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REVIEWING

Harlem Renaissance Four Novels of the 1930s
The Library of America Collection

Edited by Rafia Zafar


The Library of America | 850 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell


author rafia zafar

New Beginnings


“Suddenly the aged Negro dropped to one knee, his hands resting on the arm of the planter’s [master’s] chair, and began weeping aloud.”  This is a passage from Black Thunder, by Arna Bontemps, and one of the four novels in this extraordinary volume, a companion to Harlem Renaissance Five Novels of the 1920s, also edited by Rafia Zafar(author of We Wear the Masks).

In this section, Ben, a house slave in southeastern Virginia during the 1800s, betrays a slave insurrection, condemning hundreds of his brothers and sisters to horrible deaths.

Bontemps describes Ben as the aged house slave/butler who believed his master’s life and comfort were more valuable than the lives of Ben’s own people. In short, Ben was exactly as his master described him, “a good boy.” 

Unfortunately, the leaders of the insurrection believed that Ben and another slave were trustworthy. Bontemps gives us an intimate portrait of Ben’s mindset and that of the leaders of the aborted insurrection.

“Don’t you want to be free, fool,” Blue said.

“I reckon I does.”

“You reckon?”

Bontemps, one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance, culled thousands of slave narratives before he found this particular slave revolt.

According to the notes in the back of this volume, he used the renowned Fisk University Library for his research. Bontemps combined fact and fiction in this novel. Unlike the more famous slave insurrections, this one terrified the whites in Virginia and across the southeast.  Apparently, it aroused their deepest fears of being outnumbered by angry slaves. In fact, according to Bontemps, slaves were in the majority in that part of Virginia at the time. The leaders of the attempted insurrection organized virtually in full view of the slavers. Their planning was flawless and completely undetected.

During his trial, the designated general, Gabriel, explained to the prosecuting attorney how the slaves were going to take over the territory.

“…and how did you imagine you’d be able to take the city?”

“We was ready to hit fast. We had three lines, and the one in the middle was going to split in two. They was coming in town from both ends at once. They wasn’t going to spare nothing what helt up its hand against us.”

The town contained an arsenal and ammunition. The slaves were poised to take it and liberate their brothers and sisters as far south as they could.

A master of metaphor, Bontemps explains the fate that Ben can expect at the hands of his fellow slaves by the end of the novel.

“But Ben could not forget Gabriel’s shining naked body or the arc inscribed by the executioner’s ax. He could not feel reassured about the knives that waited for him with the sweet brown thrashers in every hedge and clump.”

House slaves of a different sort are the focus of George S. Schuyler’s scathing satire, Black No More. In this book, the black people don’t want to please massa. They want to be massa. As the title suggests, Blackness becomes a thing of the past. A new scientific treatment turns black people into white people, complete with straight blonde hair. In no time, Black people disappear, and the majority of America’s inhabitants are white.

Schuyler pours a kind of sulfuric acid on the characters of the book that are clearly drawn from real-life notables. Their names are suggestive of their personalities. One of the senators is named The Honorable Walter Brybe. The black doctor who administers the treatment is named Dr. Junius Crookman.

Representatives of the NAACP, labor unions, the Black church, the Ku Klux Klan, and senators of dubious ancestry want the treatment outlawed. The leaders of Black America would be out of jobs if there was no racism. The KKK doesn’t want white America sullied by Blacks passing for white. Racists unions don’t want Black laborers competing for their jobs. With the new treatment, there’s no way to parcel out the jobs to a chosen few whites. Some of the senators themselves have been passing for white for years. This new treatment is causing Americans to question the ancestry of even their trusted elected officials.

Schuyler takes his annihilating and irreverent humor to the next level. The protagonist, a hustler named Max (later Matt), has had the treatment. He moves to the South in pursuit of a white woman who snubbed him (when he was Black) in a Harlem night club. While there, he becomes the leader of one of the most racists groups in the country, the Knights of Nordica. He uses their treasury to make himself a multimillionaire. Then he thwarts their efforts to kill any number of black people.

He finds the girl, who falls madly in love with his money, at first. Problems arise when there are no more black people to do the menial, but essential jobs in the country.

Can America exist with only one race? Schuyler’s answer to that

question is hilarious, but troubling.

Humor also features prominently in Rudolph Fisher’s murder mystery, The Conjure-Man Dies.

Fisher’s protagonist is Dr. John Archer, “A tall, slender, light-skinned man of obviously habitual composure…. who practices in Harlem.”

Dr. Archer is called to address an urgent case across the street from his brownstone. Sadly, the would-be patient, one of the doctor’s neighbors, is beyond any help the physician can give.

The gentleman who brings Dr. Archer to the scene of the crime is quite a character.

“And you—if I don’t presume?”

“Me? I’m Bubber Brown—”

“Well, how did this happen, Mr. Brown?”

“ ’Deed I don’t know, doc. What you mean—is somebody killed him?”

