They, Too, Sang America: Visual Artists’ Harlem Renaissance

In 2018, Ohio’s state capital hosted a citywide festival commemorating the Harlem Renaissance. Scholars and historians participated in forums on the movement’s impact. Spoken-word and mixed-media artists local to Ohio or from Harlem gave performances, and the Columbus Museum of Art mounted a centenary retrospective. I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 gave visual artists from the Harlem Renaissance as well as their immediate successors the kind of close reading the period’s literary artists had long enjoyed. Taken together, the exhibit and companion volume, along with Mary Schmidt-Campbell’s recently published in-depth study of one painter featured in the show, An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden, are sure to enrich generalists’ understanding of twentieth-century African American art history.

The “Harlem” renaissance was the culturally insurgent tip of a very political spear. It helps to think of the movement as an offshoot of what was then known as the New Negro movement (c. 1908–34). The Ku Klux Klan was resurgent; there was widespread violence against blacks. W. E. B. Du Bois, as editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, was impatient with stereotypical images of the shuffling, grinning, docile “Old Negro,” and sought to reimage the black experience in America, believing the arts were one benchmark by which a people’s worth was measured. One weapon in Du Bois’s and others’ arsenal of attack upon racial discrimination, in the years before and after World War I, was a clear demonstration on the part of a “Talented Tenth” of intellectual and cultural parity with the best and brightest the white world had to offer. African American achievement in these fields, it followed logically, would repudiate racist assumptions. Rival publications like Opportunity also adopted this strategy of racial empowerment by showcasing young graphic and fine arts talent. Partly because 1920s New York had already become the principal advertising, book publishing, and music recording hub of the culturally dominant Northeast Corridor, this New Negro “renaissance” came to be thought of as Harlem’s very own.

Harlem was indeed its epicenter, but this seismic “New Negro” movement fissured along different fault lines at the same time: Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in the Far West; Chicago and Kansas City in the Midwest; Atlanta and Washington, D.C., below the Mason-Dixon Line; Boston and New York in the Northeast Corridor; Berlin and Paris in Europe. Schmidt-Campbell writes that New York City, a leading center of the struggle for civil rights and a hotbed of “free radical” activity, remained relatively unscathed by the race riots occurring in more than two dozen American cities during the Red Summer of 1919, effectively “turning Harlem into a cultural demilitarized zone. It became a place where, if only briefly, cultural boundaries could be crossed, if not eliminated, at a time when cultural divides elsewhere were hardening.”

Wil Haygood, a native of Columbus and guest curator of I, Too, Sing America, traces these cross-cultural exchanges in the companion book published in conjunction with the centenary exhibit. For example, graphics and portraiture specialist Winold Reiss and Dadaist George Grosz, artists from Germany’s Weimar Republic, each significantly influenced African American art of the period, just as émigrés from Hitler’s Europe would later contribute to shaping the American artistic landscape in the 1930s and beyond. A note on the text’s organization and interdisciplinary focus is in order. As a journalist and a biographer of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and others, Haygood limits himself to the economic, intellectual, and social history of the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural and political movement. His ten chapters orient viewers toward what certain artworks “mean”; he leaves to brief catalog essays by a half-dozen scholar-curators, interspersed between and within his chapters, the task of helping viewers understand how certain objects “work”: why they succeed as art, how the components of individual creations interact, which pieces by one artist relate to those by other artists, and so on.

Hence, Haygood’s chapter “Becoming Harlem” features an embedded essay by Drew Sawyer on the Ralph Deluca Collection of African American vernacular photography. In a later chapter, “The Sad-Sweet Laughter of Vaudeville,” Sawyer balances these remarks with a brief tribute to documentary and fine-art portrait photographer James Van Der Zee. The latter’s elaborate studio props and techniques of superimposition (single prints sometimes made from double negatives), together with subjects ranging from athletes, drag-ball queens, and social club members in evening dress to soldiers in uniform, provide what Schmidt-Campbell calls “a detailed visual record of the Harlem of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, its ceremonies, rituals, street life, night life, architecture.” Right about the time Malcolm X was born, Van Der Zee photographed Marcus Garvey in the full regalia Garvey adopted as a charismatic promoter of Black Nationalism, and Haygood’s juxtaposition of that image with one of a Marion, Indiana, lynch mob (7 August 1930) is typical of the text’s savvy.

