Edna Bonhomme traces the rich history of Black radical organising in Harlem and reflects on her time there and the political education the neighbourhood and its residents offered.
When I moved to New York City in 2008, I lived in Harlem on St. Nicholas Avenue, down the street from Billie Holiday's residence. When I walked past her old building, I would think of her rendition of Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’, which encapsulates the overt violence of lynching in the American South. I thought of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and her protagonist, Beneatha, who struggled to achieve an education in a system that continued segregating Black and white students in the 1950s. Both Hansberry – the writer – and Beneatha – the protagonist – refused to ‘fester like a sore.’ These seminal icons of Harlem used fruit as a metaphor to express the effects of racism, inequality and capitalism on Black life in the United States. For them, American racism did not allow the fruits of their labor to flourish.
In one of her last speeches, which was posthumously published in the Monthly Review, Hansberry sketched the scars of the ghetto, ‘If one is really to speak of the hatefulness of the oppressive system under which Negroes live, then no matter how much one despair when one confronts such facts, one must do so, for at this moment the paramount crime in the United States is the refusal of its ruling classes to admit or acknowledge in any way the real scope and scale and character of their oppression of Negroes.’1 Black residents in Harlem, then and now, witnessed these crimes when they saw their children harassed by the police or slumlords cut off the heat.
At the same time, the government’s historical and continual divestment from the community was made visible by residents who were born and bred in the city. In my attempt to understand them, I turned to James Baldwin, just as I had during my first year at university. I found solace in Notes of a Native Son, which felt like an intimate account of Black life in Jim Crow America.2 Baldwin’s chapter on Harlem described how this community was a locus full of trepidation and transformation and his steady presence in how I understand Harlem from its beginnings to today's ongoing struggles. Although we are distinct in more ways than I count, my thoughts on what it means to be Black in America and Black in Europe often explicitly echo his.
Communing in Harlem was an exercise in imagining freedom through everyday resistance. Here, Black people existed and explored the world with its complexity, a community circumscribed by emotional taunts or death. In Harlem, people learned to imagine other possibilities for creating a community, whether it was a meeting spot for the subaltern and the salacious or a sanctuary for the pious. More than anything, Harlem was where I could see traces of the Black writers and activists, who were reckoning with the past, while also resounding a sense of radical legacy and of moving forward. As someone who navigated Black neighborhoods in North America and Europe, being a student in and of Harlem was not only tied to the physical spaces but has also been a gateway to understanding what it means to be Black in America. The Harlem Renaissance epitomised what it meant to be young, gifted and Black.
The Harlem Renaissance has left an indelible mark on US history, undercutting the vitriolic accounts that plagued the neighbourhood’s reputation. Between 1920 and 1935, Black intellectuals, writers, singers and dancers came together to bask in their creative collective struggle at the forefront of a Black cultural movement. Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Duke Ellington represented the glamour and spontaneity of New York City’s Jazz Age. They set the stage for the Black Arts movement, a later generation of people who expressed their radical politics through literature and the visual arts.
The mainstream understanding of the Harlem Renaissance often lauds the work of Langston Hughes, who offered a stunning portrait of Black voices, or the work of Du Bois, who captured the emotional richness of Black life through sociological writings. These people were noteworthy, but they were not the only ones. Some individuals left the American South and studied at Hampton Institute, Lincoln School for Nursing and Columbia University. By having a group of artists and professionals, a community that could be self-sufficient and creative, these African Americans push the boundaries of place and identity, expanding Blackness's literary and dynamic meanings globally. They were drifters and shapeshifters who communed in the smoky basements where jazz musicians performed or the dancehalls where lovers swayed lightly on their feet.
Black women were also at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, leaving an enduring mark on the cultural scene. There was the African American writer Angelina Weld Grimké, whose play Rachel was a coming-of-age story whose protagonist – after learning that her father was lynched – decided not to bear children. Instead, she fostered Black and Brown youth who needed a home. While the tragedy and trauma of lynching are central in the play, the text also highlights Rachel’s reproductive autonomy and her creation of surrogate kin. Then there was Dorothy West, a writer whose first short story, ‘Promise and Fulfillment,’ was published in the Boston Post when she was fourteen. Although she never achieved the international reputation that Du Bois had, like him, she founded a magazine while living in Harlem. Her publication, Challenge, featured authors such as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker and Ralph Ellison during the Great Depression. West worked for the Federal Writers Project and published a number of short stories in the New York Daily News. She once claimed, ‘I’m a writer; I don’t cook and I don’t clean.’ (As a person who has gotten more immersed in my work, my sentiments sit with West’s declaration.) Grimké and West realised that writing could give them a touch of immortality even if the movement faded.
While queer Black people have always existed, Harlem was a place where they could be part of a sublime trance. This was a space where working-class and queer African Americans created a new cultural milieu. Black women in Harlem were the subject of what Hazel V. Carby refers to as ‘moral panics’, campaigns by a city that policed free-spirited sexuality.3 These women made the Harlem Renaissance what it was: elegant, poised and primed for a good time. Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, a blues singer, had both a husband and girlfriends. In her song, ‘Shave ’Em Dry Blues’, Rainey sang:
Here’s one thing I don’t understand,
Why a good-looking woman likes a workin’ man,
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave ’em dry.
