"Fire, like Mr. Hughes' poetry, was experimental. It was not interested in sociological problems or propaganda. It was purely artistic in intent and conception. Its contributors went to the proletariat rather than to the bourgeois for characters and material. They were interested in people who still retained some individual race qualities and who were not totally white American in every respect save color of skin." - Wallace Thurman (in "Negro Artists and the Negro")
In 1926, Wallace Thurman led the impressive literary grouping of Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Richard Bruce Nugent, Gwendolyn Bennett, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes in the publication of Fire!!, an African-American literary quarterly. The publication was intended to give voice to topics its founders felt were ignored by the Talented Tenth such as art for art's sake rather than sociopolitical mission, music (blues and jazz) whose roots rested in the black community, and homosexuality. Langston Hughes said that the name Fire!! was intended "to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past ... into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication not available in the limited pages of the small Negro magazines then existing."
Fire!! was frostily received by an African American audience that felt content that included prostitution, homosexuality, and southern vernacular was coarse, "decadent and vulgar" and did nothing to advance the initiatives of more conservative groups like the Talented Tenth. Only one issue of Fire!! was ever published. Most of the $1 per copy publication went unsold, and left Thurman saddled with a substantial debt that required years for him to overcome.
Langston Hughes articulated the feelings of the publication's founders when just prior to the publication of Fire!! and anticipating its reception, he said, "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves." His own literary contribution to the magazine, the poem "Elevator Boy," captures both the detachment and resignation that more conservative voices within the Harlem Renaissance believed giving voice to was detrimental to the social advancement of African Americans.
Other content in Fire!!:
- Zora Neale Hurston's play Color Struck and her short story "Sweat"
- Countee Cullen's poem "From the Dark Tower"
- Wallace Thurman's "Cordelia the Crude"
- Gwendolyn Bennett's "Wedding Day"
- Richard Bruce Nugent's Smoke, Lilies, and Jade
- Arthur Huff Fauset's "Intelligentsia"
- Wallace Thurman's "Fire Burns"
Worth noting that all content from Fire!! is available online and in a great variety of print resources. What was controversial material at the time has become core components of the Harlem Renaissance canon.This post is part of this month's Harlem Renaissance Tour on the Classics Circuit. If you are interested in more information about one of the founders of Fire!!, please visit Notorious Spinks Talks on Wednesday for a post on Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance by Bruce Nugent and the movie Brother to Brother.