Pittsburgh Courier, November 1946.
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Photos and Newspaper Clippings from the Tolson archive.

The Pan-African-Americanism of Melvin B. Tolson

Tyrone Williams

      The modernist poet Melvin B. Tolson, perhaps best known for his anti- and neo-Eliot epic, A Harlem Gallery: Book 1: The Curator, a work which has also—and correctly—been read as both an anti- and pro-Harlem Renaissance diatribe (in every sense of that word), encapsulates the tensions attendant to all the modernist black poets (including Robert Hayden) who attempted to find their niche along or between the borders of a "new" black consciousness (signaled by the Harlem Renaissance) and a "modernism" being consolidated in academia under the cover of the New Criticism.1 On the one hand, Tolson's commitment to his students at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas (e.g., his work with the debate team, celebrated in the Denzel Washington-produced movie, "The Great Debaters"), his "decision" to not move to NYC (unlike his Missouri-born compatriot, Langston Hughes), his belief that his poetry "alone" (a central tenet of the new criticism) constituted "the man" he had been, is laudable within the epoch of High Romanticism.2 On the other hand, Tolson's belief in "black progress," his cultivation of himself as a kind of Du Boisian "race man," undercut, or at least hampered, the possibility of him belonging to a modernist tradition already re-envisioning itself as "internationalist" (race, gender and ethnicity reduced, like "history," to "background" or "intrinsic" information). For Tolson imagined his poetry as part of an emerging black "nation" without borders even as it privileged certain geographical sites—Liberia, Harlem, Marshall, etc—as "touchstones" of Alain Locke's "New Negro" (which did not include a number of Harlem Renaissance artists, e.g., Zora Neale Hurston) and the Black Arts Movement's notion of "black consciousness." Tolson does not imagine his black nation as Pan-African, with its underlying anti- or non-European premises. What links Liberia, historically black colleges, black forensics and black modernist poetry, for Tolson, is precisely Pan-African-American hybridism. In a stance that would be reversed by an incipient Afrocentricity defining one sector of 1960s "black power," Tolson understands the Negro, a product of Western modernity, as the ur-African of a modern "Africa"; for him, "back to Africa" would not mean a return to "roots" but a new literal and figurative "civilizing" mission, a kinder and gentler colonial project.

I. Land Struggles and Family Roots

     Precisely what the career and life of Melvin B. Tolson means has vexed, and will, for the foreseeable future, continue to vex, the literary establishment.3 For example, how are we to understand Tolson's "shift" from the populist poetry of his first two books to the difficult, allusion-ridden poetry of the last work he himself organized, The Harlem Gallery: Book 1: The Curator (1965), just before his death? Was Tolson so enthralled by the call to "make it new," articulated and demonstrated in the essays and poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, that he "sold out" the populist poetics of the Harlem Renaissance? Or did Tolson try to find a "third way" to a new poetics, navigating his poetic enterprise between the Scylla and Charybydis of Anglo-American modernism and African-American populism? Insofar as the debate around Tolson's work still rages, there is no consensus within the African-American literary community, much less the literary community at large, about the value of his poetry. Still, excepting Joy Flasch's book-length appreciation, Melvin B. Tolson (1972), it is only in recent years that critical commentators--e.g., Michael Berube, Craig Werner, and Aldon Nielsen--have started to reread and argue for the revolutionary, if incomplete, African-American modernism of Tolson's poetic project.4 Tolson's particular iteration of modernism is thoroughgoing; it moves seamlessly from his various modes of writing and his pedagogy to his political life as a citizen.5 Relying largely on Flasch's biography, I outline below some of the pertinent aspects of Tolson's biography.

      Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was born February 6, 1898, to Reverend Alonzo Tolson and Lera Tolson. Melvin B. Tolson's father was, as his grandfather had been, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. His father, who was fond of discussing Western philosophy during fishing trips, expected Tolson to follow him into the ministry and was disappointed when his son chose a different vocation. Tolson's mother was a mixed-breed Cherokee Indian whose own father had been killed for resisting enslavement. Along with a family friend, Mrs. George Markwell, a white woman who made her library available to the precocious youth, Tolson had the early benefit of seeing academic knowledge and learning embodied in and reflected by his immediate surroundings.

      The family moved from Missouri to Oklahoma and then to Iowa, but wherever he went Tolson was a popular classmate. In high school he captained the football team, participated in the debating contests and directed plays for the school's theater.

      In 1919 Tolson entered Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee. He transferred to Lincoln University, the nation's oldest historically black college, in Oxford, Pennsylvania. In 1923, his senior year, he met his future wife, Ruth Southall. They were married after his graduation and the couple moved to Marshall, Texas where Tolson had secured his first teaching post, at Wiley College.

