Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919-1939.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Bernard, Emily
Pub Date: 12/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919-1939 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Corbould, Clare
Accession Number: 248907025
Full Text: Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919-1939. By Clare Corbould (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. 278 pp.).

Negro. Colored. Black. Afro-American. African-American. African American-Clare Corbould begins and ends her engaging, thoughtful study of African American identity formation during the interwar years with a discussion or the relevance of terminology in African American history. She foregrounds the issue of naming in order to suggest that the perennial debate over nomenclature in African American culture is not symptomatic of a collective identity crisis. Instead the heart of the crisis begins and ends in the name itself. The process of becoming African American is defined as much by semantics as it is by ontology.

It is also a matter of performance. Black identity development is a process, Corbould contends. As a process, it must be enacted, revised, and rehearsed. One of the strengths of Becoming African Americans is its insistence on the centrality of the stage, in various incarnations, as a key site of identity formation. Traditionally, scholars of race in the interwar years have focused on the role played by the production of high art--literature, painting, sculpture--in the project of race uplift. We take our cue from luminaries of the period, like James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, who wrote persuasively on their sometimes competing perspectives on the role black art should play in the project of racial liberation. Corbould does not minimize the importance of the written word, but in Becoming African American, art is made in the streets as well as the studio. Public culture is the axis on which Corbould's argument turns. The central concern of these pages is the way in which "black public space flourished during the two decades following World War I" (p. 11). Oral culture was alive and well among black people in the interwar years, when "noises of all sorts," Corbould argues, offered African Americans a sense of cohesiveness. In Southern towns, blackness was performed on the front porch; in cities like Harlem, it was the street corner. But there was no arena more important for the practice of blackness than the pageant. The interwar years witnessed an unprecedented attention to the study of history, and to a focus on historical education as a means of empowering schoolchildren with stories of black achievement, collective and individual, that contradicted the caricatures and stereotypes that dominated their textbooks. Pageants became a way of "performing anew the telling of historical tales and passing them down from generation to generation" (p. 112). Pageants literally provided new scripts in the ongoing drama of black identity development.

The issue of black identity is largely geographical in this book; the question of being is also a question of belonging. Corbould treats geography as both literal, and metaphorical concept. Both the literal and the metaphorical cohere in the attention paid to Haiti and Africa during the interwar years (the title of Chapter 5, "Haiti, a Stepping-Stone to Africa," points to the substantial and singular role that Haiti played in the contemporary black imagination). In the 1920s and 30s, Corbould argues, Africa--both symbol and entity--was hardly alien in the minds of many African Americans. In some ways, the reverence African Americans displayed for Africa was a means of "making a virtue out of necessity," to use a phrase that travels throughout Corbould's book. Black Americans faced de facto exclusion from post-World War I definitions of citizenship, which demanded that immigrants "whiten up" in order to be seen as patriots. Black people focused on Africa--and contributed staggering amounts of money and manpower to anti-colonialism efforts--as a way of insisting on a citizenship larger and more dynamic than the models available within the borders of the United States.

Marcus Garvey played a crucial role in the romance with Africa during these years. His "Back to Africa" project made an impact not only because it offered an escape from violence and alienation in the United States, but even more because it provided a fantasy of a reunited black family writ, large. Garvey virtually authored a new drama of the black family, in which Africa played the role of mother, in contrast to 19th century black political thought, in which Africa was figured as the father. Africa was personified as Ethiopia in contemporary pageants, which were wildly popular both as cultural celebrations and critiques of colonialism. In them, Ethiopia was consistently depicted as a distressed and selfless young mother in need of black male protection. "Becoming African American was quite a different process for women than for men," Corbould writes (p. 22). While her book pays careful and subtle attention to gender distinctions in black American identity formation, Becoming African American is largely the story of black manhood. Her major players are men (W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, etc.), and the central themes of citizenship and nationhood necessarily foregrounds issues associated with masculinity, like military service, for instance.

The fact that Becoming African American is as much a story about gender as it is about race is not unusual. What Clare Corbould's wonderful study reminds its readers is that identity itself has many components, and the story of black becoming can be told from a number of different vantage points. Corbould's most important contribution to this grand narrative is her fresh perspective on the role that the public sphere played in the construction of individual and collective "blackness" during the interwar years.

Emily Bernard

University of Vermont
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