BUT NEGRO AMERICANS, even if they had the money, were not free to join the idyllic suburb of their choice nor to enter the everywhere community of suburbanites. From their early arrival on the scene of American history, Negro Americans had an experience not shared by other Americans. Indelible immigrants, they were condemned by slavery to remain outside the mainstream of American opportunity. Even after emancipation, after a bloody civil war which purported to bring the Negro into the community of free Americans, the American Negro’s experience did not cease to be distinctive. However oppressed the Negro was under slavery, that was a status plainly recognized by law, which was openly attacked by some and which many respectable Southerners openly defended. But when the Negro had become, in law, a free American, his status as an indelible immigrant became an anachronism as well as an injustice. American civilization in the twentieth century then made the position of the Negro American not simply unique, but intolerable. Nearly every novel force in the life of the nation made his situation more difficult to explain and more impossible to justify.
The Negro played a crucial and distinctive role in the changing life of the American city in the early twentieth century. In the Age of Immigration, as we have seen—when hundreds of thousands from abroad were pouring through American ports, each group in its own way trickling into the rushing currents of American life, to be brought within a generation or two into the mainstream—the Negro remained the indelible immigrant. In the Age of the Everywhere Community, when cities had become centers of movement and mobility, when Americans were freely joining and leaving consumption communities, when they were being grouped by their interpreters and by themselves in fast-changing statistical communities, when neighborhoods had been dissolved in the vagueness of the city, when even the boundaries between city and countryside had become uncertain, the Negro found himself marked off and confined. Some called this the American Dilemma. But it was more properly the American Paradox—a contradiction that was both inexplicable and indefensible. The Negro’s was an indelible community. As the century wore on, and as the nation became increasingly dissolved and diffused into looser, vaguer communities, this spectacle of one part arbitrarily kept segregated and made insoluble would trouble the nation’s conscience, breeding passions that were more easily aroused than allayed, and creating problems more easily described than solved.
NOT UNTIL 1870 did the census officially list the urban population. Then, in the next half-century, the United States speedily became more and more citified. While estimates indicated that city dwellers had numbered less than one American in ten in 1830, in 1870 the urban proportion of the nation counted one American in four; increasing to one in three in 1890, to nearly one in two in 1910, to nearly two out of three in 1930, and to three out of four in the 1970’s. While, as we have seen, the technical definition of an urban American shifted, the movement of population was unmistakable. This was a great internal migration, which in speed and magnitude matched the migrations from abroad which had first populated the continent.
Negro Americans joined this flow to the city, and their movement away from the countryside was even more dramatic than that of the rest of the nation. As late as 1900 only half as many Negroes as whites (in proportion to their numbers) were living in cities, but by 1960, when 68 percent of the nation’s white population was classified as urban, the proportion of the nation’s Negroes living in cities already came to 73 percent. Except in the old secessionist South, after the Civil War the Negro population was more urban than the white population in every decade. By 1960 the Negro population outside the South was 92.7 percent urban, and students of the census predicted that if urbanization continued at the same rate, nearly all Negroes in the United States would be living in urban areas by 1980.
The cityward migration of Negroes was also a migration out of the South. The proportion of the nation’s Negro population found in the South declined from 90 percent in 1870 to 60 percent in 1960. Negroes living in the rural South generally did not move to a Southern city on their way northward and westward. The dispersion out into the nation showed a striking uniformity. While the proportion of Negroes in the population as a whole decreased from 1870 to 1920 (from 13 percent to 10 percent), and then remained relatively stable after 1920, every section outside the South showed an increase in its Negro population.
The Negro’s immigration to the city was one more American saga—as full of adventure, of hope and disappointment as any of the other migrations that had built the nation. But at this stage too, certain features sharply distinguished the Negro’s experience. Other immigrant groups—the Irish, the Italians, the Jews—had generally begun their American experience in their own gathered community in a city. In the South, however, the Negro had been primarily a rural person; he had generally lived in small groups dispersed among the white population, to serve the convenience of his white master or employer. While historians disagree over the extent of residential segregation and Jim Crowism in the South just after the Civil War, the evidence suggests that the most rigid and humiliating forms of Jim Crow segregation did not come to the South until the end of the nineteenth century, and then they were actually imported from the North.
