August 25, 1929 [Hallelujah!]

I'm fond of considering the hidden world of children--but many worlds remain hidden to me, including the one inhabited by the American Negro. I am not one to avoid those different from myself, but find (or is that "make"?) little opportunity to attempt--let alone maintain--meaningful contact with that race. Oh, we all love Bert Williams' comic songs and "Fats" Waller's left-handed stride and the boundless optimism of "Potato Head Blues"--and I can remember setting down The Souls of Black Folk when Du Bois wondered if his son was better off dead than alive and facing the color-line, and thought of my own son, and how terrible the world would have to be for me to wish him best out of it. But these are moments in a long life, one that crossed an ocean of death and lived in animal servitude--but whose cries are often distant in my ear. This is a phenomenon perhaps not "peculiar" only to the United States; but I will note that, at least in France, such distance is not so widely kept. Still, our eyes will not allow us to ignore what they see, and the sense of difference persists, no matter how pernicious the result.

So I cannot say much about Hallelujah!--beyond its irresistible energy and exuberance. The theater did not enforce separate seating, but the Negro patrons still kept to the balcony--and I could hear them up there occasionally laughing, tsk-tsking bad behavior, murmuring approval for virtue--but more often humming or singing along. And we all grew appropriately weepy at the reunion at the end, the forgiveness bestowed. And so two things remain with me: the movie's urge to find more in its all-Negro characters than antebellum devotion to Massa or goggle-eyed comic relief, and the music. There is a scene of river-side baptisms that has a fantasy-in-reality quality, as the faithful walk into the water, part solemn procession, part ecstatic revelation. It was as though the water called to them--and the audience--to go down in order to emerge once more; and leaving the theater, I walked into a light rain, life once more imitating art, deferring to its superior.


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