We Need to Talk About Black History
It’s so much more than slavery, MLK Jr., and rap’s founding fathers.
It’s eight p.m. at Zula Sound Bar in Cape Town, and dinner with Brendan, a thirty-year-old white man from Pittsburgh, is about to turn into an unexpected history lesson.
Brendan has temporarily relocated to Cape Town for a two-month internship after spending three years in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. He’s engaged to a Cameroonian, so he has every intention of returning, although he realizes the wind (and the Peace Corps) could eventually blow him and his husband-to-be anywhere.
Tonight, though, his mind is on Johannesburg. His Peace Corps internship is sending him on his first trip there next week, so naturally I’m inclined to offer my glowing impression of my favorite South African city. The artsy Melville district is a must-do, I insist, especially Sophiatown Bar Lounge, easily its best hot spot.
“There was a live jazz band, and the crowd was mostly black and beautiful,” I say, describing the night I walked into Sophiatown to order takeout and left hours later with one of my most indelible South Africa memories.
“I felt as if I’d stepped into a time-travel machine and ended up in the Harlem Renaissance,” I say.
Crickets. Brendan looks at me, his expression suddenly blank and impenetrable. He was right beside me on Memory Lane, and now he’s thoroughly lost.
“The Harlem Renaissance?”
“Yeah, I’m serious. It was like I was back in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance.” I’ve mistaken his strange expression for incredulity.
“What is that? I’ve never heard of it. Was that in Harlem?”
I try to hide my shock as I explain to him the black artistic movement of New York City’s roaring twenties, the iconic one that gave the world Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Cotton Club, and so many of the writers who influenced the writers who influenced me.
I mention none of them, only Langston Hughes, anticipating a flicker of recognition. Doesn’t everyone know Langston Hughes?
Nothing. I’m taken so completely off-guard that I never bring up the Apartheid Museum, site of my most defining moment in Johannesburg. Until Brendan asked me to explain the Harlem Renaissance, I might have assumed he’d heard of the Apartheid Museum, too. But what do I know now?
I would have expected the Harlem Renaissance to have a much higher profile among Americans, white and black, than the Apartheid Museum, which I’d never heard of until my own first trip to Joburg last year. But suddenly I’m questioning everything I thought everybody knew.
As the questions circle my brain, a moment of clarity and realization interrupts them. I’ve always taken for granted that everyone has heard of the Harlem Renaissance. Could it actually be a specially acquired piece of knowledge, something significant mostly, if not only, to black people, sort of like Angela Winbush, Miki Howard, Phyllis Hyman, Girlfriends, and The Game?
Maybe it had never actually crossed over. I took American Literature 2023 as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, and it included an entire section devoted to black literature (before “black” was politically correctly rechristened “African American”). The Harlem Renaissance and the writers it inspired dominated that portion of the course. It introduced me to the work of Zora Neal Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and, of course, Hughes.
I hadn’t thought much about that Am Lit course in the decades between completing it and meeting Brendan. Now that it’s foremost in my thoughts, I wonder if the syllabus would have touched on those black writers at all if the professor hadn’t been a black woman. My Am Lit 2023 classmates, like the general UF population, were almost entirely white. Would they have even signed up for Am Lit 2023 if they had known we’d be concentrating so much attention on black literature?
Maybe the Harlem Renaissance isn’t common knowledge at all, not even for Brendan, a white American who one might assume would have a vested interest in being well versed in the black experience in his country and whose curiosity would be inspired by his bethrotal to a black man. It’s been stacked away on a shelf in my brain for so long that I’ve forgotten it hasn’t always been there.
But having had a public-school education that emphasized the William Shakespeares and Charles Dickenses of the literary world over their counterparts of color, I probably wasn’t exposed to the Harlem Renaissance in a classroom setting until Am Lit 2023. When might a young white man whose education veered away from the liberal arts be exposed to it?
Had I never taken Am Lit 2023, I still might have picked up more than passing knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance at some point, being that I am a black writer and journalist. But why should I expect it to be on the history radar of a white person who is neither a writer nor a creative type, even someone who has spent the last three years being a part of the white minority in predominantly black Cameroon? The black experience there probably has nothing to do with Harlem.
Ironically, hours before meeting up with Brendan, I received an email from a white Canadian friend with whom I’ve been having a back-and-forth Facebook conversation about race issues for several weeks. Attached to it was an mp3 he’d ripped from the 1989 film Looking for Langston, which was inspired by Mr. Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.
The morning after dinner with Brendan, I finally listen to it in its entirety. The excerpt is a powerful two-minute jazz-accompanied monologue/meditation on the objectification of the black male. The devastating final sentence — “To you he’s only visible in the dark” — stunningly summarizes a point I’ve made over and over in my writing, in the title of my first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, and in the book itself.
As the excerpt plays on a repeat loop, I wonder what my Canuck friend would think of Sophiatown Bar Lounge or my description of it. Clearly he’s heard of the Harlem Renaissance … and he isn’t even American.
I’m trying not to hold Brendan’s lack of that specific knowledge against him. Later, after telling a white friend in New York the story and getting a similar “What’s that?” reaction when I get to the part about the Harlem Renaissance, I realize that Brendan isn’t alone.
To his credit, he has traveled far outside his comfort zone in Pittsburgh to a West African country where, initially, he knew no one and didn’t speak the language. Most people in the U.S., white and black, have likely never even heard of Cameroon.
They should all be so lucky to be educated not only in geography but in another culture, too, and maybe even learn some French along the way. Alas, Cameroon is not so accessible to everyone. The Harlem Renaissance, however, is, even nearly a century later.
I consider its sweet and bitter fruit: the words of Hughes, Hurston, and Wright, the music of Ellington and so many others.
It deserves to be a part of the well-balanced cultural diet of every American, black and white. They should all taste it and grow.
From my forthcoming book, Storms in Africa: A Year in the Motherland