Large northern cities like New York or Philadelphia had populations of free blacks going back to Colonial times. Such communities were segregated in certain sections of the city, however. Their members were allowed to own their own homes and other property, or rent living quarters, but only in certain areas, and not in neighborhoods where whites lived. This pattern did not change substantially in the first half of the twentieth century when, between 1914 and 1945, in a movement called the great migration, over a million rural blacks from the South moved to northern cities in the hope of finding social justice and economic opportunity that were denied them in the South. Black neighborhoods like Harlem, where Hughes settled in the 1920s and remained for the rest of his life, retained their traditional social mixture. While all of the residents were black, most were middle-class, based on their work as factory workers, teachers, middle-ranking civil servants, or in other jobs. A proportion remained poor, and a portion became wealthy as entrepreneurs. The social classes lived together because it was not possible for even the most successful members of black society to move into neighborhoods occupied by whites. The shared sense of community between blacks of all classes in a single neighborhood was what chiefly attracted Hughes to Harlem and formed his ideal of black social life. Beginning in the Great Depression of the 1930s, many more blacks fell into poverty because of joblessness, as happened in the rest of the nation. Government relief programs concentrated the poorest unemployed blacks together to make the distribution of social services to them more efficient. Starting in the late 1930s, the policy was to move poor unemployed blacks into specially built large-scale apartment buildings often called ‘‘projects,’’ of which the first were the Harlem River Houses, built in 1937. After World War II, just as white city dwellers increasingly moved to new neighborhoods in the suburbs, upper and middle-class blacks were also finally able to move out of their traditional neighborhoods, albeit to segregated (red-lined) suburbs. In the 1950s and 1960s, this increasingly resulted in ghettos in the inner cities that were occupied exclusively by poor blacks left with the fragments of a broken social structure. So government efforts to help the black community had the unintended effect of destroying the social cohesion that had traditionally sustained the black community in America. This is the social decline that Hughes addressed in ‘‘Thank You, Ma’m.’’
The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, was a flourishing of black culture centered on a diverse community of artists who lived in Harlem in the 1920s. Hughes, perhaps its leading voice, preferred to link it to the worldwide aesthetic and cultural movement of negritude. The cultural success of the Harlem Renaissance was fueled by the economic boom of the 1920s and came to an abrupt end with the Great Depression. As Hughes himself put it, looking back on the era at the end of his life, ‘‘But by the time the thirties came, the voltage of the Negro Renaissance of the twenties had nearly run its course.’’ One part of the Harlem experience was the creation of a new literature by black authors. Writers like Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen mastered traditional forms of Western literature and became successful poets, novelists, and dramatists. They were successful in gaining acceptance by white publishers and a white reading audience to whom they could speak in their authentic voice. Indeed, their financial success as authors depended upon their white audience. They have often been criticized for creating art in the Western tradition rather than creating a new art valid as some non-Western Other, but however tragic and unjust the black experience had been, it had made them part of Western culture and they wished to proceed in that way rather than succumb to the impulse to rebel against their own tradition and become part of a fantasy that would have been just as Western but less authentic. Indeed, another important feature of the Harlem Renaissance was the penetration of black popular culture into white consciousness. This entailed a constructed perception of blacks as a non-Western Other.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blacks had always played an important role in popular American entertainment. By World War I, traditionally black forms of music known as blues and jazz were performed by many musicians, white and black, but a new development was that of groups of all-black musicians performing for all-white audiences (which before had been possible only in the theatrical setting of the minstrel show). Orchestras such as Duke Ellington’s became successful, along with famous soloists such as Louis Armstrong. But these kinds of popular performers were lionized by the white public at the time as representing something authentic because their art was seen as primitive. It was patronized in the 1920s specifically because it seemed to represent a non-Western alternative to the culture that had brought about and barely survived the calamity of World War I. Their art was, in the terms of Edward Said’s Orientalism , a safe fantasy of the anti-Western for Western consumption. Wealthy white audiences traveled to Harlem to see jazz performers at the Cotton Club, which featured all-black performers for an all-white, forcibly segregated audience. While Hughes was able to produce his own plays on Broadway, two other Broadway productions of the period seem more telling of the place of the Harlem Renaissance in the perception of white American culture. In 1920 Eugene O’Neill produced The Emperor Jones , which had a black protagonist and a mostly black cast. The main character is a black man of considerable achievement. He amasses a fortune working as a Pullman porter by following the stock tips he overhears his wealthy white charges exchange with each other. But his uncontrolled, primitive, violent nature causes him to commit murder in a bar fight, and he is forced to flee the country. He then manages to become dictator of an island nation in the Caribbean, but is finally destroyed by succumbing to his own superstitious nature. In 1936, Orson Welles staged a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an all-black cast and with the popular supposition that this got closer to the primitive, superstitious nature of the play. This version became known as the ‘‘Voodoo Macbeth’’ because its set designs and costume were based on popular conceptions of voodoo religious ceremonies. The overall effect of the Harlem Renaissance was to give blacks a higher profile in American culture, especially American intellectual culture, but at the cost of remaining an isolated Other, a screen for Western fantasy. Many black intellectuals did not reject this identity. Zora Neale Hurston, in her essay, ‘‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’’ (reprinted in Venetria Patton and Maureen Honey’s anthology Double-Take ) embraces it, characterizing ordinary black speech and black artistic writing as powerful because it is primitive and imitative, filled with dramatic uncontrolled emotion, and having greater access to folkloristic roots. Hughes dissented from such views, however.
Hughes lamented that Harlem itself, as a neighborhood that nourished art and intellectualism, did not long survive the renaissance. As economic and social conditions declined, writers moved away: Richard Wright (Hughes’s most serious rival as the greatest African American writer) moved to Paris to escape the racism that pervaded American culture. In ‘‘Thank You, Ma’m,’’ Hughes depicts this Harlem, a poor place riven with crime, the glory days of the renaissance long past.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.