Written by David L. Lewis and first published in 1981 by Knopf, the book When Harlem was in Vogue is one of the few chronicles of the Harlem Renaissance. The book centers on the rise of black artists and especially writers of that time. Immediately after the First World War, a period of Negros’ thriving set in and it underscored the essence of the Harlem Renaissance, which was characterized by the black intelligentsia.
The First World War offered a platform for Negroes to abandon their lowly jobs and participate in combatant roles, which gave rise to people like W.E.B DuBois. Lewis (1997) describes DuBois as a “senior intellectual militant of his people, a symbol of brainy, complex, and arrogant rectitude” (6).
Under DuBois’ leadership, Negroes could air their voices through art. The Harlem Renaissance seemed to be headed for greatness until the Great Depression set in. The people that had hitherto funded the renaissance withheld their funding and support and so the movement lost its vigor even though it persisted long after the financial crisis.
David L. Lewis’ masterpiece is essentially an account of black identity. The author solely wanted to highlight the fight of the Negroes for recognition and appreciation in an otherwise hostile environment dotted with racism and prejudice. Fortunately, Lewis achieved this goal by concentrating on the aspect of black artists’ fight for a place in a white-dominated environment.
While the push for the black identity recognition took many forms, Lewis chose to focus on one element, which gave him enough space to explore this form of struggle. DuBois mistakenly thought that by exposing the Negroes’ artistry to the racist whites would prove that the former were intelligent, and thus earn them acceptance in society and perhaps tame the undying ghost of racism, but he was wrong.
One of the strengths of this book is that Lewis did not take racial inclinations as most writers of his time. He gave credit where it was due by appreciating whites who decided to help the Negroes in their struggle. According to Lewis (1997), “The black Talented Tenth and the white Lost Generation shared the common premise that arts and letters had the power to transform a society in which, until profoundly altered, there was no place for their likes except at the margins” (XV).
Lewis acknowledged white supporters of the Harlem Renaissance like DuBose Heyward and noted that the only adversary to the Negroes’ pursuits was the “intolerant, philistine America” (1997, XVI). Therefore, by taking this stance, the author painted the book as an impartial account of the Harlem Renaissance.
On the book’s weaknesses, the author insinuated that the Harlem Renaissance died after the onset of the Great Depression. However, some authors like George Hutchinson differed with this opinion.
Hutchinson (1995) noted, “…continued to support black cultural advancement and civil rights throughout the Depression and beyond” (23). Unfortunately, most writers during Lewis’ era majored mainly on racial interpretations of the period and thus they did not have an autonomous way of thinking and perhaps expressing literature of the time.
However, despite its apparent weaknesses, this book is very informative. From its accounts, one gets to know that Charles Johnson engineered the renowned 1924 dinner, which was the first of its kind and it thrust the Harlem Renaissance into the limelight under the sponsorship of the Opportunity magazine.
It also becomes clear that at the time, the only place in New York without racial discrimination was the Manhattan’s Civic Club, which explains why Johnson chose it as the preferred venue for the dinner. The club later became a pivotal meeting place for the Harlem Renaissance bohemians. The funders of the Harlem Renaissance have remained silent for a long time; however, Lewis points to key people who sponsored the many gala events to promote the movement.
Some of the individuals involved included Casper Holstein, Walter White, Charlotte Mason Osgood, and James Weldon. Actually, by the end of the first ever gala in 1924, Casper Holstein had already handed in the ‘cheque’, which would cater entirely for the coming event. Other key funders included Julius Rosenwald, who used his foundation to ensure that the Harlem Renaissance was a success.
Carl Van Vechten together with his wife Fania Marinoff played a pivotal role of introducing black writers to publishing firms and successful whites for mentorship.
When Harlem was in Vogue is an impartial account of the rise of the Harlem Renaissance especially in the form of black artists. The First World War was a maiden opportunity for Negroes to engage in better activities like combats away from their conventional menial jobs. After the war and under the leadership of the DuBois, Negroes started to rise and claim their place in society.
The Harlem Renaissance was then born and with the support of key people like Charles Johnson, Charlotte Mason Osgood, and James Weldon, artists finally found their way out of the shackles of disparage from the whites albeit partially. The book has its strengths and weaknesses, but it is highly informative as highlighted in this paper.
Hutchinson, George. 1995. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lewis, David. 1997. When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Penguin Books.