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
This essay was first published in 2015 to commemorate the 95th anniversary of McKay’s literary milestone and in remembrance of the extraordinary Red Summer of 1919. It is now part of an ongoing series of re-posts intended to encourage reflections on Americans’ collective pursuit of racial equality and inspire actions most likely to help achieve it with dignity and intelligence.
As it stands at this moment: One hundred and two years after the initial publication of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay’s masterful poem, “If We Must Die,” America finds itself “reckoning” with the consequences of racial inequality allowed to fester for centuries. It doesn’t take a PhD in antiracism to understand how the highly-publicized violent deaths of African Americans over the past 10 years, and the disproportionate number of Black lives lost to COVID-19 from 2020-2021, dramatically mirror the kinds of systemic racism which prompted McKay to pen his classic lines.
Particularly interesting in 2021, however, is how African Americans’ collective refusal to “die” without fighting back in a variety of ways, has motivated populations in different countries around the world to do the same. Ironically, the tensions driving unrest among different populations “of color” on the global front often have more to do with economic inequalities and charges of political corruption than racial factors. Such, apparently, has been the case recently in South Africa, Haiti, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Russia. Nevertheless, the motivation behind their will to “fight back” has often been linked via social media and other channels to the ongoing struggles of African Americans to refine practices of democracy in their homeland.
Idea of Post-Racialism a Dream Deferred
There were many good reasons to believe America had entered––or at least was about to enter––a golden era of post-racialism following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Among them was the election of the country’s first African-American president itself, an increasingly diverse American population, and a sociopolitical landscape made more democratic (in appearance at least) by the various influences of technological innovation.
Unfortunately, none of those good noble reasons were able to withstand the onslaught of reality as the number of hate groups in the country began to increase almost immediately, even while the Black prison population and Black unemployment rates continued to do the same. In a word, the country was nowhere near “there” yet.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.