Harlem arguably holds the title of the most famous literary neighborhood in the United States. No summary of 20th century poetry could be complete without the inclusion of Langston Hughes. No course on the 20th century American novel would be whole without mentioning at least one from the dozens of writers affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s, including Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Nella Larsen.
It might almost seem trite to ask “Why Harlem?” now, nearly a century after Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson first proclaimed the neighborhood a “race capital” and “Mecca of the New Negro” in the landmark 1925 Survey Graphic Harlem issue and follow-up New Negro collection. But with Black Harlem under apparent threat of cultural and residential displacement, as appears the case for many New York City neighborhoods, answering this question provides two important avenues of recourse for those disturbed by the prospect of Black Harlem’s disappearance:
First, it clarifies the symbolic history of Harlem as a center for Black urban life now at risk of disruption. And, second, it serves as a reminder that, contrary to Harold Cruse’s declaration in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), whatever way Harlem goes, all of Black America is not destined to go with it. Black Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century could have lived more comfortably in terms of job prestige, income, gender equity, and political influence in Midwestern cities like Chicago and Cleveland rather than Harlem, according to research. Ironically, it was real estate, more symbolically than materially, that made Harlem such an important piece of American history and particularly African-American history—the very same resource now threatening its undoing.
So, to return to the question “why Harlem?” and why its particular patch of real estate? Well, I’d argue that you’d have to begin by asking the question “why not Chicago?” first.
Thanks to David Levering Lewis’s phenomenal When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981), we know that Black University of Chicago-trained sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson also played a key role bringing together the coterie of Black artists and white sponsors at the Renaissance’s core. While Lewis rightfully spends a good deal of time in his book explaining how Johnson and Alain Locke, editor of the Survey Graphic Harlem issue and The New Negro, essentially strong-armed Black women like Jessie Fauset, who appear to have initially come up with the idea of promoting a Black literary renaissance, out of the movement’s spotlight, he only briefly touches on how Johnson’s experience compiling the Chicago Commission on Race Relations’ in-depth study of that city’s 1919 race riot affected how Johnson envisioned Harlem’s literary renaissance serving as a complement to his sociological attempts to improve race relations by fighting prejudice with facts.
The Negro in Chicago (1922) was an unbelievably thorough document, the most complete study of Black life in a Northern U.S. city since Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899). The report details how long-simmering tensions over access to scarce housing and quality jobs in Chicago provided tinder for the conflagration, one that then erupted when a Black boy named Eugene Williams drowned off a South Side beach after white beachgoers had attacked him with stones.
The data to prove Black belonging and capability to thrive in 20th century cities like Chicago existed. It was narratives of Black inferiority that refused to account for, stifled, or misinterpreted this data.
The 600-plus-page study closes with a number of specific policy recommendations, like the creation of more housing in the Black Belt and a means to establish reconciliation between organized labor and Black workers. But if its content indicates toward any one overarching conclusion regarding the state of race relations in Northern cities by 1920, it appears one of sober pessimism. Black homeowners had kept up their homes and made mortgage payments and worked to be parts of Chicago’s communities just as diligently as whites. They had joined Chicago’s unions at the same rates and equally recoiled from the emergence of the city’s vicious underground. And yet, despite all this, Black folks remained forcibly pushed to Chicago’s margins and scapegoated for all the contemporary city’s ills.
The problem was not that sociology lacked the data to disprove white supremacist rationalizations for Black exclusion and segregation in Chicago (arguably the most sociologically studied city of the early 20th century), or that it had failed to illustrate how Black folks owed secondary statuses to discrimination, Johnson realized. It was that whites had failed and would continue to fail to internalize facts proving Black equality and Black belonging in modern cities when their overwhelming, primary sources of exposure to Blackness were prejudicial representations found in sources from the white press to minstrel shows to Thomas Dixon novels. The data to prove Black belonging and capability to thrive in 20th century cities like Chicago existed. It was narratives of Black inferiority that refused to account for, stifled, or misinterpreted this data, and that in Johnson’s eyes needed a major fix.
