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In 1969, just months after the bitter 36-day long Ocean Hill–Brownsville teachers’ strike that pitted community control of schools against union rights, New York’s Metropolitan Museum staged “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968” in a deeply flawed effort to heal the city’s deep racial and ethnic divisions.

The museum, ignoring advice from Black art professionals, created an exhibition that contained no works by Black painters or sculptors. Instead, the curator, who was not Black, relied on photographs and other documentary material that reduced Harlem’s rich cultural life to a sociological case study rather than a celebration of its artistic achievements.

The exhibition catalog created scandals of its own. The introduction by then Mayor John Lindsay was erroneously attributed to a Black writer, indicative of the exhibition’s careless approach to Black representation. The catalog’s main essay was a term paper written by a 17-year-old Harlem high school student “laced with anti-Semitic slurs.”

It is shocking that it has taken the Met 55 years to atone for these missteps. The paintings, prints and sculptures featured in its newly opened “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” survey of Black art during the 1920s and 1930s are stunning, with many of the works drawn from rarely visited collections at historically Black colleges and universities.

The show addresses a number of highly charged topics, including:

  • “Primitivism”—the pressures imposed on Black artists to depict Black life as closer to nature, less civilized and less intellectually developed than European life, reducing the rich diversity and depth of African and African diasporic cultures to a series of stereotypes and aesthetic motifs.
  • “Colorism”—stratification and discrimination by skin tone, where those with lighter skin tones receive preferential treatment and opportunities and are regarded as more attractive.
  • Race, Sexuality and Cultural Expression—in addition to exploring Black identity, Black’s African heritage and the legacy of slavery, issues of queerness and sexuality played an important role in the arts of the Harlem Renaissance, albeit often subtly or coded due to the societal norms.

A number of prominent writers, musicians and artists, including Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, were known or believed to be queer, and faced double marginalization due to their race and sexual orientation. Queer themes and subtexts run through many of the exhibited works. This intersectionality made the exploration of queerness in art and literature both a bold assertion of identity and a potential source of vulnerability.

Given its willingness to tackle these fraught topics, I was surprised that the exhibition didn’t do more to discuss the highly contested cultural politics of the era, including the complex dynamics of white patronage, the tension-filled interactions among Black and white artists, the relationship between elite and popular forms of cultural expression, and the complex interconnections between the artistic flourishing highlighted in the show and broader developments in Black dance, music, theater, and politics. Especially startling is the lack of sustained attention to Black artists’ engagement with Pan African ideals and leftwing politics.

It took 154 years for the Met to stage an exhibition on an artistic movement that took place just two miles north of its galleries, and that delay is at once inexplicable and unconscionable. For, as the Financial Times has observed: “In the 1920s, Harlem taught Americans how to be modern in a thousand different ways.”

In 1919, James Reese Europe, the band leader, composer, and arranger, and the Harlem Hellfighters introduced whites in New York City to jazz. The next year, Mamie Smith’s 1920 song “Crazy Blues” became popular nationwide, igniting a vogue for women blues singers in band settings. In 1921, Shuffle Along, created by pianist and composer Eubie Blake and the singer and lyricist Noble Sissle, inaugurated the modern Broadway musical.& With proto-jazz songs like “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” lively dance numbers and a new kind of star in Josephine Baker, the show was a watershed in racial representation in the United States.

Then came the Jamaican-born Claude McKay’s 1922 poetry collection Harlem Shadows and Jean Toomer’s Cane in 1923, a collection of poems, short stories and vignettes, notable for its innovative structure, vivid imagery, lyrical prose, and its rich portrait of African American life, moving from the rural South, with its legacy of slavery and connection to the land, to the urban North, where the promise of freedom and the reality of continued racial prejudice met.

Philosopher Alain L. Locke’s 1925 anthology not only provided a platform for Black writers to showcase their work, but articulated a vision of the self-assured, sophisticated and cosmopolitan “New Negro” who challenged prevailing racial stereotypes and who contributed to and participated in modernism as a global cultural phenomenon.

As Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth have shown in their intellectual history Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher, Locke, a staunch advocate of cultural pluralism, advocated for the recognition and celebration of African American culture as an integral part of American culture. He emphasized that Black culture had its own unique value and should be appreciated for its contributions to the national and global artistic landscape. He also posited that art and culture were essential tools for social change. By expressing the realities and complexities of African American life, artists and writers could challenge racial prejudices and contribute to a broader understanding and respect for Black humanity.

Locke’s anthology highlighted the intellectual and artistic awakening that was occurring within Black urban centers like Harlem. But, as August Meier pointed out in his 1963 classic Negro Thought in America, 1880–1915 Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington, the institutional and intellectual foundations for the Harlem Renaissance—including intense Black interest in the African past plus the growth of a Black nationalist sentiment—were already in place as early as 1915.