Free Space—Oral Power

     Although he continued writing full-length and one-act plays, including "The Moses of Beale Street," "Southern Front," "Bivouac On The Santa Fe," and "The House By The Side Of The Tracks"; fiction (three unpublished novels, Beyond The Zaretto (1924), The Lion And The Jackal (1939) and All Aboard (1952)); a column entitled "Caviar and Cabbage" for the Washington Tribune from 1937-1940; and poetry at Wiley, it was as the debating team coach that Tolson's name became well-known throughout the Southwest. Putting his students through relentless drills, Tolson's debate teams won nationwide championships for ten consecutive years. All the while Tolson was still writing poetry, producing a three hundred-plus page manuscript, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, in 1932, shortly after completing the course work for his Masters of Arts degree at Columbia University in New York City. Though Tolson had modeled his poems on Edgar Lee Master's popular Spoon River Anthology, he could not find a publisher who believed in the marketability of the manuscript. These early poems would not be published as a book until 1979, some thirteen years after Tolson's death.

     Despite these setbacks Tolson did receive some encouragement in 1940 when his poem, "Dark Symphony," won a National Poetry Contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition in Chicago and was published in the Atlantic Monthly. The praise and exposure it received contributed to Tolson's securing a publisher for a collection of poetry, Rendezvous with America (1944), which included the prize-winning poem.

Turning Points and Conundrums

      1947 was an important year for Tolson. He left Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, for Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, (just north of Oklahoma City) where he would remain until his retirement in 1964. Tolson was also named Poet Laureate of Liberia and commissioned to write a poem celebrating the centennial of the country's birth. That led to the Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, published as a book in 1953. This work showcases Tolson's shift from the "low" modernist, free verse directness and linear narrative of Rendezvous to "high" modernist, non-linear indirection, characterized by obscure allusiveness, dramatic monologues, puns, and semi-scholarly footnotes.

     Tolson had intended to revise his early manuscript, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, but felt dissatisfied with its populist lyricism. He'd been studying the modernists, in particular Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Hart Crane, and decided to revamp the project entirely. He planned to produce an epic, five-book, history of the black man's journey in America that would, even more so than the Libretto, demonstrate how well he had digested--and superseded--the high modernist poets. However, he only managed to complete the first volume before his death in 1966.

     Tolson, who died as the Black Arts Movement was in its ascendancy, had been criticized as excessively pedantic by some BAM members upon the 1965 publication of his proto-Modernist masterpiece, A Harlem Gallery: Book 1: The Curator. Responding to poet Karl Shapiro's well-meaning, if misleading, introduction in which he asserts that Tolson "writes and thinks in Negro," critic Sarah Webster Fabio argued that Tolson's "language is most certainly not 'Negro' to any significant degree. The weight of that vast, bizarre, pseudo-literary diction is to be placed back into the American mainstream where it rightfully and wrong-mindedly belongs."6 As Rita Dove notes in her introduction to Harlem Gallery and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson, a collection of all of Tolson's published and unpublished poetry, this criticism of Tolson's literary grandiloquence remains blind to another Tolson, the Tolson of the dozens, "street" language, black dialect, and wry blues witticisms.7

II. Citizen Tolson

     If we are forced to choose between these two Tolsons (and there are more Tolsons awaiting the careful reader), we are confronted, once again, with the confounding sediment of argument after argument over the issue of black "authenticity," the questions of who and what constitutes authentic "blackness." These questions, it should be noted, are not the same as whom or what constitutes an authentic "Negro," since the corollary to whom or what is authentically black is that inauthenticity resides in the Negro or in that which is Negroid. Fabio's qualification of Shapiro's term—those scare-quotes around Negro say, perhaps, it all even as they also say more than all, more than what Fabio intends to circumscribe as the totality of Negro diction—suggests a breach between generations and ethnicities, between Tolson/Shapiro (and we can add Ellison, Hayden and others to the list) and Fabio/Baraka et al, which is not to include all proponents of the Black Arts Movement. This breach is also ideological insofar as "Negro" is an anthropological term designating ethnicity and race while "black" is a political term designating, ideally, a Pan-African solidarity that implicitly sutures the ruptures of the African Diaspora. While Negro had, at best, only a pseudo-scientific foundation inasmuch as its coinage coincides with the Enlightenment in general and the rise of the "scientific" field of anthropology in particular, the term, nonetheless, resisted deployment as a general slur. In fact, it was the absence-of-all-colors "black" that functioned as a slur for whites and blacks up until, and beyond, the 1960s. As we know all too well, the expropriation and re-denotation of "black" by proponents of both Black Power and the Black Arts Movement served as a rallying cry across the United States of America during the 1960s and 1970s, encapsulated best, perhaps, in James Brown's all-too-timely, "Say It Loud (I'm Black And Proud)." And in another reversal, Negro, heretofore a functional, if limited, term of anthropology, became, for the first time in its history, a viable candidate as a slur. It was as though because it had never been sufficiently ambiguous to be used as a slur, it was, prima facie, suspect. And what was suspected was precisely its innocuous, if not altogether innocent, past, its neutrality, its "scientific" status as a passive, inert, "objective" descriptor, the same values that would be projected upon Negroes themselves as pre-blacks who were, variously, accomodationists, integrationists, assimilationists—in brief, Uncle Toms. Black was—and by implication, blacks were—on the contrary, active, volatile, partisan, even if, during its long history, black had functioned primarily as a negative term. In fact, the long history of negation it seemed to represent in the West made black the perfect term for negation. For once its negativity was negated, the repercussions or, better still, domino effects would, it was hoped, retroactively unsettle the entire foundation of Western civilization to the extent its ground presupposed its unstable, non-dialectical, absolute "opposite," figured, in one of its forms, as "black." A concurrent moment of negation necessitated the undoing of all "positive" facets of Western civilization, including all Negroes, collapsed, in one of its manifestations, into the figure of a literary character, Uncle Tom. The simultaneous negation of a negation and negation of an affirmation, as a general procedure, had the effect of establishing negation as a characteristic feature of black authenticity. Thus inner city poverty and crime, for example, were reread as conscious and unconscious modes of resistance to, negations of, materialism and "straight" living, the presumed hallmarks of white culture. Authenticity would henceforth reside with a black Volk, denizens of ghettoes by choice (proletariat) or circumstance (lumpen proletariat). The supplemental Marxist terminology reflects the way some segments of the Black Power and Black Arts movements—e.g., the Black Panthers or Symbionese Liberation Army—relied on both class- and race-based analyses to shape and orient their understanding of the history and future of the United States.

