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A Century of Harlem Renaissance, a Groundbreaking Moment in American Art and Culture

  • Allan Rohan Crite - School's Out (detail) Harlem Renaissance
October 26, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

In the early 20th century, the neighborhood of Harlem began to emerge as the premier black metropolis and a black cultural mecca in the United States. This development was followed by the intellectual, social and artistic explosion of African American culture which erupted in the neighborhood and spread across the cities of the greater Midwest – what we today refer to as the Harlem Renaissance. This fruitful time saw the blossoming of a myriad of talents by an astonishing array of African American artists, writers and musicians. Critic and teacher Alain Locke described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which the African American community was able to seize upon its “first chances for group expression and self-determination.”

This groundbreaking moment in American cultural history is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the city of Columbus, Ohio, where its influence had spread between 1918 and the 1950s, will take part with citywide celebrations. The Columbus Museum of Art is hosting a comprehensive show which will offer a fresh look at the history and visual art and material culture of this Harlem movement. Titled I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100, the exhibition will provide a unique opportunity for the public to experience the work of a range of Harlem Renaissance artists and reconsider their legacy.

Jacob Lawrence - The Long Stretch, 1949
Jacob Lawrence – The Long Stretch, 1949. Collection Allan Kollar, Seattle, WA

Harlem as the Black Cultural Mecca

The origins of the Harlem Renaissance lie in the Great Migration of the early 20th century when hundreds of thousands of black people migrated from the South into dense urban areas in the North that offered relatively more economic opportunities and cultural capital. Although the neighborhood of Harlem was initially meant for the white upper class, the rapid overdevelopment during the 1880s has left many of the buildings empty and landlords looking to fill them.

After first black families moved from the neighborhood called Black Bohemia to Harlem, New York other African Americans followed. During the Great Migration, Harlem drew nearly 175,000 of those from the South who were seeking better jobs and education for their children and escaping a culture of lynching violence. Additionally, during and after World War I, immigration to the United States fell, and northern recruiters headed south to entice black workers to their companies. Soon, the neighborhood of Harlem turned into the largest concentration of African Americans in the world.

Horace Pippin - Self-Portrait, 1941, Palmer Hayden - The Subway, 1930s
Left: Horace Pippin – Self-Portrait, 1941. Albright Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY, @ Estate of Horace Pippin / Right: Palmer Hayden – The Subway, 1930s. New York State Office of General Services / Harlem Art Collection

The Birth of the Harlem Renaissance

As racism was still widespread and economic opportunities unstable, the creative expression served as one of the few possible outlets for African Americans. This was the birth of the movement, originally called the New Negro Movement which is today known as the Harlem Renaissance. Starting in literature and poetry and spreading to various cultural facets, such as jazz accompanied by vibrant nightlife, as well as visual art and performance, the Harlem Renaissance, according to Locke, transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.”

Two of the earliest breakthroughs were in poetry, with Claude McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows in 1922 and Jean Toomer’s Crane in 1923, followed by Jessi Redmond Fauset’s 1924 novel There Is Confusion which explored the idea of black Americans finding a cultural identity in a white dominated Manhattan. As black-owned magazines and newspapers flourished, African American started shaping their own distinct culture free from the constraints of the mainstream white society. Some of the most notable writers of the time were Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKayJean Toomer, Rudolf Fisher, Wallace Thurman, and Nella Larsen.

As visual arts were never welcoming to black artists, the Harlem Renaissance gave an opportunity for them to explore their own identity through a range of media and exhibit their work in Harlem venues. The activities of the Harmon Foundation were seminal in nurturing and promoting the African American art. The artist Aaron Douglas, often called as “the Father of Black American Art”, employed African-centric imagery to create paintings, murals and illustrations which addressed social issues around race and segregation in the United States. The sculptor Augusta Savage, whose studio was important to the careers of a rising generation of artists who would become nationally known, fiercely battled racism to secure a place for African Americans, especially women, in the art world. Other notable artists of the time were Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob LawrenceRichmond Barthé, and Charles Alston, among others.

Augusta Savage - Gamin, ca. 1929, Winold Reiss - Harlem Girl, ca. 1925, African American
Left: Augusta Savage – Gamin, ca. 1929. John an Susan Horseman Collection / Right: Winold Reiss – Harlem Girl, ca. 1925. Museum of Art and Archeology, University of Missouri

A Comprehensive Show

The exhibition is curated by Wil Haygood who in 2015 published a book Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America which is much connected to the Harlem Renaissance and its continuing legacy. Best known for his book The Butler, which was turned into an award-winning movie, Haygood grew up on the Near East Side of Columbus in a landscape filled with jazz that was an exuberant legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. While writing for The Boston Globe about the movement in 1983, he has been in direct contact with many of the artists.

As Haygood explains, the early 1900’s was a time when freedom erupted in the country and art and poetry and writing served as “both a fuel for and expression of that freedom.”

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that only light can drive out darkness. Throughout our nation’s history of dark tyranny against minorities, artists’ light has served to change minds.

The culmination of decades of reflection, research, and scholarship by Haygood, the exhibition captures the range and breadth of this extensive black movement through paintings, prints, photography, sculpture, contemporary documents and ephemera. In addition to works by artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth CatlettAaron DouglasAllen Rohan Crite, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, Horace Pippin and Augusta Savage, the exhibition will showcase an important selection of photographs by James Van Der Zee, dozens of vernacular photographs from the Ralph DeLuca Collection of African American Vernacular Photography, as well as a selection of books, music, films and posters from the period.

This comprehensive exhibition sheds light to multiple facets of the movement, from lives of the people and social history to art, literature and jazz, highlighting the amazing cultural output which transformed contemporary representations of the black experience in America.

Allan Rohan Crite - School's Out. African Americans
Allan Rohan Crite – School’s Out. Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Harlem Renaissance Art and Artists at Columbus Museum of Art

The exhibition I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 will be on view at Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio until January 20th, 2019.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 250-page, fully-illustrated catalog of the same name published by Rizzoli New York. It was written by Wil Haygood, with contributions by CMA Curator at Large Carole Genshaft; CMA Executive Director Nannette V. Maciejunes; CMA Assistant Curator Anastasia Kinigopoulo; and former CMA Head of Exhibitions and William J. and Sarah Ross Soter Associate Curator of Photography Drew Sawyer, now the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum curator, photography at the Brooklyn Museum.

The show will also be accompanied by a series of related programs. On October 28th, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., the museum will host a Harlem Renaissance Community Day where the entire community is invited for a fun, free day of art exploration at CMA.

 harlem renaissance Editors’ Tip: I Too Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 by Wil Haygood

Organized on the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance which started in New York with literature and poetry, the exhibition at Columbus Museum of Art will offer a major survey on the visual art and material culture of the groundbreaking movement against the dominant white culture. This lushly illustrated chronicle includes work by cherished artists such as Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden, Allan Rohan Crite, Palmer Hayden, William Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, and James Van Der Zee. The project is the culmination of decades of reflection, research, and scholarship by Wil Haygood, acclaimed biographer and preeminent historian on Harlem and its cultural roots. In thematic chapters, the author captures the history and the range and breadth of the Harlem Renaissance, including literature, visual art and jazz.

Featured image: Allan Rohan Crite – School’s Out (detail). Smithsonian Museum of American Art; Lucy Ashijan – Untitled (Savoy Dressing Room) (detail), 1937-42. Gelatin silver print. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Photo League Collection, gift of Gregor Ashijan Preston. All images courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art.