III: Black Renaissance


That spring for me (and, I guess, all of us) was the end of the Harlem Renaissance. We were no longer in vogue, anyway, we Negroes. Sophisticated New Yorkers turned to Noel Coward. Colored actors began to go hungry, publishers politely rejected new manuscripts, and patrons found other uses for their money. The cycle that had charlestoned into being on the dancing heels of Shuffle Along now ended in Green Pastures with De Lawd.

The generous 1920’s were over. And my twenties almost over. I had four hundred dollars and a gold medal.

Up to the time I received the 1931 Harmon Award, I had never had that much money of my own at once in all my life. Four hundred dollars! I had never had a job that paid more than twenty-two dollars a week. Nor had I sold any of my poems or articles for more than seventy-five dollars (the top price paid once for a group of poems). Mostly I had received no income at all from my poetry (since I gratefully gave it away to anybody who would publish it) and very little from the few stories or articles I had written. My novel had just come out. My two books of poems had both gone beyond the first edition, but had by no means been best sellers. So as yet the big editors did not know my name, or gave no sign of knowing it. And my play, Mulatto, was unproduced.

Nevertheless, I’d finally and definitely made up my mind to continue being a writer—and to become a professional writer, making my living from writing. So far that had not happened. Until I went to Lincoln I had always worked at other things: teaching English in Mexico, truck gardening on Staten Island, a seaman, a doorman, a cook, a waiter in Paris night clubs or in hotels and restaurants, a clerk at the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, a bus boy at the Wardman Park in Washington.

Then I’d had a scholarship, a few literary awards, a patron. But those things were ended now. I would have to make my own living again—so I determined to make it writing. I did. Shortly poetry became bread; prose, shelter and raiment. Words turned into songs, plays, scenarios, articles, and stories.

Literature is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pulled.

I’m still pulling.


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