Black Librarians: Gatekeepers of the Culture

Black America has now reached the point of crisis regarding its existence as a legitimate cultural entity in this country. It is under attack from many different media outlets.  Rap music, much of the street literature, and premiere television shows and movies are detrimental to a positive reflection on the African American culture. Nickie Minaj’s music such as “Feeling Myself,” “Stupid Hoe Lyrics,” “Boss Ass Bitch Lyrics,” and “Lookin’ Ass Nigga Lyrics,” and hood novels such as The Dopeman’s Wife, Last Bitch Standing, A Hustler’s Wife, Whore, Black and Ugly, Black and Ugly As Ever and Crack Head II: Laci’s Revenge and television shows like Empire and soon to be released movie about the rap group NWA, do not represent good art but, to the contrary, effective vulgarity. While these writers and entertainers gain a great deal of notoriety and money, they distort the image of a culture that has taken centuries to build. That is why I have labeled our Black librarians as Gatekeepers of the African American Culture. And that is why I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri last week, along with D. L. Grant, Branch Manager of the Carver Library and Anji Hall-Johnson, librarian at S. J. Davis Middle School, both in San Antonio, to participate in a short but effective presentation on the role of librarians as gatekeepers to our culture.

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Please do not misread the position I am advocating. The individuals who support  the songs and novels as well as television programs I mentioned, have a legitimate right to their position as articulated through those works.  But it is imperative that they do not drown out others that articulate a much more positive message about our culture, and that is the point where I believe our librarians become important. They have a tremendous responsibility to assure that the positive images of African Americans, as created by artists from the past, still endure. Their role as gatekeepers evolved from the evolution of a cultural identity, as projected through the works of the Renaissance artists gathering at the 135th Street Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library, in the 1920’s. Their goal was to elaborate on who we were as a very distinct people in this country. It began with the great migration of Blacks out of the South and into the urban centers in the North.

In the year 1900, 90% of all Blacks lived in the South and 80% of that figure lived in rural communities. At the height of the wartime migration between 1916 and 1919, a half million Blacks moved North. Nearly a million followed between 1920 and 1930. New York’s Black population grew from around 30,000 to more than 100,000.

The Black migration out of the South became more than simply a geographical relocation, but also a transformational change from a rural folk to an industrialized, urbanized people. Richard Wright in his introduction to Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake’s Black Metropolis in 1945, described that transformation as follows: “Their kinship with the soil altered, men (and women) became atoms crowding great industrialized cities bewildered as to their duties and meaning…The meaning of reality, emotion, experience, action, and God assumed the guise of teasing questions.”

What did it all mean for them? The rules and structures that dictated their lives in the South, no longer applied to living in the North. Something new would now direct them and how that something new would be defined, is what they had to discover. It was the beginning of exploring who they were, why they were in this country, and what lie ahead for them. And most important, they now had the freedom to explore those questions.

Many of these conversations took place at the Harlem Library under the leadership of Regina Anderson and her evening volunteers like Gwendolyn Bennett, Jesse Fausett and Ethel Nance, women who took pride in their race and its culture. They hosted poetry readings, book discussions and general literary activities related to the questions that Black Americans felt free to articulate in the North, but could not do in the South at that time in history. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem, “We Wear the Masks,” told of the problem artists confronted while in the South.

When poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, novelists like Rudolph Fisher, Jesse Fausett, Claude McKay and Walter White and painters like Aaron Douglass all met at the 135th Street Library and addressed the issues confronting the Black man and woman in this country, then wrote and painted about those same issues, they were effectively laying the foundation for an identifiable culture. In the 1920’s Harlem, the 135th Street Library became the prototype for libraries located in Black communities throughout the country.

The Black librarians today have inherited the responsibility to continue the great work of Regina Anderson and the other ladies who assisted her in the pursuit of excellence in art and culture. In 1970, Dr. E. J. Josey understood that responsibility when he took the lead in organizing the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Today, men like Sekou Molefi Baako and D. L. Grant, and women like Anji Hall Johnson are carrying that responsibility forward into this century. As an advocate for my local library here in San Antonio, I plan to continue supporting and sponsoring those events that perpetuate a positive reflection, on what those great artistic progenitors began back in the 1920’s in Harlem at the 135th Street Library.