     So, to restate Rita Dove's question: how is Tolson both a "race man" and a sellout if we read him through the lens of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement? Is it possible to read him outside those lenses without Karl Shapiro's reductionism or Allen Tate's Platonism? In their introductory remarks to Tolson's second and third published books, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and The Harlem Gallery (1965), Tate and Shapiro, respectively, focus on the extent to which Tolson's constructivist, experimental, poems constitute "Negro" poetry. Both affirm Tolson poems as "Negroid" but for different reasons. For Tate, writing about Libretto, Tolson is "more" a Negro than, for example, the Harlem Renaissance poets because, paradoxically, he focuses on poetry as an aesthetic form first, as an ethnic soapbox second. When Tate writes that he reads Tolson "not because [he] is a Negro but because he is a poet, not because the poem has a 'Negro subject' but because it is about the world of all men," he welcomes Tolson to the pantheon of "high" modernist poets under the aegis of a revisionist New Criticism he himself helped shaped.8 This "internationalist" New Criticism differed significantly, if not sharply, from its earlier incarnation which Tate co-husbanded.

     As members of the Vanderbilt-based Fugitive Poets, Tate, along with John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and others, saw themselves as refugees from modernity, understood not only as revved-up industrialized capitalism but also as incipient political and, to a lesser extent, cultural democracy. Like Ezra Pound and, somewhat more problematically, T.S. Eliot, the Fugitive Poets were, to their way of thinking, internal exiles who longed for the resurrection of pre-modern hierarchies under which, they assumed, a patronage system would ensure the flowering of "culture." No longer left to the willy-nilly vagaries of an untutored citizenry, the arts could then serve as a hedge against vulgar materialism. Within the specific scope of the literary arts, "criticism" was adopted by the Fugitive Poets as a way out of the 19th century subjective impressionism that had characterized pedagogical analyses of literature in the old liberal arts colleges. Reacting to the instrumental uses to which scientific advancements had been put, Ransom and Tate argued that aesthetic truth was not propositional but intuitive, though this intuition had to be honed by deep immersion in the literary tradition, which meant reading and writing criticism and literature. Criticism thus served as part of the cultural wing of a general agrarianism poised to counterattack urbanization and its concomitant cult of the professional. Adverse to the implicit separation of powers of academic "professionalism" (the cultural analogue to the class-riddled disease of capitalism), the Fugitive Poets insisted that only creative writers in general, and poets in particular, could write criticism (the almost exclusive focus on the alchemical rites of poetry was meant to counter the rise of the more labor-intensive prose of the "democratic" novel).9

     This permutation of New Criticism was thus explicitly partial in its social and cultural orientation. However, the Fugitive Poets were not the only partisan activists reacting to the advent of industrial capitalism and its attendant materialism. Humanists, ecologists, feminists and Marxists of all stripes were also railing against the debilitating effects of capitalism—unemployment, domestic poverty, rapid urbanization, pollution, country-sides ravaged by strip-mining, etc. Dismayed by what they saw as the reduction of literary "aesthetics" to mere pretexts for "social science" readings, an early instance of what is today called the "politicization" of literature, the "new" New Critics, who were not necessarily Southern (though they include Ransom and Tate after their "professionalization" as university professors), began to shed the vestiges of Southern history, culture, etc. in order to emphasize the "objective," "transcendental," aspects of the art work. The foregrounding of "aesthetics" necessitated the concomitant reduction of history, society, etc. to "background" information. The subsequent success of this second version of New Criticism—it dominated the pedagogy of English and American literature faculty in American universities from the 1950's to the 1970's—can be attributed to its pedagogical facility. It was easy to do. Its teacher-friendly presuppositions relieved literature professors of the responsibility of inundating students with reams of history, sociology, aesthetic history, philosophy, etc. Instead, both teachers and students could "simply" read poems "cold," perform close readings to excavate possible "meanings," and then "guess" at their significance. Ironically, this reading-with-blinders strategy had the effect of reinforcing the very professorial authority supposedly anathema to the initial principles of New Criticism. To the extent the literature professor had some rudimentary knowledge of history, sociology, philosophy, etc., he—and most were, unsurprisingly, he—generally had some contextual information to inform his readings of poetry. This led to the by now common perception of poetry as a classroom "guessing game" in which the teacher sadistically withholds "the answer" while students, heads bent, staring at an incomprehensible puzzle of words, suffer quietly in their humiliation. Thus the "second" generation of New Critics achieved the first generation's goal of restoring poetry to its throne, but it did so at a heavy cost: it made poetry seem so rarified, so out of touch with the common reader, that it accelerated the marginalization of this literary genre, already being supplanted by the "rise of the novel," to say nothing of developing new media—film, television, music, radio, etc.

