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Queering the City

Infants of the Spring (1932): Cutting across the Stage of Harlem’s Black Bohemia

Elisa Cecchinato

Résumés

À partir d’une analyse du roman Infants of the Spring (1932), cet article explore la circulation et les métamorphoses des identités culturelles noires et queers dans l’espace urbain d’Harlem pendant les années 1920. L’écrivain et éditeur africain-américain Wallace Thurman revisite, dans ce roman à clef, l’expérience de la bohème noire au sein de la résidence pour artistes du « Niggeratti Manor ». Durant cette période de la Renaissance d’Harlem, ce quartier de Harlem était en train de se transformer en raison de la migration des Noir∙es américain∙es du Sud vers le Nord du pays, des réformes urbaines qui visaient à encadrer cette migration, mais aussi de la production politique, intellectuelle et artistique qui accompagnait les luttes d’émancipation noire. En outre, à cette époque qui est aussi celle de la Prohibition, Harlem était marqué par la fréquentation d’hommes et de femmes blanches queers attiré∙es par le double statut du quartier. D’un côté, celui-ci était relativement accueillant pour les personnes gays et lesbiennes. De l’autre, Harlem était un véritable quartier de spectacles, dans lequel la performance et le camp étaient centraux. Cet article montre qu’en se servant de la métaphore du théâtre, et plus précisément du genre très codifié racialement du minstrel show, Infants of the Spring met en scène des identités masculines, noires et queer dans l’espace urbain moderne. Le roman de Thurman interroge la formation de ces identités au prisme des multiples relations entretenues par les artistes noir∙es avec des mécènes, artistes ou amant∙es blanc∙hes, ainsi qu’avec des artistes, intellectuel∙les et réformistes noir∙es.

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1Movement refers to a change of position, to the passage from one space to another. People move, in groups and individually. Identities also move, as well as the designations used to characterize or represent them. In the context of segregation in the United States in the 1920s, the notion of movement cannot be dissociated from multiple experiences of internal migration and urbanization. Among the groups of people that were moving at the time, the urban North of the United States witnessed the arrival of Black Americans who migrated from the rural South. Urbanization was also shaped by the influx of northern white rural men and women, some of whom, once in the city, began to define themselves as queer. The narrative intersections of these two movements across the urban space of Harlem, New York, at the time of the Harlem Renaissance are best exemplified by Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932). In this novel, the cultural and identity dynamics of Harlem in the 1920s appear particularly complex. The novel systematically uses theater as a metaphor that doubles identities into masks, and spaces into stages. In the novel, the porosity and interplay of socially demarcated urban spaces forestall a reading of cultural identities as if they were fixed.

2The notion of movement, when connected to 1920s urban migrations, also evokes spatial experiments in management, rationalization, and fixation of bodies and identities in motion. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the material space of the US city was reorganized thanks to the contributions of urban sociology, urban reform, and social work. Urban sociologists and reformers studied the rapid expansion of industrial cities, and attempted in different ways to transform and integrate into urban Anglo-American civilization the worrisome changes brought about by capitalist, industrial transformations, among which were migratory movements. The spaces through which people and identities move are in fact both material and symbolic. At the turn of the twentieth century, the notion that Anglo-American civilization was to be preserved from uncouth agitating factors influenced the ways white American elites thought about urban space and its planning. Domestic and hygienist ideologies underwrote the sociological protocols that studied and organized urban spaces, migrations, and identities. The racially segregationist regime of Jim Crow cut across these ideologies, and incited practices of respectability within the Black diaspora. Black urban sociologists participated in the facilitation of Black urban migration from the South by proposing and performing a modernized New Negro masculine identity, capable of reassuring the white sponsors who commissioned and financed the improvement of Black migrants’ living conditions in the city. Black male urban sociologists were afforded the possibility to cooperate with white female researchers and social workers on the ground, in the neighborhoods where Black immigrants were settling, as long as they contradicted the racist symbology of Black predatory masculinity or the threat of miscegenation. They were able to do so only thanks to their detached, professional, scientific, and sexually nonthreatening posture towards their white female coworkers and white male sponsors. The intervention of Black American sociologists in the organization of Black urban migrations was contextual to the disenfranchised and socially vulnerable condition of the Black masses at the turn of the twentieth century. As David Levering Lewis has written,

[t]he Red Summer of 1919, a period of socialist agitation and conservative backlash following the Russian Revolution, produced the trauma that led to the cultural sublimation of civil rights. […] Lynchings of returning African American soldiers and expulsion of African American workers from unions abounded. […] The term “New Negro” entered the vocabulary in reaction to the Red Summer […].” (xxii-xxiii)

3The works of Black American sociologist and philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois were influential in the articulation of an assertive, urban New Negro ideology and identity. Du Bois was the promoter of the Talented Tenth ideology, i.e., the idea that an enlightened interracial elite should uplift the Black masses from the asperities of Jim Crow and poverty. He engaged in self-reform and in the reform of the Black migratory masses, with the aim of easing Black Americans’ integration in Northern urban centers. A philosopher of aesthetics, Alain Locke further contributed to the articulation of New Negro identity, addressing the complexities and contradictions of its sociological formulations through aesthetic research, as the 1925 anthology The New Negro attested. Not only did the artistic and literary modes of this New Negro modernity interact with the specters of Anglo-American anxieties over urbanization and Black migration, but the Lost Generation’s and white radicals’ fascination for the urbanizing New Negro also profoundly conditioned the ways Black artists produced representations of themselves and the race.

  • 1 As I will show in due time, in Infants of the Spring, the word queer conveys a peculiar polysemy, e (...)

4As the intellectual works and political activism of New Negro artists, intellectuals, reformists, and uplifters show, the organization of the modern urban city as the symbolic space of Anglo-American civilization rested largely on white regimes of visibility (Foucault; Paltrinieri) that were racial as well as gendered. A regime of visibility frames the way an individual is seen because of how power organizes space. In early twentieth-century white (and segregated) regimes of visibility, the Black American man was modern in his New Negro urban identity if he engaged in sexual restraint and respectability. This urban identity allowed the white man to cooperate with him. In this same regime of visibility, a white American man appeared straight if he engaged in domestic heterosexuality, defining heterosexual orientation as the pairing of a male and a female individuals. The white regime of visibility in 1920s New York thus encoded sexual orientation through gender and, until white middle-class gay men started to adopt a queer identification to positively code their sexual orientation, the effeminate figure of the fairy served to visualize homoeroticism in the modern urban space of New York.1

5Urban dwellers’ awareness of regimes of visibility is manifest in their exploitation of “the theatricality of everyday interactions,” where the urban setting allowed them to “[flout] gender conventions” (Chauncey 168) without risk of being sanctioned. In urban space, movement and its regulation indeed derail strict regimes of visibility. As such, movement can imply the transfer of designations from one group of people to another, whether through self-appropriation or external assignation. Shifting designations or identities suggest a moving conception of space. When superimposed to fixed material space, such a moving conception of space produces places of liminality. A liminal space/place sits across several regimes of visibility, or allows identities to appear more unstable, constructed, adaptable, and performable. Liminal spaces are in turn movable and unstable, yet can produce, as we will see, ambiguous moments of blockage and fixity.

  • 2 I use the lettering “Niggerat/ti” because, as I will explain later, both spellings, “Niggeratti” an (...)

