Tuesday, May 31, 2011

“The Current is Much Stronger”: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Black Art and Literature During the 1920s and 1930s

The following essay, posted in two parts, will appear soon in the upcoming Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., "The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience," due to come out later this year.

Dominated by bankers and realtors with limited exposure to the urban culture of metropolises like New York and Paris, for much of the twentieth century white Dallas held a philistine reputation regarding art. “I’ll support the damned opera if I don’t have to listen to it,” Dallas Mayor R.L. Thornton once famously said in the 1950s. The ruling business clique saw paintings and sculptures as mere adornments to the city, like costume jewelry, not enterprises worthy in and of themselves. Dallas’ white artists fled the city to find appreciation and an audience. Meanwhile, white art patrons in Dallas expected the music and paintings they subsidized to be non-controversial and apolitical. In 1955, right-wing pressure from groups like the Public Affairs Luncheon Club forced The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts to remove works by supposedly leftist painters like Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso.

In contrast, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, African American art in Dallas became a passionate cause and was, by design, political and provocative. Unlike New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Dallas served as a transit point for black authors, sculptors and kindred spirits. The important figures of Dallas’ black art scene passed through the city but generally put down roots elsewhere. Many, particularly blues performers, lived perpetually on the road. This gave many of the big players in Dallas’ artistic community a working-class lifestyle, bringing them closer to the down-and-out drifters, fighters and rebels they wrote and sang about. Dallas – and more broadly North Texas -- is important to this time period because of its status as a destination for rural African Americans seeking higher-paying city jobs in the 1920s and 1930s; for the blues music created there in this time period; and for the impact on American literature of writers like John Mason Brewer and Melvin Tolson after their sojourns in the region.

During the Harlem Renaissance period, African Americans in Dallas and across North and Central Texas searched for their cultural roots in Africa and celebrated what they considered authentic black culture among field hands, the urban poor, janitors, maids, and petty criminals seeking a niche in which they could survive. African American women’s clubs such as the Phyllis Wheatley Art Club, Royal Arts Club, the Cecelian Choral Club and the Eady Mary Art and Culture Club proliferated in the 1920s and 1930s and stimulated discussion of poetry, novels and paintings. The community heatedly debated issues in art, with an African American weekly newspaper, The Dallas Express, serving as the forum for these passionate exchanges.

On March 15, 1919 the Express ran a column “Devoted To Colored Race Literature And Dedicated To Those Who Are Providing It,” by Philadelphia writer M.G. Duggars. The column reveals the range of issues the black arts community engaged in during this period. In rapid fashion, Duggars praises black newspapers like The Philadelphia Tribune that used “great discretion” in accepting advertisements from companies selling hair straighteners and skin-bleaching treatments aimed at giving African Americans a “whiter” appearance. (Ironically, the Dallas Express would be filled with such ads for decades.) Insisting that whites show African Americans respect, Duggars advised his readers to avoid any newspaper that “prints ‘Negro” without using a capital ‘N.’ Why not take a race paper and escape the indignity[?]” Through columns like Duggar’s, the Dallas Express made its audience not only aware of Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes but also raised the readership’s awareness of the political implications for their works and the responsibility all prominent African Americans and black institutions had towards “racial uplift.”

The Express gave news space to generally unpublished poets, some of whom urged readers to preserve a respect for the black cultural past. An intense exchange in North and Central Texas developed between traditionalists and modernizers. One contributor to the Express, Sarah Collin Fernadis, attacked attempts to fuse black gospel songs from the slave era with modern jazz rhythms. The gospel “freedom songs” mixed faith in God’s justice with demands for political freedom in the here-and-now, but in a poem published by the Express on January 20, 1923, Fernadis feared that reframing such powerful lyrics in a jazz setting would compromise the dignity of the older material.

So, they’ve sought a new sensation
[in] this modern jazz craze
In the ruthless syncopation of
Those sweet old plaintive lays
That the souls of their forefathers
‘neath affliction’s heavy rod
coined from bitterness of sorrow
as they reach for touch with God . . .

Referencing gospel classics like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” Fernadis ends her plea on a plaintive note: “O ye unthinking inheritors of this rare and sacred tract --/Of a race’s soul’s outpouring --/jazz in pleasure if you must/ But . . . leave, o leave untouched, unsullied, those dear songs your fathers gave.”

