Somewhere in the digital files accumulated while working with Sandra L. West on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance is a long poem I wrote--at a time when we were both feeling exhausted by our literary labors--to renew our motivation to finish the book. Having learned earlier this week of Sandra's passing last month on Valentine's Day, I wanted very much to find it.
What I recall about the poem is that it placed our determination to complete the encyclopedia within the context of challenges faced by our Harlem Renaissance heroes to get their work done. Instances such as the historical reality of James Weldon Johnson repeatedly risking his life in different towns to establish new chapters of the NAACP, or Zora Neale Hurston moving a small heater from one room to another in a cold Harlem, New York City, apartment to keep her hands warm while typing, did not invalidate our personal struggles but did diminish the anguish they caused.
For her part in keeping hope alive as we wrote what would become a Choice Academic Title Award-winning volume, Sandra used to conclude all of her emails with several inspiring and empowering quotes. They included this one from the great poet and essayist Audre Lorde:
"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
During one low point, when frustration more than fear nearly got the better of us, she grumbled: "...I have never worked so hard. I am still tired from it. My face has lines in it, encyclopedia tracks, I call them, just like the tracks in a junkie's arms."
"Encyclopedia tracks": That was some kind of weariness and addiction. But we were no more about to throw in the towel than Ida B. Wells-Barnett had been about to give up her gun when investigating reports on lynching.
Mission Impossible Accomplished
The obstacles confronting us as we employed every ounce of strength we could command in service to our vision were not minor. In my case, it was a matter of balancing the extensive research and composition of articles with being a full-time caregiver. In Sandra's, it meant continuing the work at the same time she negotiated significant life changes: going through a divorce while also relocating from Savannah, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia, to New York City and eventually back to her alma mater of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
Obviously, with help from a few friends like the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who gifted us with a foreword for the book, we did make it to the finish line and enjoyed an amazing launch party for the encyclopedia at Rutgers University in 2003. Not long afterwards, numerous reviews, book-signings, and interviews followed. Below is an excerpt from a spring 2004 interview with Sandra published in the EBONY WATCH newsletter of the Organization of Black Faculty and Staff, Rutgers University-Newark. Her response to the interviewer's question makes it clear why she felt our stress and agonies were worth the battle won:
Q. There are many reference books about the Harlem Renaissance. What makes your volume stand out?
NEXT: Tribute to Harlem Renaissance Chronicler Sandra L. West part 2: Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance has long been a favorite subject of discussion and exploration during Black History Month. One of the reasons that make a lot of sense is because the observations of African-American history first proposed by historian Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950) were started during the Harlem Renaissance. In more recent years, the celebrated era has also become a popular topic for students and teachers participating in National History Day.
Now also known as a nonprofit organization, National History Day (NHD) got its start when the late historian David Van Tassel (1928-2000) established History Day in 1974 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Prof. Tassel’s hope at the time was to provide a corrective response “to numerous reports focusing on the decline in scholarship and inadequate teaching in American school systems. At that time, History Day was only a pilot project involving 129 secondary school students in the Greater Cleveland area” (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History).
The initiative since then has grown to engage participants on an international scale:
“Today, in every state, the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, and international affiliates in several countries, NHD contestants become writers, filmmakers, playwrights, web designers, and artists as they create unique, contemporary expressions of history.”
The theme for the 2016 National History Day is one particularly suitable as a lens through which to view the Harlem Renaissance: Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange in History.
A Digital Notebook
Commentators are accurate when they point out that documentation of these different aspects of the movement got off to a good start with the publication of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File/Infobase Publishing) in 2003). However, quite a few articles since then by this author (as well as others, many of which are currently available to read online free of charge) have expanded on that original contribution to affirm the Renaissance’s relevance to studies of contemporary history, cultural diversity, and the cultural arts. Taken together, these works comprise a digital notebook on the Harlem Renaissance. The following sections link to articles and essays which observers of National History Day and Black History Month might find useful:
The Global Scope (2015)
The Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Series
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.