6Infants of the Spring allows us to explore the relationship between movement, urban space, identity, and regimes of visibility in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. It does so thanks to the mise en scène of Black bohemian life in the Black artists’ apartment of the Niggerat/ti Manor, and the movement of peoples, identities, and groups across it.2 Infants of the Spring suggests that, better than open settings, enclosed places like the Manor allow Black artists to explore and manipulate the theatricality of space, and therefore the “desire to play with alternative identity” (Ganter 91). Black bohemians purport to turn identity into an object that can be played with, artistically and subversively. As such, they stand in confrontation with Black reformists, who engage with identity as an object of political strategy. However, the novel also insists that playing with alternative identities is not only incapacitated outside of the Manor, but also rather unsteady within it. As we will see, in Infants of the Spring, spatial and identity subversion via the transfer, appropriation, and resignification of external identities results in blockage and arrest. Even though it opens on a fixed duality of closed/open spaces (apartment/neighborhood-city; Niggerat/ti Manor/Harlem-New York), which corresponds to an apparent duality of identity affiliations (Black bohemian/New Negro; Black bohemian-New Negro/white Anglo-American), the novel shows that the identities produced by such supposedly fixed duality fail to be subverted.

7In the first part of this paper I will study how the novel constructs the enclosed, liminal space of the Niggerat/ti Manor, and the interactions of characters within it. The Manor is inhabited by Black bohemian artists, and visited by white queer lovers and reformists, New Negro intellectuals and sponsors, and a larger Harlem public of Black aficionados and white aristocratic slummers. Movement constantly animates the Manor. This section explores the potentialities and contradictions inscribed in the cultural identity of the Black bohemian. The novel does so by imagining the enclosed space of the Manor as a metaphorical antiblack stage: the minstrel show. The Manor can thus be threatened by the spotlights of an alienating white regime of visibility, but can also evade and manipulate it. From the liminal space of the Manor, the constructed nature of cultural and artistic identities is made visible, and the novel laments the Black artists’ relative unawareness of such constructedness. Thus, Infants of the Spring dramatizes a “racial trouble” which accompanies some Black artists’ naive investment of desire on alienating identities/masks, in an urban space where art and culture are racialized.

8In the Manor, the Black bohemian’s sexual ideology—of openly reclaiming Black/queer desire and rejecting the compromise of the New Negro ideology of restraint—fosters a Black male identity capable of transformative self-awareness. Yet, as I show in the second part of the paper, Black bohemianism proves incapable of bridging other disjunctions provoked by the performance of rebellious queer rudeness, both in the enclosed, liminal space of the apartment and outside of it. Indeed, this same rebelliousness is not exempt from negotiations with the codes and injunctions of white artistic sponsorship and patronage, similarly to how New Negro reformed masculinity is dependent on negotiation with white institutional power. Although the Manor allows the white regime of visibility to be adequately manipulated, this space is not impermeable to it. There is a spatial continuum between the outside and the inside of the Manor, so that the Black bohemian is incapable of creating and fully engaging a subversive identity.

Infants of the Spring: An Invitation to a Theater of Liminality

9Infants of the Spring is a tragicomic roman à clef about the failure of a Black bohemian experience in 1920s Harlem. The story focuses on a group of young Black artists headed by two writers, Ray and Paul. The members of the nonconformist group live in a rented apartment building, the so-called Niggeratti Manor that Euphoria, the landlady, has made available to the artistic renaissance of the neighborhood. In the Manor, the members of the group debate love and sex, drink, discuss politics and race, play music, read poetry, and throw parties. The Manor attracts a variegated public of Black and white lovers, artists, intellectuals, patrons, social workers, and party goers. Often, the eccentric customs of the Manor are met with the unwanted attentions of the sensationalist press, while established New Negro intellectuals warn the young dwellers to adopt more sober postures and more respectable artistic practices. After the arrest of Pelham, one of the residents and a rather inept poet, the landlady evicts the young renters. The Manor ends up being repurposed for a more respectable social use, the group of artists split, and Paul, one of its vanguard figures, commits suicide.

10Theatricality, masquerade, and impersonation are central to the plot and the construction of characters in Infants of the Spring. The very title of the novel, half of a line from Hamlet, advertises it. Two epigraphs, one from Shakespeare and one from the Soviet writer Maxime Gorky, clarify that the novel will set up a theater of liminality with people who “are not quite achieved, who are not very wise, a little mad, ‘possessed’.” If theatricality already announces a tension involving space and vision, temporality is also clearly at stake here: “The canker galls the infants of the spring/ Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,/ And in the morn and liquid dew of youth/ Contagious blastments are most imminent” (Thurman 2).

  • 3 Observing the influence of Gurdjieff’s thought on Thurman’s philosophy of race, Amritjit Singh writ (...)
  • 4 Wallace Thurman, Aunt Hagar’s Children, quoted in Singh and Scott (10).

11Thurman’s Niggeratti Manor is a stage where the young Black artists and their cohort act, and are made to act, a modern drama of sexual liberation, artistic avant-gardism, and failed race transcendence.3 The accelerated rhythm of a spectacularized Black bohemian renaissance is the dramatic material that the novel explores, as well as its consequences on Black “individual salvation.”4 The form coherently builds on this by making the opening and closing lines of Infants cater to the reader’s visual (and more largely sensorial) involvement with the story. The status of the reader is virtually transformed into that of a playgoer. More than descriptions, the text uses imagery to evoke the reader’s visual relation to a stage. What the reader “sees” is an unsteady theatrical performance, obtained in the text largely by playing on the ambivalent role of light and visibility on the Black bohemian stage. This formal device is frequently used in the novel when the action takes place inside the Manor and it helps to illuminate the relations between the characters of this roman à clef as the narrator wants the reader to see them.

12The very opening of Infants invites us to the artists’ apartment by deploying theater props and gestures. It is Raymond, Thurman’s narrative persona, that lets the reader in, together with two white characters, Stephen (modeled on Harald Jan Stephasson, Thurman’s close friend and lover) and Sam (alias for Leland Petit, the organist at Grace Church on Broadway, who is caricatured in Infants as an intruding and repressed white uplifter): “Raymond opened the door with a flourish, pushed the electric switch and preceded his two guests into the dimly illuminated room” (Thurman 3). This incipit encourages the reader to look inside the Manor and watch the interactions between the characters, as if attending a play on a half-lit stage. Are the actors of this play/performance full agents of their scripts? Such is the question that we are constantly led to ask ourselves. Furthermore, if the reader is positioned as a playgoer, what role does he or she play in producing the actors’/characters’ scripts?

13The novel explores the thesis that the Black bohemian is an actor who fails to deflect (or dim, as the light in the Manor at the opening of the novel) the white regime of visibility in which he/she is immersed. The art of playing with alternative identities is therefore constantly put at risk. This is the dramatic cause of the Black vanguard’s inability to achieve artistic posterity and endure through time (Ganter 98). The very last lines of the novel zoom in on one drawing by Paul (a dramatization of the renowned poet and illustrator Richard Bruce Nugent and the consummate interpreter of Black bohemianism in the plot), who has just committed suicide. Whereas Nugent outlived all of his Harlem Renaissance companions, in Infants Paul is ironically sacrificed to make the point that the Black bohemian’s hopes for artistic progeny are slim.The drawing that emerges from beneath Paul’s corpse is an illustration of the Manor:

[H]e had drawn a distorted, inky black skyscraper, modeled after Niggeratti Manor, and on which were focused an array of blindingly white beams of light. The foundation of this building was composed of crumbling stone. At first glance it could be ascertained that the skyscraper would soon crumple and fall, leaving the dominating white lights in full possession of the sky. (Thurman 175)

  • 5 The caricatured figures of “comic buffoons or romanticized Noble Savages” (Toll 26), as well as the (...)

