Lost and found
By Carl A. Wade
“Look for Me All Around You”: Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Louis J. Parascandola (Wayne State University Press, ISBN 0-8143-2987-X, 469 pp)
Seven years after the appearance of Winds Can Wake Up the Dead: An Eric Walrond Reader, his highly respected anthology featuring the work of the neglected Caribbean writer, Louis J. Parascandola brings together the writings and speeches of a selection of those West Indian immigrants who exerted a powerful if not inordinate influence on that efflorescence of art and ideology familiarly known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Against the background of the complex social tensions of the times, Parascandola’s most recent text offers a comprehensive and timely reminder of the multifaceted contribution of this marginalised community to one of the most significant cultural and ideological events in New York City’s history. It celebrates the Caribbean immigrants as “key contributors to the burgeoning developments of this seminal era, cogently adding their unique voice to a variety of issues, including race and image building, the development of a Black aesthetic, progressive politics, and the struggle to define the status of blacks in America.”
The immigrants selected by Parascandola, a professor of English at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, represent every significant sphere of Harlem activity, as well as a cross section of West Indian communities, including Suriname. Many of these are well known to scholars and researchers, but unfamiliar to the lay community — especially in the West Indies — while the others have languished in obscurity for three quarters of a century. Apart from Walrond, born in British Guiana of Barbadian parents, Parascandola’s subjects include the well-known voices of Jamaicans Claude McKay, the eminent poet and novelist, and Marcus Garvey, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the most prominent of all Renaissance personalities; the Barbadian communist and labour activist Richard B. Moore; the Puerto Rican bibliophile Arthur A. Schomburg, after whom the famous Harlem research library is named; J.A. Rogers, the Jamaican historian and author; George Padmore, the noted Pan-Africanist born in Trinidad; Hubert Harrison, “the black Socrates,” socialist activist and newspaper editor, and Frank A. Crosswaith, trade union leader, both from St. Croix; and Cyril Valentine Briggs, the self-styled “angry blond Negro” communist newspaperman from Nevis. Otto Huiswoud, first black member of the American Communist Party, agitator, and editor from Dutch Guiana, and W.A. Domingo, the socialist newspaperman born in Jamaica, the son of a Spanish father and Jamaican mother, complete the list of male immigrants whose work is examined in the collection. Parascandola achieves something of a balance by discussing the contributions of three women, namely Amy Ashwood Garvey, co-founder of the UNIA; Amy Jacques Garvey, author and campaigner for the rights of women and blacks; and Eulalie Spence, the prize-winning playwright and drama teacher from Nevis.
“Look for Me All Around You” is worth reading for the introduction alone. Parascandola’s comprehensive and thoughtful essay outlines the context in which the West Indians — as well as African-Americans — lived, worked, and made their contribution to the black struggle. Drawing on the work of Winston James (author of Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, published in 1998) and that of other Caribbean and African-American scholars, Parascandola also traces those social and economic developments in the Caribbean region and elsewhere that precipitated mass migration to New York. As Parascandola notes, the most significant wave of West Indian immigrants arrived in the United States during a period considered the most blatantly racist in modern times, when Jim Crow legislation, lynching, and workplace discrimination targeting blacks were at their most rampant. The problems of assimilation; the tensions between the “monkey chasers” and their African-American hosts — never mind those with white Americans; the West Indians’ double invisibility as blacks and as black foreigners, compounded by what the author terms their “fluidity of identity” as British colonials, which exacerbated the problems of assimilation; these are all cogently addressed. But in addition to the intra-racial conflict, the author draws attention to those common dilemmas and challenges that forged those synergies between black Americans and West Indians that evolved — or erupted into — the Harlem Renaissance. Of special significance is his discussion of the development of the Garveyist movement, black involvement in American Communist and Marxist organisations, and the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption, one of the most mysterious and under-documented organs of black struggle, spearheaded in part by Moore, Huiswoud, and Briggs, who edited its newspaper, The Crusader.
But, for the most part, Parascandola sensibly allows the activists and artists to speak for themselves. His selections from their speeches and writings offer a nice balance between polemics and creative art, which constituted the main arenas in which Anglophone West Indians made their contribution. His discussion of the importance of black journals such as Opportunity, Negro World, and Crisis — all organs of the different political movements — is a reminder of the confidence in the pivotal role of the literary arts in influencing the social, political, and economic standing of the race.
“Look For Me All Around You” contains some of the most significant writings, speeches, and documents of the era, many — such as Garvey’s “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World” — not easily accessible to the West Indian or even American reading public. Sensibly and conveniently arranged by discipline or political ideology, these selections confirm the absence of any monolithic response on the part of these intellectuals and artists to the challenges of American society. Among the most interesting and provocative are those of Hubert Harrison, perhaps the most erudite of those featured in the selection, who was as critical of black leadership (W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington) as he was of white. Examples of his militancy and divergent thinking are his piece challenging the idea of the Renaissance itself, “‘No Negro Renaissance,’ Says Well Known Writer”, and “The White War and the Coloured World”. These statements and other information provided in the anthology confirm Harrison’s reputation as the father of Harlem radicalism. Harrison’s emphasis on black history, racial pride, and the concept of “race first,” we are told, resonated with other radical members of the Renaissance, such as Briggs and Moore, and Garvey himself, who incorporated a number of Harrison’s plans in the programme of his UNIA.
The “Literary Figures” section is devoted to the only significant West Indian creative writers of the Renaissance: McKay, Walrond, and Spence. (Garvey, too, might have qualified on the basis of the sheer volume of poetry he published himself in Negro World.) Parascandola takes this opportunity to complete the story of Eric Walrond’s career after he left New York for Europe, following the success of his short story collection Tropic Death (1926), shedding light on an episode that has long been the subject of speculation by critics and literary historians alike. Perhaps more than any other pieces in the collection, Walrond’s vignettes illustrate the stark realities of American racism as experienced by black West Indians. The chapter on Eulalie Spence introduces the Caribbean reading public especially to a highly respected drama teacher (the late American theatrical director and producer Joseph Papp was one of her students) and prize-winning playwright who — in her public statements at least — challenged a dominant aesthetic of (black) literature as a propaganda tool for the social betterment of the race. The selections from Spence’s work include both her forthright critical statements as well as examples of her one-act plays, including the highly praised Her (1927).
In addition to a valuable list of recent general scholarly texts on this encounter between West Indians and Harlem, the author provides useful introductions to the life, work, and achievement of each of the figures highlighted in the collection, as well as updated bibliographies. But perhaps there is also room for a brief chapter more succinctly acknowledging the contributions of lesser voices such as Arnold Ford, who composed the anthem of UNIA. This omission is hardly a blemish on a text that provides the most comprehensive account of this episode of black history to date. As he did for Walrond in Winds Can Wake Up the Dead, Parascandola once again revises the Harlem pantheon to record the important leadership roles of Caribbean artists and intellectuals in the areas of imaginative literature and the dramatic arts, black nationalist organisations, and revolutionary socialism. This insightful and painstakingly researched and annotated text is an invaluable addition to the growing body of literature on this subject. Not only does it clarify the Anglophone West Indian’s relationship with New York City in the early twentieth century, it also illuminates the most influential and exciting period of black intellectual and cultural life in the United States.
Carl A. Wade is a lecturer in literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. His research includes work on Eric D. Walrond, Caribbean American poets of the Harlem Renaissance era, and West Indian literary journals of the 1920s and 1930s.