In the chapter titled “In Feverish Motion,” Carole Genshaft informs us it was Winold Reiss “who encouraged Aaron Douglas to cultivate African design elements in his work.” The February 1925 magazine cover the Urban League commissioned Reiss to design for Opportunity, with its serrated borders of lights over blacks, its harmonizing pastels, and its juxtaposition of serif over sans serif fonts, suggests what Genshaft describes as “traditional masks from West and Central Africa.” Aaron Douglas’s cover for the February 1926 issue—with its “geometric angles and figures that interact with jagged asymmetrical elements suggesting the rhythm and syncopation of jazz, the flat space and frieze-like format of ancient Egyptian art, and the geometric reductions of cubism and art deco”—clearly shows the influence of Reiss. 

In “The Fearless Scholar,” Haygood discusses the role Du Bois assumed when Frederick Douglass died, a role David Levering Lewis called “senior intellectual militant of his people.” Anastasia Kinigopoulo highlights the relatively little-known role Du Bois played as patron of the fine arts: during his leadership of The Crisis, he provided “a platform,” she says, “for many rising authors and artists.” Du Bois featured Laura Wheeler’s Egypt and Spring on the April 1923 cover, and he commissioned artwork by Douglas for various issues. “In 1927,” says Kinigopoulo, “Douglas briefly took over as artistic director. Under Douglas, The Crisis expanded its format, modernized the typography, and published lavish full-page frontispieces in addition to the cover illustrations.” Later, The Crisis would feature in its pages the work of young political cartoonist Romare Bearden. 

In “The Two Reverend Powells,” Haygood sheds light on the cultural, political, and social impact of religion in Harlem, which had as many as 150 black churches in 1930. Vast congregations like that of Abyssinian Baptist, the platform from which pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr. catapulted into Congress, were bastions of black political activism, their pastors serving as presidents of NAACP branches, collecting thousands of petition signatures in protest of racial discrimination. Such churches served as headquarters and conference centers for community outreach initiatives, establishing night schools for the illiterate and organizing voter registration drives for the disenfranchised. Nanette V. Maciejunes illustrates this chapter with a catalog essay on Archibald Motley, painter of Mending Socks (1924), both an iconic portrait of the artist’s paternal grandmother and the very picture of elderly congregant piety.

The Columbus Museum of Art show, like its companion book, got its title from Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too, Sing America.” The poet spent some formative years in Cleveland, where he graduated from high school. Haygood devotes an entire chapter, “The Poet Who Became a Star,” to Hughes. In “An Ode to Zora Neale,” Haygood sketches Hurston, a writer with what Schmidt-Campbell calls “outsized dreams” who arrived in New York in the middle of winter with no friends, one change of underwear, and $1.50 in her pocket. This chapter devotes catalog essays to painter Jacob Lawrence and to his mentor, sculptor Augusta Savage.

Finally, in “Why the Harlem Renaissance Endures” Haygood reminds us that, long after composers such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud, and Maurice Ravel ceased frequenting Harlem cabarets, dives, and speakeasies, where they ’d jotted down jazz and blues rhythms and chords on napkins, the Harlem Renaissance was hardly “a movement confined to either upper Manhattan or the interwar period,” but was rather a “historical moment of national and international significance that continues to have reverberations far beyond its typically noted end date in the mid-1930s.”

Three years in the making, I, Too, Sing America featured a great quantity of high-quality visual art, including books, music, films, and posters from the period, illustrating the varied ways performing artists as well as videographers continue fighting representational injustice. Yet, the function of an art review is not just to report on displayed objects’ shapes, colors, sizes, materials, and textures, but also to comment on how those objects (or any missing objects) align or misalign with curatorial goals and processes—how those objects are “framed.” The exhibit itself successfully illustrated themes such as the Great Migration of African Americans to urban centers like Columbus c. 1910–40, and how subsequent African American art still mirrors the “dialectic,” as Schmidt-Campbell calls it, “between life in the industrialized North and the rural South.” The collaborative and interdisciplinary companion volume is as thoughtful, comprehensive, and scrupulously documented as Rizzoli’s book design is handsome.

