|Posted: Feb. 20, 1998
||An exhibit in San Francisco explores the artistic and cultural legacies of the 1920s and 30s during the Harlem Renaissance.
|The Online NewsHour asks|
|Why did the artists of the Harlem Renaissance use primitive, sensual images and music to celebrate black culture when African-Americans have often been stereotyped with images of the primitive and the exotic? Was this ever addressed or challenged by the African-American community?|
|Professor Richard Powell responds:|
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the art and culture of
the Harlem Renaissance is that the African American artist was
somehow above and beyond the primitivist mindset: that the
exoticizing of Africa, the exploring of sexual themes, and the
interrogation of the black demimonde was primarily something that
white artists and intellectuals were engaged in. Yet if one studies
the historical record and the cultural artifacts from the period, we
see many African American artists delving into these problematic
themes and subjects. Why? Because (among many other reasons)
many of these artists saw this approach as underscoring their
Since the mid-to-late nineteenth century, European moderns declared
their artistic and intellectual difference from the more conservative
schools of art by painting carousers in cafes, decadent circus
performers, prostitutes and their clients in bordellos, and
the indigent. They also turned to non-western cultures -- especially
Africa and Oceania -- for inspiration and information. And they
earnestly looked at peasants from rural France and from small villages
in northern and eastern Europe: all of this in order to invest their art with
power and provocation.
Many African American artists (much to the chagrin of the more
conservative critics, like W.E.B. Du Bois) did the same thing.
Langston Hughes wrote poetry that celebrated the blues singers
and jazz dancers. Paul Robeson played the roles of the stevedore
and "jackleg" preacher on the Broadway stage and in films. Duke
Ellington composed a range of musical compositions, some quite
elegant and sophisticated, while others more fitting for the "hoochie
choochie" dancers in the nightclubs. And Josephine Baker turned
Paris, Berlin, London, and Copenhagen upside down with her
suggestive banana dance and sense of abandonment. All of these artists
knew what they were doing and, yet, were willing to push their work
to the primitivist extremes, in order to make radical artistic statements, to
critique what was then seen as a stultifying white puritan ethic, and (to
quote the African American muralist Aaron Douglas) to "create something
transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually
Despite being addressed and challenged by Du Bois and others, these and
other Harlem Renaissance artists forged ahead with their new ways of
seeing black culture, proclaiming (as Langston Hughes did in 1926): "If
white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter....
If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their
displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow,
strong as we know how, and stand on top of the mountain, free within
|Professor Jeffrey Stewart responds|
There are at least two answers to this question. First, as I suggest in my essay, "Paul Robeson and the Problem of Modernism" in the catalogue to the Rhapsody in Black exhibition, the "primitivist" theme in Harlem Renaissance writings and theatre was predominantly the work of liberal European American writers such as the New York socialite Mary Wiborg, who wrote the play, "Taboo," or the great American playwright Eugene O'Neill, who wrote the play, "The Emperor Jones."
An interest in primitivism among such writers derived from a variety of sources. Some became interested in primitivism because of the discovery and recognition of African art by European artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, and others. Others were attracted to the idea of primitivism because of the writings of Sigmund Freud, who argued that much of civilization was an unhealthy repression of legitimate primal urges, a repression that led to neurosis. Some others were influenced by the anthropological theories of Franz Boas, the Columbia University professor, who argued that there was no significant difference between the civilized and the so-called "primitive" mind of peoples who had had little contact with Western culture.
These various ideas coalesced into a widely held belief in sophisticated circles that one of the unintended consequences of racism and segregation in America was to exclude African Americans from the negative aspects of civilization and to preserve in them a more "primitive" mentality. While today this belief is rightly criticized, in the 1920s, it was seen as a positive: primitive meant something good, something better than civilized, at least among a select group of intellectuals and artists who congregated in urban centers like Greenwich Village and Harlem. African American actors like Paul Robeson were attracted to such plays like "Emperor Jones" because they constituted some of the first opportunities to perform in dramatic rather than comedic roles. Also, Robeson and some others saw some of these roles as opportunities to explore their Africanness. It was only later, in the 1930s, that Robeson began to question the accuracy and legitimacy of some of his roles in such British films as "Sanders of the River," "King Solomon's Mines," etc., and to search for more authentic plays about the African experience.
In terms of Black writers and artists who themselves wrote or constructed art on the African or "primitive" theme in the 1920s, it must be admitted that some of them did so in part to cash in on the fad or the "vogue of the Negro." There arose a market for plays and poems and visual art that explored such themes, and Black artists who had great difficulty making a living as artists cashed in on this fad to make a few bucks. There were others, also, who, coming from middle class backgrounds, were ignorant about the lives of working class African Americans, many of whom had recently migrated out of the rural South into the urban North.
In many respects, these middle class writers and artists could themselves view members of their own race who were from the South and less sophisticated than their urban, northern, more middle class brethren, as "primitive."
What is most important is to see the Harlem Renaissance as a transitional period, in which African American writers and artists explored notions of "the primitive" and learned how such images could be used for and against the race. It is also important to realize that in the 1920s the term "primitive" had a slightly different meaning among the literary elite than it does today.
Actually, some African American audiences did react against the cult of the primitive in such art. I relate in my essay that when "The Emperor Jones" was performed in Harlem, it failed, because the audience of predominantly Black patrons hooted, howled, and laughed at the performances, particularly the scene in which Brutus Jones becomes "scared" in the jungle." For working class African Americans living in Harlem, the 'jungle" was the urban world of survival they were daily struggling to survive in, not some romanticized and distant Africa.
|Professor William Drummond responds|
Today I interviewed Jacob Lawrence, the country's most celebrated
African-American painter and a man who lived through the Harlem
Renaissance, for a piece I'm doing for National Public Radio. Based on his
answers and my own research into the issues, I'll try to respond to the
Painters like Mr. Lawrence were listening to their own inner voice
when they created their art. Lawrence said he felt the influences of such
people as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. It doesn't seem to me that he
thought of his style at the time as either primitive or especially sensual.
He, of course, has a particularly unique style. His major contributions
were "story-telling" panels, depicting such things as the life of
abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Nevertheless, I think that the graphic artists
of this movement would say the same thing. They were depicting the life
and times in which they lived or the history that became real to them.