Monthly Archives: February 2010

Black History Lesson

Life is an ongoing learning experience, and I’ve learned in 2010 that not everyone appreciates the ghosts I see as I walk down Lenox Avenue every day.

I was surprised when speaking to a colleague recently to learn that in most of the United States, there exists at best a vague awareness of the cultural legacy left by the Harlem Renaissance.  Harlem, my colleague from San Francisco told me, is known in his hometown primarily for its high rates of poverty and crime.  It took personal initiative for him to go beyond those stereotypes and come to understand a different side of this community.

While the casual reader may wonder if a greater awareness exists about “the Black Capital of America” among African-Americans, consider that my colleague is African-American.

When, while my co-director and I were writing our charter application in 2003, another colleague proudly handed me an annotated reference list of Harlem Renaissance luminaries that she compiled in college, I thought, “Big deal.”  Only now do I understand that this simple list probably provided, in the days before the World Wide Web, a useful service at her undergraduate institution.

So I have learned that after all these years, growing up in New York City, and going to a public school only a block away from Spanish Harlem, probably gave me a special insight into the history of Harlem that most of the country doesn’t share.  In high school I read James Baldwin novels, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass together with Langston Hughes’ poetic response.  And I thought everyone did! 

As future founders of Harlem Link, my co-director and I came to teach in Harlem almost by accident, one of us placed here in a vacant teacher position by Teach For America and the other moving from the South Bronx in search of a smaller, more caring school community.  We stayed in Harlem partly because of the pull of families that, striving like our own families and yearning for the opportunities our forefathers promised, have yet to experience the schools they deserve.  But we also stayed because of the dazzling energy in the streets, and because of those ghosts whispering tales of unparalleled intellectual and creative force from decades ago.

With this inspiration and the end of Black History Month as backdrop, I present to you my brief tutorial on the Harlem Renaissance.  It’s impossible in this short space to give a full narrative of the Harlem Renaissance, its contributors legion and diverse not only in their backgrounds and artistic formats but in their politics as well.  We’ll take a short walk through the Harlem Renaissance, then, through my eyes.

Black History Month, by the way, is often maligned for (a) occurring in the shortest month of the year, prompting protestors to say every month should be Black History Month and (b) separating “Black History” from “American History” and ghettoizing the African-American experience, which really exists as a set of inextricable threads in the tapestry of our republic.  I think those criticisms have some bite, but they conveniently ignore some facts.  First, it was an African-American man, historian Carter G. Woodson, who conceived of (initially) the week celebrating “Negro History,” and he chose February because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Fredrick Douglass (variously given as Feb. 7 and 14).  In 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration of the United States, Negro History Week was expanded to Black History Month.  (In Harlem, this expansion is not an unfamiliar experience; the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s summer celebration, Harlem Week, is now at least a month long!)

Second, critics of Black History Month overlook that one purpose of the month is to point to the achievements of African-Americans in the context of American history, not separate them.  Woodson observed that history textbooks left out any reference to the role of African-Americans in the building of the union, and Black History Month seeks to correct that problem.  Why, were it not for Black History month, we would not be having this conversation right now.

Let’s start our tour by orienting ourselves to the appropriate time period.  The Harlem Renaissance is usually limited to literary and artistic achievements of the 1920s and 1930s.  The 1920s were of course a boom time for leisure activities throughout the United States, but when the Great Depression hit the Harlem Renaissance continued to grow.

Any journey through the Harlem Renaissance starts and ends, for me, with Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  A few years ago I read his monumental, meandering memoir, I Wonder As I Wander, really the second of a two-part autobiography that begins with The Big Sea.  These books, particularly the former, take you, the reader, on a walk through Harlem and through time with Langston Hughes on your elbow, pointing out the sights as you go. 

Langston Hughes’ literary contributions are astounding.  For beginners, he published volume after volume of poetry, wrote a novel, two Broadway plays and a long-running satirical column in the Chicago Defender.  (These stories of Simple and his skeptical drinking buddy Boyd are compiled in several books that retain their incisiveness today.)  He was also a world traveler, with his exploits in Paris, the Soviet Union and Spain during the Spanish Civil War chronicled in his memoirs.  He has something in common with Harlem Link; our building for Grades K-3 bears the name of his namesake, his uncle John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), abolitionist and the first African-American elected to the United States Congress from Virginia. 

Langston Hughes’ legacy is apparent throughout Harlem.  The brownstone where he spent the last decades of his life, at 20 West 127th Street, has seen preservationists seek to open it in recent years as a cultural center.  His ashes are buried beneath an artistic interpretation of one of his poems (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”) by an artist named Houston Conwill (1947-present), at the world-famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at West 135th Street and Lenox Ave. 

The Schomburg, now a research library of the New York Public Library system, holds the nation’s largest collection of books, manuscripts and artwork related to African-American history.  The eponymous Puerto Rican-born Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938) was himself a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a writer and historian, but he was also one of the first to recognize the intellectual and cultural importance of the period and to collect and organize related documents and artifacts. 

Hughes’ circle of .literary friends included luminaries Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Wallace Thurman (1902-1934).  Hurston was an author and ethnographer who traveled the South with a tape recorder looking for folk stories and other oral narratives, best remembered now for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  They were contributors to and antagonizers of, The Crisis, a journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the controversial and short-lived literary journal Fire!!  Its story and demise, richly described in Hughes’ memoirs, speaks to the high intensity and quality of the intellectual milieu in Harlem at the time.

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was another famous Harlem poet from the period, and his name adorns the branch public library at the back of the Schomburg.  Cullen’s poetry has a romantic strand to it – often using traditional verse that is largely absent in Langston Hughes’ folksy, sometimes free verse poems – but also, like Hughes’ work, features a heavy dose of social criticism presaging the coming civil rights era.  Cullen wrote protest poems while at the same time arguing that African-American artists should look to Britain and American poetry for inspiration rather than “nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance.”  The Harlem Renaissance was loaded with race controversy.  Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), a white photographer, joined Hughes’ inner circle and left behind many of the most famous photographs of the era, but he also published a 1926 novel called Nigger Heaven, titled after the ironic name for balconies where African-Americans were forced to sit in theaters during segregation.  Needless to say, it took Van Vechten’s rich descriptions of Harlem for white people downtown to begin in earnest to make their way uptown and pay attention to the music, art and parties already in full swing.

For me, the work of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) will always represent for the visual arts what Langston Hughes’ words mean for the literary arts.  With the stark, haunting patterns of primary colors that he called “dynamic cubism,” Lawrence evocatively depicted street life as well as the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities in the early part of the 20th century. 

Duke Ellington’s (1899-1974) orchestra enjoyed a remarkable ten-year run at Harlem’s landmark Cotton Club.  Duke’s statue stands just a couple of blocks away from Harlem Link’s school building, in the circle at 110th Street and 5th Avenue, at the northeast corner of Central Park and a few feet away from the new Museum of African Art site. 

The Cotton Club wasn’t the only place to swing in the 1930s in Harlem.  The Apollo Theatre gradually became the most sought-after destination around for African-American performers.  In 1934, Ralph Cooper (1908-1992) bought the club and ushered in the era of Amateur Night.  He famously bought a piece of the Tree of Hope – an elm tree that had a traditional use as a good luck charm – for performers at the Apollo, where it is still used for that purpose today.

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