African American cultural forms through census history

Welcome! This is the companion website to Measuring the Harlem Renaissance, which examines African American cultural forms through the lens of census history.  Measuring the Harlem Renaissance tells the story of how U.S. officialdom—in particular the Census Bureau—placed persons of African descent within a shifting taxonomy of racial difference, and how African American writers and intellectuals described a far more complex situation of interracial social contact and intra-racial diversity.

What we now call African American identity and the literature that gives it voice emerged out of social, cultural, and intellectual forces that fused in Harlem roughly one century ago. Measuring the Harlem Renaissance sifts through a wide range of authors and ideas—from W. E. B. Du Bois, Rudolph Fisher, and Nella Larsen to Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, and from census history to the Great Migration—to provide a fresh take on late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and social thought. The book reveals how Harlem came to be known as the “cultural capital of black America,” and how these ideas left us with unforgettable fiction and poetry.

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Book Introduction

From the introduction to Measuring the Harlem Renaissance by Michael Soto © 2016 University of Massachusetts Press

The census and American slavery go hand in hand. We tend not to see the two as mutually constitutive institutions, but America’s founders devised the decennial census partly to adjudicate the Three-Fifths Compromise, which split the legal difference between unenfranchised property and full-fledged personhood. An apologist for slavery might see it in these terms: if a slave must be taxed as property, then he or she should also factor in congressional apportionment. Slavery’s opponents saw the situation in another light: states should not be rewarded with political clout by denying the fundamental rights of others. An accurate census tally would assure both sides that their position was safeguarded by the machinery of the federal government. Alexander Hamilton, a key architect and fervent booster of the Constitution, spoke of the compromise as a necessary evil when in 1788 he urged his fellow New Yorkers to ratify the foundational document: “Would it be just to compute these slaves in the assessment of taxes, and discard them from the estimate in the apportionment of representatives? Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage [to slaveholding states]?” And thus the constitutional framework enshrined both slavery and the decennial census in an awkward dance of competing interests.

To better understand and appreciate African American cultural formations from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century—the so-called long Harlem Renaissance—this book proposes the following: African American identity as we today understand it solidified roughly a century ago as the product of and in response to (1) the U.S. census, (2) demographic statistical analysis, and (3) the conceptual linkage of abstract geopolitical space and racialized social identity. I examine African American literature through the lens of census history to tell the story of how U.S. officialdom—in particular the Census Bureau—placed persons of African descent within a shifting taxonomy of racial difference, and how African American writers and intellectuals described a far more complex situation of interracial social contact and intraracial diversity.

That I even bother with the phrase “Harlem Renaissance” should raise doubts among some readers. The overburdened label, bequeathed to us in 1940 by Langston Hughes, does a disservice to the national scope and internationalist ambitions of the era’s black thinkers and writers. As Brent Hayes Edwards importantly reminds us, we must guard against the parochial view that overemphasizes “U.S.-bound themes of cultural nationalism, civil rights protest, and uplift in the literary culture of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’” at the expense of the black internationalism that spread from Harlem and Paris and Port-au-Prince to the far corners of the globe. To signal the label’s inadequacy, Edwards scrupulously places quotation marks around “Harlem Renaissance” whenever he can’t avoid the phrase. But as the anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr. demonstrates, Harlem is also a “quotation-marked-off place” in the sense that it functions as a conceptual shorthand signaling urban American blackness to a worldwide audience caught in the media web spun from Madison Avenue and Hollywood: “Every application of the name supplies, implies, and applies oversaturated and highly charged assumptions about the neighborhood and its inhabitants as either the epitome of racial potentiality or the embodiment of squandered opportunities.”

The notion of a Harlem Renaissance easily displaced the Negro Renaissance label, long before “Negro” fell out of widespread use, precisely because the last century perfected the science of assigning racial measurements all the way down to the neighborhood level, even down to the city block. “Harlem” became a metonym for “blackness” because of its unique location in space and time. Harlem was the laboratory for the new racial science, so much so that the journalist Roi Ottley could declare in 1943 that the neighborhood resembled “a sort of test tube in which the germs of Negro thought and action are isolated, examined, and held up to the full glare to reflect Black America.” Harlem conveys race and space simultaneously, a move that signals atavistic racial categories but demystifies claims of filial origins based on an aboriginal geography or shared bloodlines. The racialization of Harlem allows us to see “race” as a modern and modernizing concept. In Harlem more than anywhere else, black persons of all nationalities tried on a newfangled “African American” identity. Although the social-scientific conferral of full-fledged citizenship occurred well outside the confines of the Harlem Renaissance, both geographically and temporally, in Harlem during the renaissance the conceptual linking of racial identity and geospatial evolution accelerates and comes into sharp focus.

The federal census and racial labels exist for the same fundamental reason: the conditions of modernity—an expansive nation-state, huge waves of immigration and inmigration, unprecedented urban density—demand vast bureaucracies and an efficient understanding of difference to make sense of individual and collective identities. Premodern societies, in which all individuals know firsthand all other members of the social group, have little need for censuses or for abstractions such as “race” or “nationality.” “The census’s abstract quantification/serialization of persons,” to borrow language from Benedict Anderson, yields a grammar that enables belonging to an “imagined community” such as a race or nation. During the nineteenth century, Anderson points out, national censuses became increasingly obsessed with cataloging individuals according to racial difference, but difference alone stood without meaning in the absence of strict quantification, such that “the particular always stood as a provisional representative of a series, and was to be handled in this light.” The constitutional requirements of the U.S. census (apportionment, direct taxation) quickly grew to encompass all manner of data gathering, so that by 1850 the Census Bureau tracked “color” difference along with profession, real estate value, literacy, and “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict.” The Census Bureau then tabulated these data geographically by state and county, so that subnational social trends might be visualized and so that the nation’s political elite might identify social concerns and allocate resources strategically (if not always charitably).

As we will see in chapter 1, these same policymakers directed census employees to track an increasingly byzantine system of race/color classification to promote a white supremacist agenda. Decades would elapse before political actors, military strategists, cultural shapers, and everyday folk fully assimilated the modern nation-state’s insistence that full-fledged citizenship and bureaucratic processes go hand in hand in a complex give-and-take of social privilege and sacrificed individualism. And still more time was required before the tools of geospatial understanding, particularly in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowed activists and academics to deploy social-scientific analysis in support of the civil rights cause. Throughout the century-long process, the “Negro” becomes an enfranchised U.S. citizen and an object of social-scientific concern simultaneously, in a mutually reinforcing imaginative enterprise. ...


Measuring Harlem Renaissance coast survey slave map


Collection of maps from Measuring the Harlem Renaissance.

Maps became a crucial tool in the Harlem Renaissance’s understanding of American social patterns generally, and of urban growth and decay, along with residential segregation within a Harlem context more specifically.

Measuring the Harlem Renaissance by Michael Soto © 2016 University of Massachusetts Press
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The following illustrations are discussed in Measuring the Harlem Renaissance.

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Painting of Lincoln and other politicians sitting around a table