     Tate's introduction serves, then, a number of purposes. It ameliorates the implicit (and sometimes, explicit) racism in the agrarian/Fugitive Poets phase of New Criticism though, as Rita Dove notes, few black readers, much less Black Arts Movement artists and critics, bought it, seeing Tolson as an unwitting victim of, or naïve collaborator with, Tate's patronizing recuperation. At the same time the introduction ironically echoes the message—or offers one interpretation—of the Civil Rights Movement as facilitating the transcendence of race (and by implication, class, culture, gender, etc.) embedded in the principles of the Constitution, as though social and political history had finally caught up with the cultural prophecies of the second coming of New Criticism. Needless to add, the transcendence of race affirms by analogy the universal impartiality of art as understood and championed by revisionist New Criticism.

III. America to Africa

     Still, we have to wonder: does Tate's New Critical formulation have anything to do with the particular book it introduces, a book celebrating the founding of an "African" nation by African-American "pilgrims" (as the original book jacket calls them) at the behest of the American Colonization Society and other organizations, some headed by free Quakers and other white abolitionists, some headed by free African Americans and whites, and some by slave states (Virginia and Mississippi in particular) promoting the "voluntary' and "forced" emigration of slaves to West Africa? Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, commissioned by the cultural attaché of Liberia, Tolson's third volume of poetry (the second to be published during his lifetime), embraces the racial and social tensions of Liberia's genesis as quintessentially American. And because American culture was, and will have always been, for Tolson as it was for Ralph Ellison, African-American through and through, the "Africa-To-Be," as Tolson calls it in the Libretto, will also be, mutatis mutandis, African-American. Tolson does not ignore the Africa that actually exists in 1947, but it is telling what is said, and what is not said, about that extant Africa.

     Formally, the Libretto is significant because of its stylistic break from the traditional verse of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (completed around 1932) and Rendezvous with America (1944). Although enjambment still dominates the poetic line, the poem is self-consciously organized by Tolson on the basis of the Western diatonic scale. Each section "represents" a musical note of the octave, from "Do," "Re" "Mi," "Fa," to "Sol," "La," "Ti," "Do." For Tolson, the "rising" musical scale becomes, as narrative structure, the evolutionary story of Liberia, from its "tainted" origin as a haven from Western slavery to its future as a utopian model for other African countries. This developmental schema is reinforced at the linguistic level by repetition, dialectical opposition and the use of free verse and metrical verse stanza forms. That Tolson does not avail himself of any of the pentatonic scales characteristic of much indigenous African music (and certain European music, like that of Ireland and Scotland) is perhaps not telling in itself, but combined with Tolson's characteristic deployment of Greek and Roman myth, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the undercarriage of the Libretto is essentially Euro- American, and thus, African-American.

     The hybridity of Liberia's origins is thus replicated in the Libretto. Tolson imagines Liberia as a model for other African countries ("Le Premier des Noirs") just as he imagines African countries in toto ("The Parliament of African Peoples)" as a "United Nations Limited" which "signets forever/ the Recessional of Europe and/ trumpets the abolition of itself." That is, "The Futurafrique" supersedes American, and so, African-American culture, precisely because it lifts or sublates the contradictions embedded in the birth of a nation called America (declaring freedom and slavery in one fell swoop), in the birth of the new Negro ("a sort of seventh son…two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body"),10 even as it prepares its own abolition. Inasmuch as Liberia in 1947 cannot be reduced to a "micro-footnote in a bunioned book," it serves as "The lightning rod of Europe," "Mer licht for the Africa-to-Be." That is, the Liberia of 1947, unlike the Africa of 1947, is, "American genius uncrowned in Europe's charnel-house." The dialectics at work here, the dialectics to be overcome, sublated at the proleptic end of the poem, are made explicit at the end of the first section, the first "Do": "Liberia and not Liberia."

