Western Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance: The Life and Writings of Anita Scott Coleman

Edited by Cynthia Davis and Verner D. Mitchell

In a preface margin note: It wasn’t her location, but the time period and the topics she discussed that made her a Harlem Renaissance writer. There was a west and east coast renaissance. After the preface the book contains an “Anita Scott Coleman Chronology.”

Introduction: Anita Scott Coleman in the Southwest

“…the issue of where an African American family should locate its physical, moral, and spiritual ‘place’ or home becomes an important theme in Coleman’s oeuvre.” She was able to share more with family than with the public. “…home is not a restrictive space or a domestic prison for women, or even an escape from racist reality, but a site of agency for the African American family. Home thus functions as both a response to and a goal of migration and diaspora…” (5). Coleman’s grandmother was marked as mulatto on the census, probably from Seminole heritage. “Coleman’s poem ‘Hands,’ like ‘America Negra’ and ‘El Tisico,’ weaves together family history, the theme of home and migration, and biblical allusion to explore important issues in African American history” (6). “…African American presence in New Mexico and Arizona, the race has contributed to the region’s development since the time of the first Spanish explorers.” Some became “linguists and translators of Native American languages” (10). The lived in a town that reminded me of the all-Black town where Jodi and Janie live in Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God. “American history, in its persistent attempt to eradicate the black presence in the West, not only ignores the participation of blacks in law enforcement, but edits out their connection with legendary American outlaws.” “…two African Americans rode with the posse that eventually killed [Billy the kid]. Blacks were actively involved in law enforcement.” “…25 percent ‘of the 35,000 mean who went up the trail from Texas with herds during the heroic age of the cattle industry, 1866-1895…were Negroes'” (Porter 347) (14).

“Coleman seems to have enjoyed an unusually close relationship with her parents, with whom she lived until their deaths. According to family members, Coleman enjoyed a privileged childhood under her mother’s watchful eye (Caffey; Green). While other children might ‘wallow at will in the dusty street,’ Anita, ‘in stiffly-starched gingham and ribbon bows in her hair…spend her time among the flower-beds, playing ‘a’leery’ with her rubber ball, or mimicking grown-ups with her dolls and tea set’ (‘…G’Long, Old White Man’s Gal…’). In turn, Coleman provided the same meticulous attention to her own children; her daughter Willianna started kindergarten in ‘a frilly white dress and spotless white soxs and shiny black shoes'” (W. Coleman 4) (16). Later, Anita employed her father’s use of irony as a way to treat issues of racism and discrimination in her work” (17).

Coleman graduated from high school. “Her parents encouraged her self-esteem and taught her to be proud of her race and to value character and spirituality over physical attributes, qualities she passed on to her children, grandchildren, and foster children” (Green). “Coleman’s characters are undaunted by hegemonic standards of beauty to which they do not conform and are blessed with strong, protective, and intelligent families” (19).

“Anne, in being willing to take ‘pot luck’ and chance her future with Jim, is rewarded with stability and love. Significantly, Coleman names the couple in the story after herself and her husband, James Harold Coleman. the initial encounter of the fictional pair does, in fact, resemble their meeting: Anita saw James walking down the street one day ‘and just decided he was the man she was going to marry’ (Green). Their relationship inspired a number of stories in which a privileged woman wisely, if unconventionally, chooses a man of sterling character but of lesser status. The positive male-female relationships in ‘Silk Stockings,’ ‘Pot Luck,’ ‘The Little Grey House,’ and ‘Bambino Grimke’ all originate in such intuitive, spontaneous, life-altering decisions as the one Anita apparently made upon seeing James. Like the couple in ‘Two Old Women,’ they may have courted for some years while James solidified his economic prospects. In October 1916, they married and moved in with Anita’s parents on the ranch” (20-1).

“Home is thus a site of empowerment for both men and women, and a shred entrepreneurial venture is a form of resistance to racism. In the same way that Coleman’s father and grandfather seem to have inspired Coleman’s older black male characters, so her husband appears to be the model for the younger generation who are sensitive, intelligent, and skilled. Unfortunately, they are also frustrated in their attempts to establish themselves professionally.” “Coleman’s mean are complex, nuanced, and believable” and they “behave in a variety of ways” (22). “The tension in Coleman’s stories arises from the reader’s connection to sympathetic male characters who must find their way out of unjust and discriminatory situations” (23). “Although the characters were rural Southerners, they expressed themselves in proper English, instead of in stereotyped dialect” (25).