In keeping with the canon of African American visual art, most names you ’d expect to find in the index of such a book do in fact appear. Generalists will be pleased to discover graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, painter Beauford Delaney, sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, painters Malvin Gray Johnson and William Henry Johnson, as well as white documentary portrait photographer Carl Van Vechten, who was by his own admission “violently interested in Negroes.” Specialists, however, might question the omission of mural painter Hale Woodruff from a show that otherwise succeeded, within the limits of institutional resources and/or permissions, in illuminating both the development of the Harlem Renaissance as an artists’ collective and the transnational evolution of individual artists. 

Schmidt-Campbell, one such specialist, argues that the “influence of Woodruff’s murals has been overlooked in art history.” Woodruff’s absence from the show, whatever the curatorial rationale, was as conspicuous as his accomplishments are undeniable. In 1936, muralist Diego Rivera granted Woodruff the historic opportunity to assist and study with him in Mexico. The remaining two-thirds of “Los Tres Grandes,” José Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, likewise influenced the thousands of hospital, library, post office, and school walls Woodruff and his African American peers decorated in the 1930s and 1940s during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vast infrastructure project, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Later, Woodruff either established or was long-tenured in the art departments of historically black colleges like Atlanta University and predominantly white institutions like New York University, whose permanent collections he helped develop, thus creating what Schmidt-Campbell calls “an environment in which young painters, sculptors, and printmakers could thrive.” Reception of his Day-Glo Amistad Murals (1938–42) has been mixed. One could even argue, as Australian art critic Robert Hughes said of Rivera himself, that Woodruff was “a gifted painter deformed by the needs of propaganda. Sometimes his work was too openly didactic and coarse-grained, too attached to populist stereotypes.” Nevertheless, Schmidt-Campbell asserts that Hale Woodruff’s legacy “was as consequential as that of any artist who lived and worked in New York.” Despite changing tastes, a definitive retrospective of early-twentieth-century African American artists without Woodruff seems as unrepresentative as a survey of Harlem Renaissance writers without Countée Cullen.

The decade 1920–30 is routinely cited as the beginning and the end of the Harlem Renaissance, although some say it began as early as 1917, when black soldiers first saw action in France as the United States entered World War I, and some say that, whenever it began, by 1934 it was over. Du Bois returned to Atlanta University in 1933. Aaron Douglas, who ’d arrived from Kansas City nearly ten years earlier, left for Nashville; there he later founded the art department at Fisk University and taught until his retirement the year before Hughes died. From the end of Prohibition, the Harlem riots of 1935, and the termination of the WPA program in 1943, Harlem went from ghetto to slum. Many whites began avoiding the place altogether, and there followed a general exodus from Harlem among first-wave visual artists in the mid-1930s, mirroring that of African American writers in the late Twenties. In a pattern of reverse migration, talent fled the City of Refuge, returning south to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Some packed up and headed off to California or France. (“Our Father,” joked Langston, “who art in Heaven, Hollywood be thy name.”)

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The end of one era marked the beginning of a new wave of black visual arts. 1935, the year James Baldwin began studying French and creative writing with Countée Cullen in middle school, marks what Mary Schmidt-Campbell calls the “generational divide.” The relatively new Museum of Modern Art mounted an influential exhibit of West African sculpture that year. Schmidt-Campbell’s An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden situates Bearden within the context of both his predecessors and contemporaries. “Bearden,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “was foreshadowing a generation of artists that succeeded those of the Harlem Renaissance.” Harlem without Romare Bearden is imaginable, but the artist of the monumental The Block (1971) is unimaginable without Harlem.

Unlike Haygood, Schmidt-Campbell is a trained art scholar. Current president of Spelman College and former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she has studied Bearden since graduate school. Her 464-page text includes 134 pages of appendix, acknowledgments, endnotes, bibliography, and index; the introduction and epilogue book-end a volume that divides into three parts, each containing three chapters. 

Part I, “Terms of the Debate,” guides the reader to Bearden’s 1911 birth in Charlotte, North Carolina, a fertile source of many themes recurrent in the artist’s work. Ubiquitous trains symbolize the connections between that growing city, the cotton fields of the Deep South, and the markets of the North. During the Great Migration, trains transported loads of African Americans from Georgia and Mississippi directly to the blast furnaces and assembly lines of Pittsburgh, where Bearden graduated from high school.