By 1900 there were seventy-two cities in the United States with a Negro population of more than 5,000. The census of 1910 showed that New York City and Washington, D.C., each had more than 90,000 Negroes, while New Orleans, Baltimore, and Philadelphia each had a Negro population exceeding 80,000.
A number of forces were bringing Negroes into Northern and Western cities. In the late nineteenth century, depression and lack of opportunity in the South sent some of the more adventurous or the more desperate on their way. Then, at the outbreak of World War I, when the flow of unskilled immigrant labor from Europe was cut off, Henry Ford and others sent their agents South and they even provided special freight cars to bring Negroes to work in their Northern factories. Negroes found employment on the Ford assembly lines, where they shared the benefits of Ford’s unprecedented $5-a-day minimum wage. Because Ford was one of the first Northern industrial employers of large numbers of Negroes, the very name Ford conjured up visions of urban opportunities and problems, and Ford became the subject of many a blues.
Say, I’m goin’ to get me a job now, workin’ in Mr. Ford’s place
Say, I’m goin’ to get me a job now, workin’ in Mr. Ford’s place,
Say, that woman tol’ me last night, “Say, you cannot even stand Mr. Ford’s ways.”
Others went North and West to take jobs in the steel plants of Pittsburgh or Chicago. Women found jobs as household servants. And a small number of Negro business and professional men came North (as the saying went) “to take advantage of the disadvantages.”
When the Negro migrant arrived at his Promised Land outside the South, segregation ordinances, social pressures, and fear, and then inevitable choice, kept him confined in his own city within the city. Negro communities developed a life of their own with their own character, their own glamour, and their own frustrations. New York’s Harlem, which was soon called “the largest Negro community in the world,” was the symbol and the prototype of the metropolitan life that the Negro in his new urban congregation and segregation was building for himself.
HARLEM WAS A bizarre upstart city-within-a-city, a peculiar urban frontier, a by-product of the mobility of non-Negro Americans. It would produce its own brand of boosters and community builders and Go-Getters.
New opportunities for the Negro in the city were symbolized in the career of the talented and versatile James Weldon Johnson, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a lawyer, composer and lyricist (he wrote some two hundred songs), fighter for equal opportunity, and chronicler of the New York Negro community. In 1925, in “Harlem: the Culture Capital,” Johnson succinctly told the story of how, after the turn of the century, that vast and varied Negro community came into being:
Harlem had been overbuilt with large, new-law apartment houses, but rapid transportation to that section was very inadequate—the Lenox Avenue Subway had not yet been built—and landlords were finding difficulty in keeping houses on the east side of the section filled. Residents along and near Seventh Avenue were fairly well served by the Eighth Avenue Elevated. A colored man, in the real estate business at this time, Philip A. Payton, approached several of these landlords with the proposition that he would fill their empty or partially empty house with steady colored tenants. The suggestion was accepted, and one or two houses on One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Street east of Lenox Avenue were taken over. Gradually other houses were filled. The whites paid little attention to the movement until it began to spread west of Lenox Avenue; they then took steps to check it. They proposed through a financial organization, the Hudson Realty Company, to buy all properties occupied by colored people and evict the tenants. The Negroes countered by similar methods….
The situation now resolved itself into an actual contest. Negroes not only continued to occupy available apartment houses, but began to purchase private dwellings between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. Then the whole movement, in the eyes of the whites, took on the aspect of an “invasion”; they became panic-stricken and began fleeing as from a plague. The presence of one colored family in a block, no matter how well bred and orderly, was sufficient to precipitate a flight. House after house and block after block was actually deserted. It was a great demonstration of human beings running amuck. None of them stopped to reason why they were doing it or what would happen if they didn’t. The banks and lending companies holding mortgages on these deserted houses were compelled to take them over. For some time they held these houses vacant, preferring to do that and carry the charges than to rent or sell them to colored people. But values dropped and continued to drop until at the outbreak of the war in Europe property in the northern part of Harlem had reached the nadir.