Amateurs like Fernadis were not alone in looking towards the past to find cultural authenticity. Prolific author, folklorist, historian and poet John Mason Brewer didn’t care for his contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance, complaining in 1932 to his mentor J. Frank Dobie about “how unrepresentative the loudly-heralded literature out of Harlem” was and “how false both in psychology and language.” Brewer, perhaps, misjudged his New York contemporaries as elitists. Brewer himself embraced the dialect of the downcast in a series of books, journals and privately published works produced from the 1930s until the 1960s. He never openly discussed the political implications of his tales, but his effort to get the intonation just right in his stories reveals a defiant attitude toward white America. He believed that the stories told by black slaves and their sharecropper descendants could stand any comparison to supposedly more sophisticated art of white museums and symphony halls.

Brewer served as the Dallas Renaissance artist par excellence. Brewer’s mother Minnie taught school for 50 years. She viewed her son, born March 24, 1896, in the Central Texas town of Goliad, as one of her most important pupils. She guided John to “Negro history books and the poems and stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar as soon as he could read,” according to Brewer biography James Byrd. Brewer’s father took on a legion of humble jobs, including mail carrier, grocer, wagoner, and barber, as he struggled to support six children. The elder Brewer stoked young John’s imagination with tales of his career driving cattle to Kansas at the height of the cowboy era.

After graduating from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, Brewer won appointment as professor at Samuel Huston (now Huston-Tillotson) College in Austin after World War I. In perhaps the most critical moment of his life, in 1931 he formed a friendship with Dobie, Texas’ chief folklore collector and interpreter, and one of the state’s most widely regarded authors. Dobie liked his young colleague personally and admired his scholarship. As a white man with extensive connections in the academic and publishing worlds, Dobie played a key role in getting Brewer’s future books published.

Brewer spent much of the 1930s in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and taught Spanish at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in Big D even as his first books were being published. During this time and throughout his career, he did field work across Texas, collecting stories dating back to slavery times. Brewer’s advanced education and his success as a writer never altered his working-class identity. Throughout his subsequent works, he portrayed the powerful as ruthless con artists. In one of his earliest works, Negrito: Negro Dialect Poems of the Southwest (published in 1933), the rich lose their souls as they grasp for power. In a series of quatrains, Brewer rebuked a series of archetypes, taking one swipe at African American politicians who appealed to black pride while catering to the demands of the white power structure:

POLITICIAN

He struts befo’ de brethren
And makes the sistren think
Dat he am one big race man
Den sells ’em for uh drink.


When circulating in the white world, Brewer warned his readers, black people needed to put the larger black community ahead of even their own career ambitions and to remember that intelligence, talent, humor, and hard work would more than likely be met with indifference, fear or disrespect by the city’s ruling class. With material benefits small or non-existent, achievement had to be its own reward, Brewer argued though his tale, “The Hays County Courthouse Janitor.” In this story, "Unkah Sug Miller," a janitor at the Hays County Courthouse in the Central Texas town of San Marcos, is confronted by a county judge who hates him. The judge warns the janitor that even though he has never missed a day of work in 25 years, he will be fired unless he learns to read and write. The judge sees to it that Sug gets sacked, and four years elapse before the two confront each other on a San Marcos street.

The judge, to his great surprise, learns that Miller has become a wealthy farmer. He praises Sug who has "come up in de worl' fas’ — 'taint no tellin' what you'd of been sho 'nuff, if'n you'd of knowed how to read an' write.'" Sug is unimpressed with the judge's reaction. "Ah knows zackly what Ah'd of been," Sug says. "Ah'd of still been de janitor at the Hays County Coa'thouse."

The tale reminds one of Malcolm X’s bitter joke: “What would you call an educated Negro with a B.A., an M.A., a B.S. or a Ph.D.? You call him a nigger.” Sug knew that white society set a low upper limit on black prestige. The mythic American land of opportunity had no place for African Americans. A literate janitor would still be nothing more than a floor sweeper to the white world.

Brewer sought to empower his black readers, even if he tempered his encouragement with heavy doses of realism. Some readers might interpret the conclusion of the “Janitor” story as surrender to fatalism. Such an interpretation would ignore that fact that once Miller exits the white world, his genius realizes its potential and he becomes a prosperous farmer. Brewer walked a tightrope. He did not defend segregation but informed his black audience that African American poverty directly resulted from white oppression.

Brewer’s works reflect an incipient black nationalism. The title of his poetry collection Negrito referred to the Negritude movement, a black-affirming approach to art, inspiring African-descended intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. Like other Negritude writers, Brewer sought to blow away white racism and discrimination not by imitating Anglo society but by establishing a new blackness. With an unblinking lack of sentimentality, he sought cultural and political equality on black terms.

