fire!! -- 6/4/21
Today's selection -- from Zora and Langston by Yuval Taylor. Named after a spiritual that Langston Hughes had written, FIRE!! was an magazine "by, for, and about the Negro"*:
"Langston [Hughes], Zora [Neale Hurston], Aaron Douglas, [Gwendolyn] Bennett, [John P.] Davis, [Wallace] Thurman, and [Bruce] Nugent ... gathered one night to found 'a Negro quarterly of the arts to épater le bourgeois, to burn up a lot of the stereotyped Uncle Tom ideas of the past, and to provide us with an outlet for publishing not existing in the hospitable but limited pages of The Crises or Opportunity.' ... Each was to contribute fifty dollars toward production expenses -- no small amount in those days.
"Thurman was an inspired choice as editor. 'Strangely brilliant,' as Langston described him, he 'had read everything ... because he would read eleven lines at a time.' He criticized everything he read, yet could take nothing truly seriously. His energy, dedication, high standards, and insouciance were critical to Fire!!'s publication. ...
"In the end, only $150 was collected ... and Fire!!, subtitled 'A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists,' was finally published in November, costing Thurman $1,000, for which he was dunned on his subsequent earnings. 'We got carried away with ourselves,' Langston wrote, 'and our taste proved extremely expensive' -- the issue was printed on 'the best cream white paper' with 'a rich crimson jacket on de luxe stock.'
"Zora's work was more heavily represented in the journal than that of any other writer; Thurman had even considered putting a pseudonym in place of her name at the top of her play Color Struck so that Fire!! wouldn't seem to 'Zora-ish.' The magazine only lasted one issue due to lack of funds, and hundreds of unsold copies would literally go up in flames, but it was one of the most exciting publications of the Harlem Renaissance.
"For in Fire!! the Niggerati [what Zora had jokingly named the Harlem-based group] were showcasing their literary innovations, which followed Langston's and Zora's lead. Indeed, Bruce Nugent believed that of all the magazine's contributors, only Zora and Langston had a sense of its historical importance. For them, black language, whether derived from traditional dialect or urban slang, was no longer to be used only for local color, humor, and stagy effects. It could be the foundation of a new art, a way to express the most profound visions. By basing their art on black folklore and music, Zora and Langston were reinventing black culture on their own terms, avoiding dependence on white literary models. ...
"Fire!!'s value, however, lay not only in its prosody, but in its subject matter. The journal opened with a forward penned by Langston and Thurman (though unsigned) that ran, in part, 'FIRE ... weaving vivid, hot designs upon an ebony bordered loom and satisfying pagan thirst for beauty unadorned ... the flesh is sweet and real'. ...
"Immediately following the table of contents was Nugent's drawing of a nude black woman leaning against a palm tree; facing it was Thurman's story 'Cordelia the Crude,' about a licentious sixteen-year-old would-be prostitute. Nugent's 'novel' 'Smoke, Lilies and Jade,' the very long prose poem that he wrote on toilet paper and paper bags, describes in part the physical ecstasy enjoyed by two male lovers, and quotes eight lines from a poem about a mercurial and attractive man that he attributes to Langston... Bennett's story 'Wedding Day' was about a black man in Paris who hated white Americans and habitually beat and shot them, but was then seduced by a heartless white American girl. Zora's chilling story 'Sweat' was about the revenge of a mistreated wife, and was as earthy as its title.
"In other words, Fire!! was mainly about black sex and black sin. Steven Watson, one of the most perceptive of Harlem Renaissance historians, puts it this way: 'It celebrated jazz, paganism, blues, androgyny, unassimilated black beauty, freeform verse, homosexuality -- precisely the "uncivilized" features of Harlem proletarian culture that the Talented Tenth propagandists preferred to ignore. Fire!! offered an alternative manifesto to The New Negro, undiluted by sociopolitical issues and race-building efforts.'
"As Nugent would later testify, its editors aimed to get Fire!! banned in Boston. 'Wally and I sat around figuring out,' Nugent told Hemenway, 'what two things just will not take. Well, we'll write about a street walker or a whore, and we'll write a homosexual story. ... So we flipped a coin to see which one of us would do which.'"
Curious for more? You can buy your own copy of Fire!!: Devoted to Younger Negro Artists here: The Schomburg Shop
*Introduction to the reissue of FIRE!! by Richard Bruce Nugent