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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

"Does . . . Hubert Harrison require scholars teaching the Harlem Renaissance (or New Negro Movement) to revise their curriculum?

THE LITTLE e-NOTE: The 1 Question Interview.

Jeffrey B. Perry, biographer of Hubert Harrison answers a question posed by Professor E. Ethelbert Miller, Director, Afro-American Studies Resource Center, Howard University, for his blogspot www.eethelbertmiller1.blogspot.com (September 8, 2009)

Question: Does your research on Hubert Harrison require scholars teaching the
Harlem Renaissance (or New Negro Movement) to revise their curriculum?

I think the life and work of Hubert Harrison will prompt curricula revisions regarding both the “New Negro Movement” and the “Harlem Renaissance.”

The New Negro

Most people associate “The New Negro” with Alain Locke’s 1925 publication of that title.
In 1917 Hubert Harrison founded the first organization, The Liberty League, and the first newspaper, "The Voice," of the self-identified “New Negro Movement.” In 1919 Harrison edited "The New Negro," a monthly magazine “intended as an organ of the international consciousness of the darker races—especially the Negro race.” In 1920 Harrison became principle editor of the "Negro World," the paper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Historian Tony Martin points out in Literary Garveyism that by 1920 “the 'Negro World' [under Harrison’s editorship] was already well on its way to becoming the focal point of a mass pre-occupation with the arts, especially poetry, unequalled by any of the better known publications of the Harlem Renaissance.” Garvey expert Robert A. Hill considers the Garvey Movement a major component of the New Negro Movement, recognizes Harrison as the founder of the first newspaper ("The Voice") of that movement, and emphasizes that the demand for a “political voice” distinguished Harrison’s leadership from that of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois and was the cornerstone of the New Negro Movement, which Harrison founded.

Familiarity with the work of Harrison clearly suggests an earlier origin of the “New Negro Movement” than that associated with Locke’s “New Negro” (1925). It also suggests more of a basis in socio-political struggle, the importance of many other people not usually recognized, and more of a national and international perspective. I expect study of “The New Negro” to increasingly move in these directions and I believe such movement is already underway in the work of a number of younger scholars.

Background

By late 1916, Harrison’s experiences with the “white race first” policies of the socialist and labor movements convinced him of the need for a “race-first,” race-conscious, political perspective for Black Americans. The final steps in this direction were made through the frontier of art as Harrison wrote several theater reviews in which he described how the “Negro Theatre” revealed the “social mind” of the race and offered a glimpse of “the Negro’s soul as modified by his social environment.”
With his new “race-first” approach Harrison served over the next few years as the founder and intellectual guiding light of the “New Negro Movement”—the race-conscious, internationalist, mass-based, autonomous, militantly assertive movement for “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power,” which laid the basis for the Garvey movement and contributed so significantly (especially with his book reviews and “poetry for the people”) to the social and literary climate leading to the 1925 publication of Alain Locke’s well-known "The New Negro." Harrison’s mass-based political movement, however, was qualitatively different from the more middle-class, arts-based, apolitical movement associated with Locke.

In June and July 1917 Harrison founded the first organization, The Liberty League, and the first newspaper, "The Voice," of the self-identified “New Negro Movement.” The movement was based in social and political activism, but was also extremely literary. The publications that Harrison edited – "The Voice" (1917-1918), "New Negro" (1919), "Negro World" (1920), "Voice of the Negro" (1927) – were extraordinarily literary. They each contained “Poetry for the People” and “Book Review” sections and Harrison was continually encouraging and publishing the works of lesser-known artists and writers. Among those he encouraged and promoted early are Andy Razaf, J. A. Rogers, Lucian B. Watkins, Walter Everette Hawkins, Claude McKay, Charles Gilpin, Sol Plattje, Eubie Black, and Augusta Savage.

Regarding the national and international scope. Hubert Harrison co-headed the 1918 Liberty Congress—a major WWI Black protest effort with participants from 35 states. The "Negro World" under Harrison’s editorship had wide national and international circulation and impact and included the book review, “Poetry for the People,” and “West Indian News Notes” sections that he started. Harrison wrote and spoke knowledgeably on Africa, the Caribbean, and international events as evidenced in his editing of, and writings in, "The Voice," the "New Negro," and the "Negro World."

