how does Harlem migrate as an object, especially given the materiality of a text such as Vergara’s, whose terrible beauty as a coffee-table book seems destined for voyeurism even as it critiques the exhibition of Harlem for the contemporary tourist trade? I’m not sure that these queries are any particular work’s to answer. Without doubt, Harlem should remain a scholarly focal point. But its perpetual primacy creates a need for closer attention to spaces beyond “the citadel of black achievement and culture,” and work on such projects has begun in earnest.4 There should be times when we dream of other places, even if Harlem is never off our minds. icon

  1. Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Vintage, 2010) takes this as its central research task by highlighting individual stories amid the Migration’s collective experience.
  2. See Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 2, no. 3 (1995): pp. 253–77. For detailed discussions of Van Vechten’s relationship to the Renaissance, see Emily Bernard, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2012); and Kathleen Pfeiffer, introduction to Nigger Heaven (University of Illinois Press, [1926
  3. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Black Man’s Burden,” in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, edited by Michael Warner (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 233.
  4. See, for one example, Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
Featured image: Views of America (1920). Photograph by James Augustus Van Der Zee / Flickr