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Their Eyes Were Watching Change: The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy

Their Eyes Were Watching Change: The Harlem Renaissance and Its Legacy – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2003

By C.L. Sebrell

At The Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts now through April 13

In 1939 Billie Holiday first sang “[amazon_link id=”B00006AWJC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Strange Fruit[/amazon_link],” a poem-song written by Lewis Allan about a lynching, in a fashionable, smoke-filled Greenwich Village nightclub called Cafe Society Downtown. Although Lady Day could easily put her signature mark on just about any song, she had rehearsed the tune for weeks in preparation for its oddly-placed debut. “I worked like the devil on it,” she said at the time, “because I was never sure I could get across to a plush nightclub audience the things it meant to me.”

Although record companies protested it, Holiday insisted on recording the song as a single in April of that year with “Fine and Mellow,” a blues tune that became Holiday’s first big hit, on the flip side. While “Fine and Mellow” was a popular on Harlem jukeboxes, “Strange Fruit” appealed to intellectuals and the urban counterculture, who saw in it Holiday’s contribution to a growing art, music, and literature movement that aimed to give blacks in America a new identity.

The Harlem Renaissance, as it was later coined, started in the 1920s and was built by exposing disparities like the one Holiday found in singing a song about a lynching in the up-scale jazz clubs of New York City. But the Renaissance was not fueled so much by obvious opposing images: black and white; rich and poor; North and South. Instead it found its voice in more subtle and politically-charged conflicts like extravagance versus simplicity, African cultural roots versus the white American mainstream, and the generational ? and some would say insurmountable ? artistic dividing lines that the 1929 Stock Market Crash and World War II created.

The Renaissance was first given a clear voice by Howard University professor Alain Locke in his carefully-conceived “New Negro Movement,” which he published in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic Magazine. Locke’s manifesto, which is supported by auxiliary essays and poetry by other black writers, insisted that modern, American-born blacks needed to focus on African music and artistic heritage to form a new “ism” peopled with “Africanists” or “Neo-Primitives.” Although he recognized that the Movement had outposts in other northern cities, he established Harlem as its epicenter. “Harlem is neither slum, ghetto, resort or colony, though it is in part all of them. It is?or promises at least to be?a race capital,” he wrote in his essay simply entitled “Harlem.” “Europe seething in a dozen centers with emergent nationalities, Palestine full of a renascent Judaism?these are no more alive with the spirit of a racial awakening than Harlem; culturally and spiritually it focuses a people. Negro life is not only founding new centers, but finding a new soul.”

The expression of that new soul would be a “Negro Zionism,” Locke argued in “Enter the New Negro,” another essay in Survey Graphic that makes a case for African Americans to use a central place as a source for political change. “Without pretense to their political significance,” he wrote, “Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia.”

Locke, who was born in 1886, was not only a champion for the Movement but he became a sort of liaison between the white university establishment and the inner-city artist, a job for which he was well-suited. In addition to being the first black Rhodes Scholar, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1907 and later attended Oxford University in England and the University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy. By 1912 he held an assistant professorship at Howard and later advanced to become a full professor there. Over the next 35 years, he would use his position at the university as a ground zero for the New Negro Movement. He dedicated himself to finding and promoting young black writers and painters and acted as a guiding force behind a younger generation who believed that freedom and social change could come from art and artistic expression.

A good amount of music and literature of the Harlem Renaissance have been assimilated into mainstream American culture today. The music of Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong, pioneers that gave way to the careers of iconic performers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s and 40s, are now American standards. Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker have made it into pop American culture. And Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a novel written in a Southern dialect that challenges the reader to enter into a world of deep poverty and emotional suffering in a black and white world, is a standard on reading lists at exclusive, private all-girls schools and major universities alike. And rightfully so. In many ways, the Harlem Renaissance has come to define what we mean by “American,” be it literature or music.

But the art and artists of the Harlem Renaissance are less known. A small, well-orchestrated exhibition at the Worcester Museum of Art offers a rare view of how the subtle but powerful contrasts that moved the music and literature of the Renaissance were expressed in paintings. The show was first conceived by the former WAM Director of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of American Art David Brigham, a thin, bespectacled, soft-spoken man who is an expert in African-American art. In June 2002, before preparations for the show could be complete, he accepted a position as director of the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania. The project was then taken over by Jordan Love, a young and enthusiastic member of WAM’s curatorial staff.

WAM’s exhibition begins with a lushly painted 1926 tableau by Archibald J. Motley, Jr., in which a group of high-fashion, flapper-style, black women are seated at a table enjoying cocktails brought to them by a tuxedoed butler. The light is warm, an ecclesiastical, Dutch-style painting over their heads and a traditional family portrait over the fireplace suggests that the women in the image are not only aware of the history of art, but are collectors of it. The painting seems to say, “Look what is going on in the big city while the Great Gatsby is carrying on out there in West Egg.” The painting invokes a more sophisticated, urban elegance than the social climbing and careless characters of “Gatsby.” With his painting, Motley gives our fantasies a choice between being invited to that table or one of Gatsby’s superficial ? and ultimately deadly ? parties.