His father played church organ on Sundays. Other days, he drank and played piano. Jazz and blues were a primal source of inspiration for the first wave of Harlem Renaissance artists. Likewise, “chords of color”—sometimes harmonizing, sometimes dissonant—are dominant in Bearden’s work. “What jazz accomplished in music,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “was an example of what he desired for painting.” Readers may recognize Bearden’s work from the covers of vinyl albums and compact disc recordings of Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach.

The chapter titled “Harlem: The Promised Land” describes “the kind of public visual spectacle” that “captivated Bearden as a child and contributed to the densely rich culture that was the foundation of his work.” Harlem was Mecca for many migrants from North Carolina, and the Bearden family arrived as World War I began. During the 1920s, an era of ten-cent Saturday movies, vaudeville sketches, and Sunday parades, the Harlem Renaissance was literally alive to Bearden.

His mother Bessye appears in several books about the Harlem Renaissance. She was a newspaper columnist and advocate for women’s voting rights. In Bearden’s childhood, as in that of many other African Americans, women not only “played a prominent role,” Schmidt-Campbell writes—they “reigned.” Physical proximity was one of the things that made the Harlem Renaissance possible in the first place. Everybody knew everybody. In its heyday, Harlem was a virtual city within the city, crowding more black actors, composers, journalists, playwrights, poets, and singers into a six-square-mile radius than in all other U.S. cities combined. Socially well-connected Bessye Bearden invited famous actors to her home, played a bit part in filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s Gunsaulus Mystery, and entertained dignitaries like Du Bois. “You had to walk fast,” says Schmidt-Campbell, “to keep up with Bessye Bearden.”

Bearden came of age while this glamorous period ended. As the Depression deepened, the national unemployment rate peaked at 33 percent and in Harlem was more like 50 percent. In 1935, when Bearden graduated from New York University, he came under the lasting influence of the German artist George Grosz. He also contributed political cartoons to publications like the one his mother wrote for, the Baltimore Afro-American, as well as Opportunity.

The Harlem Renaissance had ceased to be an extant movement, and creative energies were shifting from the hub to satellites like Washington, D.C., but its scattered remnants remained a close community. Between semesters, Aaron Douglas continued to visit and paint New York. At studios like 306 W. 141st Street, better known as “306,” informal groups of black and white artists gathered—collaborating, exchanging ideas, and otherwise contributing to what Schmidt-Campbell calls the “Open University” atmosphere of Depression-era Harlem. Augusta Savage administered an eight-thousand-square-foot art school, the Harlem Community Art Center, where emerging artists Jacob (“Jake”) Lawrence and “Romie” Bearden were able to mix with established organizers like “Doug,” a decade or two their senior. Bearden traveled to Atlanta to meet Hale Woodruff. Bearden’s earliest paintings, Schmidt-Campbell argues, were as influenced by Douglas and Woodruff as by the Mexican muralists.

In I, Too, Sing America, Bearden is represented by an early work done in what Schmidt-Campbell calls “a naturalistic, social realist style,” Untitled (Harvesting Tobacco) (c. 1940), from the period that marks what oral historian Myron Schwartzman calls “the first flowering of Bearden’s art.” A matron painted in gouache on brown paper recalls the women of Bearden’s Southern childhood; Schmidt-Campbell describes the subjects with “sturdy figures calm, the faces stoic and mask-like, bodies stiffly articulated and still, as if they were carved from wood. Painted in earth tones and with muted reds and blues,” the tones are almost muddy: brownish-red ochres and greens.

Before World War II, Schmidt-Campbell says, Bearden’s images had been about “social justice issues. . . . After the war, after the death of his mother [1943] he rethought completely his views about the nature of art and his role as an artist.” 

In Part II of An American Odyssey, “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma,” the critic shows how Bearden embraced but ultimately refused to limit himself to the African roots of his heritage. He was a visual omnivore, “first and foremost a student of painting.” Schmidt-Campbell shows Bearden constantly testing himself in his own work, “trying on then discarding one approach to painting after another,” from social realism to abstraction in the 1940s, from mid-Fifties cubism to the “the rip and tear” of collages like Watching the Good Trains Go By (1964). “Bearden was finding his way home by rediscovering black subject matter,” she writes, “but home for him was as global as it was local; as black as it was white; North American, Middle Eastern, European, Asian, and African. Home was a battlefield and a fortress, a past and a future, and a way of seeing and knowing.”

