The fact that Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance turns 18 in September makes me more than a little emotional. It was my second major book (after the birth of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry) and at this time I feel about it as many parents do when an offspring turns 18: apprehensive, reflective, grateful to have come this far.
Several days passed before I allowed myself to actually pick up a copy of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance after boxes of both the hardback and paperback editions arrived at my home in September 2003. The cover art, featuring a painting by celebrated Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence, was so beautiful I almost felt like touching it would be a criminal offense. (The more recent second edition has art by Archibald J. Motley on the cover.)
Having labored virtually nonstop for months and years prior to that moment to complete the encyclopedia, I suddenly found the anticipated joy of physically holding the book plagued by fears and doubts. Much the way humanity en masse of late has found itself afflicted by divisions over vaccinations and face mask mandates when it comes to continuing the battle against COVID-19 and its more lethal Delta variant.
My problem had nothing to do with a virus and everything to do with lingering questions over how well my writing partner, Sandra, and I had fulfilled a mission we both considered sacred. Had we utilized available resources efficiently enough? Had we provided readers fair balanced interpretations of “known facts” relevant to our subjects’ lives? Was the work a worthy tribute to their phenomenal accomplishments and sacrifices? I had gone through a similar trial of initiation involving The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois book when it arrived a week earlier. Only it was a smaller project which caused less anxiety.
Once I allowed myself to lift Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance out of its box, sit down with a cup of coffee and go through its pages, I reached an important sanity-preserving conclusion. We (Sandra, myself, Clement Alexander Price, and our amazing contributors) had added significantly to the expansion and elevation of conversations surrounding the impact of the renaissance.
Confronting History with History
In the months and years to come, we would take a number of the critical hits which tend to follow the publication of such groundbreaking work. However, important awards, numerous citations, supportive reviews, and further editions would also follow.
Moreover, the book was published just after the 9-11 Attacks and prior to the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. As such, it helped lay the groundwork for important dialogues addressing both events. Just being mindful of that is one beautifully-satisfying way to celebrate Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance’s 18th birthday. Another is the following:
Documenting the Story of One Book’s Amazing Journey
As I observe this 18th birthday of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, I am very mindful of the fact that my co-author for the title, Sandra L. West, and writer of the foreword, Clement Alexander Price, are now deceased. So is the man who provided us with the book’s epigraph, Ja A. Jahannes. But rather than immerse myself in sorrow over their passing, I am more inclined to acknowledge the enduring radiance with which their spirits and intellect blessed our enterprise. They would be happy to know the book continues to serve as a valuable resource for a new generation of students of the renaissance. Below, in closing, are links to my tributes to them as well as to a few posts on the encyclopedia’s impact thus far:
And at this point, now that the Harlem Renaissance Centennial is upon us, my personal Harlem Renaissance journey continues…
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
Editorial Note: This letter was first published in June 2010 as “Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of Dear Barack Obama)” on the now defunct Red Room authors and books website. It is shared below on the eve of what would have been Baldwin’s 97th birthday.
For many, letter-writing as a literary tool for expressing personal reflections on public and private matters has yet to be surpassed by modern conveniences like emails and texts. Letters somehow seem to emerge out of a deeper wellspring of sincerity and intimacy. Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, and George Jackson’s nonfiction Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters, are two different kinds of books which used the same epistolary format to achieve similar emotional, spiritual, and political effects. One of the first to impress me with the potentially incandescent power of the genre was James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, containing this classic: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” As good letters often do, Baldwin’s call to “make America what America must become” inspired a powerful response from writer Ariel Felton, titled A Letter to My Niece, published February 2019 in The Progressive Magazine.
A Satisfying Alternative
In some ways, much of what I’ve written and published, whether in the form of prose or poetry, could be described as letters to James Baldwin. Mind to mind. Heart to heart. Soul to soul. If anyone could help me decipher what I was looking at when I could not make sense of the ceaseless cruelties with which human beings hammer each other so mindlessly, I reasoned, it might be him. Since the possibility of interacting with him face-to-face was no longer an option following his physical death December 1, 1987, writing a letter provided a satisfying alternative:
Dear Mr. Baldwin--
If I were not writing this letter to you as one of my favorite authors, I would probably be writing it to Barack Obama because there is a great deal about him which tends to remind me of a great deal about you. The sentence structures he employs in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, often curve in and out of passages which virtually sing with eloquence and yet, at times, shout with an unruly detachment in defense of truths many people generally prefer not to hear. The first time I heard such courageous music pour from the pages of a book or witnessed syllables explode like miniature bombs of revelation was when I read your Notes of a Native Son, then later The Fire Next Time.
Your birthdays are very close too—his on August 4, only two days after yours. But he was born in 1961, just after you turned thirty-seven. In that same history-forging year when you published the book of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, addressed members of CORE in Washington, D.C., met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, traveled all the way to Israel and Istanbul, Turkey, and then, by the end of the year, completed what some still consider one of most controversial novels ever published in North America: Another Country.
Mr. Obama reminds me of you also because he could have easily chosen for himself and his family a fairly quiet life in which he might have enjoyed the comforts of substantial earnings and the respect of his peers minus the constant public jabs he now endures while working, seemingly unceasingly, on behalf on his countrymen. By the same token, you in 1954 could have elected to enjoy a nonstop bohemian party in Paris, France—hanging out with mega-diva Josephine Baker, fellow author Chester Himes, and the disturbingly brilliant artist Beauford Delaney-- instead of returning home to be spat upon while dodging rocks and bullets as you marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. and many thousands more to confirm, with spilled blood and weeping souls, our country’s commitment to the ideals of Democracy. Through essays, plays, and novels, you wrestled as naked as naked gets with the operational dynamics of race relations, sexual identity, and social imbalances as you witnessed them. Such a quintessential artist-activist did you become that it was impossible to ignore you.
