Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

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Wallace Thurman

1902-1934 / Dramatist, journalist, novelist

Shortly after the talented writer Wallace Thurman moved to Harlem in the early 1920s, he was given the rare opportunity to become the circulation manager of a white-run magazine, The World Tomorrow. His uncanny ability to read 11 lines of text at a time also landed him a job at Macaulay Co., the publisher that would later bring out two books of his own.

Thurman's editorial talents were evident to his friends and fellow writers. Poet Langston Hughes described him as "a strangely brilliant black boy, who had read everything and whose critical mind could find something wrong with everything he read."

Regarded as the leader of the literary and artistic bohemians of the day, Thurman lived in the rent-free domicile at 267 West 136th Street—a popular gathering place for creative minds such as Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Aaron Douglas. These and other artists gathered to discuss publishing a magazine that would tackle topics ignored by the Talented Tenth: art for art's sake, jazz, blues, and homosexuality.

Under Thurman's guidance, the group achieved its goal in November 1926, producing a quarterly titled Fire!! to signal its incendiary message. A financial flop, the first issue of Fire!! was also its last. Two years later, Thurman founded Harlem magazine. It was twice as successful as Fire!!—two issues came out before it folded.

In 1929, an adaptation of Thurman's short story "Cordelia the Crude: A Harlem Sketch" (first published in Fire!!) opened on Broadway as the play Harlem. It had a successful run of 93 performances before going on tour.

Thurman had played a key role in the Harlem literary scene and wrote about the vibrancy of Harlem life in his 1928 book, Negro Life in New York's Harlem. But he soon grew disillusioned with his environment. A dark-skinned black man, he felt ostracized both by segregationist white society and by black Talented Tenth circles—which, he claimed, favored light-skinned African Americans. In his 1929 novel, The Blacker the Berry, Thurman dissected the color hierarchy of the racism he had experienced. He continued to criticize Harlem in his 1932 novel, Infants of the Spring, which scolded black socialites who wrote for purely political purposes or rejected art that failed to mirror Talented Tenth ideals.