Just shy by eight years, The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher was published almost a century ago. But if I hadn’t told you that, you’d have been none the wiser.
Following the lives of a tiny subsection of 1920’s Black Harlem, Fisher gives us a snapshot of what it was like to be both Black women and men during the significant period of the Harlem Renaissance, exploring romantic relationships, friendships, employment, leisure, buying property, and importantly, the issues of race and class that hung over every one of these aspects. Fisher brings his characters to life using subtle humour and dialect: the most notable being the Black Southern ‘drawl’. The perspective is that of an old, wise relative, one who has arrived from the South, walked the streets of Harlem, and has been in place of, or close to, the characters who feature in the novel. He’s seen it all, done it all, rubbed shoulders with the rich and poor and everyone in between, as well as humans of every shade: from cool white, through warm olive, to the ‘downright fever’ of chestnut.
We dip in and out of the lives of a handful of striking characters, including the Black lawyer, Merritt who buys a house in a white neighbourhood and his old white neighbour, Cramp who confuses charity for prejudice. We meet young Shine, who shows us what it really was to navigate through the complicated journeys of women and work in the 1920s as a Black man. Adding an air of authenticity as well as comedy, Jinx and Bubber are there at a drop of a hat to make their remarks about it all – usually in dodgy Patmore’s bar.
Though not initially evident, we learn that Shine is significant in highlighting the main theme of the novel: the optimism of Black Americans to get ahead, and not only to thrive in Harlem, but to escape it if they so wish. The presence of white characters in the novel, particularly Miss Cramp, highlights this optimism as a necessity. Though comedic in places, the very satire carries a spirit throughout the narrative: one of laughing in the face of adversity and struggle.
What I thought? I thought it was heartbreaking and eye-opening. It was definitely funny. But I also thought it was sadly hopeful for a brighter future – a prosperous future for the Black kids of the 20s, one-hundred years later. I couldn’t help but feel the world is still 1920s Harlem, just disguised in other ways, behind other neighbourhoods and other forms of prejudiced behaviours. Though, that doesn’t take anything away from the novel itself. It was the first I read of Fisher’s and absolutely, a million-percent, not the last I will read of his. I thought The Walls of Jericho was endless complexities compacted into 298 pages. And I’m still left wondering what came of Shine and Linda.