In the meantime the Negro colony was becoming more stable; the churches were being moved from the lower part of the city; social and civic centers were being formed; and gradually a community was being evolved. Following the outbreak of the war in Europe Negro Harlem received a new and tremendous impetus.
As the former residents of this neighborhood—themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Poland, or elsewhere—moved out to other parts of the city or to the new suburbs, their places were taken by Negro immigrants from the South.
The new settlers in Harlem came from many parts of the world, not only from the South but also from Africa and from the West Indies. Among them, as one perceptive Negro intellectual observed, were “the peasant, the student, the businessman, the professional man, artist, poet, musician, adventurer and worker, preacher and criminal, exploiter and social outcast. Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another.”
As a result, according to LeRoi Jones, “The Negro becomes more definitely Negroes. … one essential uniformity, the provinciality of place, the geographical and social constant within the group, was erased.” His metropolitan experience revealed to the Negro that he had within him wider, more varied possibilities than he had seen before. He had progressed (in historian Nathan Huggins’ phrase) “from rural homogeneity to urban pluralism.” But the very same circumstances which opened the wider world within him tended to develop a new kind of race consciousness. “What had defined them as a race,” Huggins notes in his chronicle of the Harlem Renaissance, “was a common condition and a common problem. What was needed to make a race, however, was a common consciousness and a life in common. Life in the city, life in Harlem, would satisfy that need.”
This was The New Negro, described in the influential book of that title edited in 1925 by Alain Locke. A Philadelphia-born Negro, Locke was one of the earliest American Rhodes Scholars to Oxford, became a professor of philosophy, and drew on his own experience of the wider world to find the Negro’s new role in American life. “For generations,” he said, “in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’ or ‘helped up,’ to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden.” Now, having found himself in his own city-within-a-city, the Negro American would become “the advance-guard of the African peoples in their contact with the Twentieth Century civilization.” His mission was “rehabilitating the race in world esteem.” Locke drew on the traditional American belief that the nation was a City Upon a Hill: the Negro in America (reversing Kipling) would take up the “Black Man’s burden.”
Harlem had its Renaissance. By 1920 the Negro population of New York City, overwhelmingly concentrated in Harlem, numbered more than 150,000, making it the largest Negro community of any city in the nation. Within the next decade, the remarkable group of literary, musical, and artistic talents which flourished there had brought to that repossessed slum a world-wide reputation. The lyric poet Countée Cullen anthologized Negro verse, wrote novels, and translated Greek tragedy. Claude McKay, who had immigrated from Jamaica, wrote Home to Harlem (1928), the first best-selling work of fiction by a Negro American. Jake, who had deserted from the Army in World War I because they wouldn’t let him fight Germans, returns to his beloved Harlem with all its problems and loves and hates, with its prostitution and narcotics and its countless confining frustrations. A McKay hero rhapsodizes, “Harlem! Where else could I have all this life but Harlem? Good old Harlem! Chocolate Harlem! Sweet Harlem! Harlem, I’ve got you’ number down.” On Harlem’s stage and in the wings appeared other varied talents who merited notice not because they were Negroes, but because they were original artists or writers or creative scholars: James Weldon Johnson himself; Alain Locke; Jean Toomer, who wrote of the crosscurrents of Europe and America; Jessie Redmond Fauset, novelist of the life of middle-class Negroes; sociologists W. E. B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier; and publicist Walter White. One of the most widely appealing of all was Langston Hughes, a prolific man of letters who drew on the Negro’s special experience to interpret the problems of all Americans. “I can never put on paper the thrill of the underground ride to Harlem,” Hughes recalled of his arrival there in 1921. “I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight. Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.”
And it was not only in the familiar genres of art and letters that the newly congregated, half-liberated Negro showed his talent. While his northward cityward movement had liberated him from the traditions and shackles of plantation slavery, he was now freed only to live with himself, to discover his own community. His full liberation—into the world of the everywhere community—was yet to come. The Negroes’ cities-within-cities in their segregation and immobility were oddities in American life, but they actually produced a new music which quickly spread across the nation and around the world—and at once became known as the music most characteristically American.