The complex meaning of black identity remained central to Brewer’s art. If Jim Crow laws implied that the “white” and “black” races were clearly separate and easily defined, centuries of white sexual assault committed against black women during and after slavery, created a more complex, multi-racial world. A universe of color existed within Texas’ African American community. In North Central Texas, ethnic tension sometimes existed between darker-skinned individuals and those with lighter, so-called “high yeller” complexion, and the skin bleach ads in the Dallas Express suggested higher esteem for “whiter” skin. In the eyes of artists like Brewer, however, this spectrum of pigment instead stood as mute testament to white oppression and a shared alienation from mainstream culture. Brewer expressed this unity in "Apostolic," a 1936 poem in which he describes an African American church congregation displaying all the hues produced by white sexual subordination:

[A] seething mass of black, brown and yellow beings
Shouting tunes, mysterious mixtures of Jazz, Religious and Jungle melodies

Ironically, Brewer shares this concern with one of the other great writers from North Texas during the Harlem Renaissance period, poet and Wily College professor Melvin Beaunorus Tolson. In many ways, Tolson – who filled his verse with erudite references to ancient classics and displayed a deep knowledge of world literature – represented the “unrepresentative” elite black artist Brewer so disliked. However, Brewer and Tolson, whose championship debate teams at Wiley in Marshall, Texas, were depicted in the 2007 film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington, shared much in common. The meaning of black identity also concerned Tolson, whose epic poem “Harlem Gallery” explored themes similar to those in Brewer’s “Apostolic.” Unlike Brewer, however, Tolson explicitly rejected race as a meaningful biological concept. A Marxist for much of his adult life, Tolson saw race as a social construction, a fabricated identity used to internally divide the working class along color lines. If Brewer never seriously questioned what made an individual “black,” that issue serves as a central concern in the “Psi” section of “Harlem Gallery”:

Who is a Negro?
(I am a White in deah ole Norfolk)
Who is a White?
(I am a Negro in little old New York)
Since my mongrelization in invisible
And my Negroness a state of mind conjured up
By Steretypus, I am a chameleon,
On that side of the Mason-Dixon
That a white man’s conscience
is not on.

In this passage, Tolson suggests that both “whiteness” and “blackness” lack validity as categories. The white voice uses stereotypical black dialect “(in deah ole Norfolk”) while the black voice uses elite grammar. The narrator describes himself as a chameleon, able to assume any identity, which Brewer suggests is a mindset opposite of the that of the white South which seeks to chain individuals to racial categories for the purpose of dividing and conquering the working masses.

Born in Missouri, Tolson graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, in 1924 winning appointment to teach English and speech at Wiley College, 152 miles east of Dallas. He stayed there until 1947. Tolson became one of the most acclaimed Texas authors of his age, black or white. “Tolson’s poetic lines and images sing, affirm, reject, predict, and judge experience in America, and his poetry is direct and humanistic,” proclaimed esteemed Harlem Renaissance novelist Richard Wright. “All history, from Genesis to Munich, is his domain. The strong men keep coming and Tolson is one of them.”

Although able to defuse conflicts with his charm, Tolson did not shy from bluntly confronting what he saw as evil. At one point, Tolson organized a boycott of Marshall merchants to force them to provide better and more courteous treatment of black customers, a movement that inspired talk of lynching. He ran the risk of lynching again in 1938 when, as an invited speaker at a high school commencement in Rustin, Louisiana, he strongly condemned a lynching that had taken place near the small town the day before. “Where were you good folks when these men were lynched?” he asked the audience, which included the white sheriff, police chief and president of the school board. Warned by locals that they faced violent reprisals, Tolson and an armed Wiley student who escorted him to the event made a quick exit, driving along back roads in the dead of night back to Texas.

While Brewer only implied rape as the cause of black color diversity, Tolson is bolder and more explicit. Referring to the naked women who stood before white bidders during slave sales across antebellum America as “”The dark hymens on the auction block,” Tolson mournfully asked in the same poem:

[W]hat midnight-to-dawn lecheries,
in cabin and big house,
produced these brown hybrids and yellow motleys
White Boy,
Buchenwald is a melismatic song . . .

Tolson’s concerns are more universal that Brewer’s. Brewer grounds much of his writing firmly in the Texas setting, and even if he complicates black identity, the white world appears relatively homogenous in his poems and folktales. Tolson, however, sees poor African Americans as part of globally oppressed working class, divided from their white and brown brethren only through the conscious manipulations of elites. In the above passage’s reference to the Buchenwald concentration camp, Tolson links Southern racism to eliminationist Nazism. In a melismatic song, one sings a single syllable of lyrics to a series of notes. Tolson suggests that Louisiana lynchers are simply another face of the same fascist monstrosity stalking Europe in the early and mid-1940s.