     Assuming that he actually read the text of the Libretto before writing his introduction to the poem, is it possible that Allen Tate simply missed Tolson's unmistakable Marxist terminology, to say nothing of the teleological Marxist history? It's as though Tate remains blind to "Do" and "Do," remains deaf to the overture and coda of these two C notes, swept up in the currency of a hyper-, if not over-, valued history. Or perhaps Tate's canny take on Tolson is truer to Tolson than we may first believe. I mentioned in passing that Tolson's view of American culture and history is similar to that of Ralph Ellison. It might be more accurate to say that Tolson extends Ellison's view of American culture and history to the world stage. For Ellison, the democratic vernacular that drives American history is African American; culture precedes politics (which is why Ellison was initially opposed to the Civil Rights Movement and other "social engineering" strategies). Tolson proclaimed himself a Marxist; what that means for him is that African American culture represents one moment in the historical movement toward the withering away of all states. And as a good dialectician, Tolson understands that historical moments carry within them both the remains of a past that has been superseded as well as the seeds of a future nurtured by supplanted moments. African-American culture is, in 1947, one such moment. Just as the European colonists who landed at Plymouth Rock are the predecessors of the Americans who will eventually supersede then, the African-Americans who landed at Sierra Leone (before "acquiring" land just north of the West African country) are the predecessors of the Liberians who will eventually supersede them. Given the evolutionary schema that undergirds this African American brand of Marxism, we might be tempted to conflate Tolson with Tate insofar as the schema implies that, for Tolson, Liberia will become a country "more" African than other African countries precisely because it was founded and settled by African-Americans. Tolson's Liberia, like Tate's Negro, represents that which is grafted onto another life-form. What separates Tolson and Tate is precisely the relation of the graft to the "host" life-form—for which is this operation a life-saving procedure? Tolson's work implies that in both cases it is the host that benefits more than the guest. Liberia revitalizes the continent of Africa as the Negro revitalizes the country of America. Tate's ambivalent introduction implies—though it is sufficiently ambiguous to resist a definitive interpretation—that it is the guest, the Negro, who benefits. Tolson's Marxism stands at an indefinite, if not infinite, distance from Tate's Platonism: the universal is that toward which all particulars tend; the universal is that from which particulars emanate. And in both cases the universal is, of course, the residence of authenticity. For Tolson, then, authenticity is the receding horizon toward which world history tends; for Tate, authenticity is the matrix from which world history emanates.

IV. Back to America

     Twelve years later the assassination of Malcolm X would inspire a young Beat poet, LeRoi Jones, to change his name to Amiri Imamu Baraka, embrace Black Nationalism and initiate the Black Arts Movement and thus transform the landscape of American/African American literature. Poet Karl Shapiro had, however, already initiated his own mini-revolution against the New Criticism as it fortified itself behind the barricades of academia. One of two members of the Friends of the Library of Congress opposed to awarding the Bollingen Prize for Literature to Ezra Pound in 1949, Shapiro noted that the controversy generated by the event and subsequent fallout underscored not only the importance of his own ethnicity but, perhaps more significant, situated him against the New Critical dicta that emphasized "the text itself," rendering considerations of the author's personal biography in the evaluation of his or her art works as, for the most part, various fallacies.

     Shapiro's seemingly belated sense of his own Jewish ethnicity in relation to poetic practices and evaluations may account for his deliberate emphasis on the significance of Tolson's ethnicity in Shapiro's introduction to the Harlem Gallery.11 Shapiro argues that Tolson "writes and thinks in Negro." Shapiro, apparently trying to save Tolson from himself, dismisses or downplays Tolson's relationship to Anglo-American modernism. Perhaps Shapiro, writing at the beginning of the Black Arts Movement, felt Tolson's book-long poem was so arch, so pedantic, that the only way to make it pliable for a putative black readership was to emphasize, at the risk of exaggeration, Tolson's Negroid thinking and language. Although it may appear paradoxical to do so, emphasizing Tolson's thinking and writing as "Negro" was part and parcel with Shapiro's critique of tokenism elsewhere in the same introduction. Taking the almost exact stance as Tate, Shapiro argues that it is precisely language—not subject matter—that makes Tolson's work Negroid. However, while Tate sees this language as relatively transparent and thus accessible to all potential readers, Shapiro emphasizes its relative opacity—Tolson "writes and thinks in Negro…." Shapiro, one might surmise, protests too much. It's as though by emphasizing Tolson's connection to a linguistic community of Negro writers, critics and ordinary readers, Shapiro hopes to forestall the charge of elitism, of "talking white," against Tolson. Thus the critique of tokenism may have been partly motivated by Shapiro's perception—correct or not—that Tolson, hailed in 1953 as the "most" Negro of Negro poets by an Allen Tate, was now, in the early Sixties, writing as though he were the "least" Negro of Negro poets.12

