Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean
By James Davis
Eric Walrond was far from alone in feeling the pull of poetry in 1922, arguably the most pivotal year in the history of African American verse. Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows was published to acclaim; Jean Toomer put the final touches on Cane; Georgia Douglas Johnson published Bronze; and James Weldon Johnson published The Book of American Negro Poetry, the preface to which linked race progress to the arts. The tide was shifting as The Crisis began emphasizing the arts and the Urban League founded Opportunity in 1922. The transformation prompted one budding poet, a Columbia dropout, to begin thinking in terms of a movement. Writing Alain Locke, Langston Hughes said, “You are right that we have enough talent now to begin a movement. I wish we had some gathering place for our artists -- some little Greenwich Village of our own.” In Greenwich Village at that moment was another poet who would help realize their vision, the New York University student Countée Cullen, a Harlem product with several publications already to his name.
(This is an excerpt from the author's forthcoming book of the same title with Columbia University Press.)
Walrond began writing regularly in Negro World about black artists, writers, and performers, many of whom were relatively unknown. These accounts expressed his struggle to reconcile aesthetic pleasure with pragmatic concerns and political engagement. Walrond expressed his desire to become an artist differently here than in his prose poems but no less audibly. His admiration for black artists registered in discussions of the artists Augusta Savage and Cecil Gaylord, the performers Florence Mills and Bert Williams, the poets Claude McKay and Georgia Douglas John- son, and the novelists Vladimir Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas, whose African ancestry he celebrated. The thrill of bringing black artistic achievement to public view is especially evident in two articles he published in April 1922. One was a review of the Book of American Negro Poetry, the other an account of his visit to the private library of Arthur Schomburg, the donation of which later created the New York Public Library’s Research Center in Black Culture. His reviews addressed readers casually and intimately.
Not so very long ago I heard a man -— one of the “stalwart intellectuals” of Harlem —- say with a flare of braggadocio that he had “searched all through it” and could find nothing “new” or “distinctive” in Negro poetry; that, like Negro music, it was the victim of monotony and “oneness of beauty.” What was the man talking about? After reading James Weldon Johnson’s “Essay on the Negro’s Creative Genius,” which is a preface to the present volume, I am tempted to drop every- thing and collar this know-it-all apostle and bellow in his ears: “Here, read this!”
It was unusual for Negro World to endorse an NAACP officer without qualification, but Johnson’s analysis of dialect and idiom struck a chord with Walrond, who was sensitive to the paternalistic representation of stock “Negro” characters. Beyond the curatorial service Johnson’s volume performed, Walrond was inspired by his engagement with the matter of language itself, which loomed larger as he fashioned himself a fiction writer.
A sense of wonder at the history of “Negro” achievement also characterized his account of Schomburg’s library. Schomburg grew up in Puerto Rico, and as a Brooklyn resident and Garvey supporter he had likely met Walrond previously. When Walrond visited Schomburg’s “unpretentious little dusty brown house on Kosciusko Street” in March 1922, his companion was another ambitious Negro World contributor, Zora Neale Hurston. A Southerner by birth, she had come to New York on a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied with anthropologist Franz Boas and launched her legendary career. In 1922, however, she was still a novice, thirty-one passing for twenty-one. Her reputation as an exacting judge of character who did not suffer fools was already established, and Walrond was anxious that even before a figure as venerable as Schomburg she might make a scene.
The young lady in our party [. . .] abominates what she contemptuously calls “form” and “useless ceremony.” [. . .] As we put our feet on the hallowed ground and the warm glitter of Mr. Schomburg’s brown-black eyes shone down upon us, she gave way to a characteristic weakness— whispering—whispering out of the corner of her beautiful mouth. “Well, I declare,” stamping a petulant foot. “Why, I am flabbergasted. I expected to find a terribly austere giant who looked at me out of withering eyes. But the man is human, ponderously, overwhelmingly human, a genuine eighteen karat”.
Hurston and Walrond were so impressed that both published accounts of the visit. Hurston called it “a marvelous collection when one considers that every volume on his extensive shelves is either by a Negro or about Negroes." Concurring, Walrond said many of Schomburg’s materials “unsettled our universe”: the first book of African folklore “run off by Negro printers in Springvale, Natal, in 1868”; the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano; a three-volume History of Hayti—in total “about 2,000 books by Negro writers, and they cover every imaginable subject under the sun.” All in the modest home of the “chief of the mailing department of the Bankers Trust Company”.
For Hurston and Walrond, the trip challenged the conventional wisdom about black inferiority and white civilization. More importantly, the voracious genealogical impulse behind Schomburg’s undertaking, the very mode of education his collection embodied, stood in stark contrast to the education that “Negroes” received in formal settings. Schomburg told Walrond of a great poet from his native country, a Guianese “Negro” who “attracted the attention of the world when he took first place in a prize poem contest run by Truth, a newspaper in England. Oh, that brought the world to its feet, and he became a great friend of Tennyson”. As useful as Schomburg’s library was for disarming opponents, Walrond also recognized its intimation of a fundamental rearticulation of history, a “counterculture of modernity,” in Paul Gilroy’s phrase.
