III: Black Renaissance
While I was at Lincoln, I spent several pleasant week-ends in the spring or fall with Joel and Amy Spingarn at their country place, Troutbeck, that had once been the old farm of John Burroughs, the naturalist, where his trout pool is still preserved. I met the Spingarn sons and daughters, who were also in college or prep school. And I saw the beautiful medieval virgin in wood that Mrs. Spingarn had brought from Europe. She had there, too, a tiny hand press, and later published a small volume of my poems, in a limited edition on hand-made paper, a collection of lyrics called Dear Lovely Death.
The Spingarns were charming, quiet people. Joel Spingarn told me much about the early days of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in which he had a great interest as one of the founders and later as its President. He told me, too, about his long acquaintanceship with Dr. DuBois and other Negro leaders. And his brother, Arthur, who has one of the largest collections of Negro books in America, often spoke of the work of the older Negro authors like Chesnutt, my fellow Clevelander, and of others at the beginning of our literary history, of whom, until then, I had never heard.
During my years at Lincoln, on one of my week-end visits to New York, a friend took me to call on a distinguished and quite elderly white lady who lived on Park Avenue in a large apartment, with attendants in livery at the door and a private elevator-landing. I found her instantly one of the most delightful women I had ever met, witty and charming, kind and sympathetic, very old and white-haired, but amazingly modern in her ideas, in her knowledge of books and the theater, of Harlem, and of everything then taking place in the world.
Her apartment was many floors above the street and there was a view of all New York spread out beneath it. Her rooms were not cluttered with furniture or objects of art, but every piece was rare and beautiful. When I left, after a delightful evening, she pressed something into my hand. “A gift for a young poet,” she said. It was a fifty-dollar bill.
From Lincoln, I wrote her and thanked her for the gift. In reply, she asked me to dine with her and her family on my next trip to New York. At dinner we had duck and wild rice. And for dessert, ice cream on a large silver platter, surrounded by fresh strawberries. The strawberries were served with their green stems still on them, the tiny red fruit being very pretty around the great mound of ice cream on the silver platter.
Carefully, I removed the green stems and put them on the side of my plate. But when I had finished eating the berries and ice cream, I noticed that no one else at the table had left any stems on the plates. Their ice cream and all was gone. I couldn’t imagine what they had done with their stems. What did one do with strawberry stems on Park Avenue? Or were these a very special kind of strawberry stem that you could eat? Or had I committed some awful breach of etiquette by removing my strawberry stems by hand and putting them in plain view of everyone on the side of my plate? I didn’t know. I was worried and puzzled.
As the Swedish maids warmed the finger bowls, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked my hostess what had everyone else done with the strawberry stems. She smiled and replied that no one else had taken any—since they were all allergic to strawberries!
In the living room after dinner, high above Park Avenue with the lights of Manhattan shining below us, my hostess asked me about my plans for the future, my hopes, my ambitions, and my dreams. I told her I wanted to write a novel. She told me she would make it possible for me to write that novel. And she did by covering the expenses of my summer, so that I need do no other work during vacation.
That was the summer when I wrote a draft of Not Without Laughter. Then I went for a short vacation at Provincetown, where I saw the Wharf Players performing a version of Donald Ogden Stewart’s Parody Outline of History. I liked the wide sandy beaches of Cape Cod, but I did not like Provincetown very much, because it was hard for a Negro to find a place to sleep, and at night the mosquitoes were vicious.
During my senior year at Lincoln, I rewrote my novel. And at graduation I was given a generous monthly allowance by my patron, who had read both drafts of the book, had helped me with it, and found it good. Then began for me a strange and wonderful year of economic freedom, starting with a boat trip up the Saguenay River to see the northern lights. (The boat trip would have been pleasant had I not been the only Negro on board in the midst of a crowd of Middle-Westerners and Southerners. The steward refused to give me a sitting in the dining-saloon except after all the whites had eaten. So I got off the boat somewhere in the wilds of Canada and came back to Montreal by train. The company refunded my money.)
In the fall I spent a few weeks with Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow Theater, writing my first play, Mulatto. Then I settled in Westfield, New Jersey, near New York, where I made the final revisions of my novel.
