African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance

AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS

The Harlem Renaissance

To ask the question: what is African-American art? is to ask what is American art? America is a nation of immigrants. The only “American” culture is that of the Native Americans and, ironically, as was pointed out earlier, this is the most marginalized of artistic expressions in America. From the nineteenth century, scholars—completely ignoring the Native Americans—pointed out that there was no such thing as an “indigenous” American culture and that American art and literature and music were all based upon European forms and precedents. In the twenty-first century, scholars are more inclusive and speak of hybrid cultures or hyphenated art.

The Chicano and Mexican-American artists based their art on precedents from Mexico and Central America. The Asians who came to the United States from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and India also arrived with their unique sensibilities. Likewise, African-American artists, descended from slaves kidnapped out of Africa, brought the culture of African tribes to America. These African forms of literature, art and music had no ties to Europe or America or Asia. It would be fair to say that “American” art is an amalgam of four continents. It would also be fair to to point out that when cultural elements though of as quintessential “American” art are listed, the origin is, in fact African.

Black culture produced several unique genres of literature, such as the slave narrative, the sermons from the African-American churches, and, of course, the Blues, the source of gospel music and jazz. Today, many people would agree that the music that is “American” is rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and hip hop, the food that is “American” is barbeque, fried chicken, and “soul food”—all of African origin. Ironically this specifically American culture developed the result of the forced slavery and segregation of the Africans who were taken from their homelands and brought to a strange new land. Even after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were denied equality of any kind and any demands for the rights of citizenship met with violence on the part of whites.

In exchange for peace and in self-defense, Blacks withdrew from whites and formed their own separate institutions and social groups. Here, in isolation, African-Americans could be themselves, sing their own songs, maintain their African roots, make their own speeches, expressing their sense of shared struggle through sermons in the churches. While some sensitive whites were able to recognize the original qualities of African-American culture, others refused to believe that Blacks were capable of making art. Many European philosophers, including Kant and Hegel, insisted that Africans had no culture, no art forms, and were, therefore, not human, for only a fully realized human being was capable of producing art.

While the Southern churches were centers for music-making, that region of the country—an armed camp imposing white will upon the blacks by terror—had little to offer the African-Americans outside of their own marginalized culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, faced with a web of Jim Crow prohibitions, Blacks began to migrate north and one of the key destinations was New York City and the neighborhood of Harlem. In her brilliant 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson lays out a frightening historical account of “escapes’ from the South to a place of refuge in Northern cities. African-Americans were needed for their cheap labor and were not “allowed” to leave the South and were kept in their place by both legal and illegal means, much like the old slave culture. Those who managed to make it to a city like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York were brave, determined and willing to risk their lives for the American dream.

The African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, produced a remarkable suite of paintings on The Great Migration (1940-1), an exodus from the segregationist South that continued until the 1960s—fifty years to northern and western destinations. Using simple blocks of strong color, Lawrence combined figuration with Cubism to tell a visual story that is paralleled by the history later recounted by Wilkerson, a story of persecution and hardship, ending with fulfillment. Giving an account of an extreme level of segregation and lives lived in daily fear in the South, African Americans existed in near complete isolation. Wilkinson pointed out that many of these escapees had never voted, had never spoken to a white person and had never left the place of their birth. This historical background of racism in relation to the phenomenon called the “Harlem Renaissance”—the sudden flowering of art, music, poetry, literature, political philosophy in the legendary New York neighborhood—is significant because the “renaissance” was an extraordinary accomplishment from the children and grandchildren of slaves.

Understanding the incredible deprivations endured by African-Americans in the South makes the art made in Harlem more meaningful, not just in terms of paintings or sculpture, but more importantly in terms of a flowering of a glowing human-ness. The Harlem Renaissance was an attempt of African-Americans to refute the charge, leveled by whites, of being “less than human” by giving the production of culture as much importance as economic success and entry into a middle class life. To be an artist was to be a human. Being an artist requires a strong sense of self and a healthy ego, qualities not permitted for African-Americans in the South where they were indoctrinated with the propaganda that they were “inferior” in every way. And yet, once they had put distance between segregation and the closed racist society, African-Americans began to write, recount their own history, develop their own philosophy; they started to sing, to dance, to make music, to express themselves through the visual arts.

During this era important Black philosophers and cultural observers began to write seriously about what the philosopher, W. E. B. DuBois, called “the soul of black folks.” The black “soul,” DuBois stated, was divided into a “double consciousness:” on one hand, the Black was an African with the heritage of slavery, oppression, and struggle; and on the other hand, the Black was an American with all the hopes and dreams that characterized the society. The hyphenated term “African-American” reflects that dichotomy, that divided identity that has created the original art we call “American.” Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance practiced their craft under difficult conditions. The visual artists were supported by well-meaning but slightly condescending white patrons who disappeared with economic hard times. The musical artists performed for white patrons at venues such as the Cotton Club, where no African-Americans were allowed, except as entertainers.

Like Native Americans, African Americans, from the time of the Harlem Renaissance, confronted white art forms and were faced with a decision that white artists never had to consider. If an African-American artist appropriated “white art,” did she give up her own cultural identity in a quest to become accepted simply as an “artist?” Was she selling out? If, on the other hand, an African-American artist maintained and developed the survivals of African culture, did he risk being marginalized as a “Black artist?” Would his art ever be seen as “art?” These questions faced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Painting as a form of “fine art,” was not part of an African heritage, like the music—jazz, blues, gospel—or the slave culture, like the soul food. African sculpture, however, was part of the tribal heritage and was celebrated by the European artists of the early twentieth century, who appropriated African art forms and made them their own.

For the African-American artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the appropriation would be reversed: Western style easel painting was used by Blacks to make statements that were specifically African-American. In doing so, the artists signaled by their adherence to painting both an assimilation of white art forms and a desire to use them to preserve and develop their own modes of expression. The easel painters of the Harlem Renaissance used painting to develop African motifs, such as Lois Mailou Jones, or to show life in Harlem, such as Palmer Hayden, or the culture of New Orleans, such as Archibald Motley. Similarly, sculptor, Richmond Barthe, used Greco-Roman forms to celebrate African life.

The hybrid art of African Americans is hybrid because these artists are, first and foremost “American” and are part of the larger American society. “African” is a statement of pride and distinction and expressions of “African-ness” are American-style survivals of tribal culture, a culture from which they have been separated for centuries. The result, as with all American art, all of which is hybrid, is a rich mixture of histories and traditions and inheritances. One of the most famous works of visual art of the Harlem Renaissance were the murals of the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. These murals, telling the story of Africans who came as slaves to America and suffered and endured and final triumphed, were the masterworks of Aaron Douglas.

However, the Harlem Renaissance was part of the jazz age, the Prohibition, and was dependent upon a prosperous bubble economy. After the Crash on Wall Street in 1929, the Great Depression devastated all of America and, as usual, the African-Americans were especially hard hit. America did not recover from the collapse of the economy until World War jump-started the stalled economy and offered hope, once again, to African-Americans. The photographer who recorded the Harlem Renaissance, its people and its places, James Van Der Zee, lived long enough to photograph the second coming of African-American art when he made a portrait to the Puerto-Rican-Haitian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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