Langston Hughes on Harlem in the 1920s

Passage from "The Big Sea" by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

A poet, novelist, and playwright, Langston Hughes was one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. In the following passage from his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes describes how Harlem became a tourist destination for white New Yorkers during the 1920s.

Notice how his predominately paratactic style (along with his reliance on series in paragraphs four and five) gives the writing a casual, conversational flavor. (For another perspective on Harlem in the 1920s, see "The Making of Harlem," by James Weldon Johnson.)

When the Negro Was in Vogue

from The Big Sea* by Langston Hughes

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo.

The Negroes said: "We can't go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won't even let us in your clubs." But they didn't say it out loud--for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.

Some of the owners of Harlem clubs, delighted at the flood of white patronage, made the grievous error of barring their own race, after the manner of the famous Cotton Club. But most of these quickly lost business and folded up, because they failed to realize that a large part of the Harlem attraction for downtown New Yorkers lay in simply watching the colored customers amuse themselves. And the smaller clubs, of course, had no big floor shows or a name band like the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington usually held forth, so, without black patronage, they were not amusing at all.

Some of the small clubs, however, had people like Gladys Bentley, who was something worth discovering in those days, before she got famous, acquired an accompanist, specially written material, and conscious vulgarity. But for two or three amazing years, Miss Bentley sat, and played a big piano all night long, literally all night, without stopping--singing songs like "St. James Infirmary," from ten in the evening until dawn, with scarcely a break between the notes, sliding from one song to another, with a powerful and continuous under beat of jungle rhythm. Miss Bentley was an amazing exhibition of musical energy--a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard--a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm. . . .

But when the place where she played became too well known, she began to sing with an accompanist, became a star, moved to a larger place, then downtown, and is now in Hollywood. The old magic of the woman and the piano and the night and the rhythm being one is gone. But everything goes, one way or the other. The '20s are gone and lots of fine things in Harlem night life have disappeared like snow in the sun--since it became utterly commercial, planned for the downtown tourist trade, and therefore dull.

Selected Works by Langston Hughes

  • The Ways of White Folks, fiction (1934)
  • Emperor of Haiti, play (1936)
  • The Big Sea, autobiography (1940)
  • Simple Speaks His Mind, fiction (1950)
  • I Wonder as I Wander, autobiography (1956)
  • Short Stories of Langston Hughes (1996)

* The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes, was originally published by Knopf in 1940 and reprinted by Hill and Wang in 1993.