Very much like it is today more than 70 years later, Black women shared only to a limited extent in the bounty of white mainstream publishing’s discovery of Black writing — Alfred Knopf published Nella Larsen, Boni and Liveright published Jessie Fauset, and Christopher Publishing published Mercedes Gilbert. However, the vast majority of Black women writers found outlets only in the pages of race magazines, and they ofen had to publish their work privately.
The patronage of wealthy white women such as Charlote Osgood Mason, who subsidized a number of young Black writers including Louise Thompson, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, was not available to most of the fledgling female writers. Further, many female writers felt there was too high a price to pay for the support of white patrons. Lousie Thompson felt that her patron restrained her creativity. She did not like the dependancy of the arrangement to continue the relationship very long. Louise stated that “…she felt that the good woman was indulging her fantasies of Negroes. Her Black guests were primitives, savages, or not being themslves”. Louise knew she was not the pagon savage that pleased the good woman to imagine. She got out for her “womanness”. Louise was especially sensitive to the crippling dependency of paternalism. The white hand of philantropy working through the Urban Leaue made it very difficult for her to work on the staff of Opportunity, which was financed by the Urban League. In contrast Zora Neal Hurston seemed to thrive on this kind of dependency. Her character made her into the “exuberant pagan” that pleased her white friends. Louise Thompson remembered her talking on the phone: “Here’s your little darky” and telling “darky” stories only to wink when she was through so as to show that she had tricked them again. (Harlem Renassance p.129&130)
Lanston Hughes reported about Zora in The Big Sea that “To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was a perfect “darkie”. In the nice meaning they give the term — that is a naive, childlike, sweet, humous, and highly colored “Negro”.
Further, the patron knows what was good and right. They took away the right of the artist to decide and find his or her true self. Hughes claimed “White and Negro — as do most relationships, because of where they were, the Negro was naturally patronized in his art to serve a white dream and fancy.” Hughes learned that when patrons claimed their fee it could be humiliation.
The Negro character that was acceptable to whites was extremely circumscribed. The Negro in print was pathetic or humorous, loyal or trecherous, serville or savage. This created a delicate prolem for the Black writers who had patrons and wanted to develope Negro character. Black writers had constraints until after WWI, any such literacy effort would have to conform to genteel dogma: a focus on morality, and uplift, a faith in progress conveniently linked to morality, and the aspiration of a learned culture. The Black hero could not be agressively critical of the order of things, North or South. The fledgling female writers were faced with these and many different constraints than those experienced by men. To be continued,
Author, J. Keel