Entering the Niggerat/ti Manor is tantamount to catching sight of how this Black bohemian failure comes to be, and Thurman resorts to the codes of the minstrel tradition,5 queering them, to let us see its unfolding.

Race Trouble in the 1920s Regime of Urban Visibility

14Talking to Euphoria (inspired from Iolanthe Sidney, a Black businesswoman who had invested in the apartment building where the Nigerat/ti lived) in chapter V, Ray defends the eccentric crowd of the Manor from the landlady’s perplexities:

“I want that house back there to be a monument to the New Negro. I wish some of the other artists and writers would move in. And I wish they would all work as Pelham does.”

“You should be thankful that there is only one Pelham in the house. […] [If] this Negro renaissance is going to actually live up to its name and reputation, it’s going to be Pauls we need, not Pelhams. We have too many of them now . . . too many like both him and Eustace, striving to make a place for themselves in a milieu to which they are completely alien.” (Thurman 31)

15Pelham is an alter ego for Rex Goreleigh, a painter who was involved in a rape trial, which is also represented in Infants. According to Ray, Euphoria is mistaken in believing that because of his obedient and servile demeanor, Pelham will come to represent anything worthwhile for the Renaissance. The same is true of another Manor resident, Eustace (alias for William Service Bell), a frustrated musician who aspires to play classical music but is only signed on to perform the spirituals that he despises. Regularly, Pelham and Eustace are characterized as “comic buffoons,” which are typical masks of a minstrel show. Eustace is presented as being “noted for his spoonerisms” (Thurman 8), such as “Mad to gleet you” (8) or “But you mustn’t dride the hinks” (9). Pelham first enters the stage with the exaggerated gestures of the happy-go-lucky type: “Gingerly Pelham pressed [Stephen’s hand] on his own, then quickly, like a small animal at bay, stepped back to the door, and smiled bashfully at all within the room” (11). However, the use of the code of minstrelsy is not reserved to these two characters alone, nor are these two characters easily liquidated in the plot as alienated masks. Thurman’s own use of the codes of minstrelsy in Infants is part of a larger practice of signifying in vogue during the Harlem Renaissance. Signifying consists in the production of a new meaning for a word, starting from a combination of different “semantic orientations” (Gates 50) that the same word may have. More precisely, this practice exploits the “double-voiced” quality of words: it combines in one word the point of view of how that word is uttered by a speaker, and how a second speaker evaluates the utterance from another point of view.

16In the 1920s, the antiblack slur “nigger” was commonly used in white racist parlance to disparage Black urbanites. This specific use of the slur encoded white racist anxiety about Black American people’s social mobility and emancipation, which was deemed threatening. However, during the Harlem Renaissance, the term was quickly appropriated and re-signified by Black writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston repurposed the term as part of the expression “Niggerati Manor” (spelled with one “t”), referring to the apartment building where Thurman and Nugent lived and which became the headquarter of the bohemian Harlem Renaissance. In interviews and articles of the time we can find the formula “Niggerati” alone, used to refer (satirically) to the condition of the urban Black intellectual as a cultural worker in the process of mediating his or her “passing” role with the white institutions, sponsors, and benefactors that commissioned and financed his/her art, research work, and knowledge production “on the race.” Sure enough, the expression “Niggerati” sarcastically elicited the sense of pretension that may have accompanied the type of modern social mobility afforded by waged cultural production, adding to it a level of pride within a society hostile to racial liberation. Infants of the Spring does a further operation of signifying on Hurston’s expression, by adding a “t” to it:

There were four people in Eustace’s basement studio. All held glasses in their hands, glasses containing gin and ginger ale.

“We’ve got a name for the house,” Eustace announced as Stephen and Raymond entered.

“What is it?” Stephen asked.

“Niggeratti Manor.”

“Whose idea was that?”

“Paul’s, of course.”

“Niggeratti Manor,” Stephen repeated. “I don’t quite get it.”

“You wouldn’t, Steve.”

“All of us can’t be as clever as you, Paul.”

“I bet Ray gets it . . . Don’t you?”

“Niggeratti Manor . . . hmmm . . . quite appropriate, I would say. God knows we’re ratty enough.” (21)

17The new level of satire that this “t” added to the minstrel image of the Black artist was blatantly queer and polemical. The reformed New Negro identity (mocked by the racist slur “nigger”) was characterized by the cool posture of a sexually nonthreatening manhood. To the contrary, Black bohemian masculinity rejected this cool posture, and insolently voiced Black artistic and erotic desire. “Ratty” is synonymous with both “sloppy” and “irascible.” If sloppiness can be read as an attribute of dandyism and bohemianism, irascibility is connected to the aggressive queer mode that Fire!! (the magazine that Thurman, Nugent, Hurston, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas and other young Black artists produced in 1926) had adopted to disalign itself from New Negro respectability: “queerness becomes a narrative device that is coded as a racially-rude and inflammatory gesture, the fire producing and burning up of inadequate and oppressive literary conventions” (Cobb 332). One function of the minstrel codes in Infants is to allow the emergence of queer racial rudeness as a narrative device. The other function is to index the white gaze and its alienating effects on the inhabitants of the residence.

  • 6 I could not find any reference to real-life persons to decode this character.

18An instance of encoding the alienating effects of the white gaze through minstrelsy is to be found in the character of Bull, an improvised Black illustrator and regular of the Niggeratti Manor.6 At the Manor, Bull starts a fight with Stephen because he disapproves of Aline, a Black woman, having an affair with a white man. The scene is staged through exaggerated gestures and motions, which recall those of a minstrel stage, and it is framed as a sketch taking place in front of an audience:

Then [Raymond] noticed that the doorway was filled with a staring mob, inane, drunken, and stupefied by the surprising scene that confronted them. […]

As Raymond relaxed, Bull regained his strength, thrust Raymond aside, and with his fists clenched, face wet and distorted, turned upon the frightened Aline […].

