Amid laughter, jokes and cheers, I hear Mr. Jefferson's intellectual sneer. In "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," you bet! I put my money in the safety of my pocket.
It is a truth self-evident in America that not all men, certainly not the men and women of "color," were created equal by the author of the Declaration of Independence who owned slaves. Against such a backdrop six scores and a year later W. E. B. Du Bois coined the "double consciousness" of the African Americans – the experience of looking at one's skin (and soul) through the lens of a segregated society hungover from the Civil War and slavery, held to the standards of a nation that looked back (or black) in contempt.
In the 1920s, when the ink of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had dried and disintegrated, when the hooligans of racial supremacy traded their Ku Klux Klan white bedsheets for police uniforms, when mongrels and hungry hounds were unleashed upon unarmed civilians, when, in the rural backwaters and some urban epicenters, mob lynchers were still pulling out people's fingers and toes, skinning them alive, and stringing them on trees and setting them alight for the crime of being born Black or being born at all, it was high time when the Afro-American consciousness turned the ink of disintegration into an ink of rage to blot across the pages of history. Listen to Claude McKay, an African American poet who, in 1921, wrote:
"Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view / The ghastly body swaying in the sun; / The women thronged to look, but never a one / Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue; / And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee."
The ink sparked the conscience of the Black intellectuals who, severed off the umbilical cord of history, went on personal journeys to discover their racial past festering in the fetus of Yankee Imperialism. It was a time of revival and of rebirth; it was time for the Harlem Renaissance.
Post World War I. As the world was shuffling off the Victorian pruderies for the free and easy ways of the Jazz Age, as the Euro-American (modernist) literati and culturati rode the Parisian "movable feast," scholars and artists from all corners of the United States turned Harlem, located in the upper Manhattan area of New York City, into the Black capital of America. Among them were actors, musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors, philosophers, historians, folklorists, essayists and novelists. The movement proper, however, was arguably synonymous with the wordsmiths, i.e. Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Bennet, Zora Neale Hurston, Counteé Cullen, Langston Hughes, and many more. In capturing the essence of the African American experience, these bards laid their souls bare, as if to ask their tormentors, "Hath not the Afro-Americans eyes?"
"Because my mouth / Is wide with laughter, / You do not hear / My inner cry? / Because my feet/ Are gay with dancing / You do not know / I die?" sang Langston Hughes' "Minstrel Man."
What the masters have and the slaves lack is power. Power corrupts because it buys the monopoly on violence. Being immune to justice is the epitome of injustice. Fighting violence with violence has a way of reshaping major catastrophes into academic apostrophes, like footnotes in miniature fonts whispering: "Conditions apply." To rub off emotions – make someone else feel what one feels – one must turn the table on violence itself.
"Hating you shall be a game / Played with cool hands / And slim fingers," wrote Gwendolyn Bennet, "While rekindled fires / In my eyes / Shall wound you like swift arrows." Hatred here is not the petty thirst for revenge, but the personification of oppression itself; it "wounds" but does not kill, which the author uses not as an alibi to prevent destruction but to reconstruct the past she has lost: "Memory will lay its hands / Upon your breast / And you will understand / My hatred."
Hatred is a passion that unites like none other. During the First World War, the African American soldiers joined arms and shoulders with their white comrades in their shared hatred for autocracy, hopes for democracy and a better future but came home to be appalled by signs such as 'For Whites only', 'Negroes keep out', and 'Blacks and dogs not allowed'. Pining for the loss of innocence and lost illusions, Countée Cullen and many others penned epitaphs to the promises of equality: 'Some are teethed on a silver spoon, / With stars strung for a rattle; / I cut my teeth as the black raccoon – / For implements of battle.' ("Saturday's Child"). Expressing distinctly Afro-American experience in Western rhyme and meter schemes, constantly experimenting with style and content, poets from the Harlem Renaissance could be viewed as the forerunners to postcolonial and postmodern writers and artists.
Hatred, however, is never enough. The human spirit aches for love and reconciliation – to weave the intricate patterns of suffering and sorrow into tapestries of harmony and happiness through coexistence. Every Renaissance worthy of the name launches a cosmic osmosis that bleeds one heart into another, blends minds together and binds souls forever (or, at least, some day in the foreseeable future). The Harlem Renaissance, though unique, was no different.
'I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, / But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong.' It was a custom among the slave owners to send the slaves to the kitchen in the back of the house, if not the barn with domesticated animals, for their meals. As Langston Hughes' description suggests, the practice of demeaning people with dark skin was still prevalent in 1925, just like many of us even now do not allow our household help to sit on the sofa, sleep on the beds, drink off our glasses or eat off our plates, and use our restrooms, as if providing domestic service is a contagious disease; as if treating them with dignity would metamorphose (some of) us into Kafka's cockroach with an arched back, coarse voice, and numerous arms and legs wriggling uncontrollably.
What we pretend not to understand is that they do our menial chores so we wouldn't have to, just as the racist Americans pretend not to know that the richest civilization the world has ever seen sucked the life out of countless slaves. There is no 'us versus them'; there is only blood and flesh.
"Tomorrow, / I'll be at the table / When company comes, / Nobody'll dare / Say to me, / 'Eat in the kitchen,' / Then." Hughes ends on a hopeful note, "Besides, / They'll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed--" "I, too, am America." Here is humanity reclaimed; the "I" is the eye of America – the song of self-reliance. America is not just cops and criminals, Congress and constituents, buyers and sellers, workers and bosses, men and women, Blacks and Whites – they are all parts and particles of the monument of freedom. Take out a kernel and the dominos tumble.
To forget the past is to disown the future, for what happened in the days bygone merely foreshadows what is yet to come. Time moves at a glacial pace; standstill is its climax. Forcing time to its climax is to bend universal laws. It takes ages, but the force it unleashes echoes for eons. Almost from the beginning, the history of the American dream was the African American nightmare which the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance were to grab by the horns. The "dream deferred" is a landmine. To feel it, one must step on it – be jolted awake. Though America is still steeped in bigotry after centuries of struggle and suffering, every little child, regardless of the color of her skin, can at least dream to rise to the very top, pursue life, liberty and happiness, and perhaps, spare a thought in memoriam the Harlem Renaissance.
S M Mahfuzur Rahman is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).