“Not surprisingly, considering that he personally read and critiqued Coleman’s submissions to the Crisis contests, W.E.B. DuBois became an important influence on the content and style of her work. Although she apparently admired Booker T. Washington during her college years, her stories about the underemployment of skilled black men indicate that she perceived the flaws in the Tuskegee model. She would undoubtedly have read the 1914 editorial in the Crisis in which DuBois asserts that vocational training will never achieve Washington’s aims since there was never any intention on the part of white industry to hire black graduates of trade schools. In several of her stories, Coleman dramatizes DuBois’s critique of the Tuskegee model and the pointlessness of vocational training given the structural inequities in hiring practices” (26).

Coleman wrote stories of passing: “Three Dogs and a Rabbit” and “The Brat.” “Like Johnson, she explores passing as subversion and posits race as a social and economic construct. Coleman’s preoccupation with alienation and isolation, the psychic costs of passing, gives her work a particularly modernist affiliation. “The Brat” borrows Johnson’s trope of African American music as a ‘symbolic projection of a double consciousness’ (Baker 21). Both Coleman’s and Johnson’s protagonists agonize between embracing black culture through music and using music to disguise their origins. Music thus functions in Coleman’s text as both an escape from and a marker of race.” “Coleman thus sets the stage for a fairy tale of race, shape-shifting, and metamorphosis” (28). Charles Chesnutt has a similarly-themed story to Coleman’s: “The biblical allusion to Moses and Miriam, and Jennie’s sacrifice in giving up her child, underscore the terrible psychic cost of passing.” “Kane’s secret makes him ‘lonely, so lonely. His poor heart aches and he can’t tell why.’ Coleman then suggests that Aggie too is passing; after all, the reader only has Jennie’s word that Aggie is white, and of course she was mistaken in assuming that her friend Biddy was black. Both Aggie and David Kane, then, choose the white world but at great cost to their psychic integrity and emotional stability” (29).

“The second frame is Mrs. Ritton’s story. Accused of sheltering a ‘runaway Negro’ pursued by the police, she refuses to divulge the fugitive’s location; instead she tells the court that as a young slave girl (the courtroom gasps in disbelief), she made the arduous journey west with her owners. On the trail she protects a frightened rabbit being pursued by her master. Despite her own hunger and the beating received from her master, she hides the animal. The master’s son observes the flogging, and although he had always teased and annoyed her, ‘he changed from that day.’ The two eventually marry, and Mrs. Ritton’s racial identity is absorbed and obliterated in her social position until the day that she sees the fugitive and has a sudden flashback to the events of her youth. Phipps, although he ‘knew the fugitive was free, and making a rough guess at it, likely to remain so,’ is overwhelmed by the lovely woman ‘standing alone in the midst of all those hostile people, tearing apart with such simple words the whole fabric of her life.’ Even without knowing the surprise ending, one can see how Coleman approaches the theme of passing as a social construct and explores issues of miscegenation and racism in the legal system, all within the framework of a western ‘tall tale'” (31).

Since I’m a huge movie/tv buff, this next bit of information earned a margin note of: awesome! “Finally, the medium of film clearly shaped Coleman’s writing. While writing ‘Three Dogs’ Coleman worked as a script writer for Pathe films; she understood the syntax of film narration, including flashbacks, fast-forwards, dissolves, fades, visual symbols, compressed dialogue, and scenes that are both intimate and dramatic, all of which appear in her work. Coleman remained interested in writing for the media all her life; later she wrote television scripts, including one for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

“…it is possible that the story editors did not know her race. Coleman describes a similar situation in ‘Jack Arrives’ (1920) when a young black architect wins a contest but does not reveal his race until afterward, confident that his demonstrated talent will supersede any prejudice” (32).

“The Brat”

[random notes on this short story]

“A wild night, a blazing hearth, a rose-lit room, low, sweet music, an over-stuffed armchair and a companion; who can tell a tale of life, as she is–ah, there’s charm and warmth a-plenty.”

“Old Jennie, all twisted and bent with premature age, which wrapped her about like an ill-fitting garment…”

“A night for surprises indeed. Old Jennie esteeming me above my fellows. A pleasing surprise bobbing up to nod at me like daisies on a hillside.”

A wild child who reluctantly gives up her baby so that he can have a better life with white people. The separation has broken her heart and made her grow old. She never reveled her true identity to her son; she just visits once a year like she was his old servant. Eventually, the boy stops seeing her and she must let him go. He becomes a famous singer. he got his singing voice from his mom.

“Three Dogs and a Rabbit”

“The picture had to be finished, Gentleman. The rabbit, no the man–had to be protected. Thank you, Sirs. That is all.’