“THE JAZZ AGE,” the decade after World War I, when the nation became predominantly urban, took its name from the rich and varied new popular music which was essentially a creation of the Negro in the city. Historians cannot agree on the origin of the word “jazz”: some say it is of African or Creole origin, others that it derived from the name of a musician; many American linguists including Mencken connect it somehow with the folk-speech expression “to jazz” describing sexual intercourse. But there is no denying that this American form of music originated with Negroes in the first age of their migration to the city, and jazz flourished primarily because of the talent, energy, and imagination of Negroes in cities. In Europe, too, the years after World War I were an age of musical experiment—of Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók. But jazz (as Gunther Schuller, the chronicler of its origins, observes) was a more democratic, more communal kind of experiment. For the Old World saw developing novel forms of “art music,” of salon and concert-hall music, the works of composers played by performers for audiences of patrons.
Jazz, however (in the language of the musicologist), was “not the product of a handful of stylistic innovators, but a relatively unsophisticated quasi-folk music—more sociological manifestation than music … recently coalesced from half a dozen tributary sources into a still largely anonymous, but nevertheless distinct idiom.” Early American jazz, like African native music, was not so much a distinctive art “form” as a kind of communal celebration. And again it was distinctively democratic and characteristically American in its many ways of erasing distinctions. As a music par excellence of the extemporizer and the improvisor, jazz dissolved the old distinction between composer and performer. It provided a new intimacy and interrelation between each performer and his fellows. And as a music of the dance, it was peculiarly responsive to its audience, who became somehow part of the performance.
The cheerful rhythms of “ragtime” (popularized after about 1896 and classically expressed in the performances of Scott Joplin, a Negro from Texas whose “Maple Leaf Rag” became a prototype of a new syncopation) and the melancholy liveliness of the “blues” combined with folk reminiscence and African rhythm into a free-wheeling American musical vernacular. It could be sung or played on any and every kind of implement or instrument, and spoke a musical language that almost anyone anywhere could understand.
One of the fathers of the blues was W. C. Handy, a Negro from Alabama who started in the minstrel tradition as a cornetist, and who became best known for his “St. Louis Blues” (1914). As Handy himself explained:
The blues is a thing deeper than what you’d call a mood today. Like the spirituals, it began with the Negro, it involves our history, where we came from, and what we experienced.
The blues came from the man farthest down. The blues came from nothingness, from want, from desire. And when a man sang or played the blues, a small part of the want was satisfied from the music.
The blues go back to slavery, to longing. My father, who was a preacher, used to cry every time he heard someone sing I’ll See You On Judgment Day. When I asked him why, he said, “That’s the song they sang when your uncle was sold into slavery in Arkansas. He wouldn’t let his masters beat him, so they got rid of him the way they would a mule.”
Then in the First World War, all Americans got a taste of what we had had for years—people being torn from their families and sent to faraway places, sometimes against their wishes. And blues and jazz began to have more meaning for more people. Then the depression was a new experience for many. But we had been hungry for years and had known hunger and hurt.
So the blues helped to fill the longing in the hearts of all kinds of people. They took it to their hearts and felt the same thing we felt. Now when you hear a white person sing the blues, he can put as much into it as a Negro. The blues and jazz have become a part of all American music and will be developed farther and farther into infinity.
The Negro in the city was doubly uprooted: trying to begin life in America, for the second time. Uprooted against his will from Africa to slavery in the southern United States, he had adjusted himself somehow to the Southern life of farm and plantation; now, a voluntary exile from the land of his parents, he sought roots in the city’s hard cold pavement. His fast-paced laments from his double Diaspora provided the theme song for all the other hurried, mobile Americans who looked in the cement for what earlier generations had found only in the soil.