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The Most Fascinating and Flamboyant Lady of the Harlem Renaissance

A'Lelia WalkerOne of the fascinating and flamboyant ladies of the twentieth century was A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Madam C. J. Walker. Out of the many personalities that had a very profound effect on the most dynamic period in African American cultural history, the Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia stands out as the shining light that illuminated for over ten years. She was the first lady of Harlem, the hostess to the most sensational parties at her Villa Lewaro, or at her two attached townhouses on West 136th Street, located in the heart of Harlem. She was a statuesque lady of class and fortune, standing over six feet tall in her high heels and plumes. Her silk dresses and ermine coatees, paisley beaded shawls and sable muffs, and silver turbans set off her well-modeled head and cocoa complexion. (Steven Watson, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930, Pantheon Books, New York, 1995, page 140). Her fashionable clothes and expensive jewelry were purchased from the most prestigious shops in New York and Paris. Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, that she was, “The joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920’s.” (Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, Hill and Wang, New York, 1993, page 245) The Renaissance’s white patron, Carl Van Vechten, wrote to a friend that, “She looked like a queen.”

She spared no expense in making her places of entertainment as luxurious and exquisite as money could buy. Her most lavish parties were held at the Villa, her cream-colored Italianate mansion fifteen miles up the Hudson River. Verner Woodson Tandy, the first African American architect in the state of New York, designed it. It is where she would spend many weekends with special friends and acquaintances. Rumor was that she always insisted on company there because her mother died in the mansion, and she could not stand to be alone. The year Madam C. J. Walker bought the Villa she declared it as a symbol for her race. “It is not for me; it is for my people so that they can see what is possible no matter what their background,” Madam C. J. Walker explained.

After her mother’s death, A’Lelia furnished the Villa with a twenty-four-carat-gold-plated piano, sixty-thousand-dollar Esty pipe organ, Hepplewhite furniture and Persian carpets. The great Enrico Caruso who was often a guest named the Villa. Often on Sunday afternoons, she invited talented and unknown musicians, who were black, to perform in front of largely white, rich and influential audiences. It allowed young artists the opportunity to perform before very well connected men and women, who could help in their career growth. Carl Van Vechten was a frequent guest at the recitals.

If her most elegant events were held at the Villa, her most widely attended took place at her salon in Harlem. According to Richard Bruce Nugent, in the fall of 1927, A’Lelia converted her two townhouses, at 108-110 West 136th Street into a place where writers, sculptors, painters, music artists and composers could meet, drink champagne, eat caviar and discuss their art. She originally hired Aaron Douglas to design the interior but when he failed to produce art satisfactory to her, she turned to Manhattan decorator Paul Frankel. To her complete satisfaction, he decorated one side of the wall with framed texts of Countee Cullen’s “Dark Towers,” and the other side with Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues,” with Aubusson Carpet and Louis XIV furniture.

Her guests entered the townhouse through long French doors and stepped onto the blue-velvet runner that led into the tearoom. Once inside the townhouse, the guests included all social classes, whites and blacks, royalty and racketeers, lesbians and homosexuals, writers and singers. Her list of invitees, one observer reported, “Read like a blue book of the seven arts, and her parties provided an Uptown counterpart to those Carl Van Vechten threw Downtown. (Watson, page 141)

She would extend several hundred invitations to her parties; however, unless you went early there was no way of getting in. According to Hughes, her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour—entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests. (Hughes, page 244) Ethel Waters often showed up late at night and sang for the guests and entertainers from a Broadway show also made their way to the festivities. It was a grand display of the kind of good times that bolstered the image of Harlem as the party capital of the world, and a place where the pursuit of pleasure had no use for color lines. (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, New York, 2003, page 342)

A’Lelia Walker was both admired and disliked by friends and distracters. There were many who resented her wealth and others who considered her uneducated because she never attended or graduated from college. Her reasoning powers were said to be slight. “She made no pretense at being intellectual or exclusive,” Langston Hughes observed. Some considered her flighty and, “After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill,” it was said. (Carol Marks and Diana Adkins, The Power of Pride, Crown Publishers, New York, 1999, page 71).

The goddess of Harlem, the queen, died at the age of 46. According to the Amsterdam News, over 10,000 admirers attended her funeral. She went out in style; buried in a five thousand dollar silver and bronze casket and dressed in a “gown of beige and gold lace over lavender satin, with apple green satin slippers and an imported necklace of genuine amber Chinese prayer beads.” The service was under the direction of Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and the eulogy was read by educator Mary McLeod Bethune who spoke in her “great deep voice,” of A’Lelia’s mother, “Who in old clothes, had labored to bring the gift of beauty to Negro womanhood, and a great fortune to the pride and glory of the Negro race—and then given it all to her daughter, A’Lelia.” (Ibid, page 76.) Her passing, according to Langston Hughes, represented the beginning of the end of the “gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem. (Hughes, page 247) To the scholars and admirers of this fascinating period in our cultural history, A’Lelia Walker will always remain an icon of distinction and class within our race.

Where Have All the Heroes Gone? or Should African American Literature serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture?