V. The Great Debate

      Both Tate and Shapiro were taken to task by black and white commentators, Tate for his self-serving racism (Tolson is a poet because he writes like Eliot and Pound), Shapiro for his ignorance (Tolson's poetry could not be any less "Negro"). I want to suggest that Tolson's work is, in toto, a contribution to this "debate," one that embraces the complications of what it means to be an artist in America even as it undermines presumptions about what it means to be a "Negro" artist in America. More important, I want to suggest that Harlem Gallery is a contribution to the debate within the Black Arts Movement as much as it is a criticism of the narrowness of vision that characterized some tendencies within the movement. In this regard Tolson's prose fiction counterpart might be the idiosyncratic Ishmael Reed whose early novels (and definitive epic poem, "I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra") constitute, like Tolson's work, a critique of black and white American cultures while drawing on the various African and European classical mythologies underpinning both. This did not mean, however, that African and European folklore function as "correctives" to black and white American cultures, at least not for Tolson. In Harlem Gallery, Tolson's characters level damaging charges not only against the black middle class but also against the black militant and black artist.13

     As its title suggests, Tolson's last book of poetry published during his lifetime, is, structurally, modeled on his first one, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Although it was published posthumously in 1979, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits represents Tolson's earliest poetic style, largely influenced by the modernist populism of Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes. Simplicity of language and characterization are its prevailing attributes. As noted above, the concept of the "portrait" was taken from Edgar Lee Master's successful Spoon River Anthology, itself a pedestrian version of Amy Lowell's--as opposed to Ezra Pound's--"imagism," a poetics which de-emphasizes duration and narrative in favor of the moment and "snapshot" or "still life." Like Sandburg's and Hughes's working class sympathies, Tolson's leftist politics influenced the poetic technique he uses here. It is, essentially, Marxist-inspired social realism.

     In The Harlem Gallery, Tolson perfects the oblique invocations of classical learning and pedestrian colloquialisms that first appear in Libretto. Just as Libretto is organized according to the Western diatonic musical scale, so The Harlem Gallery is organized according to the Greek alphabet, beginning with "Alpha" and ending with "Omega." This alphabetical structure is replicated at the level of rhetoric itself. The Harlem Gallery is itself a debate, and as we know, forensics was a life-long interest of Tolson's, recently celebrated in the film "The Great Debaters." Forensics is the Euro-American analogue to the dozens sans the ad hominem sparring; this Negro art of the insult and put-down derives, of course, from certain African initiation rites. Thus, it is not surprising that The Harlem Gallery seems, at times, more interested in raising the rhetorical stakes, with staging a cacophony of pyrotechnics, than offering resolutions to the complex issues it invokes.14 Nonetheless, Tolson does conclude the book with a series of homilies, suggesting that he himself could not imagine a viable exit from the rhetorical, ethical and logical corner he'd painted himself into, the finesse of his brushstrokes notwithstanding.

     Organized primarily as a three-way debate between the gallery curator, Dr. Nkomo, and Hideho Heights, though other characters and other voices intrude, The Harlem Gallery presents a broad spectrum of opinions on social, class and racial issues. Among these issues is the very nature of "the Negro." Is he or she primarily African or primarily American? What is "Negro culture"? Is the Negro artist obligated to please a contemporary audience or should he or she risk oblivion by creating art for an audience that may never exist?

     Another major, unresolved tension in the work is the way it savages the black middle-class for aping white middle-class culture (the relevant text, cited several times, is sociologist E.F. Franklin Frazier's controversial The Black Bourgeoisie) while extolling the "Negro artist" who mixes African and European artistic traditions in order to raise the level of "Negro art." The difference in value Tolson assigns to black economic success and black artistic success is based on his cosmopolitanism, his belief in inclusion, in egalitarianism, at the level of aesthetic practice. For Tolson, a parochial art would be the cultural equivalent to capitalist self-interest. But in a context where black urban populations found themselves trying to "catch up" to their white counterparts, Tolson's rejection of individualistic self-interest on the economic front--and endorsement of apparent self-interest on the artistic front--placed him at odds with both the black bourgeoisie and black proletarian artists like Haki Madhabuhti, and Amiri Baraka, two significant members of the Black Arts Movement.

     To the extent that the difference between the positive values assigned the artist and the bourgeoisie depend, for Tolson, on the degree of syncretism each encapsulates, Tolson does not wholeheartedly embrace or reject the pioneering artist or middle-class aspirant. Still, the artist appears to be given greater latitude in his or her, more or less, isolated explorations than the self-interested middle-class person. Black art—that is, art created by Africans and those constituting the African Diaspora—is, apparently, intentionally for others, but the most advanced art is represented not by "black" art in general but by "Negro" art in particular. Though the book ends with an appeal to both "Black Boy" and "White Boy" for greater cultural and historical awareness—the sine qua non of cosmopolitanism—Tolson unapologetically privileges "Negro"—as opposed to "black"—culture. For Tolson, "black," as a synonym for Pan-Africanism, is an index of the African Diaspora and thus of modernity. He shares this understanding of the term with many proponents of the Black Arts Movement. However, Tolson reminds us that modernity cuts both ways: it is also an index of the Africanization of Europeans and those of European descent. The systematic denial of one-half of this relation constitutes the history of modernity. Within the United States, however, black also refers, for Tolson, writing at the beginning of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power insurgency, to two extreme phenomena: the black bourgeoisie who whitewash themselves by adopting white standards and values across the board and the black separatist who seeks to purify him- or her-self of all things and ideas "white." These extremes meet in the figure of the "race man" (Dr. Nkomo) and the militant (Hideho). However politically opposed, they share this denial of their European "ancestry," even if they have no actual European relatives. More pertinent to The Harlem Gallery, the race man and militant also share a distrust of, if not disgust with, the artist, who not only incorporates European, African, and Asian materials into his or her work but who also seeks to transcend the horizon of historical determinism by imagining a different world altogether.15