Racism, Tolson argued in his poetry and his newspaper columns, was the common enemy of all underpaid and overworked humanity. As he observes in “The Underdogs,” the poem that closes “Harlem Gallery,” Jews, Slavs, Italians and even “poor white trash” in America, have been deceived by plutocrats who play these marginalized groups against each other in order to disenfranchise and keep wages low.

Kike and bohunk and wops,
Dagos and niggers and crackers . . .
Starved and lousy, Blind and stinking –
We fought each other,
Killed each other
Because the great white masters
Played us against each other

Brewer was implicitly political, and Tolson was explicitly so. Brewer dealt with the hardships and tragedies of black life in America with humor, while Tolson responded with blunt rage and calls for revolution. Lillian B. Jones Horace, an African American novelist in Fort Worth active in that city’s black theater circle, fantasized about a more just and fair life for African Americans “returning” to Africa. A teacher born in Jefferson, Texas, about 168 miles northeast of Dallas near the Louisiana border, Horace moved with her family to Fort Worth early in her childhood. She attended Prairie View Normal School near Houston and Bishop College in Marshall before beginning her teaching career in Tarrant County in 1905. An English teacher and dean of girls at I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth, she established the campus’ drama department and the school’s first drama club. Horace, then 20, starred as the Old Testament title character in an African American production of the musical Queen Esther produced by the namesake of the Terrell School at Fort Worth City Hall, Professor Terrell. The local African American press praised the production, describing it as an “excellent entertainment” that “would have done credit to amateur singers anywhere.” Horace also guided the I.M. Terrell Dramatic Club’s original operetta The Stolen Princess, staged during the troupe’s inaugural season in 1922. Horace’s ideas seem to have been deeply influenced by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica-born founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, which claimed 30 branches across the country by 1919. Garvey, who heavily influenced the Nation of Islam sect, taught that “black is beautiful.” Opposing the Euro-American view that Africa represented a civilization wasteland where inhabitants lived in the Stone Age until the arrival of Europeans, Garvey told his followers that Africans had built a noble civilization and that white culture was diseased. Racism was so deeply entrenched in white society, he preached, that it was useless to appeal to their sense of justice.

Garvey felt that blacks would be free only if segregated from whites while in the United States, and once even met with Klan leaders to discuss common strategy to achieve racial separation. Ultimately, the only hope for African Americans, he said, was for blacks in the United States to return to Africa and build a new nation of their own, a program he called "Negro Zionism." Garvey called this theoretical nation the “Empire of Africa” and crowned himself provisional president of that state in 1921.

Garveyites were active in Dallas, and the thoughts and deeds of Garvey received heavy coverage in The Dallas Express. In this atmosphere, a time when Texas ranked third among the states in the nation in numbers of lynchings per year, Horace wrote the utopian novel Five Generations Hence. The title reflects Horace’s hope that African Americans would be resettled in the home continent in five generations. In the novel, the heroine, Miss Noble, shared a recent vision with a friend:

It seemed a week of horrors to our people throughout the land, of which I read in the daily papers: there had been a lynching not far away and it seemed that the end of my endurance was reached when members of my race, men and women and even children, were attacked upon the streets of one of our leading cities, brutally assaulted, and forced to flee like hunted beasts . . . I saw the Negro for more than fourteen generations of oppression attended by theft from their native shores and crack of the whip about their heads.

{Then} I saw a people, a black people, tilling the soil with a song of real joy upon their lips. I saw a civilization like to the white man’s about us today, but in his place stood another of a different hue. I beheld beautifully paved streets, handsome homes beautified and adorned, and before the doors sported dusky boys and girls . . . I was as if thunder struck when a still small voice, yet seeming to penetrate my inmost soul, cried in thunderous accents, “Five Generations Hence.” I was stunned as the truth began to dawn: the land was Africa, the people were my own returned to possess the heritage of their ancestors.


Marxists like Tolson ridiculed such Garveyism. Unlike Horace, Tolson and Brewer saw America as a land that belonged as much to blacks as to whites. Furthermore, like W.E.B. Du Bois, Tolson would argue that hoping for a mass migration of African Americans across the Atlantic was a futile pipedream. White supremacy threatened people of color globally. Even as Horace wrote her novel, brutal British, French and Belgian colonial regimes had raped Africa, stolen its resources, and exploited its people.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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