Another thing Bearden and contemporaries like Lawrence had in common with first-wave Harlem Renaissance artists is what Schmidt-Campbell calls their “sustained interest in yoking together the visual and the written.” Bearden wrote prolifically—from his essay “The Negro Artist and Modern Art” in Opportunity, published when he was twenty-three, to his posthumous A History of African-American Artists: 1792 to the Present (1993). Essayist Albert Murray suggested to Bearden many of the evocative titles his works bear. In return, Bearden designed the book cover for Murray’s novel Train Whistle Guitar (1977) as well as Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography To Be or Not to Bop (1978). In 1983, the Limited Editions Club published Derek Walcott’s Poems of the Caribbean, illustrated by Bearden watercolors and a lithograph. Likewise, Aaron Douglas designed the dust jackets for Arna Bontemps’s God Sends Sunday (1931), as well as several books by Countée Cullen, Claude McKay, and others, while Lawrence illustrated one of Langston Hughes’s books.

Schmidt-Campbell’s sixth chapter, “A Voyage of Discovery: 1950–1960,” describes the nearly six months Bearden spent in Paris, another place Harlem Renaissance visual artists had in common with successive generations. Augusta Savage spent most of 1930–31 in Paris, in a Latin Quarter studio frequented by Palmer Hayden and Hale Woodruff. In Paris, Bearden met Braque, Brancusi, Matisse, and Picasso, on the last of whom African sculpture had had the kind of impact it later had on Reiss. Bearden, artistically stuck, did everything but paint in Paris. However, his productivity would return, as evidenced in the Columbus Museum’s permanent collection by his Watching the Good Trains Go By (1964), which represents Bearden’s breakthrough phase as a collagist.

Part III, “The Prevalence of Ritual,” brings us to Bearden’s late, great visual improvisations in French Caribbean blue, the Odysseus Series (1977). These “stylized black silhouettes” set against dramatic effects of intensely saturated, cannily alternated lights and darks—Home to Ithaca, for example—are based on Homer. They affirm the black experience yet beautifully transcend the limitations of identity politics, says Schwartzman, “as if Homer had been a Mediterranean-African bard” and the setting were North African rather than Greek. “Strict and classical,” these works combine what Bearden termed “spatial elegance” with masses of “sonorous color” in the manner of Matisse’s Jazz.

Fascinated all his life with manual laborers of the cotton field and steel mills, Bearden showed up every day at his studio in blue overalls before ten am and painted a solid five or six hours for the last twenty years of his life until four days before his death. Schmidt-Campbell writes that when the iconic artist “walked out of his studio for the last time, he closed the door and left with the satisfaction that his voyage of discovery had come to an end. He had finally disembarked.” 

Bearden’s definition of a great artist was one who can change our ways of seeing. The four-color plates and nearly one hundred black-and-white images from An American Odyssey cover every phase of Bearden’s development. I, Too, Sing America and An American Odyssey do for readers’ understanding of African American visual art between 1918 and 2018 what David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981) does for our understanding of Harlem Renaissance literary art. Together, they may change the way we see both Romare Bearden and his predecessors who transformed American culture through their contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.

 

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*An essay-review of:

I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100. Edited by Wil Haygood. New York: Rizzoli, 2018. 247 pp. Illustrated. $55.00. Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, organized by and presented at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, 19 October 2018–20 January 2019.

An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. By Mary Schmidt-Campbell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 464 pp. Illustrated. $34.95.

 

Kevin Brown completed “Countée, Ida Mommy & Me: A Family History of the Harlem Renaissance” in 2018, an account of his maternal great-grandmother’s marriage to the poet Countée Cullen; portions of the book have appeared in the Chattahoochee Review, Fiction International, and the Threepenny Review. Calypso Editions published his English translation of Mexican author Efraín Bartolomé ’s Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas (2014), and he was a contributing editor for The New York Public Library African-American Desk Reference (John Wiley, 2000). He is also the author of Malcolm X: His Life & Legacy (Millbrook, 1995) and of the biography Romare Bearden: Artist (Chelsea House, 1994). His articles, book reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Washington Post Book World, among other publications.