III: Black Renaissance
Strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles in the ’20’s, and still the strangest and gaudiest, is the annual Hamilton Club Lodge Ball at Rockland Palace Casino. I once attended as a guest of A’Lelia Walker. It is the ball where men dress as women and women dress as men. During the height of the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem, it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes and box-back suits.
For the men, there is a fashion parade. Prizes are given to the most gorgeously gowned of the whites and Negroes who, powdered, wigged, and rouged, mingle and compete for the awards. From the boxes these men look for all the world like very pretty chorus girls parading across the raised platform in the center of the floor. But close up, most of them look as if they need a shave, and some of their evening gowns, cut too low, show hair on the chest.
The pathetic touch about the show is given by the presence there of many former “queens” of the ball, prize winners of years gone by, for this dance has been going on a long time, and it is very famous among the male masqueraders of the eastern seaboard, who come from Boston and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Atlantic City to attend. These former queens of the ball, some of them aged men, still wearing the costumes that won for them a fleeting fame in years gone by, stand on the sidelines now in their same old clothes—wide picture hats with plumes, and out-of-style dresses with sweeping velvet trains. And nobody pays them any mind—for the spotlights are focused on the stage, where today’s younger competitors, in their smart creations, bid for applause.
Harlem likes spectacles of one kind or another—but then so does all the world. On Sunday afternoons in the spring when the lodges have their turnouts, it is good to stand on the curb and hear the bands play and see the women pass in their white regalia with swinging purple capes, preceded by the brothers in uniform, with long swords at their sides and feathered helmets, or else in high hats, spats, and cutaway coats. Once I saw such a lodge parade with an all-string band leading the procession, violins and mandolins and banjos and guitars playing in the street. It was thrilling and the music was grand.
Since Harlemites almost all work in the daytime, many of the Harlem funerals take place at night so that the friends and lodge brothers of the deceased may attend. Sometimes at ten or eleven at night, you hear a funeral march filling the air on Seventh Avenue and see a long, slow-moving procession following somebody to his last home.
The Florence Mills funeral was on a Sunday afternoon, and it was a beautiful procession, with the chorus girls from her show marching all in gray, and an airplane releasing flocks of blackbirds overhead.
The Countee Cullen wedding was another spectacle that had Harlem talking for a long time—the wedding of the leading lyric poet of the Negro Renaissance to Yolande DuBois, the daughter, and only child, of the leading old-guard Negro writer, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. It was the social-literary event of the season, and very society. I was an usher—by virtue of being a poet. It was an Easter-time wedding, held at dusk in the church pastored by Countee Cullen’s father, one of the largest Negro churches in the world, but it didn’t begin to hold the crowd. The first floor was given over to holders of engraved invitations, and the balcony to the general public, and both were packed to capacity.
The bride had been teaching in Baltimore, and her bridesmaids all came from Maryland in a special car, looking very charming and pretty. We held a rehearsal of the wedding on Good Friday and it was my job to escort the bride’s mother to her seat. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a pair of tails, so I had to rent a set. In the rental shop the suit looked black, but once outside, it looked rusty green. It was one of those cheap, dull blacks that had faded with time, and the trousers were stove-piped. I felt very self-conscious in a green, rented pawnshop dress suit, so I said to myself: “I will never go into society again if I have to rent my clothes.” But, nevertheless, I enjoyed being in the wedding.
In the waning days of the New Negro Renaissance, in the same church where our leading poet was married, there occurred a series of the most amazing revivals ever seen in Harlem, conducted by the Reverend Dr. Becton. Dr. Becton was a charlatan if there ever was one, but he filled the huge church—because he gave a good show. He had a small jazz band with him, playing church music in syncopated time, and they would begin to play early in the evening so that the congregation would be in a good mood by the time the Reverend Dr. Becton arrived.
About nine, in a long car with liveried chauffeur and a lighted cross on the hood, Dr. Becton would appear with two valets. He would enter the church by the side door and, without looking to the right or left, proceed straight to the altar in his long black overcoat. He would come forward to the edge of the platform, and, in full view of the audience, silently commune with God, eyes shut and head back, for perhaps five minutes. Then he would open his eyes and say fervently: “I couldn’t wait to commune with God! Oh, no! Friends, I couldn’t wait.”
Then one valet would step forward and take his hat, another his coat, the first, his gloves, the second would hand him a handkerchief, and he would then take charge of the service, which would go on until midnight, with intervals of preaching and praying, broken only by having the audience rise to sing, or to demonstrate who were Christians and who were sinners, or to parade to the altar and put down their money.
The Reverend Dr. Becton, I thought, was a very bad preacher, running back and forth across the platform, mouthing inanities and whistling for God, but he could make people shout, nevertheless. And the stirring rhythms of his excellent gospel swing band would cause many to rise and dance in the aisles for joy.
A great many white people came to watch him put on his show, and churches anywhere in the East fortunate enough to have him grace their rostrums for a month or two were sure to come out of the red. For, besides the collections at the altar, Dr. Becton had an envelope system, called “The Consecrated Dime—A Dime a Day for God.” And every Sunday he would give out his envelopes. And every Sunday he would collect hundreds of them from the past week, each with seventy cents therein, from the poor working men and women who made up the bulk of his congregation. Every package of dimes was consecrated to God—but given to the Reverend Dr. Becton.
Dr. Becton lived in a fine house in Harlem, with his business manager, his secretaries, his valets, and most of the members of his jazz band. The furnishings were of the finest, from an old established Fifth Avenue shop. There were luxurious drapes at the windows, with the sign of the cross woven in them. There was a private chapel where Dr. Becton prayed at dawn before a lighted cross. And he slept in a specially built bed with two transparent crystal crosses in the bed-panels at head and foot—crosses that gave out a soft glow as he slept, lighted, he said, by God. Those members of his congregation, most faithful in contributions and attendance, would, on occasion, be shown through this house.
As his popularity in Harlem grew, Dr. Becton started a magazine. It was not a bad magazine, and it paid higher rates for material than any Negro magazine in America, because most of them pay nothing. It paid Nation or New Republic rates. He bought an article of mine and one or two poems. One day he sent the editor of the magazine to ask me if I would accept a post on his staff in a literary capacity. He requested that I come to talk to him about it. And that is how I happened to see his house.
I had dinner with him and his staff, a very good dinner, and afterwards he took me into his private study, which was simple enough, evidently not embellished for public consumption. There he told me of his desire to make of his magazine and the various other leaflets and papers he planned to get out, not only well-printed publications, but intelligent and interesting ones, stressing, of course, the religious life, but not entirely.
The Reverend Dr. Becton told me he had been a student of behavioristic psychology for a long time—that was why he had his audience get up and down so much, to rest them and hold them longer at his services. And thus (I knew) he was able to take up more collections in one evening than if the people started to drift out early. (He preferred to have them drift to the altar with a dime.) He said he knew the effects of music and rhythm on the human emotions, for he had made a study of audiences and their reactions, and he knew how to handle them. Now, he was looking for someone who was clever with the written word to do with people through the printed page what he could do with them in person. During his talk with me, never once did he mention God. In the quiet of his study, he talked business, God being, no doubt, for public consumption.
I did not take the job, but it would have been interesting to know Dr. Becton better and to find out what he really thought of those hundreds of poor people who daily gave into his keeping a Consecrated Dime for God.
But I never saw him again. A few years later he was shot and killed in Philadelphia, some say by racketeers. But he was given a grand funeral, attended by a great many saints and sinners. And his memory lives on.