As Meier demonstrated, a bold reimagining of Black identity was already underway that challenged the dominant narratives about race in America and offered a counternarrative that celebrated Black agency, resilience and creativity, and underscored Black contributions to the nation’s cultural fabric.

What does surprise me about the Met’s exhibition is that at a moment when the politics of art is on the front burner, the exhibition downplays the impact of radical politics on Black artists and how, in the 1930s, they were influenced by or responded to Pan Africanism and Communism. The exhibit might also have done more to incorporate multimedia elements to bring the era to life and provide context, including music and speeches and archival footage to immerse visitors in the auditory and visual landscape of the era, including street life, dance performances and theatrical productions. Timelines, maps of Harlem highlighting key venues and cultural sites, and capsule biographies of lesser-known figures associated with the movement, along with more original artifacts, including manuscripts, letters, political pamphlets and magazines, might also provide tangible connections to the era.

In a 1925 letter to Langston Hughes, quoted in Caroline Goeser’s singularly important study Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity (CultureAmerica), the great Black artist Aaron Douglas, who I had the great honor of meeting and interviewing in 1972, wrote:

“Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painted black … Let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective … Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.”

These words speak to the heart of a movement that sought to define and establish a distinct Black cultural identity through art. Douglas calls for an artistic movement that is firmly rooted in the unique experiences, emotions and heritage of Black Americans, that is authentic to the Black experience, and rejects the mere imitation of European or white American artistic norms. Instead, he urges Black artists to delve into the richness and diversity of African American life to bring forth material that may be raw and unrefined, but is undeniably genuine and ripe for artistic exploration.

Douglas’s call to “sing it, dance it, write it, paint it” emphasizes his vision of a multimodal artistic movement, encompassing music, dance, literature and visual arts. It is an invitation to not only reflect the complexity of Black life but to celebrate it in all its forms, transforming everyday experiences into something beautiful and profound.

His concluding phrase, “spiritually earthy,” captures the essence of what this new art aims to be: a fusion of the spiritual and the tangible, reflecting the deep spiritual heritage and the grounded experiences of Black Americans. It suggests a dynamic, living art form that evolves and resonates with the rhythm of life itself. It is a declaration of artistic independence and a call to action for artists to explore and express the true essence of their culture and experiences, contributing to the richness of American art and society.

I only wish that today’s artists would take to heart Douglas’ call to arms. For Douglas, art was not merely a matter of aesthetic appreciation or an individual artist’s creative self-expression. It is a vital force for cultural reflection, dialogue and renewal. Artists have the power and responsibility not only to reflect and interpret the world around them but also to contribute to the cultural and spiritual vitality of society.

Artists drawing from both their spiritual beliefs and their lived experiences have the power to create works that are deeply personal yet universally resonant. The spiritual aspect of art connects with the intangible, transcendent qualities of human experience, offering insights into the mysteries of existence, the sublime, and the ineffable.

Art that combines spiritual depth with real-world experiences can challenge prevailing cultural narratives and norms, encouraging society to reconsider its values, beliefs and assumptions. It can open up new ways of seeing and understanding the world. By addressing universal themes grounded in personal experiences, art can foster a sense of community and shared humanity. It can encourage dialogue and understanding across cultural, social and religious divides, contributing to a more cohesive and inclusive society.

Art has the power to inspire change at both individual and societal levels. By engaging with spiritual themes, art can motivate individuals to reflect on their lives and society to aspire toward higher ideals, including justice, compassion, and unity. The approach that Aaron Douglas champions offers society not just beauty but wisdom, not just entertainment but enlightenment.

The Harlem Renaissance was not just an aesthetic movement. It was a social, cultural and philosophical movement. Indeed, it was the interplay among artists, authors, composers, performers and thinkers that helps to explain why Harlem—like Edinburgh in the late 18th century or Vienna in 1900 or turn of the 20th-century Chicago—witnessed such outpourings of creativity. More than an artistic movement, the Harlem Renaissance embodied a collective aspiration for dignity, recognition and a redefined identity for African Americans. It was guided by a philosophy that sought to integrate the spiritual, personal and political and transcended the flourishing of individual Black artists.

At the heart of the Harlem Renaissance was the promotion of racial pride and the celebration of African American cultural identity. This was a direct response to the pervasive racism and segregation of the Jim Crow era. Driven by a desire for intellectual and cultural self-determination, Black intellectuals and artists aimed to establish their voices and visions independently of white-dominated cultural norms and expectations. There was a conscious effort to foster a Black intellectual and artistic community that could articulate its own desires, aspirations and cultural expressions.

The Harlem Renaissance was characterized by a vibrant community of artists and intellectuals who supported and inspired each other's work, creating a dynamic cultural milieu. Salons, clubs and publications served as gathering spaces for the exchange of ideas and the showcasing of artistic achievements.

Moreover, the movement was not confined to Harlem but had connections and influences across the United States and internationally. It was part of a broader awakening of Black consciousness and cultural expression that continues to inform discussions about racial identity and artistic expression even today.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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