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When Harlem was in Vogue

Born in 1936 in Little Rock, Arkansas, David Lewis is one of the most renowned and celebrated book writers with several award winning books under his belt. Some of his books include King which was published in 1970 by Praeger Publishers and Prisoners of Honor that was released in 1974 under the William Morrow umbrella. Others include District of Columbia (1976), Pawns of Pawns (1987) and The Harlem Renaissance (1994).

Purpose of the Paper

The purpose of this research paper is to analyze one of his books “When Harlem was in Vogue” that published in September, 2006. The main purpose of the paper will be look at the authors’ main thesis and if he has critically dealt with the main topic. The paper will give relevant examples and references to establish as to whether he has fully covered the main thesis. The paper will however start of by looking at the setting of the book and some of the major events that happened during that period of time. A comparison will be given on how events have changed from the time he book was “written” and the modern day life style. In conclusion, the paper will mention the key points that would have been discussed in the course of the study.

The Setting

When Harlem was in Vogue is a book that is set during the end of WWI until the end of the depression. It is important to note that during the war, most black Americans and Africans left their jobs and homes and went to participate in the war leaving most industries and factories and the stewardship of women, this greatly contributed to the great depression. In the modern world, the great depression can be likened to the economic crisis that affected most nations between 2007 and 2009. 

The Thesis

According to Greenblatt, When Harlem was in Vogue is a follow up of David L Lewis book Harlem Renaissance that was published in 1997 (Greenblatt, 2006). Life is a dynamic process and in every stage, changes are bound to appear, however there has to be a “mid wife stage”, that acts as a passage between the old process and the new. This is the same aspect that was adapted by the author of “When Harlem was in Vogue”. The main thesis of the book is to bring out the roles that were played by majority blacks and minority whites who acted as “mid wives” in order to bring to an end the culture of racial discrimination and oppression among the blacks.

After the end of the World War I (WWI), America and most European nations went into what has been described as the worst economic crisis to hit the world; the Great Depression. According to Moore, most stock markets collapsed in a record time of 30 days, banks closed down, the rate of unemployment soared both in the formal and informal sectors and the living standards got worse. This mostly affected the inner cities dwellers (majority who were blacks) most of whom had abandoned their farms and businesses to go and participate in the war or take up jobs left by people who went to participate in the war (Moore, 1980).

In the book, the author tries to bring out the theme of the influence of the black culture and the dominance of the whites who were considered to be superior during that period (racial discrimination). Art as a tool is also another theme that has been exploited by the author. It is therefore safe to state that the main thesis of “When Harlem was in Vogue” is racial discrimination that occurred during that time and how it was dealt with. This however is not clearly brought out until the closing chapters of the book.


One of the main characters in the book is an army general known as Du Bois. In the book the author describes him as “. . . .the senior intellectual militant of his people, a symbol of brainy, complex, arrogant rectitude….”. Despite his short height, he commanded respect and fear among the soldiers and other military senior officials. The irony of this is that, when WWI broke out, white Americas had little confidence in black military personnel and they doubted as to whether a black commander had intellectual capability to effectively marshal forces in the field. They (white Americans) believed that blacks were more effective when it came to combat attacks. In case of Du Bois who was a black army commander he has disapproved this myth. He has been portrayed as the general who marshaled the rebirth of the oppressed blacks both who served in the military and civilians.  Lewis has observed that, Du Bois formed a group of blacks’ artists which comprised of poets, painters, play writers among other artists and he called his group the “Talented Tenth” (Lewis, 2006). He (Du Bois) believed that if the whites who claimed to be well educated and talented could display their art works so could the blacks, he argued that talent cannot be acquired through education but it is God given and there should be equality between the blacks and whites when it comes to show casing of one talent. His main aim was to demystify the myth that black should remain confined in Harlem (villages) but they should be allowed to take their space in the social society just like the white.

It can be observed that literature and art are some the key areas that the author focused on to bring out the main theme of racial discrimination and oppression. The Talented Tenth under the stewardship of Du Bois was a great success and the book has continued to indicate that in the mid 30’s there was a “storm of black creativity”, where pieces of sculptors, play, music and magazines by black artists and authors competed equally in the market with those from the white publishing houses. The sales of magazine for example The Crisis rapidly increased when stories of black writers were published in them. All this can be attributed to the excellent management skills of Du Bois. This was in contrast of the condition at that time because there was a high demand for black labor and most of the population comprised of illiterate people.

At the beginning of this paper, it was noted that the role that the whites played a role in the rebirth process and this would be looked at in reference to the book “When Harlem was in Vogue”. Most black Americans were highly talented but they lacked a source of financial capital and other forms of sponsorship. Lewis in his book has named many whites who were more than willing to support the Talented Tenth, however it the passion of one white lady, Charlotte Mason Osgood that clearly brings out this.

According to the book, she was a patron of one of the main sponsors of the exhibitions by the Negro Artists. She has a passion for primitive and exotic African art and in most cases she would liaise with Du Bois to ensure that she is receives all the latest pieces of art that are produced. To achieve this, she had a group of black aides that helped her in this. For instance, she has Locke who was her emissary to the Talented Tenth, she had Langston Hughes, she referred to him as her precious child, she had Zora Hurston as her novelist and finally Aaron Douglas as her personal painter.

At this point, the author clearly brings out the theme of racial discrimination and oppression. The reason for this is that, she (Charlotte Mason Osgood) forced her protégés to call her “God Mother” but at the same time she was willing to help them. For them to get her help which included financial and material gains, they were first required to abide by her rules and do whatever she asked them to do. Customer has noted that to oppress them further and make them not to see what lies ahead in the modern world, she asked the painter (Aaron) and Hurston (novelist) to keep it primitive in their works.

Hopf-nelson states that, this was a clear indication that she did not want them to explore the right of education and focused on more educative and “modern” works but rather remain in the Stone Age period. This was in contrast to the principles of Du Bois and other black American activists, who encouraged the black to shun primitive art, get education and focus on the upper class market.

Summation / Review of the Paper

Racial discrimination and oppression has been in existence for many centuries, the black have for many years been considered to be uneducated, primitive and less equal to the whites. This is not true. In the book, the author has clearly looked at how the blacks through the stewardship of Du Bois and the Talented Tenth organization have used art to penetrate the white dominated society and the impact that they made in the society.

The author has also clearly brought out cases of racial discrimination and oppression thorough one Charlotte Mason Osgood who was a white patron and offered sponsorship to art exhibitions by black Americans but at a “fee”. With time however the cases of discrimination against blacks both in America and around the globe have greatly improved, laws of various nations also protect its citizens against racial discrimination or any other form of discrimination they (citizens) may be subjected to.