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
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 author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.