Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Harlem in the 1920's

Harlem: 1920's Black Art & Literature

This is one of the classes I'm taking at Columbia this summer. It is taught by Marya Patrice Smith. I thought this would be a fun class. The Cotton Club, zoot suits, Duke Ellington, etc. This will be a blast. I love the time period, I love the music, I love black people. Let's party!

Once, again, I was in for a wake-up call. Marya (pronounced like Mariah) loves to teach. She's not your standard lecture and regurgitate kind of instructor. Hers' is experiential. She expects us to engage and participate in the course. She expects us to wake up to what The Harlem Renaissance was really about. She inspires me to use italics, a lot.

I left the first class stunned and glad I enrolled.

Here's a few nuggets I learned...

- The Harlem Renaissance was not an art movement. It was a consciously generated social movement. A social movement created by people tired of living in fear at the mercy of people who didn't see them as anything more than animals. Their goal in creating the movement was to be seen for their humanity. Their tool was art. Their target was white America. So, was it art or propaganda?

- From 1897 - 1907, there were 3,000 documented lynchings of black men, women and children. In 1919, during what became known as Red Summer, 643 lynchings occurred. Again, well-documented, with little or no repercussion to the perpetrators. These lynchings were well documented, because people took pictures. There are plenty of group photos that look like fishermen proudly standing next to their catch of the day.

- Most of the lynchings occurred in the north. In 1919, Red Summer began in Chicago because a black child went for a swim in Lake Michigan off the wrong part of the beach.

- The Cotton Club modeled itself after southern plantations. The servers were dressed like slaves. All the help and the entertainers were black. All the clientele were white. Blacks were not allowed in The Cotton Club unless they were hired to be there. And even then, only light-skin blacks. Louis Armstrong was not allowed to play there. Near the end of The Cotton Club's hey day, blacks were allowed in. They had to pay more than whites for entrance and had to sit in a segregated area.

It's funny how nostalgia works in this country. I find myself nostalgic for time periods I didn't even live in. I thought it would be fun to live in the 1920's. We remember only the good times or, at least, what we were told were the good times. This class is all about context.

And I feel like it's going to be like my Contemporary European Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict class where it's going to bum me out a lot on the road to being enlightened.

Congratulations to my good friends Pete Ficht and Paul Custodio who have put together a site called The Graffiti Table. I wish they were my teachers. Sometimes I think I'd much rather be studying about female streakers, pot brownie etiquette and running quality diagnostics on aging bands.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I recommend you read: Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James Loewen.

It's an entire book about America only remembering the good stuff and sweeping the bad under the rug. VERY interesting.

Also, Lies My History Teacher Told Me by the same author.