I really like African-American literature. There is a brutal honesty in most of what
I've read. Everything laid bare—butt-naked, in fact. No minced words or pussy-footing around. Black writers say what they think about whites, and say
even more about blacks, and a lot of it isn't very complimentary. But it can be humorous. This one is, somewhat.
So far most of the African-American works I've read were written right after the Civil War, or were concerned mostly with slavery or former slaves and their offspring. This one, however, is what is known as a Harlem Renaissance novel. During this period, it was cool for blacks and whites to socialize. It was noble for whites to fight for black rights and equality. "Negro" artists were emerging—getting recognized.
Well, sort of. Wallace Thurman's revealing novel tells of the frustrations, the hypocrisy, often the lack of direction and motivation and a period of adjustment and uncertainty for both blacks and whites. Many whites wanted to do what was right, but their efforts often came across as patronizing, and many people truly wanted to become color blind. Both sides, at least in theory, wanted to merge, to integrate. Old patterns die hard.
Like so many African-American books, there is a bittersweet quality in this one. Along with the humor is a kind of pathetic sadness, and I personally found much of the book repugnant for the endless drinking and partying into oblivion that went on throughout the entire story. The blurb on the back cover of the Dover edition also mentions that this is a roman à clef—a true story disguised as fiction, or, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica: (French: "novel with a key") novel that has the extraliterary interest of portraying well-known real people more or less thinly disguised as fictional characters. The characters here represent Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and of course, Thurman himself.
According to Wikipedia, the Harlem Renaissance spanned from about 1918 to the mid 1930s. Thurman's novel was published in 1932, two years before his untimely death. At the time it was called the New Negro Movement after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. Harlem, located in Manhattan, New York City, had originally been populated by middle to upper class whites, but later became the destination for many immigrants, and after that, a mostly black neighborhood. Many of these people were well-educated, and the district was a haven for arts and culture. This is a huge subject to explore, and the Wikipedia article linked above is a good starting point.
And now about the book—though it is categorized as a Harlem Renaissance novel, Thurman was more a "bohemian figure," disillusioned by the whole "New Negro" movement, and the novel is about that disillusionment. Encyclopedia.com says:
The leading bohemian figure of Harlem's literary circle, Thurman envisioned an African American literary movement owing itself, not to the patronage of elitist black intellectuals and white philanthropists, but to the individual genius whose art reflected images of everyday life of Black America. Disillusioned by the cult of the Renaissance and the "New Negro" movement, Thurman and his colleague Zora Neale Hurston deemed their fellow African American intellectuals and writers as "Niggeratti", [sic] and scorned them for creating mediocre works filled with exotic images which attracted white critics and publishers.
Niggerati Manor is what Thurman and others in his group called the building where they lived and worked, a combination of "Nigger" and "Literati." In the book, it is where most of the action takes place. Though it is written in the third person, the point of view is mostly from the main character, Raymond Taylor, who represents Thurman himself. We meet him as his white friend Sam has brought a white friend of his, a Nordic man named Stephen Jorgenson, who has traveled from the University of Toronto on his first trip to the United States. Sam has devoted his life to social work and activism to "help" the Negroes, but he is basically a failure and a nobody. Though he and Raymond disagree on nearly everything, they still have a certain comradeship. One of the first things Stephen notices is the erotic art all over the apartment, done by another tenant of Niggerati Manor, named Paul Arbian. Stephen and Raymond hit it off immediately, and it is not based on the novelty of a white person reaching out to a black person, as in the case of Sam, but a mutual attraction of like minds. The sarcastic humor begins right on the very first page:
"Sam doesn't like my studio, though. He thinks it's decadent."
"I merely objected to some of the decorations, Ray."
"Namely the red and black draperies, the red and black bed cover, the crimson wicker chairs, the riotous hook rugs, and Paul's erotic drawings. You see, Steve, Sam thinks it's all rather flamboyant and vulgar. He can't forget that he's a Nordic and that I'm a Negro, and according to all the sociology books, my taste is naturally crass and vulgar. I must not go in for loud colors. It's a confession of my inferior race heritage. Am I right, Sam?"
And that sets the tone for the rest of the book—satirical and sarcastic.
Stephen moves in with Raymond and we meet the other residents of Niggerati Manor. Paul, though a promising artist makes his life into a drama with a whole slew of questionable escapades, including his sex life with both men and women. Eustace is a singer, but refuses to sing Negro spirituals—his interest lies in classical music—but he can't get any auditions. Pelham is the pathetic one. Brought up from the south with a white family, he was raised by an old black servant named Grandma Mack, who had served the family while a slave, and her loyalty remained after the slaves were freed. She was the type of Negro who believed that the Negro's place was as a servant to the whites:
Grandma Mack had no patience with those hifalutin' niggers who tried to emulate white folks. Niggers were made to be servants. God has willed it. And only through a life of servitude could they hope to obtain an entry into heaven.
George, which was Pelham's real name was "a stray pickaninny whom no one claimed" and Grandma Mack developed a fondness for
him because 'he was so consarned black." Thus, Pelham never outgrew his servile attitude. While all the partying was going on with the residents of Niggerati
Manor, Pelham was the one serving the drinks and fussing in the kitchen.
The building was owned by Euphoria, who had her own life tragedies to tell, but it was her goal to supply this building to budding Negro artists as a place for them to grow and produce, and be supported.
But it wasn't quite working out like that. Nobody was producing much of anything, in fact, except for Paul, and Raymond, who was a writer, there wasn't much talent living there at all. It had become mostly a hangout for drunken revelries. And add to that, Stephen began to openly sleep with one of the women, Aline, who could "pass" for white, causing vicious rivalry between her and her friend and roommate, Janet, who had dark skin, and was also in love, or just lust, with Stephen.
The book isn't so much a novel as a running stream of conversations and philosophies. Anyone interested in black history should read it, but it is very uncomfortable, and though humorous, it ends tragically, and even worse, with seemingly little accomplishment.
Thurman's life also ended tragically at age 32, from tuberculosis, and a long-time struggle with alcoholism.
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