He made a rush for the figure lying on the daybed. Aline, seeing him come toward her, struggled to her feet, attempted to run, became entangled in the rug and fell heavily to the floor. Stephen snored in his chair. Raymond again threw himself into Bull’s way only to be sent crashing into the corner by the door. (Thurman 35-36, my emphasis)

19As Bull later explains to Steve when he apologizes to him, the scuffle was a manly act of race pride: “I’m a man, you know. An’ I expect to be a man among men. […] I ain’t used to seein’ no white man with no colored woman. The bastards lynch every nigger that has a white woman and I kinda thinks darkies ought do the same” (39). Bull has decided to let go of his animosity towards Steve because “[Bull] forgot [Steve] wasn’t no ordinary white man. […] [You]’re nothin’ but a darky like the rest of us. You’re a man, see. I like you” (39). Bull’s apologies are pronounced as if on a minstrel-stage set: “Stephen smiled his thanks. The others grinned mechanically, then busied themselves lighting cigarettes, draining their glasses, clearing their throats, and trying to think of something to say” (40, my emphasis). The band of the Manor is here clumsily acting casual to Bull’s performance of manliness. Their embarrassment is intensified (though Bull seems unaware of it) when Bull announces he has “‘some drawin’s of [his, he] brung along to show [them].’ ‘Drawings,’ Paul gasped. Raymond became choked on the gin he was drinking. The others were equally aghast” (40). Bull’s drawings are meant to be sold to advertisement companies, and represent “huge amazons with pugilistic biceps, prominent muscular bulges, and broad shoulders. The only thing feminine about them were the frilled red dresses in which they all were attired” (40). I suggest that, with this episode, the novel adds a gendered and sexual layer to the 1920s racial/white regime of visibility that the Black bohemian has trouble navigating. Reformed Black masculinity is an urban code of performance of which the hasty Black artist has not enough awareness or command. The dramatic disjunction shown by the minstrel-like scene points to the confusion around Bull’s fairy manliness, which is also strongly connoted by class subalternity, as the use of the vernacular in Bull’s lines shows. Instead of successfully manning-up his queerness, as class and racial passing required at the time, Bull queers up his manliness (which, besides, helps us to see the secondary character of Aline more as a female impersonator than a cisgender female). However, Bull is convinced he is “a man among men” (39). Therefore, there is a tragicomic misunderstanding or dramatic disjunction between Bull’s and the other Niggeratti’s apprehension of how the performance of race and gender, as well as sexual orientation, may operate in public. All of this is made particularly sarcastic and tragic by the fact that Bull (another “comic buffoon” on the stage of the Manor) has learned to draw because he has “[b]een takin’ a correspondence course in commercial art” (40, my emphasis).

20As mentioned before, the minstrel-like renditions of Eustace and Pelham as “comic buffoons” offer two other instances of the artist’s misunderstanding of, and disjunction with, the identity codes of the Harlem Renaissance. Talking with Stephen about Eustace, Ray decries how his “teacher probably filled young Eustace’s musical craw with pseudo-classical ideals, ideals essentially saccharine and sentimental,” which is why “he strives to be a carbon copy of Caruso” (67). This sort of alienating reversed blackface returns on the occasion of Pelham’s poetry reading:

He finished and beamed at his audience. They sheepishly avoided his gaze and earnestly tried to think of something appropriate to say. No one laughed. No one even felt the urge to snicker. It was impossible to ridicule when his voice was so tender, his eyes so bright, his smile so pleased and ingratiating. […] Pelham’s black face shone with satisfaction. His audience had been stirred, moved, affected by the pathos and beauty of his poem. (76, my emphasis)

Also in this passage, the way the characters gaze at each other, and the way the narrative focalization shifts from the audience to Pelham, are overemphasized by a language that insists on mimicry and caricature. We can imagine the happy-go-lucky Pelham merrily facing his friends, a sort of commiserative backing band that look up, down, and sideways to avoid facing their companion’s heedless failure. Pelham is radically unaware of the nature of his audience’s reaction. The duality enclosed/open spaces does not seem to withstand the mobility and pervasiveness of the white regime of visibility. However, the porous barrier that marks the physically enclosed and liminal/theatrical space of the Manor partly allows to re-signify the denominations and identities that travel through it.

Queer Racial Rudeness and White Sponsorship

21Queer racial rudeness regularly disrupts the minstrel-like stage of the Manor and inverts the dramatic masquerade of ingenuity that Bull or Eustace regularly act out. The narrative device of queer racial rudeness is also what allows the characters of the novel to inhabit the liminal and anti-conventional space of the bohemian. Paul, the best representative of this style, is masterful in flaunting a rowdy, self-aware, and sexually-explicit eccentricity:

Ten minutes later, Paul and Eustace entered the room.

“Oh, hell,” Paul said, “another Nordic. Ain’t he a beauty, Eustace?”

“Cut the comedy, Paul. I want to introduce you to Stephen Jorgenson. […] Don’t scare him to death. This is Paul, Steve. He’s responsible for all these abominable drawings. […]”

“Have you ever been seduced?” Paul asked. “Don’t blush. You just looked so pure and undefiled that I had to ask that.”

Stephen looked inquiringly at Raymond.

“Don’t mind Paul. He’s harmless.” (Thurman 8-9)

Ray is less eccentric than Paul, yet always mordant and polemical. He backs up Paul’s queer rudeness, but he is also engaged in analyzing and translating the acts of Black and queer signifying, particularly to his white lover/friend Steve:

“Nice diggings you have here,” Stephen said.

“Damn right,” Raymond agreed. “I’m nuts about ’em. Sam doesn’t like my studio, though. He thinks it’s decadent.”

“I merely object to some of the decorations, Ray.”

“Namely, the red and black draperies, the red and black bed cover, the crimson wicker chairs, the riotous hook rugs, and Paul’s erotic drawings. You see, Steve, Sam thinks it’s all rather flamboyant and vulgar.” (3)

22Bashing the moralistic and quasi Puritanical atmosphere brought to the Manor by Sam, a white uplifter, is part of Paul and Ray’s (and the text’s) rude queer performance: “Raymond and Paul were the only Negroes he knew who openly ridiculed both him and his cause” (15), the narrative voice remarks in chapter II, choosing Sam as focalizer. As Ray ironically observes to Steve: “We disagree about everything. And yet there are moments when we get great pleasure out of one another’s company. I need Sam’s steadying influence, and he is energized by what he calls my animalism” (7). Sam is the fictional rendition of Leland Petit, whom Eric Garber cites when describing the attitudes of white lesbians and gays who trekked up to Harlem to enjoy the liberties it afforded:

“[…] Blair Niles based her [novel] Strange Brother on her friend and confidant Leland Pettit [sic], a young, white, gay man from Milwaukee and the organist at the Grace Church. According to Strange Brother, Pettit frequented the homosexual underworld in Harlem because he found social acceptance, and because he identified with others who were also outcasts from [white] American life.” (qtd. in Ross, 1994 195)

23In Infants Leland Petit is caricatured through an exaggerated adherence to discourses of New Negro respectability and uplift. Sam prides himself on his status of “martyr” (Thurman 15) in the cause of uplifting the Negro, the only political struggle where, as the ratty narrator says, “his mediocrity was overlooked because he had a pale face, and because he assumed the role of a belligerent latter-day abolitionist” (15). In chapter IV, Sam is ridiculed by his own reaction to Paul’s story of an erotic dream that the Black bohemian is telling the Manor and that bears a clear reference to Richard Bruce Nugent’s text “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” published in the 1926 magazine Fire!!:

[Paul’s] eyes appraised his audience and were pleased with what they saw. But he had forgotten the prosaic presence of Samuel.

“Did you really have that dream?”

You would ask that.”

“That’s no answer. Did you really have that dream?”

“Of course.”

“Was the presence male or female?”

“I don’t know.” […]

“Did you ever have an affair with a woman?”

“Certainly.”

“Did you ever . . .” he lowered his voice, “indulge in homosexuality?”

“Certainly.”

Samuel turned red. The others in the room tried no longer to restrain their laughter. […] But Samuel was primed for the chase.

