Monday, June 15, 2015

When Washington Was in Vogue by Edward Christopher Williams

I discovered Washington Was in Vogue through DC By the Book, a project that identifies and compiles a database of literature set in DC. It is the second of three books that I decided to read because of the initiative. Breathing Room by Patricia Elam was the first.

The novel, which is referred to as a lost novel of the Harlem Renaissance, unfolds as a comical series of letters written by Davy Carr to his friend Bob. (I believe Song of Solomon is the only other novel I’ve read that captures the friendship of two men.) Davy is in Washington, DC to do research for a book about the African slave trade. While there he meets a young woman named Caroline that he’s not quite sure how to handle. But through the letters he sends to Bob, it’s obvious that he’s falling in love with her.

As Davy becomes familiar with his new surroundings, he gets absorbed into circles of friendship and finds himself right at the center of life as a black elitist in Washington, DC. They are people that play as hard as they work and love an elaborate affair that will bring people together. One such occurrence is an HBCU football classic between Hampton and Howard Universities.  People travel from all parts of the country to attend parties and reunions that take place because of the annual event. On game day, people don their best apparel and catch up with those they didn’t manage to see before the game. Even today, HBCU football classics are a huge deal, and can still be considered more of a fashion show and social function than sporting event.

This colorfully written book also does some pretty heavy lifting. The author decides to tackle some  community issues. After spending some time with his new friends, Davy decides he must be in the company of the wealthiest individuals around town. But an acquaintance points out that the professions of those individuals could not afford them the lifestyles of which they boast. In other words, there’s a lot of keeping up with the Joneses.

It’s even stated that many of these self-proclaimed, well to do individuals are ignorant about things that should be most important. While they are about town making sure they are seen at the festivities surrounding the football game, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill is dying in Congress.

The book goes on to address colorism, passing, and even delves into women’s issues. Even though a love story does play out in the book, all characters don't have the same luck. Apparently the supposed lack of eligible bachelors is a one hundred year old problem. But there were many things in this book that made me think, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Originally published in 1926, When Washington Was in Vogue is a fun and thought provoking read that's definitely flown under the radar. It was the only book published by Edward Christopher Williams, the country's first black professional librarian. He died in 1929 and was a librarian at Howard University at the time.

“Youth - which has so much more of time - is so much more impatient than maturity.” 
When Washington Was in Vogue

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