     However, if the Europeanization of those of African descent is one consequence and index of modernity, why privilege the Negro, that peculiar American result of modernization? Tolson is writing these poems when anti-colonial insurgencies and political dissent have been erupting across the African continent for at least a decade. Most significant for our purposes, a number of these revolutions and rebellions cited the Civil Rights Movement in particular and Negro American culture in general—especially rhythm and blues music—as inspirations for their movements. Tolson has solid historical justification for privileging the Negro American as the forerunner of modernity. And he has equally compelling reasons for privileging the Negro artist. Tolson's radical argument, which he shares with black literary figures ranging from Ralph Ellison to Ishmael Reed, is that the "new" Negro artist, the black modernist who has incorporated the folklore and traditions from Europe, Asia and Africa, is more akin to the ordinary Negro worker than he is to the bourgeoisie—black or white—or the artist of social realism.16 It is not the populist, the black artist whose works attempt to "represent," as we say today, that is to be championed. However counterintuitive it may seem, it is the erudite, overly pedantic, black artist who is most "like" the man or woman in the street.

     What links the pedestrian and the pedant is "ethnic irony" clothed in the prosaic or the grandiloquent, Tolson's gloss on and revision of one of the central tenets of New Criticism. Near the end of The Harlem Gallery, Tolson makes explicit reference to the second generation or permutation of New Criticism. A "janitor—an incognito/ex-chaplain from Alabama Christian College" offers a metaphor-ridden quip on history that the debaters—Hideoho, Nkomo, the Curator, etc.—cannot quite decode: "We chewed this quid a second time,/ for Black Boy often adds/ the dimension of ethnic irony/to Empson's classic seven." William Empson is best remembered for his classic text, Seven Types of Ambiguity, a work that offers a taxonomy of ambiguity as understood by the New Critics.17 Ambiguity is an essential attribute of "good" literature for the second generation of New Critics. Specifically, it refers to the neutralization of any "statement" by a "counterstatement" in a literary work of art. As we may recall, the New Critics were trying to offset political and social science readings of literature promulgated by humanists, Marxists, and others. These readings, which were traditional insofar as they situate the work of art in the world "outside" the text, necessarily tried to show that the work in question was "saying" something. For the New Critics, however, any work of art that attempted to say something was didactic, engaging in propaganda. Great, or even good, works of art "said nothing" precisely because they were ambiguous enough—a balance of statements and counterstatements—to generate a plurality of meanings. Tolson takes up this tenet of New Criticism in order to show how "ordinary" Negroes have already developed this rhetorical strategy, not for the sake of art but for the sake of survival. Dissembling, malingering, irony, ambiguity—these ethical and rhetorical devices describe the Negro and serve as one of the pillars of Negro "culture," one inextricable from the predominant culture. The intrinsic ambiguity of what it means to be "Negro," that argonaut/cyborg/monster of modern industrialism, chattel slavery and historical opportunism, means that the future of the nation remains open to interpretation, to various readings, like a good New Critical poem or novel. As the Negro goes, so goes the nation. The destiny of the United States is equivalent to the destiny of the Negro.


1. See, for example, Jon Woodson's intriguing thesis that Tolson's use of footnotes in Libretto for the Republic of Africa is meant to resituate modernism as a debate or, more pugnaciously, battle between its Anglo-American and African American incarnations. Jon Woodson, "Melvin B. Tolson and the Art of Being Difficult," R. Baxter, Ed., Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960.

2. As David Gold's essay, "'Nothing Educates Us Like A Shock': The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson," suggests, Tolson's life-long interest in rhetoric links the teacher and poet and accounts for Tolson's yoking together of disparate elements in his life and work. Gold's essay also raises, without engaging, the problem of tone as a function of rhetoric. Focusing on a passage from Harlem Gallery where Tolson describes the "Negro" as essentially a potpourri, Gold wonders why no one else sees the humor ("Was no one funny in the Sixties?" he asks) in Tolson's rhetoric. Raymond Nelson and Dolphin G. Thompson concur with Gold regarding Tolson's "humor," though a more accurate phrase for their assessments might be "gleeful satire." Michael Berube, emphasizing the rhetorical tensions within modernism per se, tends to see contradiction, not paradox, and thus the same passage is, for him, grim and sardonic. This conflict in how to read Tolson extends to the question of time in Harlem Gallery. Nelson reconciles Tolson's disjunctive use of different historical periods into "collective memory" while Berube maintains their irreconcilable disjunction.

