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Published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name, the catalogue I Too Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 offers its general and scholarly readership a biographically rich and visually remarkable book. The Columbus Museum of Art approached the established biographer of African American life and culture Wil Haygood with the opportunity to consider the lives of Harlem Renaissance visual artists, politicians, and authors through the organization of the show and his substantial contribution to the publication’s text. Readers also find art historical vignettes written by staff members of the Columbus Museum of Art dispersed throughout the beautifully produced book. The museum’s contributors, writing persuasively and succinctly on artists ranging from Augusta Savage to Allan Rohan Crite and Winold Reiss, include curator-at-large Carole Genshaft, assistant curator Anastasia Kinigopoulo, and executive director Nannette V. Maciejunes. In addition, Drew Sawyer, a former museum employee who currently serves as the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography at the Brooklyn Museum, adds an important contextualizing voice to the work of photographer James Van Der Zee, among others.
The publication’s biographical content is among its strengths. For example, instead of gesturing toward the author Langston Hughes only by choosing one of his poems as the title of the book, Haygood includes a generous biographical section on Hughes as well as on other peer authors. In doing this, Haygood tells a narrative of the Harlem Renaissance through the lives of individuals, some of whom he personally met. This level of insight and access makes the catalogue distinct. These people shift from being idealized players in one of the most romanticized and admired moments in African American history to being high-achieving figures whose lives also include comical anecdotes, situations deserving of great sympathy, and quirky stories perfect for dinner-party banter. The book illustrates how the everydayness of life is an important part of understanding the complexity of the Harlem Renaissance.
Memorable actions illustrate the character traits of certain Harlem Renaissance personalities. For example, the book reveals a witty story of the sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage and her response to one art student’s trouble with sculpting the breasts of his nude figure. Aside from instances of boldness, there are moments filled with remorse. In recounting the acclaimed Zora Neale Hurston’s career, Haygood does not overlook her misfortunes. Readers learn of Hurston’s arrest and later acquittal for an accusation that led to her unraveling. In a similarly honest account, Haygood supplements important biographical details of Jean Toomer and his ascent as a talented author with the tensions and contradictions that led Toomer to want to unmoor himself from black culture. The realities and complexities of race are revealed in ways that transcend the overdetermined narrative of uplift often defining the Harlem Renaissance era.
Readers also are able to consider the personal relationships between individuals as an extension of how to frame the context of their artistic production. Such personal detail brings a level of humanity and kindness to figures of the Harlem Renaissance in ways that are rarely revealed through more traditional tellings of the period. With this methodological shift to biography, the moral imperative of individuals toward other individuals is on display as opposed to the more common themes of collectivity and community. Haygood’s distinct contribution is the refreshing insight that he, as a master biographer, can tease out for his readers.
Among the visual artists profiled, lesser-known personalities and works of art receive deserving attention. For example, the Boston-based painter Allan Rohan Crite represents the renaissance’s reach beyond Harlem. The inclusion of one of his strongest paintings, Harriet and Leon (1941), is among various instances in which readers are given the opportunity to potentially expand their familiarity with the artistic gems of the Harlem Renaissance. In other cases, such as the inclusion of works by Aaron Douglas (an artist whose name is synonymous with the period), the text highlights the range of subject matter captured by artists for whom one or two series tend to overshadow their larger oeuvres. Within the publication’s pages, readers will encounter a few Douglas paintings within the Columbus Museum of Art’s collection that address the topic of prostitution in Harlem through narrative street and domestic scenes. Other strengths from the museum’s collection, such as a selection from the Ralph DeLuca Collection of African American Vernacular Photography, contribute to the expanding field of African American art beyond the traditional fine arts. Along similar lines, the publication emphasizes the centrality of print media to the Harlem Renaissance exceptionally well; not only are periodicals such as Opportunity, The Crisis, and Fire!! explored in the text but also reproductions of some of their journal covers are given the space and reproduction quality often reserved for works of art. It is the book’s expansion beyond the fine arts and its creators that sets this publication apart from its predecessors.
The last comparable exhibition catalogue on the Harlem Renaissance was published about ten years ago on the occasion of an eponymous show at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, February 5–April 19, 2009, which was organized by the museum’s Alison Amick. Harlem Renaissance’s catalogue features articles by scholars of art and photography, including Mary Ann Calo, Theresa Leininger-Miller, and Deborah Willis. For works preceding this publication, readers can turn to two other publications, both of which complement exhibitions from the year 2003: African-American Artists, 1929–1945: Prints, Drawings, and Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Challenge of the Modern: African American Artists 1925–1945 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Earlier exhibition catalogue forerunners include Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (1997) and Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (1987). Similar to the most recent Oklahoma City Museum of Art publication, all of the aforementioned books feature selections of essays written by curators and academics within the fields of photography, art history, and African American history. I Too Sing America is distinct partially because it is predominantly single authored by a writer who gives significant attention to the era’s well-known literary and political figures in addition to addressing artists alongside the contributors. The impact of Haygood’s orientation within the material is especially evident when compared to the more traditional and streamlined art historical approaches included in the earlier exhibition catalogues.
Therefore, the book’s strength can also be seen as its weakness, depending on the reader’s interests. While the book is heavy on biography and exceptional in its selection of and discussions on artworks from the period, a more in-depth focus on visual artists may have appealed to certain audiences. For example, instead of a lengthy consideration of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s decades-long career and those of other prominent political or literary figures of the Renaissance era, more visual artists and their reach over time could have been prioritized. Such an emphasis would have been appreciated, especially since so many visual artists who gained their footing in the early twentieth century and the WPA years were still actively engaged with advancing their artistic craft well into the 1960s and beyond. Regardless, such extensive details on Harlem Renaissance lives unfolding over the years offer a unique platform to revisit the complex social worlds of the era, one which, as the text readily admits, lavished uneven attention on the men of the movement. In many ways, I Too Sing America not only presents a new orientation in but also a corrective to the dominant narrative of the Harlem Renaissance by incorporating the underrecognized depth of the era’s richly lived lives. Scholars interested in this era would be remiss to not include this exhibition catalogue as a useful addition to the historiography on the Harlem Renaissance. I Too Sing America successfully illuminates why the figures and cultural output of the era continuously demand a fresh retelling.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of African American Studies, CUNY New York City College of Technology
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