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The dazzling Harlem Renaissance that flowered in New York nearly a century ago

Norman Lewis. “Jumping Jive,” 1942, Oil on canvas. (Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery via The Washington Post)

A serious exhibition in Columbus celebrates the American motion that was marked with literary, inventive and musical brilliance.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Harlem Renaissance kicked off after a summer time of bloody race-related riots in 1919. It flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s, a mere half-century after the abolition of slavery, amid a nationwide revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The context suggests instantly how absurd it might be to divorce the Harlem Renaissance from questions of sociology and — most clearly — race. And but it’s value insisting that what makes the Harlem Renaissance particular — what makes it such a shining second in American historical past — is its legacy of literary, inventive and musical brilliance.

That’s why it issues that “I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100,” a fantastic present on the Columbus Museum of Artwork, is known as for a poem by Langston Hughes. (”Apart from,” the poem concludes, “they’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed,-/ I, too, am America.”)

That’s why it issues that the primary works in the present are portraits of artists and writers reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas and W.E.B. Du Bois: They have been among the many daring, artistic spirits who made the Harlem Renaissance occur.

And that’s why it issues that, displayed all through the exhibition, are dozens of unique editions of the magazines and books they created. Amongst them: “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” the March 1925 challenge of Survey Graphic journal compiled by Alaine Locke; and “The New Negro,” the expanded anthology it spawned later that yr. No publications did extra to form what turned often known as the Harlem Renaissance.

“I, Too, Sing America” was put collectively by Wil Haygood, who, at 64, is a first-time curator. He’s been busy at different issues: The writer of seven nonfiction books (together with biographies of a number of figures linked to the Harlem Renaissance), he was born and raised in Columbus in the traditionally African-American district of King-Lincoln Bronzeville, adjoining to the Columbus Museum of Artwork.

Haygood has labored for each The Boston Globe and The Washington Submit (his 2008 Publish story about Eugene Allen, an African-American who labored in the White Home underneath eight presidents, was made into the movie “The Butler,” starring Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding Jr.) His journalistic background exhibits: The catalog, targeted on information, personalities, and occasions, is a pleasure to learn.

What’s extra, he and his fellow curators, all from the Columbus Museum of Artwork, keep away from the pitfalls the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork fell into in 1969 when it mounted “Harlem on my Mind.” That present, meant as a progressive-minded celebration of the black group, was a fiasco for causes arduous to sum up in a sentence. (Susan E. Cahan gives a riveting account in “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power.”)

Suffice it to say that it was a present concerning the tradition of Harlem that failed to incorporate unique artwork by African-American artists; that it was organized by a well-meaning however overly controlling white curator, Allon Schoener, who tried to deploy revered African-People for window-dressing; and that the catalog’s introduction, by a 17-year-old highschool scholar, contained a unprecedented declare linking African-People with anti-Semitism.

The Met present broke attendance data. Many individuals liked it. However in phrases of PR, the whole lot that might go fallacious, did go fallacious. Artists picketed the present. Artwork critics condemned the Met’s transfer away from artwork towards leftist sociology. The American Jewish Congress took out a full-page advert in The New York Occasions condemning the Met.

In Columbus, issues have been accomplished in a different way. The artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance are entrance and middle. Their achievements are usually not celebrated simply in the summary; they’re on the partitions and on pages sure between lovely ebook covers.

We see in the primary galleries, for example, Edwin Augustus Harleston’s 1930 portrait of Aaron Douglas, palette and brushes in hand. “I create,” it calmly pronounces. Close by, provided as proof, are Douglas’ stylized pictures in gouache of Harlem jazz golf equipment; his woodblock prints illustrating a Eugene O’Neill play; his nightfall jacket illustration for James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones”; and his cowl designs each for FIRE!!, a single-issue journal of lasting influence; and the Might 1928 problem of The Disaster, probably the most extensively learn and distributed journal of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Disaster was (and nonetheless is) put out by the NAACP. In operation since 1910, it was edited till 1933 by Du Bois, whose 1925 portrait, by the German artist Winold Reiss, we see in the second gallery.

Reiss was a massive affect on Douglas. The German’s pastel portraits have been commissioned by Locke for “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Amongst them was a double portrait of two younger public faculty academics that is as freshly lovely immediately because it was confronting to racist mindset then. (At a reception for Reiss, one man declared that the 2 academics would have scared him had he encountered them on the road. Galleries wouldn’t present them, Anastasia Kinigopoulo writes in the catalog, “out of fear they would attract black clientele.”)