“Which one did you prefer?” He smiled to himself. Now he had him. […] With a toss of his head, [Paul] quickly replied:

“I really don’t know. After all there are no sexes, only sex majorities […]. Therefore I enjoyed one experience as much as the other.” (25, emphasis in the text)

24Sam’s point of view on Paul does not have any influence on Paul’s performance of Black bohemianism. The repartee aims at caricaturing Sam’s arguments as clumsy and reactionary. What is more, the dialogue is strongly marked by incomprehension, which results in staving off mediation and exaggerating clash. Later on in the text, Samuel’s remarks during Euphoria’s account of her militant past trigger a much ruder reaction from Paul:

“But man, don’t you see she had her race at heart? Haven’t you felt a similar urge? I, a white man, have, and all the Negroes I know have, too.”

You haven’ known many Negroes, have you Sam?” Paul asked sarcastically.

Samuel was outraged.

“Haven’t you any race pride?”

“Fortunately no,” Paul replied coolly. “I don’t happen to give a good goddam about any nigger except myself.”

Samuel was too flabbergasted to say more. It was incredible that any Negro should make such a statement. Paul was just an unregenerate liar. (48-49, my emphasis)

25The excerpt refers to one of Thurman’s favorite materials for fiction writing: the reality of Black people’s individualistic desires and choices, which are here interpreted by Paul. Rejecting Sam’s constant reference to the reformed identity of the New Negro, Paul conceals the aesthetic and political rationale of his provocation. This rationale pertains to the larger debate on representation, propaganda, and art, in which both Thurman and Nugent took part during the Harlem Renaissance. It is through Paul’s act of intellectual dissimulation that the use of the racist slur becomes particularly shocking, and renders all communication between Paul and Sam impossible. The process of signifying the word is made invisible, since the individualistic Paul has no wish to adhere to any conventional, pedagogical, or respectable/readable form of visibility. The dramatic disjunction that we find in Paul is not between the Black bohemian and the theatrical stage of the Manor, but between the speaker and his addressee, that is, between Paul and Sam. Infants opposes the Black bohemian as rude queer to a white queer character that, as a sympathizer of a reformed New Negro identity, is handled harshly in the plot. In Infants’ and Paul’s rude queer discourse, the categories of sex and race are interrelated because both are monstrous or degenerate.

26Paul had already startled everyone by using the shocking idiom when, in chapter IV, right before entertaining his friends with the story of his dream, he had updated Aline and Janet on the news of the Manor, stating: “No dirt at all, ’cept Steve’s permanently become a nigger” (23). Paul’s statement, a satirical blackfacing of Ray’s white friend Steve is meant to inform the Manor that the young man has moved into the building, and mobilizes the racist slur to codify Steve’s same-sex orientation through race. This is how the novel hyperbolizes the circulation of racial and queer identities during the Harlem Renaissance, which Marlon Ross has described as follows:

[W]hites who felt out of place sexually in their own society could enact their deviant fantasies in Harlem while hiding those fantasies behind Harlem’s color curtain. At the same time, in enacting those fantasies, they jeopardized the security of their color and entertained, at various levels, the possibility of becoming sexual/racial outcasts, if not racial regressives, as the interchange between sexual invert and racial revert was conflated. It might even be that the projection of a freer black sexual life and the actuality of less restriction on homosexuals in African American urban communities combined to render the search for a liberated homosexuality across racial and class lines the paradigmatic patronizing experience. (2004 299)

27In 1926 white queer writer, photographer, and Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten—one of the sponsors of Fire!!—published a notorious novel, Nigger Heaven, which recounts a young Black artist’s downfall in an exotic and vicious 1920s Harlem. Arguably, through its characters, Nigger Heaven encoded white queerness “behind Harlem’s color curtain.” The resulting exoticist and decadent representation of blackness is adapted in Infants in Paul’s rude codification of same-sex male desire through racist slurs. Thurman had already taken a stance against those who attacked Van Vechten’s novel, in his 1926 editorial published in Fire!!. Infants of the Spring itself does not hide the influence on (or even the desirability for) Black bohemian aesthetics of Van Vechten’s decadent mode of blackness (Cecchinato). In Thurman’s novel, a decadent Black identity is favored by several characters over Sam/Leland Petit’s positive identification with the reformed masculinity of the New Negro and the sober, desexualized posture it elicited. What is relevant here is that, during the Harlem Renaissance, white queer patronage, desires, and affects did influence the circulation of Black bohemian identities. If not analogous, such influence surely echoed that of white institutional masculine power on reformed, “cool” Black manhood, as it was adopted by the Talented Tenth identity of the New Negro in more official venues.

28We may add that the specific use of minstrelsy in Infants cleverly exploits the ambiguities and ambivalence that are constitutive of this popular genre, to produce a narrative commentary of the 1920s experience of Black bohemianism and its relations to white sponsorship. The genre of minstrelsy was easily accessible to 1920s authors because it had been repopularized by Jewish immigrant performers. Lewis Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon have discussed how Jewish immigrants’ recuperation of minstrelsy in the 1920s had two effects. It allowed part of the immigrant performers to think about and shape their own new identity in the United States, and it reactivated this relatively out-of-style genre of racial/racist performance in the North East of the United States. Lewis and Jane Gordon also observe that

[in] antiblack societies, there is a long history of nonblack performance of darkness. Blackface is a familiar example, but at the level of mundane life, black popular culture has been the leitmotif of white reverie. […] This form of exoticism, of the dominant and those seeking membership among the dominant groups temporarily taking on and playing versions of the dominated, is a recurring theme across the globe well into the present. […] A white American enjoying and performing [black] music is, in other words, simply involved in the creolized popular culture of her or his country, one in which, as we and many others have pointed out, political expression often took artistic form in the absence of other institutional avenues. For some, however, the goal is not simply to participate but to outperform the dominated subjects at the aesthetic expression of their situation. The result is a fictional form of authenticity, one of the fantasy of mastery by consent of the dominated. (82-84, my emphasis)

29Paul’s mastery of the liminal space of rude queer performance in the novel remains ambiguous because it cannot help but “consent to,” and be influenced by, the powerful circulation of white male desire as encoded through blackness. This white desire is “outperformed” through white investment in Black identities. Therefore, the struggle with the circulation of identity is shared by all Black bohemians in the Manor, including Paul and Ray, who are ambiguously made to act as queer “Noble Savages,” “romanticized” by the gaze of the white queer patron. Eustace, Pelham, or Bull fail to engage with the liminal space of the Manor because they are unaware of the gender and racial codes in which Black male identities evolve in 1920s Harlem. Paul’s provocative appropriation of a racially debasing sexual identification in an antiblack world is ultimately trapped in a similar disjunction of code circulation within a white regime of visibility (and secrecy).

The Rent Party: A Terrain of Inquiry on Black Bohemian Failure

30With these complex encodings of race through sexual orientation, Infants of the Spring suggests that race prejudice as well as a certain degree of homophobia are so strong that an interracial “male companionship” (Ross, 2004 11) is difficult to imagine beyond the creative effort of novel writing. The incommunicability between Paul and Sam reinforces this reading, because it contributes to the novel’s construction of a “homosexual coterie [that] may borrow its structure and technique from homosocial networks of patriarchal power,” where “homosexual men [are further ensnared] in a self-destructive net of internalized homophobia” (Ross, 2004 296). With Steve, Ray attempts to elaborate his artistic, racial, and queer identity more positively, often through dialogism.

