The Collected Writings
of Wallace Thurman:
A Harlem Renaissance Reader.
DR Samuel Johnson may have been right when he suggested "great works of art must create their own audiences." But Dr Johnson did not have to contend with the complexities of racial dilemmas. In a nation constantly at loggerheads with the shadows and spectres of the colour line, one cannot ignore that many literary reputations have not always been based on artistic potential or achievement. Otherwise, how would one explain the relative obscurity of an author like Wallace Thurman, who ought to be recognized and celebrated as a veritable icon of the Harlem Renaissance, a rich literary and cultural movement responsible for the genesis of African American poetics and the Black aesthetic.
Wallace Thurman, perhaps like John Keats, who bemoaned: "Here lies one whose name is writ in water", may have been aware of his own contemporary marginality and his possible future resurrection when he stated: "Thurman is distinctly a has been—so many people have buried him. Woe betide ‘em when I am resurrected!"
The publication of The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader is a decisive step towards bringing into limelight, from the oblivious confines of prejudice and ignorance, the multifaceted personality of this talented African-American writer and intellectual. The range and variety of Thurman’s writings are evident from the classification of various chapters under headings such as Essays on Harlem, Social Essays and Journalism, Correspondence, Literary Essays and Reviews, Aunt Hagar’s Children, Poems and Short Stories, Plays and Excerpts from the Novels.
An introductory note highlighting aspects of Thurman’s creative priorities and commitments precedes each chapter. The editors, Amritjit Singh and Daniel M. Scott III, have done a meticulous job of recovering Thurman texts from the oblivion of archives and obscure publications.
The general introduction by Singh and the eight section introductions by the two editors are written in a most readable style and idiom, even as they raise important critical issues about Thurman’s role and place in the Harlem Renaissance.
In his erudite Introduction, Amritjit Singh has examined in detail the life and career of this eaverick young writer. However, in the process, he has placed all of the Harlem Renaissance in a series of new contexts. Shedding ample light on Thurman’s art and intellect in relation to the author’s complex love-hate relationship with Harlem, Singh notes wryly how "Thurman is often treated as a lens through which to view the movement than as an artist and public intellectual in his own right. Ironically, the Harlem Renaissance’s greatest individualist is very seldom appreciated as an individual—for his uncompromising artistic goals or for his sharp critical mind".
Singh points out how Thurman was intensely aware of the narrow provincialism of all Americans, the double standards and patronising attitudes with which most whites approached African-American art, and the black bourgeoisie’s obsessions with respectability and uplift. Singh’s profile of Thurman, drawn with rare scholarly passion, evokes a man and artist who was far ahead of his time in dealing with controversial and even forbidden themes like sexual and gender issues and the devious ways in which subtle censorship relegated the truth to the margins.
In advocating multi-cultural perspectives with which to view all life and art, Thurman was perhaps anticipating the definitive trend of seeing beyond the narrow fringes of the colour line that writers like Charles Johnson , Octavia Butler, Ethelbert Miller, and others are so passionate in advocating in contemporary times.