Unfortunately, given the history of black migrations to northern cities such as Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Boston, it is unlikely that many were enjoying cocktails served by hired staff. (Few whites were, either, which is probably why “Gatsby” has held our imagination for so long.) But Motley wanted to show not what was, but what could be. He deliberately did not use what he saw as Southern, African-American images. Instead, he wanted to show beautiful black people fully enjoying his fantasy of daily, white American life. Motley was painting in an exciting and sometimes glamorous time when many believed race conflicts and differences would dissolve if we just imagined it possible. But this hope was diminished, like so many hopes, by the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Suddenly the optimism that gave the Motley’s work its buoyancy was gone, and it was up to a new generation of artists to redefine the movement’s message.

Of course, artists who followed in Motley’s footsteps, many of whom were young painters weaned on Locke’s New Negro Movement, would have other messages in mind. Instead of trying to paint black people as a part of white culture?or, painfully, not a part of it? the next generation of Harlem painters started incorporating patterns, colors, and images from African cultures as a way of honoring black Americans’ differences from their white counterparts.

Charles Alston and Jacob Lawrence, who carried the Movement into the 1940s and 50s, created more realistic images of African Americans living in the north, but the faces they painted were generic and unidentifiable in order to move away from specific times and places and to suggest the general condition of blacks. For example, take Alston’s 1950 painting “Family,” which shows a black trio ? father, mother, son ? in a traditional triangular composition. Behind them are simple pieces of furniture, a single exotic plant, a bare, wooden floor. It could easily be the stark but well-established interior of a northeastern home of a Protestant family. On second glance, it becomes clear that the simplicity is not by choice, but the result of the family’s economic condition. The mother and son are barefooted. The clothes look homemade with rough materials. The scene is bright, but there is little evidence of warmth or a reliable heat source. Yet their faces are calm, almost serene. Although the father looks slightly weary, the three stand and pose with pride. What emerges is a portrait not of a family but of strength and inner power winning out over poverty.

Other artists of the era moved toward abstract representation and culled the colors and patterns of African culture as subject matter and inspiration. Some artists, including Lois Jones and Aaron Douglas, went to Paris to see an exhibition of African masks and art, which was then a revolutionary thing to see. The two artists incorporated what they saw into book illustrations for Locke’s publications and, later, into paintings that used traditional patterns and colors of African tribal groups.

Artists who accepted Locke’s call to arms were taking up the burden of the new culture and carrying it into a new age of black pride and success free of the legacy of slavery, poverty, and violence. It was, at times, a load to heavy to bear. Just as Billie Holiday, with her upbeat performances of tunes invoking an indulgent, full-time occupation with passing lovers, insisted that “Strange Fruit” be recorded, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance did find a way to work slavery and violence against blacks into the discussion, albeit with a quiet elegance. In the WAM exhibition, the mere mention of lynching does not come until 1989, with a wall sculpture by Melvin Edwards entitled “Zhakanaka.” The meaning of the piece is so buried that it requires a curator’s text hung next to it to explain that the title means, loosely, “lynching tools.” Only then do the metal objects, cuff-like things and chains, welded together begin to take on meaning.

The WAM exhibition also pays homage to black artists who were doing revolutionary things but were largely ignored at the time. For example, Norman Lewis, who was painting with pigmented splatters in 1947, predates Jackson Pollack’s allegedly original move toward his signature style. Why, when Lewis was doing it first and perhaps even better, did American pop culture lionize the white man instead of the black? Certainly it could be argued that Pollack had Peggy Guggenheim’s money behind him while Lewis was working without that kind of financial and social backing. But the reality stinks of deep-seated racism. Pollack splattered and poured his white, male ego all over the canvas, and Americans lapped it up like milk. Would the reaction been the same if the ego that mid-century art critics had to look at so closely was that of a black man?

The WAM exhibition, which features about 55 paintings and other art works, even includes original copies of Locke’s early publications and their illustrations, including a copy of the 1925 Survey Graphic. But while WAM succeeds in giving viewers a sweeping view of the Renaissance over a nearly 90-year history, the show lacks depth. The representative view of various styles and generations of the Renaissance is ultimately a thin brush stroke rather than a complete study. This shortcoming may not be the fault to the museum, which had at first planned a much more extensive exhibition with a printed catalogue. But funding was either cutback or nonexistent. This is a pity. At a time when our country is seeking its national identity, trying to appreciate its complex heritage while working through politically charged debates over Affirmative Action and other social programs, the WAM exhibition could have been more of a source to those looking for answers. Still, despite its lack of size, there is enough to see to encourage a deeper look at a sophisticated form of African-American art and culture. Perhaps that is all it needs to do.

The Worcester Art Museum is located at 55 Salisbury Street, Worcester, Mass. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursday until 8 p.m) and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and college students, and free for students and children 17 and under. For more information call (508) 799-4406 or find the museum on line at .

C.L. Sebrell is a freelance arts writer and the features editor of The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.

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