Saturday, June 14, 2014

Black and White Knowledge: Do You Know About the Harlem Renaissance?

Last night I met up with Ben, a well-rounded and well-educated 30-year-old from Pittsburgh by way of New York City (Bensonhurst, to be precise) who gave me the rare feeling of being a Cape Town expert, if only because he's sort of new here. After spending three years in Cameroon with the Peace Corps, he's now Cape Town-based for two months on a related internship. As has been the case with most of the other white Americans in Africa whom I've met since my arrival in Cape Town last November, I was impressed by Ben's awareness of/interest in racial politics and comforted by his sympathy for/interest in my experiences as a black man in Cape Town.

After drinks at Mojito Cafe, we moved on to food at Zula Sound Bar. I was so at ease sitting beside chatty Ben that I dove into the pizza and burger that we ordered to share with gusto, unconcerned with maintaining any semblance of dinner-table composure or finding things to talk about. The conversation flowed. He could relate to my brand of familial angst, and he said he stares at globes, too! Sigh. Ben got me.

He told me that next week his job will be sending him to Johannesburg, a place he's never been to, not once but twice. As I offered my impression of South Africa's most populous city, I recommended some of my favorite places from my five days in Joburg before my arrival in Cape Town: the Melville district, 7th Street, Saffron Guest House, Sophiatown Bar Lounge. "There was a live jazz band and a predominantly black crowd," I said, describing the night I walked into the latter to order take-out. "I felt as if I'd stepped into a time-travel machine and ended up in the Harlem Renaissance."

Ben gave me a puzzled look, his first of the evening.

"The Harlem Renaissance?"

"Yeah, it was like I was back in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance."

"What is that? I've never heard of it. Was that in Harlem?"

I tried to hide my shock as I explained to him the black artistic movement of the Roaring Twenties, the iconic one that gave the world Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, the Cotton Club, and so many of the writers who influenced the writers who influenced me. When I mentioned Langston Hughes, I expected a flicker of recognition. Doesn't everybody know about Langston Hughes?

Nothing. I was taken so completely off guard that I never made it to the Apartheid Museum, site of my defining moment in Johannesburg. Until Ben asked me to explain the Harlem Renaissance, I would have assumed he'd heard of the Apartheid Museum, too. But what do I know now? I might have expected the Harlem Renaissance to have a much higher profile among Americans, white and black, than the Apartheid Museum, which I'd never heard of myself until I was in Joburg. But suddenly, I was questioning everything I thought everybody knows.

Then I had a moment of clarity and realization. I'd always taken for granted that everyone has heard of the Harlem Renaissance, but perhaps it's a specially acquired taste of knowledge, something that only black people know about, like Angela Winbush, Miki Howard, Phyllis Hyman, Girlfriends and The Game.

I'd taken a class in black literature at the University of Florida (before "black" was politically correctly rechristened "African-American"), and the Harlem Renaissance and the writers it inspired were major parts of the course. It was what introduced me to the work of Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and, of course, Hughes. I could have sworn that the class, like UF's general student population, was predominantly white, but now that I think of it, it probably wasn't. Most white students at the University of Florida in the early '90s likely would not have been interested in black literature.

That class must have been more black than I'd remembered, not just in subject matter. Maybe the Harlem Renaissance wasn't such common knowledge at all, especially among white people. I have lived with my knowledge of it for such a long time that I'd gotten to the point where it felt as if it had always been with me. But my black literature class must have been the first time I'd heard of it. When might a white student whose education veers away from the liberal arts -- or even one, like Ben, who has studied at The New School in New York City -- be exposed to it?

As a black writer and journalist, I'm sure I would have picked up knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance at some point, even had I not taken the black literature class. But why should I expect it to be on the historic radar of a white person who's neither a writer nor a creative type, even one who has spent the last three years being a part of the white minority in predominantly black Cameroon? The black experience there has nothing to do with Harlem.

Ironically, earlier the same day, I'd received an email from my Facebook friend Gavin, a white Canadian musician with whom I've been having a back-and-forth written dialogue for the past couple of weeks on race issues and pretty much everything else under the sun. Attached to it was an mp3 he ripped from the 1989 film Looking for Langston, which was inspired by Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.

The excerpt was a powerful two-minute jazz-accompanied monologue/meditation on the objectification of the black male. The devastating final sentence -- "To you he's only visible in the dark" -- stunningly summarizes a point I've made over and over in several recent essays (particularly in this one and in this one), in the title of my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, and in the book itself.



I didn't listen to the mp3 until the morning after my night out with Ben. As it played on a repeat loop, I found myself wondering what Gavin would think of Sophiatown Bar Lounge -- or my description of it. Clearly he's heard of the Harlem Renaissance.

But I won't hold Ben's lack of that specific knowledge against him. Although I was somewhat disappointed that my description of Sophiatown Bar Lounge didn't resonate with him the way I wanted it to, he has so much going for him. I was impressed by his desire to know more about his personal unknown and his lack of fear of it. That's what had driven him from his comfort zone in Pittsburgh/Bensonhurst to a West African country where he knew no one and didn't speak the language (something I can relate to, having done something similar when I moved to Buenos Aires nearly eight years ago). Most people in the U.S., white and black, have never even heard of Cameroon.

They should all be so lucky to be educated not only in geography but in other cultures, too, and maybe even learn French along the way. Alas, Cameroon is not so accessible to everyone, but the Harlem Renaissance is, even nearly a century later. Its sweet and bitter fruit -- the words of Hughes, Hurston, Wright and Baldwin, the music of Ellington and so many others -- should be part of the well-balanced diet of every American, black and white.

Taste it and grow.
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