Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age

The one you learn about most in art college is about the era of modernity and modernism, and all the various sub-movements in modern art that took place and influenced generations of artists to come. What's missed however is detailed reference to black movements or women movements, and if mentioned, it is only in a disconnected sense, it arose out of nothing, it changed nothing. The era of modernity is very much the domain of the white, middle class man.

This is where the Harlem Renaissance comes in, because it is this and many other examples in modern art that explodes that myth, that black people do have a place in the artworld, to influence and change it, just as white people do. Hugo Ball, a Dadaist, was influenced by the Jazz Age, he wrote... "Huelsenbeck has arrived. He pleads for an instensification of rhythm (Negro rhythm). He would best love to drum literature to perdition." Excuse the outdated language.

The 'official' ending of slavery came in 1865 with the end of the civil war, but the civil war was not a civil war for the ending of slavery. Abraham Lincoln once said if he could unite the country without ending slavery, he would. The reality was that the view that black men and women were inferior went on, the ideology maintained. The Jim Crow laws existed in the South of the USA until the 1960s. There was segreation. The voting system was undemocratic (only if your grandfather had been born in the US, could you vote.)

Because of this harsh existence, many black people migrated from South to North, came to live in cities like New York. Many moved abroad to live in European cities such as Paris. Many more joined the army to fight in the First World War, but were employed mainly in entertainment roles, this led to a jazz explosion in Paris around 1911. This great migration had a massive cultural impact. The dissemination of the music in the North was also much easier. Commerical radio starts in the early 1920s in America, the BBC doesn't even play a record until 1927. This became the premier way for black artists to be heard.

Depite the Jim Crow laws not existing in the North and in Europe, racism was still prevalent. Music, particulary jazz, was one of the only avenues available for black people to express themselves, the other avenues being athletics and boxing. There was a social idea that black people, being inferior, could express themselves only in the theatre or field, and leave the hard jobs (like thinking) to the white men. Look at the US Olympic team now, to see if this idea still exists...

One such athlete, Jack Johnson, a black boxer, beat Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the World Heavyweight Champion. Racists triggered a hysterical campaign to find the "Great White Hope" to relieve Johnson of his title. However, Johnson had to travel the world in order to fight Burns, black boxers weren't deemed worthy to fight for the Heavyweight Championship. His style of boxing was deemed cowardly, yet a white boxer Jim Corbett, had used the same tactics years before and been described as the "the most cleverest man in boxing." At the time of his heyday, the KKK were gaining in influence and popularity, helped a great deal state racism that existed, lynchings of black people had become common place, almost once a week at it's height. In 1915, Jeffries, a white boxer came out of retirement to fight Johnson claiming "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." In front of 22,000 people, the band played "All c**ns look alike to me" and the all-white crowd chanted "Kill the n***er." Needless to say, Jeffries lost, (HAHAHA,) they were silenced.

Johnson grew up in the South, in Texas, his family were former slaves, and poor (but better off than some) and was predisposed to the plight of ordinary black people, in 1922, several years after he has lost his title, he opened a club which would later become the Cotton Club in Harlem.

The Cotton Club became the focus for over a decade of the new burgeoning Jazz Scene, although the regular black artists included Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, black people were denied entrance to watch the show. However, it finally gave regular (along with commercial radio) spotlight on black talent. The next few years produced an explosion of black artists in other mediums, from painting - Archibald Motley and Jacob Lawrence to writing - Zara Neale Hurston, who was the first to record the word "cool." Josephine Baker, a dancer, who became an infamous film star, shocked the world with her exotic, African inspired dances in Zou Zou (1934). The art world had changed forever.

Archibald Motley

Zora Neale Hurston

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