President Obama appears to me have elevated and implemented the artist-activist concept to the role of empowered servant-leader, as creative in his vision of the world’s possibilities as you were in yours, and as dedicated to the battle to help humanity liberate itself from the collective fears, prejudices, and ignorance which have yet to contribute anything of functional value to the world community. He is also impossible to ignore; so much so, in fact, that an entire new would-be political party/movement has formed to generate automatic negative criticisms of his every move or spoken word, whether instinctively brushing aside a fly or placing his well-traveled feet atop his desk. And you know what else? He said his favorite novelist is your old friend, Toni Morrison , and that he is particularly fond of The Song of Solomon, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorites as well.
Speaking of Ms. Morrison, I recall your description of her (in the late 1970s I believe it was) as “This rather elegant matron with quite serious intentions.” You had already been resting in peace for six years when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, but I had no doubt that on that day you, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and a gang of others were all slurping celestial champagne and dancing to the glorious boom of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel-anointed voice.
Sorry, I kind of got off track. I wanted to say the reason I’m writing this letter to you today instead of to Barack Obama is because, for some reason, last night I was thinking about my own literary works and suddenly recalled your statement that you wanted mostly, “to be an honest man and a good writer.” And then today I received an email from the folks at Red Room suggesting members consider writing a letter to a favorite author, living or deceased. Just like that, you popped into my head and I heard myself talking with you, somewhat similar to the time I was writing my novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, and got stuck somewhere about halfway through it. I saw you in a dream when you said, “Shit baby, you slamming those keys like I used to! Don’t stop now, it’s getting better than you know.” The dream—I always remember it because you were dressed like a guru with long strings of colorful Mardi Gras-like beads around your neck-- dissolved my writer’s block and I pushed on to the novel’s completion.
During the four years I was stationed with the Air Force in England, you were still alive, and I was tempted every pay day to spend the rent money and car payment on a ticket to fly or float across the English Channel and see if I could track you down in the village of St. Paul de Vence. I was always proud of myself when I resisted the temptation, even while I shook like a junkie hungry for a fix in the worst way, and placed the endangered funds in my wife’s hands. I told myself I would get there at some point, and clearly had no way of knowing that less than a year after getting out of the Air Force, I would be in Florida, collecting unemployment checks and working on a book, when the news would hit that you had died from stomach cancer. I didn’t get pissed about never having spent the rent money to visit your home in France. I simply got drunk and read random passages from your books.
Once, I came across a response from Maya Angelou to critics who compared your works in fiction unfavorably to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Angelou said there was no question that Invisible Man is a masterpiece but she held you in great esteem because you “did the work and produced the books.” At the time, Invisible Man was Ellison’s only published novel and would remain so for the rest of his life. By the time of your death, you would have published some eight novels, at least as many volumes of nonfiction, four plays, and a collection of poetry.
Despite stones aimed at your head, guns pointed at your heart, or nooses tied with hopes of hanging you burning from one of them, it was just like Angelou said: you got the work done in a fantastically and indisputably admirable manner. And the fact that Mr. Obama is currently your homeland’s president demonstrates that none of your words or works, on or off the page, were produced in vain. This letter comes to say Thank You for the example provided, and to acknowledge that although I cannot confirm any definitive results at this point, I continue trying very hard to get the work done because you proved it is not only possible, but worth the aggravating labor required, worth the numbing anguish so often endured, and worth the miraculous joy that sometimes—just sometimes—follows in the end.
More from Aberjhani on James Baldwin
The Quotable James Baldwin
A Commanding Voice from the Past Speaks with Brilliant Clarity to the Present
In the current era, a highly-publicized disproportionate threat to African Americans due to unnatural causes––specifically, violence inflicted upon unarmed African-American men and women by armed policemen–– has been acknowledged by the Black Lives Matter Movement, the United Nations, and numerous social justice organizations around the world. A similar threat in 1919 existed in the form of lynching, essentially the practice of murder by hanging, then often castrating, and often burning African-American men.
Barely 10 years old at the time, the NAACP stood as almost the sole voice of protest against the socially-accepted and legally-tolerated practice. The simple reason is because in 1919 Jim Crow laws were exactly that: laws which openly supported an apartheid government and society in America.
Whereas the more overt apartheid legislation has been repealed, in 2015 there was much talk of a “New Jim Crow” [now described as Jim Crow 2.0 in 2021]. That Blacks and Whites have made tremendous advances in securing social and political equality for all Americans is something most reasonable thinkers would not deny. The conditions as they existed in 1919 were the kinds that challenge poets of any race to prove the significance of their craft. In the case of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay (1889 –1948) they prompted him to pen the classic poem “If We Must Die”:
IF WE MUST DIE
Poetry has often proven an effective instrument for amplifying the voices of those who believe they have been targeted for unfair social and political discrimination; or, worse, tagged for a campaign of potential genocide. Where McKay’s powerful lines are concerned, the author noted the following in his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home:
“Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted… It was during those days that the sonnet, ‘If We Must Die,’ exploded out of me…”
Encouraged by the support of friends, editors, and publishers, the Jamaican-born McKay considered “If We Must Die” both a critical and a political triumph. The distinct rhyming scheme and compact 14 lines of the poem make it easily identifiable as a sonnet. Yet it is a very different kind of sonnet from those with which a reader might associate poets such as Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rainer Maria Rilke.
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.