"(Harlem) is romantic in its own right. And it is hard and strong, its noise, heat, cold, cries and colours are so. And the nostalgia is violent too; the eternal radio seeping through everything day and night, indoors and out, becomes somehow the personification of restlessness, desire, brooding."
--Nancy Cunard, Harlem Review, 1933
The words "Harlem Renaissance" conjure up vivid images: Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club, flappers in beads and scarves, Bessie Smith's winsome smile, Langston Hughes looking elegant and solemn at his writing table, Josephine Baker in feathered dance costumes, W.E.B. Du Bois looking confidently into the camera lens.
But the black renaissance and cultural revolution that took place in Harlem, New York between the World Wars was much more than these images. It was a profound literary and political movement as well.
This is the principle behind a new exhibit at The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco called Rhapsodies in Black. The collection combines sculptures, photographs and paintings with archival film, sound recordings and commentary by leading scholars. In this exhibit, the Harlem Renaissance is more than a phenomenon confined to artists of color in a few square miles of Manhattan. It is an historical moment of global significance, with links to Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and other parts of the U.S.
In 1925, the African-American philosopher Alain Locke published "The New Negro," an anthology that contained the works of some of the writers of the period: Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston. In Harlem, "Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination," Locke wrote in the introduction. Instead of using more direct political means, African-American artists and writers employed culture to work for goals of civil rights and equality. And for the most part, jazz, African-American paintings and books were absorbed into mainstream culture.
But it wasn't always easy.Rhapsodies in Black traces how racism in the U.S. forced some artists abroad. Josephine Baker was considered too dark to be a star in Harlem and had to move to Paris before receiving international acclaim. Opera singer and actor Paul Robeson also achieved stardom in Europe.
What was it about the 1920s and 30s that opened up the pathways toward African-American cultural expression? Are we still experiencing the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance today?
Our forum guests are: Jeffrey C. Stewart, professor of history at George Mason University, William Drummond, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who is currently working on a story for NPR about the Harlem Renaissance and Richard Powell, associate professor of art and art history at Duke University and co-curator of the exhibition.