Harlem and The New White Man’s Burden

Chapter 2 of Word, Image, and the New Negro : Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance Anne Elizabeth Carroll assesses Black representation in The Opportunity, and it’s dedication to objectivity. In it, she explains that The Opportunity’s editor, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, felt objectivity was necessary for “challenging assumptions about why African Americans were leaving the South” (71). She further explains Johnson’s belief that although White Americans may be outraged, African Americans would not be able to survive on that sympathy forever:

Errors in judgements of the character of the migrants, in turn, would have made their adjustment to life in the North more difficult. If their flight was from persecution, Johnson explained, that “excites little sympathy either from the practical employer or the northern white population among whom these Negroes will hereafter live. (71)

Images, therefore, such as the one featured in The Opportunity’s September 1923 article “How Much is the Migration a Flight from Persecution”, may have been initially provocative, but the long term effects were potentially damaging. According to Johnson, constantly exposing white men to images of poverty or persecution would eventually lead him to believe that Black people could not sustain themselves. He would see them as completely codependent. Johnson thus feared that white employers would begin to see Blacks as a liability. Instead of feeling sympathy, the white man would be afraid of becoming responsible for such a large and unsustainable group — in other words, he would be afraid that they might once again become his burden.

'The White Man's Burden' (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)
‘The White Man’s Burden’ (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling) Victor Gillam, Judge magazine, 1 April 1899)

Frankly, this idea of the “White Man’s Burden” is of course nothing new. It was first coined in Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name in the late 19th century as an excuse for continued imperialism. Colonialists, in an attempt to justify their holdings of foreign lands, believed that they were responsible for the edification and usefulness of Negroes and other non-white races. Assuming authority over these races was presented as an act of duty as these races could not provide for themselves. As a result, African Americans, subsequently, were forced into a relationship of complete codependency and subjugation to the “superior” white Americans who knew what was best for them.

This codependent relationship, however, began to overturn in the early 20th century. Instead of voluntarily consenting to this “burden”, Carroll suggests that white Americans were now resentful towards the idea of helping Negroes. The once altruistic sentiments of imperialism were now replaced by feelings of infringement and inconvenience. Charles Spurgeon Johnson and WEB Du Bois, who were both keenly aware of this opposition, therefore dedicated The Opportunity and The Crisis respectively to instilling this idea of Black sustainability. Instead of images of poverty and destitution, the periodicals would instead combat these misconceptions with stories of prosperity and advancement, showcasing Black accomplishments and potential.  As a result, many of these publications turned their sighs to the newly prosperous and culturally developing region of Harlem as their muse.

Initially published during the Harlem Renaissance The Opportunity, introducing itself as the “Journal of a Negro Life”, takes an objective approach to illustrating Black advancement. It’s stories and articles attempt to present non-fictional works and streams of data as stumbling blocks to the “inferior Black” narrative. “The Corner” by Eunice Hunton Carter, published in The Opportunity’s April 1925 issue, is a creative nonfiction narrative detailing the cultural robustness of everyday Harlem life:

Motor cars whizzed by carrying throngs of pleasure seekers, aliens many of them, in search of novelty and thrill, come to the black city for something new…In reality as their cars swept past the corner, they were passing life by. They had missed a chance of seeing life when they didn’t stop and watch the boy on the corner who for clapping companions in front of the drug store was doing a dance that was a bit of Buck and Wing, a bit of “Charleston” and many other things. They didn’t hear the errand boy who came out of the drug store singing a song that had drifted out of the cabaret to come from him purified by the sheer joy and spontaneity of his singing…

Harlem Socialites: Photo James Van Der Zee
Harlem Socialites: Photo James Van Der Zee

A group of school girls, bright felt hats perched jauntily on sleek bobbed heads, with short fur coats from which bright scarves fluttered in the night, passed by linked arm in arm, chattering as they went home from a late moving picture…” (pg 121 in archive)

The imagery is vivid and the result is clear; Carter is painting Harlem as a place of culture and community, where different characters occupy various stations of life. Also, Carter’s reference to Harlem as a “black city” represents that it is not only a stable community, but a thriving one. She paints for us images of music, industrialization, education, and economy. There is joy and prosperity by humble standards. What’s even more noteworthy is Carter’s description of the neighborhood as an attraction. “…pleasure seekers, aliens many of them, in search of novelty and thrill,” she writes. Carter therefore stipulates that Harlem is not just appealing to negroes, but is appealing to tourists as well. The “alien pleasure seekers”, as she calls them, are looking for the thrill of “Harlem life”, they see it is new and exciting, comparable to the other New York areas.

Eunice Carter - The Mob Museum
Eunice Carter

“The Corner” is just one of the many depictions The Opportunity uses to refute the new “white man’s burden” narrative. It highlights Harlem’s vivacity without ignoring the underlying problems of poverty and racism. In addition Carter herself , Manhattan’s first female African American prosecutor, perfectly exemplifies the kind of voice The Opportunity benefits from. Her success as a lawyer further proves that Blacks could be invaluable, self sustaining citizens if given the chance. Her work both in and out of prose exemplified Black productivity.


Works Cited

Carter, Eunice Hunton. “The Corner.” The Opportunity, Apr. 1925, pp. 114–115.