Bubber and his sidekick Jinx are a combination of Amos and Andy and King Lear’s fool.

The victim was a psychic named Frimbo, with a gift for fortune telling and a small fortune. He lived in a Harlem that Fisher makes clear is a world unto itself of de facto segregation. Consequently, the New York Police Department sends an all-black police unit to the crime scene. The detective assigned to the case is a man named Perry Dart:

“Of the ten Negro members of Harlem’s police force to be promoted from the rank of patrolman to that of detective, Perry Dart was one of the first.”

However, while describing Perry and indeed all of the novel’s characters, Fisher appears to be color struck.

“As if the city administration had wished to leave no doubt in the public mind as to its intention in the matter, they had chosen in him a man who could not have been under any circumstances mistaken for aught but a Negro; or perhaps, as Dart’s intimates insisted, they had chosen him because his generously pigmented skin rendered him invisible in the dark, a conceivably great advantage to a detective who did most of his work at night.”  Then Fisher explains that Dart’s dark skin doesn’t impair his intelligence.

Dart directs the murder investigation and recruits Dr. Archer to assist him. The pair quickly learns that the victim was very reclusive, but he had powerful enemies. Among them was the numbers runner Spider Webb, who under Dart’s interrogation, outlines his problem with the murdered man:

“This Frimbo was a smart guy—much too smart,” Spider Webb began.

“Yes?”

“Yea. He had a system of playing the game that couldn’t lose. I don’t know how he did it—whether he worked out somethin’ mathematical or was just a good guesser or what. But he could hit regular once a week without fail.”

In short, the crime boss couldn’t afford to pay out so much. Frimbo, according to Webb, could either stop winning or stop living. Frimbo does die--for a time. Then he comes back to life and explains to the police that he can rise from the dead. Now they must decide if they should investigate a murder that no longer has a murder victim. In the meantime, Webb is just one of a growing number of suspects in this maybe murder.

Death comes stalking unequivocally in Langston Hughes’ only novel, Not Without Laughter. Unlike the other three novels in this volume, there is very little humor in this book. Hughes is writing about the death of the soul and the death of soul mates.

In this coming of age, autobiographical novel, Sandy, a young Black boy, is being raised primarily by his grandmother, Aunt Hager. It is pre-WWI Kansas. We meet the two as they barely escape a cyclone. They prepare to go to the home of their white neighbor because she has a cellar in which they can ride out the storm safely.

“It’s a cyclone! It’s gwine be a cyclone! Sandy, let’s get over to Mis’ Carter’s quick,’cause we ain’t got no cellar here. Con on, chile, let’s get! Come on, chile!...Come on, chile!”….

“Aunt Hagar opened the front door, but before she or the child could move, a great roaring sound suddenly shook the world, and, with a deafening division of wood from wood, they saw their front porch rise into the air and go hurtling off into space.”

The two huddled inside their small cabin. The twister is in some ways a metaphor for the boy’s life. An only child, he is the center of his grandmother’s and mother Anjee’s world. Sandy’s two aunts dote on him also, but differently.

Hughes characterizes the youngest Aunt Harriett as a free spirit. There is little opportunity for a black woman in the South who has little education and who doesn’t want to be a maid or a laundress.

“What for?” Harriett retorted angrily. “There’s plenty what for! All that work for five dollars a week with what little tips those pikers give you. And white men insulting you besides, asking you to sleep with ’em. Look at my finger-nails, all broke from scrubbing that dining-room floor.”

His Aunt Tempy is cold and withdrawn. She has married well, and avoids her poverty stricken family.  When Aunt Hager dies, Tempy takes Sandy in. Still, Tempy is a loveless woman and no ally to the boy.

Unlike the other three novels in this volume, Hughes’ work addresses the issue of the poor working class. This is the generation after slavery. These are the descendants of slaves whose parents and grandparents left the South for a better life in the Midwest. What they found was a variation on the same theme: segregation and menial jobs.

For Black men, finding work was excruciatingly hard. Jimboy, Sandy’s father, was seldom at home because he was always looking for work:

“Jimboy was always going, but Aunt Hager was wrong about his never working. It was just that he couldn’t stay in one place all the time. …Besides, what was there in Stanton anyhow for a young colored fellow to do except dig sewer ditches for a few cents an hour or maybe porter around a store for seven dollars a week.”

Not Without Laughter is a meditative work that gently depicts some harsh realities of Black American life. Yet it ends on a hopeful note. Sandy is on his way to an education that will change his life.

Each of the novels in this volume is a legacy. All of the authors are gifted.

They bring craft and insight to record the heroic struggles of black people in combating racism and its antecedents, segregation and slavery.

Editor Rafia Zafar deserves thanks and praise for her decision first to republish these novels, and second, to include “authoritative texts and a chronology, biographies, and notes reflecting the latest scholarship” in these works. She also included passages that had been edited out of several of the novels when they were first published. These volumes are a gift to our community and the literary community as a whole, and so is she.

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