My patron (a word neither of us liked) was a beautiful woman, with snow-white hair and a face that was wise and very kind. She had been a power in her day in many movements adding freedom and splendor to life in America. She had had great sums of money, and had used much of it in great and generous ways. She had been a friend of presidents and bankers, distinguished scientists, famous singers, and writers of world renown. Imposing institutions and important new trends in thought and in art had been created and supported by her money and her genius at helping others. Now she was very old and not well and able to do little outside her own home. But there she was like a queen. Her power filled the rooms. Famous people came to see her and letters poured in from all over the world.
I do not know why or how she still found time for me, and many others like me, young and just starting out on the big sea of life. Or how she arranged her very full day to include so many people and so many things. Or how she never forgot the tiniest detail of what she had worked for or planned with anyone. She was an amazing, brilliant, and powerful personality. I was fascinated by her, and I loved her. No one else had ever been so thoughtful of me, or so interested in the things I wanted to do, or so kind and generous toward me.
For years this good woman had been devoted in a mild way to the advancement of the Negro and had given money to Negro schools in the South. Now she had discovered the New Negro and wanted to help him. She was intensely excited about each new book, each new play, and each new artist that came out of the Negro world.
Everything born to Negroes in those days of the ’20’s, she knew about. For a woman as old as my grandmother would have been had she lived, she still kept up with everything from Duke Ellington to the budding Marian Anderson.
Still, Negroes occupied but one corner in that vast and active mind of hers. She was deeply interested in a great many things other than Negroes. One of the outstanding American achievements of this century, heralded on the front pages of the world’s newspapers, came into being partly through this woman’s aid. But, due to her own wish, her name was nowhere mentioned in connection with it, for she never permitted a credit line concerning anything she did, or a dedication to herself of any book she helped to bring to being.
Concerning Negroes, she felt that they were America’s great link with the primitive, and that they had something very precious to give to the Western World. She felt that there was mystery and mysticism and spontaneous harmony in their souls, but that many of them had let the white world pollute and contaminate that mystery and harmony, and make of it something cheap and ugly, commercial and, as she said, “white.” She felt that we had a deep well of the spirit within us and that we should keep it pure and deep.
In her youth she must have been an amazing person, indeed—and certainly one of America’s finest representatives of great wealth. I cannot write about her more fully now because I have no right to disclose her name, nor to describe in detail her many and varied activities. I can only say that those months when I lived by and through her were the most fascinating and fantastic I have ever known.
Out of a past of more or less continued insecurity and fear, suddenly I found myself with an assured income from someone who loved and believed in me, an apartment in a suburban village for my work, my brother in school in New England and no longer a financial difficulty to my mother, myself with boxes of fine bond paper for writing, a filing case, a typist to copy my work, and wonderful new suits of dinner clothes from Fifth Avenue shops, and a chance to go to all the theaters and operas and lectures, no matter how expensive or difficult securing tickets might be. All I needed to say was when and where I wished to go and my patron’s secretary would have tickets for me.
That season I went to the Metropolitan, to concerts at Carnegie Hall, to the hit plays and latest musicals, often with my patron. Together we heard Sadko, saw the first Little Show, Berkeley Square, and Blackbirds. We heard Madame Naidu speak, and General Smuts. We saw the Van Goghs. We drove through Central Park in the spring to see the first leaves come out.
It was all very wonderful. Park Avenue and Broadway and Harlem and New York! But when I had finished my novel and it went to press, I didn’t feel like writing anything else then, so I didn’t write anything. I was tired and happy, having completed a book, so I stopped work.
I didn’t realize that my not writing a while mattered so much to the kind and generous woman who was caring for my welfare. I didn’t realize that she was old and wanted quickly to see my books come into being before she had to go away. She hadn’t told me that I must always write and write, and I felt sure she knew that sometimes for months, a writer does not feel like writing. That winter I did not feel like writing because I was happy and amused. (I only really feel like writing when I am unhappy, bored or else have something I need very much to say, or that I feel so strongly about I cannot hold it back.) That winter I didn’t seem to need to say anything. I had had my say in the novel—spread over almost two years in the saying. Now I was ready for the first time in my life really to enjoy life without having to be afraid I might be hungry tomorrow.
