The Costs of White Patronage
This extraordinarily rich cultural moment, in which it seemed possible that African Americans would take the lead in creating the cosmopolitan America that Randolph Bourne had called for in the 1910s, won the attention and admiration of a good many white critics and intellectuals. In particular H .L. Mencken and Carl Van Vechten became champions of the Harlem Renaissance, devoting themselves to publicizing and defending the cultural and literary achievements of its primary actors.
White support for the Harlem Renaissance came at a price, however. White patronage, white publicity for the Harlem Renaissance, white interest in what was going on in Harlem led New Yorkers from downtown up to Harlem to attend jazz clubs that blacks themselves could not attend. It turned Harlem into a sensation, a phenomenon, an event—something that Americans elsewhere in the country read about in mass-produced newspapers and magazines. Such publicity and support increasingly made the Harlem Renaissance financially dependent on white patronage. Blacks lacked the economic institutions and simply the money to support a full-scale cultural renaissance of this kind. As the twenties wore on, more and more black artists and writers came to resent their reliance on white economic support and the patronizing attitudes they encountered in some of their supporters.
White writers and white popular culture as a whole mobilized African American music and culture in ways that reinforced racist stereotypes and opened the door to a new kind of popular culture that, ironically, was available to whites only. White critics such as Van Vechten and Mencken were genuinely enthusiastic about the Harlem Renaissance; they wanted to use the influence and power they had in journalism and in American intellectual circles to promote black culture. But their promotion came at a cost. They often presented the achievements of blacks as deriving from the inherent primitivism or emotionalism of African American culture, suggesting that whites should turn to black culture in order to free themselves from whatever remained of the Victorian constraints of their parents and grandparents.
This notion that black culture was to be admired primarily for its emotionalism and primitivism worked hand-in-glove with a consumer culture that promoted the immediate gratification of impulses and instincts as the way to live a good life. Moreover, such characterizations of African American culture did little to assist the political aspirations of activist intellectuals like Du Bois and other political figures in the African American community, who wanted to make the case for full citizenship for blacks on the grounds that African Americans were fully capable of rational self-government. Too much of the publicity about the Harlem Renaissance seemed to play into the worst assumptions of white people—even those whites who were willing to give jazz a listen.