31Paul’s wisecrack on Steve’s “niggerization” is met by Ray with an enigmatic reaction. Ray recalls a truncated remark by Steve about the fact of saying “nigger in the presence of a white person . . .” (Thurman 23). The text uses indirect speech to further voice Ray’s thoughts: “Perhaps Stephen had been right in his analysis of Paul” (23). However, no element is offered to know more about Stephen’s “analysis of Paul,” or Ray’s opinion of it. The fact is that Paul’s provocation can both work as an attack on racial positive identifications and an attack on gender/male positive identifications. When Paul uses the racist slur in front of a white man, is he making a rude gesture and reappropriating a derogatory identification as a Black man, or as a queer man? It is up to the reader to decide which one of the two signifying systems is mobilized according to the plot. It is also up to the reader to decide whether the sexual and racial regimes can be dissociated at all. Given such ambiguity, Infants of the Spring is built around the test (and ultimate failure) of the possibility of intimacy between Ray and Steve. Thurman’s desire to transcend race is interpreted at its best and most dramatic stage in his acts of “showing”: he cares about the visibilization of how sexual inversion and racial reversion are produced, through the circulation of identities and identifications, across the permeable urban spaces of Harlem.

32A creative attempt to transcend this double cultural regime is to be found in the dialogues between Ray and Steve, and in their intellectual affinity. When the dialogues between the two characters become the focus of the narrative, the text suspends the use of the genre of minstrelsy in favor of a slower pace for the plot:

Their likes and dislikes in literature were sufficiently similar to give them similar philosophies about life, and sufficiently dissimilar to provide food for animated discussions. It was only when their talk veered to Harlem that they found themselves sitting at opposite poles. […] Raymond prided himself on knowing all the ins and outs of Harlem. […] But he was disgusted with the way everyone sought to romanticize Harlem and Harlem Negroes. And it annoyed him considerably when Stephen began to do likewise. (18)

Dialogues, either in reported or direct speech, are the reverse of the typical repartee that Ray and Paul have with Sam. Repartee is based on calculated misunderstanding and willful secrecy, which allow for queer rudeness to function. Instead, dialogues aim at dispelling ambiguities and encourage identity play. Yet, the intimacy between Ray and Steve does not rest on a fertile enough ground to allow a creative interaction to last between them. As Ganter has observed, “Thurman believed that the desire to play with alternative identity was one’s ticket to pass the bounds of social conformity and proceed into the creative world of the mind” (91). It is out of an insistent interrogation as to why identity play is unsteady in the Manor and impossible outside of it that, in Thurman’s novel, the fiction of an enclosed/open spatial duality is used. Indeed, desire (desire of identity playing; desire of making art; or desire of the other) is more easily thematized and analyzed in enclosed settings.

33The microeconomics of the buffet flat in Infants is a particularly effective way to show how spectacle intersected with gender and race in the cultural landscape of 1920s Harlem. Talking about Harlem “buffet flats,” George Chauncey observes:

Although “faggots” were casually integrated into many lower-class social settings, they also became part of the spectacle at some of the local resorts. They played a particularly prominent role in some of the neighborhood’s buffets flats. […] The flats were private apartments whose tenants made their rooms available to paying guests. They had originally developed to meet the needs of black travelers denied space at white hotels, but developed a wilder reputation in the 1920s, functioning as virtual speakeasies, where drinking, gambling, and other illegal activities could take place. The most notorious offered their customers live sex shows as well as prostitutes. (250)

34Taking inspiration from the buffet flat and the rent party, the scene of the “Donation Party” (Thurman 107) proves that, in Thurman’s narrative, the Manor and more generally closed locations, such as a studio or an apartment, not only participate in the construction of closeted “images of desire” (Ganter 92), but enclosed locations also authorize the narrator to better study liminality, by zooming in on the dynamics of the public social forces that Infants charts:

The party had reached new heights. The lights in the basement had been dimmed, and the reveling dancers cast grotesque shadows on the heavily tapestried walls. Color lines had been completely eradicated. Whites and blacks clung passionately together as if trying to effect a permanent merger. Liquor, jazz music, and close physical contact had achieved what decades of propaganda had advocated with little success.

Here, Raymond thought, as he continued his search for Stephen, is social equality. Tomorrow all of them will have an emotional hangover. They will fear for their sanity, for at least they have had a chance to do openly what they only dared to do clandestinely before. This, he kept repeating to himself, is the Negro renaissance, and this is about all the whole damn thing is going to amount to. (115, my emphasis)

  • 7 During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because of its use in the minstrel shows, the (...)

35In Thurman’s novel, power relations are only “speakable” and “manageable” within a closed, private space. The “Donation Party” is the sole moment, besides the incipit, when “lights” are once again “dim” in the Manor. The “grotesque shadows” of the dancers allude to the fact that, if completely illuminated, the dancers might appear once again as stage “coons” and minstrels.7 The narrator is persuaded that this scene, where “whites and blacks [cling] passionately together as if trying to effect a permanent merger,” will be disturbing and provoke an “emotional hangover” once recollected in daylight. Indeed, Steve decides to leave the Manor for good on the night of the Donation Party. Sickened by an accumulation of skirmishes with Aline and Janet, both jealous of his attentions, Steve explains his departure from the Manor in a letter to Ray:

You know my opinion on the usual run of whites who go in for Harlem. I saw myself a suggestion of that and it sickened me. But that’s minor […]. I have lived recently in a suddenly precipitated fear that I had become unclean because of my association. So complex and far-reaching has this fear become that I rushed in a panic to a doctor recently to be examined. I feared, unreasonably, […] that Aline and Janet were unclean and that I had become contaminated, diseased. (119)

36The liminal quality of the space of the Manor shows that, inside it, individuals are always liable to be transformed into something else. Identity play loses here its positive qualities as a form of artistic creativity. Steve expresses his fear of being turned into a sick, possibly monstrous body, coherently with Ray’s worry that the bearings of the Manor are always exposed to a maddening external scrutiny. The artists’ apartment is in fact a porous space. As Steve can be contaminated by his proximity with Aline or Janet in the Manor, the Manor is in turn exposed to nauseating mutability. The lights of the “exterior” white regime of visibility, as well as the circulation of white desires that overperform blackness, are responsible for these sick metamorphoses. In his answer to Steve, Ray acknowledges the failure of their companionship and remarks that the environment of Harlem is indeed “enough to provoke almost any type of mental or physical malady.” However, Ray adds, he needs to “surround [himself] with individuals, unusual individuals who for the most part are more than a trifle insane. Unless buttressed by stimulating personalities.” Ray is “lost, no matter how despicable or foolish those personalities may appear in retrospect” (120). While Paul claims his queer identity with the ambiguous appropriation of a slur encoded in the racialized and antiblack cultural system of the time, Ray claims his individuality and queer identity by appropriating insanity as foolishness, itself an ambiguous reference to the minstrel masks.

