Los Angeles Times Interview : Dorothy West : A Voice of Harlem Renaissance Talks of Past--But Values the ‘Now’
The Harlem Renaissance produced an unprecedented blossoming of achievement in black culture that changed the course of the arts in America. The era, largely paralleling the roaring 20s, belonged to singer Paul Robeson, to novelist Zora Neale Hurston, to poet Langston Hughes. Jazz clubs up along from the streets of Harlem; black independent filmmakers seized the new medium.
The work of black writers, painters and other artists swept into the mainstream, fueled in part by the support of rich young whites escaping the banality of middle-class culture. White artists, including composer George Gershwin and playwright Eugene O’Neill, borrowed from the resurgence, compounding the cross fertilization that transformed Broadway.
Many of these black artists died before their work was fully appreciated. But one who has lived to see the Harlem Renaissance revered is novelist Dorothy West, the best-known writer still alive to deliver a first-hand account of this community of black artists. Like writers of a later generation, the 1960s, artists of the Harlem Renaissance created a powerful literary tradition, and African-American writing, painting and drama has never been the same.
West adores describing what she witnessed during this cultural revolution. While still a teen-ager, she left the posh life of the Boston black bourgeoisie for the excitement of New York, to accept a prize then awarded by the Urban League’s publication, “Opportunity.” The resulting exposure swept her into the milieu of black artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers who had been drawn to New York, part of a vast migration of African-Americans escaping the rural South for the industrialized North before and after World War I.
During those boom years, with her colleagues Hughes, Hurston and Claude McKay, West began a career as a journalist, short story writer and novelist. She founded a journal “Challenge,” and later co-founded, “New Challenge,” which published younger, radical black writers, such as Richard Wright.
After that folded, she wrote short stories and, in 1948, a novel, “The Living Is Easy,” which drew on her upper-class background, and the experiences of her father, a former slave who became rich from a produce business in Boston.
Her examination of race and class continues in her new novel, “The Wedding,” her first in 47 years. The book, expected to be released early in 1995, has brought intensified attention to the genteel but vivacious West. She says she’s “eighty-some-odd years old,” but her lined face and petite form radiate an energy far younger than her years.
She loves to relate stories of her past to the young--much as writers like McKay passed on their knowledge to her. “We’re quite sentimental about each other,” she said of these younger writers. “Every time I say goodby to them, we know it may be the last time we see each other.”
Question: What is your first recollection of arriving in New York in the mid-1920s?
Answer: . . . My mother told us, and I’ll never forget this, that New York was not like Boston--they were real prejudiced, and so on, and warned us all about that. We went on the subway, and got off in Harlem. And there were all these colored people all over the place, just on the street corners. We had never seen so many colored people.
We went to get a soda. We called it tonic--because that’s what they called it in Boston. And there was this great big house filled with bottles of tonic. And we said to the man, “May we have a tonic?” The man behind the counter said ‘We don’t have tonic.’
So, we went to a drugstore and people at the counter, they were drinking tonic. We said, “We’d like two tonics.” And they said “Go to the back of the store.” That’s when we knew everything my mother had said about New York was right!
And we went to the back of the store, and said, “May we have a tonic?” Well a man said, “Do you want a hair tonic--or whatever?” In New York, of course, it wasn’t called tonic. But that’s New York. That was our introduction . . . .
Of course, we fell, as everybody does, in love with New York. (The prize givers) had a grand party at one of the great hotels. That’s when I met Zora (Neale) Hurston. I was 17 and she was 25. We tied for the second prize.
. . . She became well known (after her death). That’s why I say, I’m very lucky to be alive, . . . to be recognized, because so many other young people died--because they had tuberculosis, or you bought liquor and sometimes it wasn’t any good. Sometimes you died from it. So whenever we talk about the Harlem Renaissance, I’m always a bit moved. My voice is even choking now . . . .
Q: Did you realize something extraordinary was happening in Harlem.
A: Oh, of course. We thought we were going to be the greatest writers in the world . . . . We were all young, and we fell in love with each other. We were all the same age, and we all had the same ambitions--writers or painters or so forth. We had all come from small towns. We were free . . . . We were young enough that food didn’t bother us . . . . But when you’re young, you can stand a lot . . . .
Wallie (writer and dramatist Wallace Thurman), we called him our leader . . . . (In Harlem) there was a woman, a black woman who sold food on the street. She had this cart that she pushed around and . . . she got very well-to-do doing that. And she liked Wallace Thurman--because he was educated and so on--and she gave him this loft. That’s where we could go. And company would come and buy the liquor. I was the youngest, so I sat on the floor and listened. I never opened my mouth.
