In the early 20th century, sociologist Charles S. Johnson reasoned that only one area of American life had not been proscribed for Black people. Historian David Levering Lewis explains Johnson’s thinking: “No exclusionary rules had been laid down regarding a place in the arts. Here was a small crack in the wall of racism, a fissure that was worth trying to widen.” At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson similarly enthused that after trying “religion, education, politics, industrial, ethical, economic, sociological” approaches, it was through the arts that the African American was breaking through racial barriers “faster than he has ever done through any other method.” But the quixotic tragedy of the era, according to Lewis, is that, by the time the Renaissance fizzled out in the Great Depression, believing “that favorable reviews in The New York Times were a blow against the abuses of sharecropping” had begun to feel naïve.
Even so, Lewis’s magisterial history, When Harlem Was in Vogue, was published some 60 years after the Harlem Renaissance began. It has now been in print continuously for 40 years. Surely, a century of enduring public interest is evidence that the efforts of the artists and their facilitators made a lasting impact on American and world arts—a legacy of Black accomplishment that continues to serve as a source of pride and dignity, as well as ammunition in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. No one has told the story of that legacy better than Lewis.
When Harlem Was in Vogue was not the first treatise on the “New Negro” movement of the 1920s and early 1930s. Most significantly, Nathan Irvin Huggins’s Harlem Renaissance (also celebrating a milestone anniversary, 50 years, in 2021) preceded Lewis’s book by a decade and remains widely respected. Indeed, Huggins might be stronger than Lewis when it comes to accounting for what was important in African American painting, sculpture, and other nonliterary arts of the era.
Far from being redundant, however, When Harlem Was in Vogue was groundbreaking. Because the book is, at its core, an institutional history, it probes deep behind the scenes of the Renaissance. Lewis focuses not just on the artists, but on the tireless efforts of a small group of people to promote and support those artists, and on the organizations and publications that made the whole movement possible.
Consider, for example, the very different treatment two important figures receive in the two books: Huggins’s book includes one mention each of Charles S. Johnson, sociologist at the Urban League, and Walter White, civil rights activist at the NAACP. By contrast, Lewis devotes many pages to each figure, despite the fact that Johnson was not an artist and White was a novelist of only modest distinction.
Lewis highlights these nonartists in his history of an art movement for good reason. Johnson and White were two of “the Six,” alongside Jessie Fauset at The Crisis, Alain Locke at Howard University, the writer and NAACP executive James Weldon Johnson, and the gambling racketeer Casper Holstein (the last not even mentioned in Huggins’s book). Without these half dozen people, Lewis explains, “the Harlem roster of twenty-six novels, ten volumes of poetry, five Broadway plays, innumerable essays and short stories, two or three performed ballets and concerti, and the large output of canvas and sculpture would have been a great deal shorter.”