When the Negro Was in Vogue Selected Comments by Langston Hughes

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When the Negro Was in Vogue

Selected Comments by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes on Shuffle Along

The 1920's were the years of Manhattan's black Renaissance. It began with Shuffle Along, Running Wild, and the Charleston. Perhaps some people would say even with The Emperor Jones, Charles Gilpin, and the tom-toms at the Provincetown. But certainly it was the musical revue, Shuffle Along, that gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan, which reached its peak just before the crash of 1929, the crash that sent Negroes, white folks, and all rolling down the hill toward the Works Progress Administration.

Shuffle Along was a honey of a show. Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. Besides, look who were in it: The now famous choir director, Hall Johnson, and the composer, William Grant Still, were a part of the orchestra. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the music and played and acted in the show. Miller and Lyles were the comics. Florence Mills skyrocketed to fame in the second act. Trixie Smith sang "He May Be Your Man But He Comes to See Me Sometimes." And Caterina Jarboro, now a European prima donna, and the internationally celebrated Josephine Baker were merely in the chorus. Everybody was in the audience--including me. People came back to see it innumerable times. It was always packed. . . . When I saw it, I was thrilled and delighted. . . . It gave just the proper push--a pre-Charleston kick--to that Negro vogue of the 20's, that spread to books, African sculpture, music, and dancing.

From The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940)

Cotton Club Program (1920s).

Langston Hughes on Whites in Harlem

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo.
From The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940)

Langston Hughes on "when Harlem was in vogue"

It was a period when, at almost every Harlem upper-crust dance or party, one would be introduced to various distinguished white celebrities there as guests. It was a period when almost any Harlem Negro of any social importance at all would be likely to say casually: "As I was remarking the other day to Heywood--," meaning Heywood Broun. Or: "As I said to George--," referring to George Gershwin. It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A'Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy. It was a period when Harold Jackman, a handsome young Harlem school teacher of modest means, calmly announced one day that he was sailing for the Riviera for a fortnight, to attend Princess Murat's yachting party. It was a period when Charleston preachers opened up shouting churches as sideshows for white tourists. It was a period when at least one charming colored chorus girl, amber enough to pass for a Latin American, was living in a pent house, with all her bills paid by a gentleman whose name was banker's magic on Wall Street. 1t was a period when every season there was at least one hit play on Broadway acted by a Negro cast. And when books by Negro authors were being published with much greater frequency and much more publicity than ever before or since in history. It was a period when white writers wrote about Negroes more successfully (commercially speaking) than Negroes did about themselves. It was the period (God help us!) when Ethel Barrymore appeared in blackface in Scarlet Sister Mary!  It was the period when the Negro was in vogue.
From The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940)

Questions to ponder:

  1. What is a tom-tom?

  2. What is “Charleston” according to the article and how was it introduced to New York?

  3. What is “Shuffle Along”?

  4. What is “The Emperor Jones” and who wrote it?

  5. Who was Charles Gilpin?

  6. Who was Trixie Smith?

  7. Who was Josephine Baker?

  8. What is “blackface”?

  9. Who was Heywood Broun?

  10. Who was Bojangles?

  11. Who was Ethel Waters?

  12. What is Hughes really saying when he says the negro is/was “in vogue”?

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