It is no wonder that the specific origins of jazz—the word, the music, the first composers and first performers—are hard to locate. For jazz was a democratic, vernacular music, and, as LeRoi Jones and others have noted, it grew out of an experience that Negroes early in this century were having in their newly formed urban congregations all over the country. It is a commonplace that jazz appeared very early in New Orleans—where even before the Civil War, Negroes had been somewhat freer to share the life of the metropolis. There, after the Civil War, Negroes picked up the discarded instruments of military bands, and drawing on the African music long heard in Congo Square, they transmuted military and funeral tunes and rhythms into a new fraternal experience. Since jazz, and the blues, grew out of “the general movement of the mass of black Americans into the central culture of the country,” it naturally appeared at about the same time in many cities. A product of the everywhere communities of the Negroes’ new cities-within-cities, jazz and the blues were perhaps the first American popular music that was not regional. New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and other meccas of the northward Negro migration were all centers of jazz; each place (like each performer) had its own style, but performers moved easily from one Harlem to another. Louis Armstrong, who began in New Orleans, went on to Chicago, then to New York and elsewhere. Jazz created a nationwide community where players and singers knew one another.
The phonograph, too, was providentially suited to jazz and the blues. Music that was so improvised and extemporized was not to be captured on a frozen page of sheet music. The one-time performance, with all its spontaneity and improvisation, had a unique appeal which the record caught. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” sometimes called the first best-selling disk of the blues, was recorded in mid-February 1920 and sold for some months at the rate of eight thousand records a week, mainly to the urban Negro market. It set the pace and revealed the market for “race” records. Incidentally, too, it showed the Negro in a new light: as a candidate for countless consumption communities. “The Negro as consumer,” observes LeRoi Jones, “was a new and highly lucrative slant, an unexpected addition to the strange portrait of the Negro the white American carried around in his head. It was an unexpected addition for the Negro as well. The big urban centers, like the new ‘black cities’ of Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, Detroit’s fast-growing Negro section, as well as the larger cities of the South were immediate witnesses to this phenomenon. Friday nights after work in those cold gray Jordans of the North, Negro workingmen lined up outside record stores to get the new blues, and as the money rolled in, the population of America, as shown on sales prognostication charts in the offices of big American industry, went up by one-tenth.”
While the phonograph brought jazz out to the whole American people, and the radio created an instant musical audience of unprecedented extent, recording itself tended to change the character of jazz and the blues. A live blues song or a jazz performance was of indeterminate length. It lasted until the performers had exhausted all their spontaneous improvisations. But a phonograph record could hold only so much; and a result of these recordings, as the historian of jazz Martin Williams has observed, was to put limits where there had been none before. A singer who knew that she could manage to put only four blues stanzas on a ten-inch record would tend to offer a set “composed” piece.
White Americans like Benny Goodman took up jazz and were among its most successful and most prosperous performers. Some, like Bix Beiderbecke, made it their own kind of lament or protest against a society that they had rejected or that had rejected them. Concert halls began offering “symphonic jazz.” The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an entirely white group, was making phonograph records in 1917; and by 1920 Paul Whiteman, professing to rise above “the crude jazz of the past,” was directing a full concert-hall orchestra before conventional audiences of music lovers. Now, in an appropriately ironic reversal of historical roles, white Americans were imitating their segregated Negro fellow citizens.
In a nation of everywhere communities, where standardized, nationally advertised products were rapidly flattening the flavor of the different regions, the Negroes’ cities-within-cities offered colorful relief. Carl Van Vechten, a white Iowa-born journalist, found “the squalor of Negro life, the vice of Negro life … a wealth of novel, exotic, picturesque materials to the artist.” And in his Nigger Heaven (1926) he offered a sympathetic but romanticized and sensationalized caricature of life in Harlem, which became an immediate best-seller. In the 1920’s, slumming parties took white tourists to Harlem night clubs and hot spots to see “tantalizin’ tans” and “hot chocolates” in Blackbird Revues, which acquired a reputation for Left Bank entertainment to rival that of Paris. For the local jet-set, Harlem was “a great playground.” The Cotton Club, claiming “the hottest show in town,” and other Harlem cabarets appealing exclusively to a white clientele became quite chic. The Negro, who in the South had been a symbol of peasant simplicity, in his new urban congregations was assigned the role of the uninhibited urban American. This role continued at least past the mid-century, so that when Norman Mailer sought a label for the liberated “beatnik” of the 1950’s he called him “the White Negro.”