Then (one night) these well-to-do people invited me to their house . . . . I come from a good family. And they were proper . . . . Color is important--but class is more important. They knew who I was--that I was from Boston and I knew the right people. I had dinner with them and went back to Wallace Thurman’s place . . . . I talked that night for the first time, I talked and told funny stories . . . .
I always say the Harlem Renaissance ended when Wallie died (1934), because then we could see that we could die. We didn’t know that before . . . . (Some) went back to school. I came back to Massachusetts. We all went our (separate ways.)
Q: What sort of lasting impact did the Harlem Renaissance have on African-American culture?
A: It was very important. For one thing, we all got together. We knew that there were many blacks like us who wanted to write, who wanted to paint and so forth . . . .
So many people ask me now if there could ever be another Harlem Renaissance. We were all young and poor. But we had an innocence that nobody can have now. We don’t love each other the way we did. We don’t care about each other any more.
Q: So younger African-American writers have lost sight of that time?
A: I rather think so. Every generation thinks they are vastly superior to the generation that comes before. (But) the younger people . . . they want to know what it was like--older people don’t want to know people like me because it makes them feel old . . . . (Young people) come (to see me) not knowing what to expect. We’re quite sentimental about each other. They can’t imagine themselves my age. And every time I say goodby to them, we know it may be the last time we see each other . . . . I love young people. They will remember me when I’m gone.
Q: Why is it that you waited almost 50 years to write a second book?
A: Oh my dear child, I did write another book. I sent (some pages) to the publisher. (But) books by black people weren’t selling. But I think that things are better for black writers now . . . .
Q: So you intended to write your second book sooner.
A: There was a contest. . . .I got a grant. And I was very happy about that because it was for $1,000--which was quite a bit of money at that time . . . . But there was a group of blacks that were very intimidating to whites--they were black doctors and lawyers and they were called the handkerchief heads. That probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But a handkerchief head was a black person who tied his kinky hair in a handkerchief so white people would not be annoyed . . . . I knew these critics would be intimidated by these black people--these handkerchief heads. They were a force (on the white literary Establishment).
I knew the (the critics) would be intimidated and would not give it a good review--and would clobber the book.
Q: What do you think about the fact that you are the lone noted literary survivor of the Harlem Renaissance?
A: (Some critics say) I should have been recognized more than I have been and I don’t know. I only wrote the one (other) book . . . . In the meantime, people say, “Well, you haven’t written anything.” Well what they meant is, that “You haven’t sold anything.” You may have written something, but (it) did not sell.
Well, I told you about the “The Living Is Easy” in the South, didn’t I?
A: The phone rang (years ago) and (my agent) said to me, “Are you sitting down?” And I said, “Yes, I’m sitting down.” Dorothy, he said, a magazine well known across the country, the "(Ladies) Home Journal” is taking your book and they’re going to give you what--I don’t (remember) what, but it was quite a sum of money for the book. And it was to be serialized. A month later, my agent called me, very disappointed. (The magazine was) afraid they would have canceled subscriptions. That was the end of that.
Often people ask me, “Why did you stop writing?” But what they should have said is, “Why did you stop selling?” You have no idea how different it is now.
Q: Do you think that the Harlem Renaissance was this century’s golden age of writing by African-Americans?
A: (Earlier writers) were not as knowledgeable. I think now is the best period . . . . I know so many people who would pass for white. . . . Now they can be themselves . . . .
Q: What do you think about the state of culture now in the African-American community?
A: . . . My father may have been born a slave, but I know nothing about slavery. And these children don’t know anything about slavery . . . .
I look at the television. Good Lord. And I see black people. And I’ll never forget the first ad I saw with black people. Do you know the West Indies? You know the West Indian people? They have English accents. The first ad that was done, the mother was obviously West Indian. The little boy came from the South . . . . It was so crazy. When the (advertiser) had the mother talking with the English accent and the little boy talking with the Southern accent nobody could understand--didn’t (the advertiser) know that was foolish? . . .
Q: What is it that you want people to take from your work?
A: I come from a large family. I come from a large extended family. And that’s what my writing is about. I wanted to write about the black people I knew . . . . (Other writers) like to write about white people beating up black people. I don’t write like that. I was brought up in a family. I was aware of family relationships.
My father was born a slave. He was freed at age 7. My mother was one of 19 children . . . . God knows, I knew I had to succeed.
Q: What do you want your legacy to be?
A: That I hung in there. That I didn’t say, “I can’t.” I had a Spartan upbringing, but I thank (my mother) for it. It made me strong. My mother said, “You can.” She didn’t say, “You poor, little colored child, you can’t do anything.” She said, “You can."*