The story of African-Americans, the oldest minority group in this nation, began in 1619. For more than three centuries, black cultural sources and experiential themes have been the chief basis of African-American literature and art. Scholars have noted that this literary tradition was perpetuated because black writers studied the vernaculars, techniques, and themes by earlier writers with whom they felt a kindred spirit. This tradition, handed down from slavery, has always been dependent on its ability to relate to the political, social, and cultural aspects of African-American life. To the extent that Harlem Renaissance writers and writers of today exemplify this purpose is the extent to which they are really successful.
The prosperity of Harlem Renaissance writers like Eric D. Walrond, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jessie Redmon Fauset reduced racial barriers and left conditions much more receptive for artists of today like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, BeBe Campbell Moore, and Walter Moseley. As did their predecessors, today's black writers reflect in their writings the intellectual and cultural history of African-American life. This long-established literary tradition is uniquely significant, because when a race becomes successful in literature and art, that race has achieved one of its greatest guarantees of success.*
*See Joanne Braxton's introduction to The Work of the Afro-American Woman by Mrs. N. F. Mossell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Women Writers.
The writings in this volume were first published in the National Urban League's magazine, Opportunity- A Journal of Negro Life, between 1923 and 1931. These works exemplify a body of literature that generated the black literary movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Founded in New York City in 1910, the National Urban League was incorporated in 1913. The organization was established to service black migrants from rural areas by aiding them in securing sufficient education, employment, and housing. In essence, the Urban League's objective was to help blacks acclimatize to the unfamiliar hardships of urban life. The civil rights organization founded its official organ, Opportunity, in 1923. The new journal quickly became an apparatus for jump-starting the Harlem Renaissance. (The Crisis Reader, another volume in this series, discusses the role of the NAACP's Crisis magazine in the birth and development of the Harlem Renaissance.) Scholar David Levering Lewis writes that the Harlem Renaissance was "a somewhat forced phenomenon, a cultural nationalism of the parlor, institutionally encouraged and directed by leaders of the national civil rights establishment for the paramount purpose of improving race relations."
The Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps divided the black literary movement into two phases. Phase 1 (1921-1924) he deemed the period of black propaganda. Bontemps cited the NAACP's Crisis magazine and Opportunity as the most important supporters of phase 2 (1924-1931). These two influential journals devoted space to literature and social and political writings. Their efforts must be credited with generating interest in the artistic and intellectual side of Harlem. Phase 2 eventually connected Harlem writers to those members of the white intelligentsia who had access to establishment publishing entities. This connection proved essential in promulgating the Harlem Renaissance.
Prior to the 1920s, barriers based on race prejudice had prevented black artists from attaining the respect of the white publishing establishment. They had often been reduced to publishing either with unscrupulous publishing outfits or out of their own pockets. According to David Levering Lewis, no more than five significant literary writings by African-Americans were published between 1908 and 1923: Sutton Grigg's Pointing the Way (1908), WE.B. Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1908), James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Du Bois's Darkwater (1920), Claude McKay's Harlem Shadow (1922), and Jean Toomer's Cane (1923).
During the first decade of their existence, in the early 1920s, both the NAACP and the Urban League proved effective in their respective arenas. The NAACP waged an unprecedented battle for justice OD the political front, while the Urban League aptly addressed the social ills of the day. Notwithstanding the efforts by the two leading civil rights organizations regarding the social and political questions, there was no cultural agenda for African Americans. It was during this time that WE.B. Du Bois noted that "until the art of black folk compels recognition, they will not be regarded as human." Black literature was a susceptible point for America because it had been malformed, misrepresented, and distributed by an established white literary system; black literature was inauthentic and represented an insolent imitation of an aspect of American literary history. Black leadership had to remedy this invalidity, which had exploited and skewed virtually every external view of African-American life. By the advent of the 1920s, though the NAACP and the Urban League were battling racism on political and social fronts, the time had come for these organizations to make a foray into American culture.
The NAACP and the Urban League, through their respective journals, met the challenge to reclaim through art and literature the status of black Americans by assigning space in The Crisis and Opportunity for works by writers including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Eric D. Walrond.
The comparable goals of The Crisis and Opportunity created, on the one hand, a friendly rivalry. On the other, their distinctions rendered virtually impossible any serious competition between the journals. Note that the NAACP's staff was replete with scholar-writers who frequently contributed to The Crisis-James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Jessie Redmon Fauset, William Pickens, and Robert Bagnall. This dominance of talent gave The Crisis a clear advantage over Opportunity. Even as early as 1919, the circulation of The Crisis had reached 104,000, while Opportunity's pinnacle circulation by 1928 was only 11,000.