THE CONCENTRATION OF Negro population into cities-within-cities made Negroes more identifiable as a group in parts of the country where they actually could vote. The Negro’s movement northward and westward and cityward was a movement toward a larger role in national politics. During Reconstruction—in the thirty years after Appomattox—the South had sent two Negro senators (both from Mississippi) and some twenty Negro congressmen to Washington. But in the early twentieth century every conceivable device was used in the South to prevent qualified Negroes from voting, much less holding office. Only after his migration did the Southern Negro become a voting citizen. By 1942 there were as many Negroes voting in the United States as the total number of whites voting in all the seven States of the Deep South (Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida). In 1947 Democrat William Dawson, a Negro (his predecessor, the first Northern Negro in Congress, Oscar de Priest, had served three terms from 1928), was sent to the House of Representatives from the South Side of Chicago, followed two years later by Adam Clayton Powell from the Harlem district of New York City and Charles C. Diggs, Jr., from Detroit. By 1964 there were four Negroes in Congress, and by 1972 their numbers had increased to fifteen. Edward Brooke, a Republican and a Negro, was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1966.
The voting power of the Negro had become so considerable (and so identifiably concentrated in Northern cities) that in 1960 for the first time in American history, Negro voters were widely assumed to have played a decisive role in a presidential election. Some knowledgeable observers credited Negro voters for the narrow popular margin of 120,000 which elected President John F. Kennedy. In 1964 the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, outlawing the poll tax which had been widely used in the South to disfranchise the Negro. In 1967 Thurgood Marshall, a Negro, was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the United States Supreme Court. By 1970 there were forty-eight Negro mayors, three of major cities. After 1960, a series of federal laws to protect civil rights and the right to vote were beginning to insure the Negro that local discrimination, even in the South, would not deprive him of his franchise. Although the Founding Fathers had expressly reserved to each of the states the fixing of qualifications for voting, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution (adopted in 1870) forbade the denial of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But not until the mid-twentieth century did the Negro’s right to vote become a new kind of federal commodity.
The strongest and deepest currents of American life in the twentieth century were drawing the Negro—along with other Americans—into everywhere communities. Now the Negro’s continuing residential segregation and the relics of his exclusion from public facilities, always anomalous, became unbearable.
But while the currents of history could be deflected, the deep channels in which the thought and feelings of large numbers of Americans had been flowing were not easily erased. The Negro had been pushed into a devious, segregated channel on his way into American life. The urban experience which began to give him his opportunity to be himself had also separated him from other Americans, had stirred his resentment and deepened his sense of indelible racial identity. This inevitably aroused fears and hostilities among his fellow Americans who did not know him but who would not have him for their neighbor. The tension between the races expressed in lynching, the illegal execution of individual Negroes, after about 1890 was exacerbated by group conflict. The age of the Negro’s emergence into American life was the age when “race riot” entered the American language. Segregation and racial discrimination were reinforced by an outspoken and organized white racism. The second Ku Klux Klan, founded in Georgia in 1915, spread through the North and Middle West until it claimed a membership of four million in the 1920’s. By the 1960’s the slogans of “White Supremacy” which had long plagued American life, were being matched by slogans of “Black Power,” and a new Negro racism became almost respectable. Shifting away from the nonviolent teachings of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a newly organized, newly proud and self-conscious Negro community experimented with every sort of technique—violent, nonviolent, and “nonviolent”—in an effort to secure their rightful place in American life.
But some of these efforts themselves threatened to postpone the day when the Negro would be undistinguished from all other Americans and so frustrated their proper purpose. Efforts to “compensate” for historical injustices by quotas, by reverse discrimination and other devices were creating a new suspiciousness and resentment in the non-Negro community; this in turn threatened to accentuate and perpetuate the Negro’s indelible status, and to create problems which neither good will nor violence gave promise of solving.
Still, the strong, deep currents of American life in the Age of Everywhere Communities did justify among many the hope that equality-loving Americans could employ unpredictable New World resources to accomplish the unexpected. Could a nation which had created boundless new consumption communities and statistical communities, and which (as we shall see) could erase space and the seasons—could that nation once again fulfill the American talent for erasing barriers?