As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg. While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance with Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places. Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.
This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson. I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage. The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government. There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like. I’ll have to follow up further later.
At this point I haven’t been able to determine much more than these scant biological connections, but I am intrigued with the role that regions some distance from our cultural centers end up playing a role, major or minor, in the lives of our writers and in the larger movements that they create. I discovered a similar connection to Alice Dunbar Nelson that I’ll note in a later post.
I didn’t really look into the poetry and other writings of Esther Popel Shaw while working on Goodbye Christ?, but digging around for the ways the Harlem Renaissance may connect to the City of Harrisburg for a presentation I’m doing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I discovered her biographical connection to the region. Born in Harrisburg and the first African American to attend Dickinson, she left the area to attend Howard University after not being allowed to live on Campus. She eventually worked on various literary and political journals in Harlem for a while and was a teacher for much of her life. I hesitate to say these poems are representative since I don’t know enough about all her writing, but a nice collection can be found at The Beltway Poetry Quarterly. I reproduce one of them here. The ironic juxtaposition of American (and/or Christian) ideals with the realities of racial violence was a common trope of literature of the period
“I pledge allegiance to the flag”
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman! “Of the United States of America”
One mile they dragged him
Like a sack of meal,
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!) “And to the Republic for which it stands”
And then they hanged his body to a tree,
Below the window of the county judge
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
Of murder in the style of ’33!
“(Three thousand strong, they were!) “One Nation, Indivisible”
To make the tale complete
They built a fire
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was fleshand boneand hair
And reeking gasoline! “With Libertyand Justice”
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too! “For ALL!”