Certainly, it offered Walrond a different view of Western civilization than he received at the College of the City of New York, where he enrolledin the fall of 1921. A short walk from the Negro World office, City College was free, and Walrond took courses in education, English, philosophy, and government. With a family, a full-time job, and a full course load in the evenings, his first semester ended with an undistinguished record. […] Formal schooling was now only a part of Walrond’s education, which he also pursued at the 135th Street branch of the public library. Here a Book Lovers Club and an association for the Study of Negro History were convened by chief librarian Ernestine Rose, a white woman assisted by her African American colleagues Sadie Peterson, Regina Andrews, and later Nella Larsen, each of whom contributed signally to the New Negro movement. A group of Harlem-based artists and writers, the Eclectic Club, began hosting readings and public forums in early 1922 at the library and other venues. A “peripatetic group” meeting monthly, the Eclectics “provided an important forum in which poets, politicians, and patrons socialized and discussed future projects.” Walrond involved himself in the activity of the Eclectics, recruiting Hurston and Negro World colleagues to their events. The UNIA opened a hotel and a teashop intended as “literary forums and social centers of Harlem.” Located on 135th Street, “The White Peacock” was briefly “Harlem’s Greenwich Village,” said Walrond, “Musicians and flappers, students and professional people” sat amid “futurist paintings [. . .] until far into the night talking about love and death, sculpture and literature, socialism and psychoanalysis”[…]
The artist’s technique, the artist’s sensibility—these became Walrond’s chief concerns. He paid tribute to black visual artists such as Augusta Savage, a sculptor who wrote poetry for Negro World. A Florida native who moved to New York to study art at Cooper Union, Savage became a central figure in the New Negro movement because of her own work and her support of others. Walrond recounted her improbable journey to art school and Harlem, where he visited her “poorly lighted room” to see her “put the finishing touches to a bust of Marcus Garvey”. Performing artists, too, became his subjects, and he covered two Broadway openings that exploited the popularity of Shuffle Along. Strut Miss Lizzie he panned as hackneyed vaudeville fare depicting the “Negro” as a “buffoon” and “curio.” About The Plantation Revue he was more enthusiastic, noting that it “palpitates with the spirit of Florence Mills,” whose “grace and refinement [. . .] dominated the entire production”. In short, the voice Walrond developed in 1922 was not only an artist in the making—a critic of crude propagandists and champion of technique—but also a particular kind of erudition and authority. Consider what it meant for him to make claims about the quality of Broadway shows, about the ingenuity—or lack thereof—of a vaudeville performance, about the current state of sculpture and classical music, and about African American culture. It is worth recalling that he was still a young man, just 23, and less than four years removed from Panama. His training had given him journalistic practice, but much of the knowledge on which he now drew was specific to African American traditions. It is unlikely that he knew much about these subjects prior to arriving in New York. All of which suggests he was either a quick study or a good mimic.
The truth is that he was both. He was excited by the interest black New Yorkers were taking in the history and accomplishments of their race, especially insofar as this interest translated into greater self- determination, and in this excitement, he was acquiring a wealth of information. More importantly, he was fashioning himself as a diaspora intellectual who drew with equal facility on knowledge of the Caribbean and the United States. This was a challenge, but he was not the first and had models close at hand. If it seems unfair to call Walrond a mimic, I mean to distinguish him from those who were less interested or effective in appropriating forms of African American identity. Putting it this way emphasizes two elements of the intra-racial dynamics of black New York. The first is the critical strategy of imitation and masquerade among Caribbean immigrants. There were times at which it was advantageous to be taken for an American Negro rather than a West Indian and times when it was not. Code switching was a critical skill. The second element is the tacit assumption that in the United States “Negro” meant African American. Louis Chude-Sokei has referred to this as a form of cultural hegemony, compelling Caribbean immigrants to navigate “a cultural realm dominated by African-American writing, cultural sensibilities, and political concerns.” This would prove to be the most significant contribution Walrond made to the Harlem Renaissance, negotiating the unevenly articulated worlds of West Indian and African American New York and writing about it, code switching in subject matter and lexicon.
One of the great ironies of Walrond’s Harlem career is that his transition to mainstream periodicals was predicated on his knowledge of African American vernacular culture and speech. He became a preferred writer for white editors seeking an inside story on Harlem, the Great Migration, or the Charleston dance craze. What is extraordinary is not their willing- ness to rely on a West Indian for an “authentic Negro perspective” but the dexterity with which he executed this work while also writing about the Caribbean. The first of his articles to appear in a white periodical illustrates this point, “Developed and Undeveloped Negro Literature,” which ran in the Dearborn Independent in 1922. “One reason why the Negro has not made any sort of headway in fiction is due to the effects of color prejudice,” he wrote. “It is difficult for a Negro to write stories without bringing in the race question. As soon as a writer demonstrates skill along imaginative lines he is bound to succumb to the temptations of reform and propaganda”. The pattern of oppositions is familiar—art versus propaganda, fiction versus race writing—but his position was changing. His Negro World article about René Maran and the Prix Goncourt had challenged the view that a “Negro” artist “must first purge himself of the feelings and sufferings and emotions of an outraged being, and think and write along colorless, sectionless lines.” “Is this possible?” was his rhetorical response; “Negro” fiction would of necessity express “the life of the underdog in revolt.” In the Dearborn Independent, however, he cast race consciousness as antithetical to the enterprise of fiction, an obstacle to the race’s “headway” in that field.
* James Davis teaches in the American Studies Program and the English Department at Brooklyn College, where he is also the deputy chairman for graduate studies. He is the author of Commerce in Color: Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893-1933 (2007), and received a Fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for the Study of Biography for this forthcoming biography on Elrond.