Images: Dorothy West and Langston Hughes - Photo Courtesy of: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmlit1.html
Images: Dorothy West and Langston Hughes | Photo By www.infoplease.com

In the June 1941, issue of Crisis Magazine, Langston Hughes asked the question, “Where are the Black heroes in our literature?” The greatest of all our cultural icons was alluding to the failure of Black writers to create heroes in their works. Hughes went on in that article to elaborate, “Where, in all our books is that compelling flame of spirit and passion that makes a man say, ‘I too am a hero because my race has produced heroes.’”

It is the responsibility of the artist to critique the literature of his or her time, and determine if the writing will serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture. Hughes obviously was not happy with the images portrayed through novels of his time, to include Bigger Thomas in Native Son.  Even though Native Son was an excellent written novel, and no doubt Richard Wright was one of the great artists of his time, it is difficult to view Bigger as anything other than a tragic depiction of the Black male.

The question then is why have Black writers failed to create positive images of the male when writing of the Black experience in this country? Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois argued that it was not the fault of Black writers, but the fault of publishers not willing to publish works that portray the strong Black hero. In a speech given at the 1926 National Association for Advancement of Colored People’s national convention he raised the issue, “Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of Black Americans?” His conclusion was that they would see only weak men and subservient women. Du Bois went on to point out that, “In responding to material portraying positive images of Blacks, the publishers would often say, “It is not interesting to white folks. They want Uncle Toms, Topsies, good darkies and clowns.”

Essentially Black writers were limited in their ability to strike back at the false images painted of Black people and their culture. The only Black writers published were those willing to follow the rules established by the publishing houses. Twenty years later, Zora Neale Hurston observed that publishing companies used their control as a way to dictate the kind of stories from Black writers suitable for publication.

The constant barrage of negative portrayals of Blacks in the ante-bellum south and after the Civil War, right up to the present has had a devastating affect on the race. The irony is that segments of the Black population have internalized these images and now play them out in reality. That is clearly demonstrated through what is termed “Urban Street Fiction”. Much of the literature is nihilistic in theme and holds out no hope for the future. Writers of “Urban Fiction” write about the chaos with no consideration for the human dimension.  The plots are built around, “you get yours and I’m going to get mine at any cost.” There is no redeeming value; only an ugly reality feeding into an age-old belief system that Blacks must be contained because of their bestiality. If one reads these novels and internalizes them as a true depiction of the contemporary Black race, they would be inclined to believe the negative stereotypes painted over a hundred years ago. Many of these books are sitting on the library shelves and are available to children of all ages. How then is it possible to inculcate them with a positive and healthy image of their culture, if it is depicted in such a pejorative manner? This is in no way an argument for censorship, but instead a plea for works that counter some of the negative writings.

We are all familiar with the saying, “Our youth are our future.” If then our children are our future, don’t we have an obligation to give them an opportunity to succeed? But how can they possibly succeed if they are surrounded by negativity.  Some of the rap music they listen to is negative. The urban fiction they read is negative. Often their home environment is negative, and their peer groups reek of negativity. Then how is it possible for them to ever enjoy a positive experience about who they are?

In that Crisis article, Hughes continued, “We have a need for books and plays that will encourage and inspire our youth, set for them examples and patterns of conduct, move and stir them to be forth-right, strong, clear-thinking and unafraid.”  Consistent with Hughes’ advice, we must define ourselves for our children in order to alter the destructive direction in which our culture is going. Ralph Ellison, author of the great American classic, Invisible Man, wrote as early as 1944, “The solution to the problem confronting the Negro will be achieved when he is able to define himself for what he is and what he desires to be.”

Those of us who are committed artists, have a tremendous responsibility to counter these negative portrayals of our race and culture through works that stress positive messages to our youth. Knowledge of one’s heritage and history is key to healthy growth in any culture. If our youth do not know their history, then they really do not know who they are, and therefore are easy prey for those who produce this devastatingly dangerous literature. Again, Hughes addressed this problem,  “The negative behaviors and altered mental states of lead characters in literary works (by Black authors) might leave future generations wondering if Black people lacked heroes.” Hughes’ observation in 1941 is still applicable today. A Spanish writer, Mario Vargas Llosa stated, “Literature is the window to view the soul of a people.” If much of our contemporary literature reflects the quality of our culture and our collective soul then, we as writers, have a great deal of work to do. Our overall goal should be to improve on the images of Blacks in literature.  Accepting Ralph Ellison’s challenge to define ourselves by telling our stories our way, we can begin to alter the destructive images of our race, and instead accentuate the strength, beauty, and an enduring love generated by our ancestors for decades.