An American Story

I’m taking a mini-course on the Harlem Renaissance at the College of St. Rose.  Taught by the brilliant Mark Ledbetter, it seems that our conversation often drifts away from the subject but inevitably flows back to where we began in perfect asymmetry. His particular form of magic.

The search for identity kept creeping back into the conversation. It is, of course, the sensible place to start when learning about the explosion of art, music, literature and culture during that time period.  With the influx of southern African-Americans to the north, and Caribbean and Hispanic migration, the time was right for creating new self and community identity. Harlem was the place to do that.

Identity is something we wrestle with everyday whether or not we’re even aware of it.  There is personal identity, identity within a family, a community, a workplace, a marriage.  We muddle through somehow but don’t have the luxury of time to think about it nor do we have the distance to view ourselves in any meaningful way.

But for the African-American of the 1920s, the time to become was here.  It was time to blot out the notion of whiteness as the metaphor of power. As described by Alain Lock, Harlem became a chrysalis of spiritual emancipation, the birthing of a new moment because it was the first time a diverse Black population completely dominated daily life. As he said so beautifully, “It has attracted the African, West Indian, Negro American; has brought together the men from the city and the men from the town and village; the peasant, the student…artist, poet, musician, preacher and criminal…Each group has come with separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience was in finding one another.”

I was moved to talk about this today largely because of the national conversation about race and immigration. The lesson of the Harlem Renaissance is that transformation can happen if the alchemy is right.  Yet, it can also be a historical blip. Harlem 2012 has had resurgence. But now, it’s happened more from without than within. Gentrification has reached 125th Street.  Before that, it suffered the decay of all our urban centers and was left to rot from the inside out.

Dennis Lehane’s book, The Given Day, is set in the same time period —1920s Boston.  It was principally a story of the fight for survival amongst the poor— white Irish, blacks, Italian anarchists, and Babe Ruth thrown in for a glimpse of racism through that lens. We think we have a bullying problem now?  I don’t know how that has come to be but I’m afraid it’s in our DNA and always has been. The immigrant populations have always lived separately in our America: they both feared and hated one another.  No one lived the pretty picture of an America with arms wide open to take care of the poor and the weary.

We have carried on the tradition we pretend didn’t exist.  We are bipolar regarding immigrants. We hire them to pick our fruit, to watch our babies, to do the jobs we don’t want to do.  And then we disparage them. Resent them. Stand at our borders and terrify them.  Did we not come here with the same needs? Or is it more of our long history of racism.

How we treat American Muslims is a whole other story.

We elected an African-American president yet there seems to be a pervasive racism in how he is judged. Questioning his loyalty, his Americanism, his religion. I’m afraid Martin Luther King would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the America he left had changed so little. And what about the perils of being a black boy walking down the street or driving while black? Do we have to wait until we are of one race to be fair and at peace?

It makes me very sad to think about these things. But as always, certain poems make me hopeful.  Here is one by Langston Hughes.

As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.

I have almost forgotten my dream.

But was there then,

In front of me,

Bright like a sun—

My dream,

And then the wall rose,

Rose slowly,


Between me and my dream.

Rose until it touched the sky—

The wall.


I am black.

I lie down in shadow.

No longer the light of my dream before me,

Above me.

Only the thick wall.

Only the shadow.

My hands!

My dark hands!

Break through the wall!

Find my dream!

Help me to shatter this darkness,

To smash this night,

To break this shadow

Into a thousand lights of sun,

Into a thousand whirling dreams

Of sun!

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