Here, I’d say, lay one key reason for “why Harlem.” As Johnson wrote in his journal Opportunity a century ago this year, notably between the publication of The Negro in Chicago and the landmark Harlem texts of 1925, “[f]alse notions, if believed, false preconceptions, may control conduct as effectively as true ones….” Reflecting on how such misconceptions stoked by a race-baiting press had fueled recent riots in cities from Chicago to Atlanta, Johnson argued in “Public Opinion and the Negro” that a lack of white exposure to Black authors whose work dispelled the racist myths behind such division required intervention.
Changing racial narratives in popular culture, he figured, might start to open up white minds to the social science proving racial prejudice’s irrationality. “If the myths can be dissolved, if indeed the beliefs can be honestly questioned, many of our inhibitions to normal, rational, ethical conduct will be removed,” Johnson believed.
This was, as David Levering Lewis aptly summarized, the gist of the Harlem Renaissance: “civil rights by copyright.” And if it could happen, it could only happen in New York.
Though Chicago might have had a more robust Black business community and political structure than in Harlem, Harlem was located in the publishing center of U.S. If the goal of people like Charles S. Johnson was indeed to change misperceptions of Black life through popular culture, New York’s artistic infrastructure seemed a more appropriate setting for that literary revolution.
Chicago from a literary perspective had produced some groundbreaking examples of modern poetry (see Sandburg’s Chicago) and urban novels (Dreiser’s Sister Carrie), but it was not an established center of culture whose clout Black Chicagoans could easily absorb and utilize. As the journal Current Opinion put it in 1920, even if Chicago might have produced some of the most impressive American literature of the 20th century, New York served as that literature’s ultimate clearing house.
New York City also seemed a more symbolically apt location to stage a racial revolution via literary representation because it was the located at the forefront initial pushes to create comprehensive housing policies in cities across the U.S. Up to then a reigning truism of urban real estate was that Black residents never paid up for it, did not know how to manage it, and almost always ran whatever homes and neighborhoods they occupied into the ground… not that realtors refused them access to all but the lowest-quality housing, that white banks refused them financing, or that landlords overcharged them despite Black families’ restricted incomes.
Harlem’s existence as a modern-built, mostly Black neighborhood (multiple scholars claim that it was the finest urban housing occupied by Black residents anywhere in the country at the time) in the 1920s was a flying “f*ck you” to anyone and everyone comfortable believing in such a narrative, or who might use it as the basis for further discriminatory rules in regards to housing access and finance.
Location set Harlem apart from Chicago’s Bronzeville in terms of its representative capabilities here, too. This was because the singular real estate market of New York City in the 1920s represented a uniquely propitious if accidental support for Black Harlem’s achievement. Enabled by a real estate bubble collapse in 1904, Black realtors like Philip Payton had successfully finagled white prejudice and leveraged Black institutional wealth to begin transforming the neighborhood from its intended status of an upper-middle-class white enclave to an emerging Black Mecca.
Further major developments in the housing market in New York through the 1920s hastened this initial breakthrough along. Most buildings in New York up to then were built speculatively by small builders using precarious financing, and the cost of stringent new housing regulations plus rising construction costs made it difficult for them to withstand any market shocks. New rent regulations in New York additionally made it desirable to find tenants unlikely to take landlords to court for unreasonable increases, which, combined with a wartime spike in Black migration made it more lucrative than not to allow Black tenants into formerly all-white buildings, especially those whose residents already seethed at Black migration to Harlem.
Lastly, the fact that very few people at all owned their homes in New York City (thus removing the utility of racially restrictive covenants that rose in popularity after racial zoning’s demise) made it difficult to stem Harlem’s racial transformation. Most all of these enabling factors would disappear shortly thereafter, but in the 1920s they helped make Harlem the Harlem that we know now.
