Magazine article Insight on the News

Return to the Renaissance

Magazine article Insight on the News

Return to the Renaissance

Article excerpt

`Rhapsodies in Black,' an exhibit at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, resurrects the intellectual and artistic blossoming of African-American culture in 1920s Harlem.

Someone once asked the great composer and musician Duke Ellington, "What's Harlem really like?" It was during the vibrant late 1920s when Harlem had become synonymous with what was most alive in contemporary culture. Without missing a beat, the jazzman responded, "Why, it is just like the Arabian Nights!"

Others thought so at the time, and have thought so since. By 1920, nearly 80,000 blacks lived in the area of Manhattan just north of Central Park and west of the Harlem River, which had long since been dubbed "the Negro capital of America."

But what Ellington alluded to wasn't so much the impressive concentration of blacks who had come from the American South, the Caribbean and elsewhere--only one in five of the blacks living in Harlem in the early twenties was a native Manhattanite. Rather, what Ellington was saying--and composing great music about--concerned the vital, exciting culture that had emerged in that part of the city and had become famous nationwide. Indeed, world famous. What came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance included Ellington and his Jungle Orchestra, whose first three-year gig at the Cotton Club in 1927 had made him a legend, and much else.

Blues singer Bessie Smith was part of it. So were many writers: Jean Toomer, the author of Cane; the poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes ("I was in love with Harlem long before I got there," Hughes wrote about his arrival in Harlem at the age of 19 in 1921); novelist and poet Claude McKay, who was Jamaican born and had come to the United States to study agronomy at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and was planning to return to the Caribbean; and Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote novels and essays. But these are but a very few of those who blossomed in Harlem in the 1920s.

There were painters and sculptors: William H. Johnson and Augusta Savage, for example; and photographers such as James Van Der Zee. Dancers--Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Actors--Paul Robeson, to name one--and hostesses who held grand salons that brought the writers, artists and their hangers-on together.

No area of human cultural endeavor went untouched by the men and women of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, the first black American Rhodes scholar (Harvard, Class of '07) and author of The New Negro (1925), the book that became the unofficial manifesto of the movement, put it this way: "Harlem, I grant you, isn't typical--but it is significant, it is prophetic." But it was a folk saying of anonymous origin that probably described Harlem's appeal to black Americans best of all: "I'd rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia."

Now comes the exhibition, "Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance," to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. It takes up the art and culture of this vital period in a big way, with jazz recordings filtering through hallowed gallery halls, TV screens flickering with silent-film clips of Josephine Baker and Robeson, and more than 160 items of Harlem life in the 1920s and early 1930s including paintings, sculptures, books, lithographs and photographs.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Duke University art historian Richard J. Powell and David A. Bailey, who codirects the African and Asian Visual Artists' Archive at the University of East London. It's already been seen in London, Bristol and Warwick in England and at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. After it closes in Washington in June, the show travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where it closes in February 1999.

One spiritual father of the Renaissance was the black scholar and (later) thoroughgoing Marxist W.E.B. Dubois, author of the enormously influential The Souls of Black Folk, who had written a clarion call for black intellectuals and artists when he declared, "The great mission of the Negro to America and the modern world is the development of Art and the appreciation of the Beautiful. …

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