When Alain Locke, instigator and editor of the landmark anthology The New Negro, wanted an example of "the newer motive" in African-American literature, he turned to "The Creation," the first of Johnson's sermons to be published. In this "interesting experiment," says Locke, is to be seen one of the "modernistic styles of expression" coming into being in the 1920s. "The Creation" hardly seems "modernistic" in comparison to its exact contemporary Sweeney Agonistes: it has no contemporary references, no stylistic tricks, nothing overtly "experimental." But it could seem modern in the context of The New Negro simply by avoiding certain nearly inescapable stereotypes suggested by its subject, stereotypes Eliot had naturally drawn upon for his character the Reverend Hammond Aigs. As Van Vechten put it, "The Creation" was the poem that "broke the chain of dialect which bound Paul Laurence Dunbar and freed the younger generation from this dangerous restraint."
Van Vechten's metaphor tells the whole story of the difference between these two modernisms. Linguistic imitation and racial masquerade are so important to transatlantic modernism because they allow the writer to play at self-fashioning. Jazz means freedom to Jakie Rabinowitz partly because it is fast and rhythmically unrestrained but also because it is not ancestrally his: to sing it is to make a choice of self, to do his own dubbing, as it were. For African-American poets of this generation, however, dialect is a "chain." In the version created by the white minstrel tradition, it is a constant reminder of the literal unfreedom of slavery and of the political and cultural repression that followed emancipation. Both symbol and actuality, it stands for a most intimate invasion whereby the dominant actually attempts to create the thoughts of the subordinate by providing it speech.
Even more ironically, when a younger generation of African-American writers attempted to renew dialect writing by freeing it from the clichés Johnson criticized, fashionable white usage of the same language stood in their way as a disabling example. Locke hoped that the interest of certain white modernists in plain and unvarnished language would help to make a wider audience for writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. At one point, he actually envisioned an alliance between an indigenous American modernism and the younger Harlem writers, to be based on a mutual interest in the language of the folk. But these hopes were to be disappointed, and the younger writers found, as Johnson had, that white interest in African-American language and culture was, if anything, more dangerous than indifference.
Thus two different modernisms, tightly linked by their different stakes in the same language, emerge between 1922 and 1927. Houston Baker, Jr., has argued that Anglo-American modernism is dangerously irrelevant to the movement that was born at about the same time in Harlem. In another sense, Anglo-American modernism is dangerous in its very relevance to the Harlem Renaissance because its strategies of linguistic rebellion depended so heavily on a kind of language that writers like Johnson rejected. For this reason, however, it is impossible to understand either modernism without reference to the other, without reference to the language they so uncomfortably shared, and to the political and cultural forces that were constricting that language at the very moment modern writers of both races were attempting in dramatically different ways to free it.