Of course, I felt bad sometimes because I couldn’t share my new-found comfort as fully as I might have wished with my mother, who was working as a cook in a rest home in Atlantic City. And in Cleveland we had relatives who were having a pretty hard time getting along at all, for the depression had come. But at least the burden of my kid brother’s care had been lifted from my mother. He was happy and well fed in New England, not running the back alleys of Atlantic City.
I always felt slightly bad, too, when I was riding in the long town-car that belonged to my Park Avenue patron—and most other Negroes (and white folk) were walking. I would never occupy the car alone if I could help it. But sometimes she would insist, if it were very late, that I be driven to Harlem—or to the ferry, if I were going to Jersey—in her car. At such times I felt specially bad, because I knew the chauffeur did not like to drive me.
He was a rather grim and middle-aged white man, who, probably in all his career as a chauffeur, had never before been asked to drive a Negro about. At least, I felt that in his attitude toward me when I was alone in the deep, comfortable back seat of the car (where I didn’t want to be) with him driving me to Harlem. I would have preferred to ride in front with him, talk with him, and get to know him, but he never gave me a chance. He was always coldly polite and unsmiling, drawing ceremoniously up to the curb in front of my Harlem rooming house, getting out and opening the door for me, but never looking pleasant, or joking, or being kind about it. I felt bad riding with him, because I knew he hated to drive me, and I knew he had to do it if he wanted to keep his job. And I dislike being the cause of anyone’s having to do anything he doesn’t want to do just to keep a job—since I know how unpleasant that is. So often, I would ask my patron’s chauffeur simply to drop me at the nearest subway entrance.
But I remember once an amusing situation developed on a certain occasion when I was going out of town on a mid-winter lecture trip. I had been delayed at luncheon on Park Avenue, and so was late getting to the train. There was a terrific blizzard with heavy snow, and, fearing that in a taxi I might be too late for the train, my hostess sent not only her car and chauffeur with me to the station, but her secretary as well to help me get my ticket and have the baggage checked.
The secretary was a tall New England spinster, very efficient and pleasant, and not at all ungracious like the chauffeur. But the funny thing was that when the long town-car drew up to the ramp in the Pennsylvania Station and a dozen colored red caps that I had gone to college with rushed up to take the baggage and saw me get out with the secretary—as a white chauffeur held the door—the red caps were gleefully amazed.
As the secretary rushed ahead to get the Pullman reservation, several of the red caps I knew shook hands and asked me where I was going, and my college friends slapped me on the back in their usual friendly manner and demanded: “Since when the swell chariot, Lang?” But the chauffeur closed the door with a bang, jumped back into the car, and whirled away.
New York began to be not so pleasant that winter. People were sleeping in subways or on newspapers in office doors, because they had no homes. And in every block a beggar appeared. I got so I didn’t like to go to dinner on luxurious Park Avenue—and come out and see people hungry on the streets, huddled in subway entrances all night and filling Manhattan Transfer like a flop-house. I knew I could very easily and quickly be there, too, hungry and homeless on a cold floor, anytime Park Avenue got tired of supporting me. I had no job, and no way of making a living.
During the winter Zora Hurston came to Westfield from one of her many trips into the deep South, and there began to arrange her folk material, stacks and stacks of it—some of which later appeared in Mules and Men. Together we also began to work on a play called Mule Bone, a Negro folk comedy, based on an amusing tale Miss Hurston had collected about a quarrel between two rival church factions. I plotted out and typed the play based on her story, while she authenticated and flavored the dialogue and added highly humorous details. We finished a first draft before she went South again, and from this draft I was to work out a final version.
Zora, a very gay and lively girl, was seriously hemmed in in village-like Westfield. But those backing her folk-lore project felt that she should remain quietly in a small town and not go galavanting gaily about New York while engaged in the serious task of preparing her manuscripts. So she was restless and moody, working in a nervous manner. And we were both distressed at the growing depression—hearing of more and more friends and relatives losing jobs and becoming desperate for lack of work.
In the midst of that depression, the Waldorf-Astoria opened. On the way to my friend’s home on Park Avenue I frequently passed it, a mighty towering structure looming proud above the street, in a city where thousands were poor and unemployed. So I wrote a poem about it called “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria,” modeled after an ad in Vanity Fair announcing the opening of New York’s greatest hotel. (Where no Negroes worked and none were admitted as guests.)