Harlem Renaissance

Regarding the “Harlem Renaissance” (in addition to the above comments on "The New Negro"), Harrison raises important questions about the accuracy of the phrase and the nature of the “Renaissance” and about who is included and who is overlooked by such conceptualization.
Harrison questioned the “Renaissance” concept on the grounds of its willingness to take “standards of value ready-made from white society” and on its claim to being a significant new rebirth. (He maintained “there had been an uninterrupted,” though ignored, “stream of literary and artistic products” flowing “from Negro writers from 1850” into the 1920s.)

One Example – Harrison as a Book Reviewer

One example of the “ignored ‘stream’” is the work of Harrison himself. Hubert Harrison was reportedly the first regular Black reviewer in history. Almost 70 Harrison reviews and approximately 700 writings have been located. He was brilliant and wide ranging, yet one would be hard-pressed to find a course dealing with literary criticism that even mentions Harrison.

Harrison’s 1921 review of "The Emperor Jones" with Charles Gilpin in the lead and Eugene O’Neill’s laudatory and insightful response would seem to be the stuff of any serious study of literary criticism of the period.

Harrison wrote two front page "New York Times" “Saturday Review of Books” pieces on literary criticism in 1907 (he was 24 at the time and working in the Post Office).

Two National Board Members, Scott McLemee and Eric Banks, of the National Book Critics Circle, have recently called attention to Harrison’s insightful thoughts on book reviewing and prominently quoted the following passage written by Harrison in 1922 --

"In the first place, remember that in a book review you are writing for a public who want to know whether it is worth their while to read the book about which you are writing. They are primarily interested more in what the author set himself to do and how he does it than in your own private loves and hates. Not that these are without value, but they are strictly secondary. In the next place, respect yourself and your office so much that you will not complacently pass and praise drivel and rubbish. Grant that you don’t know everything; you still must steer true to the lights of your knowledge. Give honest service; only so will your opinion come to have weight with your readers. Remember, too, that you can not well review a work on African history, for instance, if that is the only work on the subject that you have read. Therefore, read widely and be well informed. Get the widest basis of knowledge for your judgment; then back your judgment to the limit.”

In addition, Harrison’s 1907 description of four types of criticism in the "New York Times" is similarly thought provoking. He described four different types of criticism ranging from simple impressionism to what he termed “creative criticism,” which “creates new current of thought.” Criticism, he explained, could be regarded as either science or art, but in either case “it has its laws and methods which must be followed if any good results are to be obtained.” The first and lowest form of criticism was impressionism in which “the critic consults no general principle of the art, (or science,) but receives an impression.” This subjective method was the “method of the man in the street,” the admirer, the “essentially uncritical mind.” Next was comparative criticism in which the critic compared two literary productions. Third was interpretive criticism, “in which the critic expounds the work of an author, gives that which is written between the lines, and helps the reader to understand more readily.” Fourth and “highest of all” to Harrison was creative criticism, which had been defined by the English critic Matthew Arnold and “creates new currents of thought to act as points of departure.”

In the "New York Times" Harrison also quite succinctly described the characteristics of what he considers to be a competent book review. A good review needed to explain the author’s purpose and judge whether it was attained. It also had to summarize the thesis or plot and explain “in what spirit the author’s work is done—in short, it must tell what the book is.” The purpose of such a review, he maintained, was to enable the casual reader to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to read the book.

Food for Thought for Students

Finally, Harrison’s 1919 message to the youth could easily be recommended for, and included in, curricula on “The New Negro,” “The Harlem Renaissance,” and many other subjects. He advises,
“Prepare by knowing; and never think you know until you have listened to ten others who know differently -- and have survived the shock. . . . Never bow the knee to Baal because Baal is in power; never respect wrong and injustice because they are enshrined in ‘the sacred institutions of our glorious land’; . . . Read, reason, and think on all sides of all subjects . . . . And set it before you, as a sacred duty always to surpass the teachers that taught you.”
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