The term, ‘shave ‘em dry’ in modern terms means having aggressive sexual intercourse with a woman. Here, Ma is making a declaration that there is no reason for an attractive woman to chase after a man, and what she offers is to have sex with the woman. The song and others such as ‘Prove It on Me Blues’, were implicitly and explicitly about women loving women. Harlem’s queerness was not merely a rhetorical device hidden in song lyrics; it could be found in spaces such as Clam House on 133rd Street. Owned by Gladys Bentley, the venue was an unorthodox shrine where queer people congregated. Nestled in the heart of Harlem, the Clam House hosted speakeasies that offered an intimate ensemble of entertainers. It was where patrons lingered and danced, where lovers could meet. Queer people were rooted in the decadent festivities, well dressed, free, and gorged in drunken revelry. As Eric Garber noted, these communities articulated the unspoken and spoken directives of a queer community that was ‘a spectacle in color.’ Although a section of Harlem residents enjoyed the pleasures that the nightlife had to offer, the neighborhood and its jazz clubs were sometimes portrayed negatively.
On July 15, 1927, the New York Times analysed the committee’s yearly report, which indicated that reported delinquency increased by 31 percent between 1925 and 1926. This article was even more concerned about the social mixture in Harlem. ‘For various reasons, including the rapid growth and the nature of its population, the colored areas of Harlem seem to be inadequately policed, and its dance halls, cabarets and other places of amusement practically unsupervised.… The interest aroused [by white people] is not a healthy constructive interest, but more in the nature of a morbid curiosity.’4
These encounters were ephemeral – in some cases, predicated on the voyeurism of Black socialisation – and in other cases, attempts at interracial repair. At the same time, they defied the social mores of American society – in a country that created separate laws, separate schools and separate neighborhoods for Black and white people. These racially mixed assemblies were an illustration of coexistence. These everyday acts of multiracial gathering during the Harlem Renaissance, albeit mostly under the guise of entertainment, were small strokes of resistance that challenged a ubiquitous racial order.
Early twentieth-century Harlem was not just a site of a renaissance; it was a place in which working-class Black people were trying to survive and Black activists embedded in grassroots radical organising. Socialists and communists collectively worked on campaigns that challenged racial capitalism, and Black socialist women were integral to shaping politics in the community. For example, Trinidadian-born journalist Claudia Jones was one of the most famed Black radical women who was a member of the Communist Party USA. Not only did she organise around local issues in Harlem, but she was also on the editorial staff of the Daily Worker and was secretary of the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party. Her militancy had a class analysis that was sharp and reflective of her triply oppressed condition: Black, woman and working class. In her insightful article, ‘An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!’ Jones noted, ‘The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for a good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women begin to take action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced.’5 This statement beckons the political assessment that Black women’s position and revolutionary potential are congenial to radical change from below. Claudia Jones was not the only Black radical who helped to shape this movement. Black women such as Audley ‘Queen Mother’ Moore, Louise Thompson Patterson, Thyra Edwards, Bonita Williams and others organised with Black women on the African continent and collectivised their efforts against racist and class oppression in their communities.
Black women radicals were theorists in their own right. They incorporated Marxism and Communist principles into their political vocabulary, partly to advance their concerns as working-class people. Adjacent to this conviction was that Black women were central, not peripheral, to Black liberation or women’s liberation. As they struggled, there were ongoing debates about the role of revolution versus reform, nationalism versus integration and protest versus legal action. Accordingly, Black radical women devoted special attention to organising and protecting Black working-class political solidarity with women across the African diaspora and beyond. Buoyed by the hopes and desires of Black feminists, Harlem was a haven for ‘the New Negro’ movement and Pan-Africanism, part of an international awakening, a political evolution repudiating imperialism, concretising Black radical theories, and celebrating African features such as the Afro.
I never learned about Claudia Jones or Audley Moore in my adolescence. I became aware of them when I moved to Harlem and organised with socialists of all backgrounds. The political education I received from living in Harlem was the knowledge I should have received in school but have yet to get.
For me, Harlem was a community of people who created a foundation for healing from the past on their terms, even as the community was undergoing gentrification. For some, it meant creating new communities, Black-owned publications, safer spaces to gather, salons for discussions, and havens for one’s brethren. The Great Migration was about creating a new promised land for Black intellectualism and pleasure, heightened by an atmosphere of cosmopolitanism for people striving to be free. The language and strategies to achieve this were at the helm of the civil rights movement, which is to say, an expansive and collective movement that mapped out new possibilities in Harlem.
1. Lorraine Hansberry, “The Scars of the Ghetto,” Monthly Review, February 10, 1965.
2. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).
3. Hazel v. Carby, “Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 738–55.
4. New York Times, “Calls Night Clubs Rendezvous of Vice,” July 15, 1927.
5. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” (New York: Political Affairs, June 1949), 3.