The Immigrant Within

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But a northern city offered a little acceptance to Negroes when they were still definitely a minority. Hughes went to Central High School. Once it had taught the children of proper Clevelanders; by 1916 it was full of the children of the foreign-born, divided mainly between mutually suspicious Jews and Catholics. When elections were held for class officers, Hughes often won as the “compromise candidate,” having apparently the advantage of being considered neither Jew nor Gentile. On a summer vacation he visited Chicago, which was also exciting. South State Street was “in its glory” in 1918, “a teeming Negro street with crowded theaters, restaurants, and cabarets. And excitement from noon to noon. Midnight was like day. The street was full of workers and gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, church folks and sinners. The tenements on either side were very congested. For neither love nor money could you find a decent place to live.”

Even more attractive than Chicago for many a bright young Negro was a place that had once been a quiet Manhattan suburb, “the rural retreat of the aristocratic New Yorker”—a place called Harlem. After 1900, Negro real-estate operators began to buy buildings there, hoping to open the ownership of tidy homes to worthy blacks. They undoubtedly had profits in mind, but they also hoped to avoid the creation in New York of a “Niggertown,” a “Buzzard’s Alley,” a “Bronzeville,” as Negro slums were already called in other cities. And though New York’s Negro population began to increase markedly after 1910, they seemed for a while to be succeeding. White residents, unsurprisingly, fled before the migrants, who were described by one newspaper as “black hordes … eating through the very heart of Harlem.” But they left behind a Harlem that suddenly became a magnet for black artists and intellectuals, who made it their cultural capital.

While young whites revelled in Mencken, Hemingway, Eliot, Pound, Stravinsky, cubism, and Dada, black poets and writers like James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, black scholars like Carter G. Woodson, Alain Locke, and E. Franklin Frazier, and black musicians like Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington sang their various lyrics of emancipation. Not all of them lived in Harlem, but for most it was at least their spiritual home. Längsten Hughes spoke for a whole black generation when he described how it was to come up from the subway under Harlem after a long absence. “I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.”

 

And yet there was another side to Harlem in the igzo’s. It might float the mirage of a “new Negro” before the eyes of intellectuals, but they quickly perceived that New York was a place where good jobs for blacks were scarce and pay was skimpy. And when, between 1920 and 1930, the city’s black population rose by another 115 per cent, good will and hope collapsed. Black and white slumlords found that milking decayed buildings for a few years was more profitable than long-time investments in repairs, and so black Harlemites endured falling plaster, exposed wiring, malfunctioning plumbing and heating systems, and rats and roaches. Disease flourished in Harlem; Negro death rates climbed.

From this squalor Negroes sought everywhere for escape. A few turned to political radicalism; more to redhot religion—Christianity melted in the crucible of memory and pain. Sometimes they pursued the anodyne of hope by gambling on a “hit” in the numbers game. Sometimes they clutched the transient solace of liquor or drugs. Each night the squeals and swoops of jazz mingled with the exhortations of preachers in storefront churches, while the pushers and whores and gamblers—black themselves—separated other blacks from what cash the grocer and landlord had left them.

And, slowly, many of the children whose parents had moved north to give them a second chance died spiritually. Small dark wraiths wandered the streets with keys on strings around their necks, while fathers who had given up the fight drifted, somewhere, and mothers scrubbed kitchens in white people’s homes. Those black youngsters who made it to school were bowed by psychological burdens that few white teachers understood. Not only were they recent “immigrants,” but they also suffered from the peculiar inadequacy of their southern background.

Despite the glamour of the “Harlem Renaissance,” the nation’s best-known black community had become by 1930 what it would remain for forty years at least—a place of enmity between policeman and community, where many local businessmen were outsiders and enemies. It was a pit of dilapidation and of fury often turned inward by blacks to become self-destruction, a center of narcotics traffic and crime. The crash and the Depression merely sealed its fate. For blacks the hard times had started early. As Langston Hughes put it, “The Depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.”