The Public Space as an Uncontrollable “Coon” Stage

37In Infants, the theatrical function of public space shows when and where the Black bohemian’s ability to monitor the circulation of identities begins to fade, to the point of disappearing. The spectacular mechanisms of the press in the 1920s played an important role in the rigid theatricality of public space. In the novel too, the theatrical architecture of public institutions, such as the courthouse and the jail, partakes in arresting and fixing the urban circulation of identities and bodies. As it has been argued, the minstrel-like theater into which the private space of the Manor is humorously transformed represents a liminal stage of masks, which the Black bohemian artist can somehow manipulate. Instead, with the public space and its theatrical architecture, the novel shifts the Black bohemian from the position of actor to that of puppet, passive spectator, and “coon” (Thurman 129).

38Ray, Paul, and the rest of the crowd in the Manor are in the spotlight of the press after the jailing of Pelham. Pelham is accused and found guilty of the rape of Gladys, the underage daughter of the “actress lady” (94) who occupies one of the apartments in the building. After the arrest, Dr. Parkes (modeled on Alain Locke) shows Ray a “clipping” from the

New York Call […] Harlem’s most respectable news weekly. There was, it went on to say, a house in Harlem which had for its residents a number of writers and artists. […] They should be taken aside and reasoned with, then if this failed the white light of publicity should be shed upon their activities and their innate viciousness and duplicity exposed to the world.” (122, my emphasis)

  • 8 The “Pig Woman” is modeled after a New Jersey resident who had managed to make a name for herself ( (...)

39Public exposure of the Niggeratti Manor to the “white lights” of the press is synonymous with the Manor losing control of its own Black, queer, liminal theater of identifications. Through the figure of the “Pig Woman,” another resident and a witness of the facts, the novel makes explicit the role of the press as a spectacular machine that is astutely exploited by actors conscious of how to control or capitalize on their roles in the public scene.8 The Niggeratti are not part of this press-savvy crowd. The regime of visibility imposed by the press is also a system where time is accelerated, dictated by the rhythm of a consumerist industry, and modulated by the codes of propriety and anti-vice morality. Arguably, this same regime is the one which promotes Harlem as a Black, queer, and artistic Mecca that can be vicariously consumed by the white public. During one of his moments of self-questioning, Ray considers that:

he was wont to pervert rather than to train and cultivate his difference. It was something to be paraded rather than something to be utilized essentially. […] The struggle to free himself from race consciousness had been hailed before actually accomplished. The effort to formulate a new attitude toward life had become a seeking for a red badge of courage. That which might have emerged normally, if given time, had been forcibly and prematurely exposed to the light. (91)

40The accelerated rhythm to which the Black bohemian artist is exposed when he is out of the enclosed “stage” of the Manor contributes to the loss of control of the regime of visibility that organizes and structures social relations. We should remember, however, that this very regime is not fully mastered inside the Manor either. Towards the end of the novel, Ray evaluates the role he and Paul have played in trusting Pelham’s wisdom more than they should have:

Raymond remembered now with a tinge of regret how he and Paul had once questioned Pelham about his sex life, and twitted unmercifully when he had declared himself to be an uninitiate.

“You are repressed,” they had cried. “A man of your age with no sexual experience is liable to develop all sorts of neuroses and complexes. You’re inhibited and should let yourself go.” He had let himself go. And, as a result of their advice, had become, in the unintelligent eyes of the law and the public at large, a vile creature deserving little consideration. […] He was now a convict, and in Pelham’s simple mind, nothing could be more disastrous and degrading. (153)

41The tone of the passage parodies the pretensions of avant-gardist discourses on sexuality, which Ray and Paul have embraced and reproduced in the Manor. This is undertaken with the same candidness with which Eustace claims to become a classical music player, Bull a successful illustrator, and Pelham a poet in segregated New York. Sexuality is a script with which the Black bohemian can partly juggle in front of the white decadent patron, but which he cannot master in front of the sensationalist press and the “unintelligent eyes of the law.” On the contrary, he seems to lose all capacity to speak and organize sense. Ray’s visit to the courthouse where Pelham is judged shows exactly that. The courthouse is mapped according to a fixed distribution of roles in space. The architectural description combines in the text with a sensorial palette, which builds up a sense of compression and disorientation:

The courtroom was compact and dreary. The electric lights on the sides of the wall and those depending from the ceiling did little to dispel the room’s depressive gloom. Seedy proletarians of all races occupied the benches and chairs. A towering policeman with a flaming red face guarded the entrance door […]. Near the rear of the room was a railed in enclosure for the press and lawyers. The judge’s bench loomed in front of this, separated by a passageway, which led to a prisoner’s pen […].

A court stenographer and two clerks were seated at a table in front of the judge’s throne. […] The magistrate was at his post, strabismic, formidable. There was a deal of noise and chattering. […] No one could distinguish what was being said. (95-96)

42In the building, Ray/the Black bohemian is disoriented by the props, lights, hierarchized actors, and indistinguishable sounds of the room. Here, the metaphor of the theater stage liquefies—as does Pelham under the pressure of trial, “furtively weeping his eyes and cheeks with his black beret” (97)—and subsequently solidifies into a scene of fixed roles that play out the prearranged scenario of a punitive administration of justice:

The procession arranged itself in front of the judge’s bench. The actress lady was weeping. The girl stood by, an awkward adolescent, bewildered and frightened. There was much interchange of talk, then the judge looked out over the lawyer’s pew and made an announcement. […] There was much more talk, and many hysterical outbursts on the part of the actress lady who held the spotlight and starred through the entire proceedings. Finally it was over. Pelham was led to the prisoners’ pen […]. The police woman led the silent girl and her weeping mother back into the consultation room. […] A new group appeared. The pageant was continuing. (97)

43The text never tells what the judge and the accusers say, nor what the continuous “talk” and “outbursts” in the courtroom are about. The reader is immersed in a confusing sensorial experience of noises that do not reveal or clarify anything: “Ray led the way out of the courtroom. His companions followed him into the street, silent, perplexed, knowing no more than they had the night before” (97). The court makes the roles of the actors unambiguous by assigning them to a rigid script, as the magistrate delivers an inaudible verdict. In so doing, the court makes it impossible to reverse or resist hegemonic representations and discourses, which then trickle down to the populace through a hetero-directed enforcement of the law.

44This is how the court expels the Black queer actor and his narratives from the stage. Now, the Black bohemian is little by little fixed as both a rigid mask and a spectator on the stage of the court. Ray’s decision to go and visit Pelham at the Tombs, where the painter is jailed, is presented as an “experiment” against the sickening and silencing sense stirred by the “grim outlines of [the] city prison, etched in a shadowed canyon of skyscrapers, […] repulsive to view and forbidding to enter” (125). Unlike the chapter that narrates the court hearing, where the focalization is almost akin to that of an omniscient and extradiegetic narrator, the description of Ray’s visit to the prison repeatedly shifts the focus between the perspectives of the narrator and Ray. This narrative strategy shows the Black queer artist’s attempt to regain control of voice and agency over and against the discourses and spaces that have come to organize the events (and bodies) in the plot. However, Ray’s experiment proves untenable, and what he faces in the jail is a grotesque reversal of the orgiastic dance at the rent party:

Steel gates clanged shut behind him. Four guards marked his line of progress. A register book was thrust for him to sign. […]