3. See Michael Berube, "Avant-Gardes and De-Author-Izations: Harlem Gallery and the Cultural Contradictions of Modernism," Callaloo, No. 38 (Winter 1989), 192-215.

4. Generally speaking, the critical consensus tends to see Tolson forging a "third' way out of the impasse posed by modernism, with Nielsen, Werner, Nelson, and Gold staking out varied positions on this issue. Berube, one of Tolson's most careful and penetrating readers, has taken a more "negative" view of Harlem Gallery, which is to say he sees the poem, and more important, Tolson, as committed to the poetics and politics of assimilation despite the poem's, and presumably, Tolson's, rhetorical and aesthetic ambiguities and indeterminacies.

5. Though he does not draw explicit connections to his writing, Gold emphasizes Tolson's use of "shock" treatment as a form of pedagogy. Modernism and modernity can certainly be understood as motivated by what Gerald Graff calls a "break- through ethic," the emphasis on discovery, invention and shock in the physical and human sciences in general.

6. Sarah Webster Fabio, "Who Speaks Negro," Negro Digest, Vol. XVI, No. 2 (December 1966), 54-58.

7. Rita Dove, "Introduction," "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson, ed. Raymond Nelson (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville and London, 1999), xi-xxv.

8. Allen Tate, "Preface," Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (Collier Books: London, 1953), 9-14.

9. For a general and sympathetic, if defensive, overview of The Fugitives, see William Pratt, The Fugitive Poets. For an overview of "criticism" prior to and during its institutionalization as "new criticism," see Gerald Graff, Professing Literature.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," The Souls of Black Folk, 10-11.

11. Karl Shapiro, Introduction, Harlem Gallery: Book I: The Curator, 11-15.

12. This interpretation appears validated by Shapiro's career-summing up essay, "The Critic Outside," in which he reprises the Bolligen Prize controversy on his way to launching a broadside against the separatist politics and poetics of what he calls "The Black Recoil." Based on a lecture he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1980, this essay manages to redraw the line of authenticity between Tolson and the Black Arts Movement, thus replicating Fabio's authenticity argument some fifteen years prior. The difference, of course, is that, for Shapiro, authenticity is a matter of poetics (thus, in the same essay, he decries the professionalization of poetry via creative writing programs) whereas for Fabio it is a matter of racial rhetoric. To the extent professionalization is always a matter of assimilation, Fabio's and Shapiro's arguments dovetail at the level of ethnicity. Whatever their disagreements about exactly who or what constitutes the authentic—for Fabio, the incipient folk poetry of the Black Arts Movement; for Shapiro, the high modernism of Tolson et all—the Negro American and Jewish American both oppose what each perceives separately as Anglo-American hegemony over the domain of literature and, more generally, culture.

13. See Berube, above, as well as his more well-known article "Masks, Margins, and African American Modernism: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery," PMLA, Vol. 105, No. 1, 57-69. For an equally well-known (implicit) rebuttal to Berube's conclusions, see Aldon Nielsen's "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism," African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, 241-55.

14. Thus, unlike Berube in "Avant-Gardes," I see the poem's "argument" as posed or suspended between The Curator and Hideho Heights, which is not to say that the result of the debate is merely a "draw."

15. Tolson's invocations of "Black Boy" and "White Boy" must thus be read ironically and multi-dimensionally. Both terms were slurs used by members of the other race, the latter an especial weapon of choice for the new black militants. To the extent the terms often appear in close proximity to one another, the double negative "Boy" points to the historical or evolutionary immaturity of the speakers; for Tolson, modernity and modernist poetry (he rejected their mutual antagonism, one of the hallmarks of Anglo-American modernism) point toward a future in which racial polarities—but not, I emphasize, racialism—are written out of our epistemological and ontological codes. As Gold emphasizes, Tolson was a member of the Progressive Era; its influence on his thinking cannot be stressed enough.

16. Nevertheless, Tolson realized the implicit idealism of his position. Gold, like other critics, cites this famous remark of Tolson on his work: "My poetry is of the proletariat, by the proletariat, and for the bourgeoisie" (Gold 245). This "joke" has, however, its serious side. The point of Frazier's The Black Bourgeoisie is didactic: he wants to change the way the black middle class sees itself, to teach it to value its "origins" in working-class values, themselves a kind of "primitive accumulation" on which the middle class has erected itself.

17. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity. Gordon Thompson deals explicitly with ambiguity in Harlem Gallery but, for some reason, passes over the "ethnic irony" passage. See Gordon E. Thompson, "Ambiguity in Tolson's Harlem Gallery," Callaloo, No. 26, 159-170.


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     ---------------------. "Avant-Gardes and De-Author-Izations: Harlem Gallery and the Cultural Contradictions of Modernism." Callaloo, No. 38 Winter 1989, 192-215.

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     --------------------. .A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Ed. Robert Farnsworth. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979.

     ---------------------. Rendezvous with America. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1944.

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