Niggerati: A blending of the words ‘nigger’ and ‘literati’, coined by unrivaled African American novelist, anthropologist and filmmaker, Zora Neale Hurston.
Last week I received an email inviting me to participate in a literary initiative targeting young readers on the African continent. The person who referred me is a woman I’ve yet to meet, but have profound respect for in the social media space. Naturally, there are contracts involved, the details of which I am not at liberty to discuss with ANY living soul. Naturally, I forwarded the contract to my sister and husband for perusal and consideration.
“How well do you know this Respected Woman,” he asked. “The one who referred you?”
“Only as well as her social media presence. I’ve been following her for almost a decade.”
“And you think this program is legit? You think the other players are trustworthy?”
“It most likely is,” I mused. “If she’s a member of it, it’s most likely legitimate. The literary space in Ghana is very small. Everyone is a part of the Niggerati.”
Hubby blinked long and hard, like you probably did when you read the title of this post.
“The Niggerati. You’ve never heard of the Niggerati?”
It was my turn to be incredulous. His Hampton education had failed him in this regard. Not surprising, though. Harvey never would’ve sanctioned any coursework that made such liberal use of this particular pejorative. Too shocking. Too undignified. And yet some of our most celebrated essayist, novelists, poets and playwrights adopted the moniker for that very purpose: To shock and unsettle the New Negro establishment. It had its intended affect.
Niggerati is a blending of the words ‘nigger’ and ‘literati’, coined by unrivaled African American novelist, anthropologist and filmmaker, Zora Neale Hurston. Located at 267 West 136th Street in Harlem, she declared herself Queen of the establishment.
I took hubby by the hand and led him down an Internet rabbit hole of discovery. Sure, he’d heard of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. They remain among the most recognizable names in African American literature. However unless one has an atypical enthusiasm for literary history, it’s far less likely that one would have any in-depth knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance, how it came to be and how it met its demise. How the beloved WEB Dubois was a vociferous malefactor who played an influential role in the stymieing of the development of many Black creatives and their particular art form. How the art forms we now celebrate as the epitome of Black culture was funded by white philanthropists whose tastes many artists felt pressured to pander to in order to earn a living. How Hurston, Hughes and Wallace combined forces to buck convention. They were wild, dramatic times even by today’s standards, and they would make for excellent television viewing.
Consider the runaway success of shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, historical dramas set in the early part of the 20th century. The world was changing, almost at full gallop. Women were fighting for liberties their mothers had never dreamed of attaining (or considered their due), electricity changed every thing, there was a thirst for knowledge – and access to it – among the masses that had never been seen before. It was an age of economic prosperity. The world of the Roaring 20s was exciting, dynamic, fraught with debauchery…and primarily presented through the prism of whiteness. When we think of the decade of the 1920s and immediate images of Leonardo Dicaprio as the Great Gatsby or Lady Grantham come to mind…Yet in that era, there exist many other stories that deserve as much recognition and exploration.
Set in Harlem, the cosmopolitan neighborhood and epicenter of Black Excellence, Niggerati Manor has it all: A sickly protagonist from the country turned Big City cat with dreams of changing the world. Fashionable, cerebral Black women who outwit and confound the aloof who constantly underrate them. Light skinned dudes with side parted good hair. A bathtub that no one ever takes a bath in because it’s primary function as a bootleg distillery for mixing grain.
Is Niggerati Manor an actual place? Why, yes it is! I’m so glad you asked. As a matter of fact, it was purchased by Angelo Ruotolo with the aim of preserving the property after it was damaged during a demolition job nearby. The building was a boarding house where Idaho transplant, Wallace Thurman took his lodging. He invited the most radical minds and creative forces in Harlem to drink and write (and drink) in the microcosm he’d created to foster imagination among kindred spirits. The times and adventures shared between he, Zora, Gwendolyn Bennett and Aaron Douglas are forever immortalized in his not-so-fictional work, Infants of Spring. It is a place “gin flowed from all the water taps and the flush boxes were filled with needle beer.”
But who would watch this show? Everyone, my friend. Anyone who loves seeing women in big hats, fast talking Lotharios getting shut down, robberies and dreams going up in literal flames.
Are we really going to call it Niggerati Manor? Obviously not. Al Sharpton, Van Jones et al would have our heads and the networks would never go for it. We’ll have to give the series a more innocuous name…something akin to 227. Something like 136th Street. We can work on the title later.
Who’s gonna do the soundtrack? Duke Ellington, obviously. Louis Armstrong for sure. The gawdess, Ma Rainey. I’m really hoping that Outkast will come out of retirement to produce something for the shows love scenes. Of course Wynton Marsalis for the jazz/speakeasy portions. Lizzo for the demise of Fire!! when we get to that part of the story. The Hamiltones, naturally…because it’s the Hamiltones.
Are you gonna write this show, or is just another one of your pipe dreams? You believe in its existence so much. You gonna write the damn thing or wait for it to get written? Why you gotta put me on blast like that? I’ll think about.
Are you a fan of the Harlem Renaissance? What stories would you love to see put on screen? Discuss!