Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blavatsky and the Harlem Renaissance

Forthcoming from Brill in 2015, Esotericism in African American Religious Experience: “There Is a Mystery”, edited by Stephen C. Finley, Margarita Simon Guillory, and Hugh R. Page, Jr., makes a major contribution to the new area of Africana Esoteric Studies (AES): a “trans-disciplinary enterprise focused on the investigation of esoteric lore and practices in Africa and the African Diaspora.” The book’s twenty essays cover a number of African American cultural trends from the nineteenth century to the present.

Jon Woodson’s chapter, “The Harlem Renaissance as Esotericism,” looks at the influence of Blavatsky on one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer:

It is often said that there was an occult revival in the 1920s and that the occult revival was prepared by the popularity of theosophy, a movement that began in the nineteenth century and that continued to be influential as modern cultural movements began to form. The founder of Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky was a prolific author whose books were widely disseminated by the Theosophical Society. Jean Toomer, the central figure in the introduction of esoteric thought into the African American community in the 1920s, had a deep appreciation for Blavatsky’s writings and he used her concepts to originate his revision of racial thought.

Toomer (1894—1967), an important figure in African-American literature, became a conduit for esoteric ideas to his circle that included Carl Van Vechten and Zora Neale Hurston. He later became interested in Gurdjieff, studying with A.R. Orage in America and travelling to France to meet Gurdjieff. According to Woodson, “The attraction of Blavatsky for Toomer was the authority with which she explicated the various stages of man's rise from the material to the ethereal.”

The volume also contains a chapter on “Paschal Beverly Randolph in the African American Community” by Lana Fineley.

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