“Yes,” said Timothy Phipps, pensively. “I was the running black gentleman in the story–” he tilted his head a bit backwards and sideways and laughed. His laughter echoing–joy–joy–joy!”

An ex-slave woman who has a penchant for saving those on the run.

“El Tisico”

A story of patriotism for the U.S. The idea that if you are sick you want to go “home.”

“The Little Grey House”

Two lonely people come together in the little grey house.

“Cross Crossings Cautiously”

“Usually Sam was a cheerful creature. Work and love; love and work, that, boiled down to brass tacks, is the gist of all life…”

“Sam swung around like a heavy plummet loosed from its mooring.”

Did Sam come to a bad end because he was black? Did they take him from Claudia before she could see?

“Jack Arrives”

Dreams come true for Jack who wants to be an architect.

“Bambino Grimke”

The “nobody” finds a way to become somebody by collaring a grifter.

“Bambino: Star Boarder”

Grimke strikes again. Almost ran away with another man’s wife but forgot to show up.

“Rich Man, Poor Man”

Rich little Drusilla who thought she’d never work finally found a compelling reason to do so: love!

“Pot Luck: A Story Tue to Life”

“So if any of you expect Life, Life the capricious woman, to pitch her decorum to the winds and do a handspring for the sake of converting the child of a clod-hopping hodcarrier whose mate is a washwoman, into a finished musician or a distinguished linguist, you simply don’t know Life. It’s far more befitting her caprice to make the sons and daughters of musicians and poets the rag-pickers and scullery maids of tomorrow. If you notice, she takes generations in which to produce and only moments in which to destroy.”

“But a lady–bah, a lady–any female who chooses can be that. Take for instance, a little bit of natural inclination, a fair amount of right association, a smattering of education; and a knack at imitation, and you have it.”

People were surprised that she was so good at her job AND black.

We didn’t think Anne Borden would amount to anything since she didn’t take to education. She was loved by children so she ended up working with them and found love along the way.

“Two Old Women A-Shopping Go! A Story of Man, Marriage and Poverty”

“Tis a trouble men folks be,” offered one.

“But a sweet trouble ’tis,” proffered the other.

“Trouble ain’t never harmed nary one of us. What’s more, us wimens can make men folks what us choose to.”

“Deed so! Us ’tis what makes ’em or breaks ’ems.”

The wisdom of old women is heeded by a young woman who holds on to love while she has it.

“The Mechanical Toy”

“…an old dreaming sentimentalist, it mattered not, that Jonathan Connors was a black lad and Haven Addams a white one. He adored friendship wherever it was found…”

Jonathan saved all his earnings in hopes of going to industrial school. Haven came from money, so would spend what he had.

“They were very young and laughed a great deal and talked overmuch; because youth loves to flaunt itself and is never secretive.”

A prank kills an old man of fright.

“Love for Hire”

An old lady is becoming too chummy with her black house maid according to her children. The maid is so upset at her boss’s death because she might not be able to find another position that high paying. Ahh…so it wasn’t sympathy…it was loss of income she was mourning.

“…G’Long, Old White Man’s Gal…”

Mercy Kent is left a “good sized fortune” by an old white man.

“She hobbled towards the door, then turned and came back. She was like a little black spider in the midst of them, weaving a web with which to catch flies. And the flies, see them, flies will always be caught.”

They talk of white men never leaving black women anything if there weren’t some other exchange involved. There is a description of Mercy’s family growing up.

“There was rejoicing within the little white and green cottage, the sort of joy that bubbles over the rim and splashes down the sides, and makes little puddles about the bottom of the bucket and eventually forms into little rivulets to run here and there and everywhere.”

The black people of the town put down the black family that profits from working for a rich white man. Even with all her money, Mercy will never be accepted by her peers.

“Phoebe and Peter up North”

There is talk of looking whiter to change; to fit in. Peter gets what for when he calls his wife Phoebe a countrified thorn in his side.

“Phoebe Goes to a Lecture”

Birth control is discussed.

“Alright then, ” exclaimed Mayme. “Honey-child, that’s why I urged you to come, not that I thought you’d enjoy that especially, but get out, see with your eyes and hear with your ears, and give your brains an airing. That’s what city life is for, to put the ‘pep’ in living. You don’t need to think other people’s thoughts. Think up your own; but you can’t think looking inside yourself. You’ve got to look out. Do you get me? Then you won’t have time for such nonsense as loneliness.”

Phoebe gets out. She needs to broaden her mind, even if it only leads back home.

The poem “Hands” reminds me of my dad. When one does hard labor all his life these are the hands that are created. Working man’s hands.

The poem “Idle Wonder” Do we only imagine our pets and employees to be contented?

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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