Reiss additionally made a research, in three-quarter profile, referred to as merely “Harlem Girl,” with affinities to a close by face, “Mask of a Girl,” sculpted by Sargent Claude Johnson. Comprised of hammered copper and enhanced with gilding on the woman’s braided hair, Johnson’s small piece got here out of an impulse he articulated 10 years later: He needed, he stated, to point out “the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing, and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself.”

Some may be embarrassed by such sentiments in the present day, taking their premise without any consideration. However, on the time, few individuals might. “It is fair to say,” wrote Arnold Rampersad, a biographer of each Hughes and Ralph Ellison, in his introduction to a 1992 version of Locke’s “The New Negro,” “that, in the face of racial ‘science,’ most of the (black) contributors to the volume accepted the notion of black racial and cultural inferiority compared to the highest standards of European civilization.”

But these writers and artists additionally believed passionately that issues have been altering. They believed they have been a part of a transformation that would result in political company and a broad-based cultural flourishing.

And so it did. The Harlem Renaissance started quickly after 200,000 black troopers returned from Europe on the finish of World Warfare I. The U.S. Military was nonetheless segregated. Most black troopers had served as help troops. However some African-American regiments — most notably the 369th Infantry Regiment, the so-called “Harlem Hellfighters” — fought and have been acknowledged for his or her bravery.

In France, that they had been handled with a degree of respect they have been not often afforded at residence. Now, returning victorious, they demanded equality with renewed urgency.

In the meantime, in the course of the 4 years of the conflict in Europe, half a million blacks had left the American South for northern cities similar to Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland and New York, the place they settled in Harlem. Racial tensions have been infected each in the South, whose white farm house owners resented the departure of low cost black labor, and in the North, the place whites felt uneasy concerning the altering face of their cities.

Lynchings remained widespread in the South, however makes an attempt to cross an anti-lynching invoice in Congress have been repeatedly annoyed. White racial supremacy, extensively accepted, was strengthened by influential books and films, together with D.W. Griffith’s landmark movie, “Birth of a Nation,” based mostly on “The Clansman,” by Thomas Dixon Jr., a shut good friend of President Woodrow Wilson. Labor disputes elevated in frequency. And in summer time 1919 — referred to as the Purple Summer time — bloody confrontations between blacks and whites broke out throughout the nation.

How did a so-called “renaissance” — what considered one of its main figures, Arna Bontemps in comparison with “a foretaste of paradise” — emerge from a lot strife? Sociology explains solely a lot. It can’t plumb the deeper causes for artistic flourishing, which could have much less to do with statistics and social actions than with friendships, rivalries, amorous affairs and the unusual sparks despatched off by souls in turmoil. “A blue haze descended at night,” Bontemps wrote, “and with it strings of fairy lights on the broad avenues.”

“I, Too, Sing America” tells the story of the central figures in the Harlem Renaissance. However it additionally takes a wider take a look at the motion’s legacy. It exhibits nice artwork made in the ‘40s and ‘50s, as an example, by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis. All three have been stars of the subsequent era, however they have been taught by the sculptor Augusta Savage, a central determine in the Harlem Renaissance.

The present takes us past Harlem, too. Allan Rohan Crite painted black life in Boston, however very a lot beneath the affect of Harlem Renaissance figures. A number of of his footage are right here, together with sculptures by Meta Fuller, who studied with Rodin in Paris and was near Du Bois and Savage however who by no means lived in Harlem.

Accusations of mental snobbery have lengthy hovered across the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was the primary black Rhodes scholar, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, and a thinker who had studied in Paris and Berlin. Du Bois, regardless of his misguided impatience with artwork that was not overtly propagandistic, might appear cautious in contrast with Garvey, whose extra radical, Pan-African rhetoric and entrepreneurial energies have been additionally a part of the story of Harlem in the 1920s.

Locke might have papered over some sociopolitical realities in favor of vaguer conjectures in the realm of tradition. However what his energies helped make potential shouldn’t be underestimated: a truthful, respectful and genuine depiction of black humanity and recognition for burgeoning black artistic brilliance. The message — primarily, that black tradition issues — ought to by no means have been required; however it was as essential then because it stays at the moment.