Raymond was placed between the Irish mother of an incriminated policeman, and the Jewish sweetheart of an Italian gangster. […] Couples trying to kiss through the screen. Others caressing its meshed surface, striving for a feel of the flesh on the other side. […] Raymond’s head began to reel. The scene was phantasmagorical, unreal, oppressing. The room a lethal chamber. The people flabby puppets jingling at the end of strings over which a master hand had lost control. (126)

45Through the focalization of Raymond, the phenomenological experience of the prison becomes the stiffening core of the Black bohemian’s verbal articulation. The theater stage, already rigidified in the courthouse spectacle, is here irretrievably substituted with a suffocating puppet theater. The intimate, fleshy interactions between prisoners and visitors are impossible, chaotic, arrested, and made grotesque by the molar architecture of the prison. In this “phantasmagorical, unreal, oppressing” place, Pelham is reduced to the condition of a confused “baby” who incessantly repeats “I ain’t done nothin’. I ain’t done nothin’” (126). Witnessing such a spectacle as a helpless actor, Raymond finally capitulates:

Raymond could stand no more. He felt dizzy, faint. His ears hummed with disparate echoes, jumbled, monotonous and insistent. He perspired freely as if in a sweat box. The din enveloped him, became a crushing vise, enfeebling his mind and senses. And on the other side of the screen, Pelham continued his hysterical monologue. Raymond could stand no more. (127)

46The failure of Raymond’s experiment to overcome the crushing nausea of the “grim outlines of [the] city prison” leads him out “once more in the street,” where “the fresh air and the intermittent shafts of the skyscraper-obstructed sunshine were tonic in their effect” (127). Raymond “wanted to be in the open, to be away from constricting walls, jabbering people, and ear deafening noises. But the streets afforded a poor sanctuary” (127). The Black bohemian is once again submerged by sensory experiences that he repeatedly fails to control and organize:

The sidewalks were crowded. Raymond walked in confused circles. He had lost all sense of direction. Excruciating pains racked his head. The conflicting currents of pedestrians pushed him first one way and then another […]. The buildings on the opposite side of the street leered from their multitudinous windows, and leaned precariously […]. (128)

47It is at this point of radical loss of sense and direction that Ray becomes one with the city, as his body merges with the walls of a building he is standing next to:

He pressed harder and harder against the surface of the building. After what seemed hours of effort, it gave away, and his body began to penetrate into its stone. He became chilled. The buildings across the way toppled crazily downward. Let them fall. He was safe in his cranny. The protective stone had entombed him. He had achieved Nirvana, had finally found a sanctuary, finally found escape from the malevolent world that sought to destroy him. He sank back into his protective nook. The opening through which he had bored closed as if by magic and shut him out from insensate chaos. Oblivion resulted. His body slumped to the pavement, lay inert, lifeless, and was booted by the careless, rushing feet of passing pedestrians. (128)

48The process of merging with the city after he experienced the city “slipping away” under his feet repositions Ray’s body in an imaginary enclosed space, where the “protective stone” grants “escape from the malevolent world that sought to destroy him.” The crisis produced by the uncontrollable theatricality of urban public space gives way to Ray’s hospitalization. Once he recovers his senses, Ray is returned to the degraded role of a simple “coon” that acts passively, like a puppet:

“How’s the coon?” It was an unfamiliar male voice.

“He’s coming out of it. Must be epileptic.” A woman’s voice penetrated the fog. Raymond opened his eyes. An immense calcimined ceiling arched over him. […] A disembodied hand appropriated his wrist […]. His wrist was wrenched from her restraining hand. The nurse smiled, as did the interne standing by her side. (129, my emphasis)

Conclusion: All the Movements Which Theater Captures in Infants of the Spring

49In Infants of the Spring, the mobility of words across urban spaces emphasizes the constant transfer of designations, denominations, and cultural identities between groups. Insult and slur are central examples of it. The novel deploys insult to explore both identity and space as objects that can be shifting and unstable, yet suddenly become fixed and impermeable. In the novel, the metaphor of the theater makes visible the regime of conflicting injunctions and temporalities under which Black bohemian artists operated in 1920s Harlem. Enclosed, private spaces such as the Black artists’ Manor allow the narrator to explore and creatively manipulate these injunctions, and produce polemical cultural codifications of the modern New Negro masculine identity. The novel shows that depending on how power is distributed, identity produced, and consent performed, the subversiveness of the Black bohemian posture is prone to failure or success—though, most often, to failure. Paul commits suicide, Steve leaves the Manor, which is in turn transformed into a girl workers’ residence, and Ray is dismissed as a “coon.” Therefore, the metaphor of the theatrical stage also serves to map the “straightening” directions towards which the Black queer body might push or be violently pushed in the urban setting, towards moments of failure or blockage in the process of identity play. In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed talks about straightening as opposed to queer orientations. A straightening orientation implies that a body is put in line, forced into a normalizing trajectory. In Infants, Paul and Ray force upon Pelham an orientation that can put the young painter in line with the supposedly liberated sexual mores and identities of the Manor: they force a straightening orientation upon Pelham. As the narrator notes when he is arrested: “[Ray] felt that he and his friends were more or less responsible for Pelham’s current difficulties” (Thurman 125).

50It is the specific genre of the minstrel show that, through its inherent ambiguity and ambivalence, the narrator chooses to investigate Black bohemian aesthetics. More precisely, the use that Infants makes of this genre allows to question Black bohemian creative play with alternative, mobile identity as an intricate experience of the “limit” (Ganter 97) in the segregated United States of the 1920s.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1 As I will show in due time, in Infants of the Spring, the word queer conveys a peculiar polysemy, encoding at times homoeroticism, cross racial affects, or black bohemianism.

2 I use the lettering “Niggerat/ti” because, as I will explain later, both spellings, “Niggeratti” and “Niggerati,” existed at the time and the difference is significant for my analytic purpose.

3 Observing the influence of Gurdjieff’s thought on Thurman’s philosophy of race, Amritjit Singh writes: “Thurman—interested as he was in the internal processes of achieving racial transcendence—took Gurdjieff quite seriously for a while.” Thurman became familiar with Gurdjieff’s ideas thanks to the “workshops” on this author organized by Jean Toomer in Harlem (Singh and Scott 10).

4 Wallace Thurman, Aunt Hagar’s Children, quoted in Singh and Scott (10).

5 The caricatured figures of “comic buffoons or romanticized Noble Savages” (Toll 26), as well as the use that these figures make of vernacular speeches, sermons, songs, and spoonerisms are elements of the minstrel show convention, that are used in Infants of the Spring.

6 I could not find any reference to real-life persons to decode this character.

7 During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because of its use in the minstrel shows, the word “coon” acquired a specifically racist connotation, as it named an antiblack performance of race (e.g., the minstrel character of the “Zip Coon”). Sometimes, this term referred to a performance of race which was looked at through an antiblack gaze (e.g., the so called “coon songs” and the way some African American musicians used them in the late nineteenth century). In the following section I will show that Infants of the Spring also constructs its tragicomic satire by using this word and its alienating polysemy.

8 The “Pig Woman” is modeled after a New Jersey resident who had managed to make a name for herself (and a small business around it) by claiming to be the key witness of a largely advertised crime in the early 1900s.

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Référence électronique

Elisa Cecchinato, « Infants of the Spring (1932): Cutting across the Stage of Harlem’s Black Bohemia »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21933 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21933

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Elisa Cecchinato

Université Gustave Eiffel, LISAA

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