The hotel opened at the very time when people were sleeping on newspapers in doorways, because they had no place to go. But suites in the Waldorf ran into thousands a year, and dinner in the Sert Room was ten dollars! (Negroes, even if they had the money, couldn’t eat there. So naturally, I didn’t care much for the Waldorf-Astoria.) The thought of it made me feel bad, so I wrote this poem, from which these excerpts are taken:
ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE WALDORF-ASTORIA
Fine living à la carte!!
LISTEN, HUNGRY ONES!
Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the
“All the luxuries of private home. . . .”
Now, won’t that be charming when the last flop-house has turned you down this winter?
“It is far beyond anything hitherto attempted in the hotel world. . . .” It cost twenty-eight million dollars. The famous Oscar Tschirky is in charge of banqueting. Alexandre Gastaud is chef. It will be a distinguished background for society.
So when you’ve got no place else to go, homeless and hungry ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags—
(Or do you still consider the subway after midnight good enough?)
Take a room at the new Waldorf, you down-and-outers— sleepers in charity’s flop-houses.
They serve swell board at the Waldorf-Astoria. Look at this menu, will you:
CRABMEAT IN CASSOLETTE
BOILED BRISKET OF BEEF
SMALL ONIONS IN CREAM
Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless. Why not?
Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of your labor, who clip coupons with clean white fingers because your hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed garments, poured steel to let other people draw dividends and live easy.
(Or haven’t you had enough yet of the soup-lines and the bitter bread of charity?)
Walk through Peacock Alley tonight before dinner, and get warm, anyway. You’ve got nothing else to do.
Oh, Lawd! I done forgot Harlem!
Say, you colored folks, hungry a long time in 135th Street—they got swell music at the Waldorf-Astoria. It sure is a mighty nice place to shake hips in, too. There’s dancing after supper in a big warm room. It’s cold as hell on Lenox Avenue. All you’ve had all day is a cup of coffee. Your pawnshop overcoat’s a ragged banner on your hungry frame. You know, downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson! Maybe they’ll like you, too, black mob from Harlem. Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea. Stay to dinner. Give Park Avenue a lot of darkie color—free—for nothing! Ask the Junior Leaguers to sing a spiritual for you. They probably know ’em better than you do—and their lips won’t be so chapped with cold after they step out of their closed cars in the undercover driveways.
Hallelujah! Undercover driveways!
Ma soul’s a witness for de Waldorf-Astoria!
(A thousand nigger section-hands keep the roadbeds smooth so investments in railroads pay ladies with diamond necklaces staring at Cert murals.)
Thank Gawd A’mighty!
(And a million niggers bend their backs on rubber plantations, for rich behinds to ride on thick tires to the Theatre Guild tonight.)
Ma soul’s a witness!
(And here we stand, shivering in the cold, in Harlem.)
Glory be to Gawd—
De Waldorf-Astoria’s open!
So get proud and rare back; everybody! The new Waldorf-Astoria’s open!
(Special siding for private cars from the railroad yards.)
You ain’t been there yet?
(A thousand miles of carpet and a million bathrooms.)
What’s the matter?
You haven’t seen the ads in the papers? Didn’t you get a card? Don’t you know they specialize in American cooking? Ankle on down to 49th Street at Park Avenue. Get up off that subway bench tonight with the Evening Post for cover! Come on out o’ that flop-house! Stop shivering your guts out all day on street corners under the El.
Jesus, ain’t you tired yet?
“It’s not you,” my benefactor said when she had read that far. “It’s a powerful poem! But it’s not you.”
I knew she did not like it.
I began that winter to feel increasingly bad, increasingly worried and apprehensive. Not all at once, but gradually I knew something was wrong. I sensed it vaguely, intuitively—the way I felt in Mexico, when my father would come home and find the bookkeeping not added up right, and I could feel before he got home that it wasn’t added up right, even though I had worked on it all the afternoon! So it was hard eating dinner with him in his bare, tiled dining room in Toluca, just as it became hard eating dinner on Park Avenue with people who had freshly cut flowers on the table while the snow fell outside.