Among the phenomena that set the Twenties roaring was a startling irruption of creative activity by black Americans that was immediately and forever labeled the Harlem Renaissance. It was produced by an odd conjunction of social forces. The bohemians of white America, their values unmoored by the carnage of World War I, sought spiritual invigoration in the “exotic,” in the American-tamed aborigine so brilliantly depicted in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. (“One heard it said that the Negroes had retained a direct virility that the whites had lost,” the critic Malcolm Cowley reminisced in Exile’s Return.)

Leaders of black America envisioned cultural achievement as a vehicle for civil rights: “Nothing,” proclaimed James Weldon Johnson, the executive secretary of the NAACP, “will do more to change the mental attitude and raise...


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