Notwithstanding The Crisis's greater prominence, Opportunity editor Charles S. Johnson became a premier entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes wrote that Charles S. Johnson "did more to encourage and develop Negro writers during the 1920s than anyone else." And Zora Neale Hurston contended that the Renaissance "was Johnson's work, and only his hush-mouth nature has caused it to be attributed to many others."
Johnson, a native of Bristol, Virginia, and a graduate of Virginia Union University and the University of Chicago, became the director of the Urban League's Department of Research and Investigations In 1923. This position also made him editor of Opportunity. Johnson was widely respected for the militant opinions he articulated in his meticulously researched sociological and economic writings. The noted scholar Arnold Rampersad describes him as "the farsighted manipulative editor ... trained as a sociologist but sensitive to the power of the arts."
In the first issue of Opportunity (January 1923), Eugene Kinckle Jones, the chief executive officer of the Urban League, asserted that the role of the new journal would be to "depict Negro life as it is with no exaggerations. We shall try to set down interestingly but without sugar-coating or generalization the findings of careful scientific surveys and the facts gathered from research." Charles Johnson did not necessarily disagree with Jones's philosophy for the League's new journal, but he would add another dimension: the literary dimension. In Opportunity's second issue, Johnson wrote, "There are aspects of the cultural side of Negro life that have been neglected."
As Opportunity's editor, Johnson was appreciative of black writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eric D. Walrond. Because their writings had appeared mainly in black journals like The Crisis and The Messenger, he felt that the benefit of their literary efforts was being restricted and was virtually inconsequential to the larger society, and he was quickly losing patience with white America's praise only for Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had "resorted to dialect verse to gain a hearing and then nothing but his dialect verse would be accepted."
Johnson accepted the challenge of smashing the stereotypes that white America had concocted. According to the writer Robert Hemenway, he "single-handedly made Opportunity an expression of 'New Negro' thought, and 'New Negroes' made it clear that they would not accept a subordinate role in American society. Art and literature was now the mechanism to prove the cultural and intellectual parity of the race."
Johnson understood that the art of the Harlem writers was so effulgent that even the most intractable cynic could be convinced. Therefore, he needed only a proper forum in which the Harlem literati and downtown white publishers could coalesce.
The need to unite Harlem writers with the white intelligentsia was threefold. Firstly, the white intelligentsia had ties to establishment publishing entities that were essential outlets for black writers. Secondly, there was a need to connect black and white America through literature and art for the express purpose of contributing to a better understanding between the races. And thirdly, there was a need for full and true self-declaration by black writers.
The idea of hosting a dinner at New York's Civic Club was developed by Johnson as a means to link the two groups. In 1924 he invited such white literary notables as Carl Van Doren, Frederick Allen Lewis, Carl Van Vechten, and William Baldwin. Among the Harlem artists were Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett, Eric D. Walrond, and Langston Hughes. The purpose of this dinner was to bring literary giants like Carl Van Doren tete-a-tete with black writers like Countee Cullen and to have everyone come away enthralled and highly motivated. This dinner proved to be momentous. During the evening, some black artists secured financial support while others made such impressions that their future funding was inevitable. Although white patrons had been enlightened and awed by the brilliance of Harlem's literati, Johnson was leaving nothing to chance. The relationship between black artists and white patrons had to be crystallized.
In early 1925, he announced the Opportunity literary awards contest. He enlisted distinguished persons to serve as judges, including writers Fannie Hurst, James Weldon Johnson, and Carl Van Vechten; editors John Farrar and Carl Van Doren; and dramatic critic Robert C. Benchley. Johnson writes about the significance of the Opportunity contest in the following:
It [the contest] hopes to stimulate and encourage creative literary effort among Negroes; to locate and orient Negro writers of ability; to stimulate and encourage interest in the serious development of a body of literature about Negro life, drawing deeply upon these tremendously rich sources; to encourage the reading of literature both by Negro authors and about Negro life, not merely because they are Negro authors but because what they write is literature and because literature is interesting, to foster a market for Negro writers and for literature by and about Negroes; to bring these writers into contact with the general world of letters to which they have been for the most part timid and inarticulate strangers; to stimulate and foster a type of writing by Negroes which shakes itself free of deliberate propaganda and protest!
Excerpted from The Opportunity Reader by Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, editor. Copyright © 1999 by Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, editor. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.