That this real estate, and new housing in particular, played such an overwhelming role in Harlem’s symbolic revolution of re-defining Blackness in an increasingly urbanizing 20th century U.S. on Black people’s own terms is imprinted in its texts from James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan (1930) to Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) to Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932), mostly set in a fictional version of A’Lelia Walker’s famous Dark Tower.
In many of these texts, an underlying suspicion speaks to fears of what will come next in a community whose resources could only barely afford to keep the real estate so central to why Harlem felt like a significant development in the progress of the race. Such tensions do not deny real estate’s importance to Harlem’s symbolism, however, but rather reinforce its connection.
Scholarship since has helped separate setting from symbolism when it comes to Harlem’s real estate. Contrary to the declaration of James Weldon Johnson, a key Harlem Renaissance figure whose family of Black realtors also played a key role in Harlem’s transformation, Harlem of the 1920s was not special because it was “practically owned by Negroes.” By Charles S. Johnson’s own measurements, if the criteria for defining a Black Mecca were indeed homeownership, during the 1920s and 1930s that Mecca would have been somewhere in West Virginia. In New York, it would have been Queens or Staten Island.
No, what made Harlem special compared to anywhere else in the US was that it served as a living example of collective Black modernity, Black self-determination, and Black belongingness in northern cities that seemed increasingly bent on denying them equal access in a pronounced backlash to the Great Migration. Simultaneously, Harlem served as a transmissible cultural symbol to prove this point beyond the context of Harlem alone, one whose capabilities of transmission to white and Black audiences appeared to outmatch the capabilities (or desires, as Davarian Baldwin has argued in reference to internal development of mass entertainment in Chicago’s Black Belt) of Bronzeville.
In this light, it is especially interesting to note how Fenton Johnson, a Black author who self-published magazines in Chicago using his uncle Jesse Binga’s fortune, wrote a novel rejected by New York publishers about a passing man mourning his inability to embrace his race and simultaneously find acceptance in modern Chicago, only three years prior to James Weldon Johnson’s signal Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). (The latter Johnson also indicated in his introduction to the 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry that it was the former Johnson—not Harlem Renaissance poets—who had first broke the minstrel traditions of Black poetry and brought to it new tones of militancy and modernism.) Fenton Johnson went bankrupt trying to self-promote his work and its significance through the 1920s. Harlem Renaissance figures, through the support of New York’s cultural infrastructure and white patronage, found greater success reaching toward similar goals while achieving greater fame as authors.
What made Harlem special compared to anywhere else in the U.S. was that it served as a living example of collective Black modernity, Black self-determination, and Black belongingness.
In posing these contrasts, I do not intend to judge any of these writers’ roads to publication as greater or lesser, more authentic or sold-out. Instead, I want to re-emphasize the important role of location in determining the texture and success of literary movements, in addition to its much-studied, important role in determining individual opportunity and neighborhood inequality, as discussed by hordes of urban policy researchers.
By building upon those researchers’ focuses, and questioning how cultural movements can shape urban spaces as they challenge pre-existing narratives justifying racial and spatial inequality, revisiting the importance of Harlem that Charles S. Johnson first outlined so many years ago reminds us how such research can use the support of an additional creative component to achieve social transformation. It is terrifying to ask “Why Harlem?” today, when staring at the threat of displacement bringing an end to its symbolic narrative as the most important Black neighborhood in America.
But, as I hope this article illustrates, there remains hope in asking “Why Not Everywhere Else?” when we know we can achieve through housing policy and racial redress impactful shifts toward spatial and racial justice greater than those that made Harlem special in the first place. Those features, of quality housing on equal terms with whites, of cultural respect (however misguided it might have occasionally been among some 1920s white audiences), of Black self-determination, and of relative proximity to opportunity, which defined Black Harlem back when and still make it precious, should have been standard rather than singular.
It is a preventable tragedy that they still remain singular, and therefore so perilously precious, now.
Photo via the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Author Langston Hughes [far left] with [left to right:] Charles S. Johnson; E. Franklin Frazier; Rudolph Fisher and Hubert T. Delaney.”