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David and Art - “Echoes of the Renaissance"

A century after it began, does the Harlem Renaissance have any lingering effects?

I mentioned last week that the Metropolitan Museum of Art just opened a new exhibit called “The Harlem Renaissance and Trans-Atlantic Modernism.” From all I can tell, it’s a doozy of an exhibit. It features over 160 artworks including paintings, sculpture, photography, and film. The intention, says the museum, is to “explore the comprehensive and far-reaching ways in which Black artists portrayed everyday modern life.” That is, life in cities that were themselves being completely transformed in the first half of the 20th century.

But, this being the Met, it’s out for even bigger game than that. In terms of broader art history, it says it seeks to “establish the Harlem Renaissance and its radically new development of the modern Black subject as central to the development of international modern art.” We’ll have to see how that goes. It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly an ambitious goal for a museum exhibit. “Central” is a big word.

The museum is on more solid ground when it refers to the Harlem Renaissance as “the first African American-led movement of international modern art.” That’s really unquestionable, and within the fields of American history, African American history, and even world history that’s a big deal. I would go even further than that, and say that the Harlem Renaissance is the first movement of international modern art led by people of African descent anywhere.

One of the questions properly directed to any historical period that we give a label to and talk about is “What is its legacy?” Another way to put that is, “How did it effect subsequent generations?” The question’s in play whether it’s WWII, the 1960s, the Gilded Age, the Elizabethan Age, the Cold War, anything: What’s its legacy? It may well be that the answers to these questions are closest to the surface in regard to the Harlem Renaissance. It’s legacy was one of hopefulness, pride, and self-assertion for an entire people who were just a generation or two away from centuries of being enslaved.

The minds of most of Americans, both black and white, wrote Alain Locke in 1925, have been “burrowed in the trenches of the Civil War and Reconstruction….” But now, he said—that is, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance—there was palpable sense among black Americans of having “slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority.” It amounted to nothing less than “a spiritual emancipation.” That’s a renaissance if ever that word applied. It’s also a legacy worth remembering and celebrating.