COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Harlem Renaissance kicked off after a summer of bloody race-related riots in 1919. It flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, a mere half-century after the abolition of slavery, amid a nationwide revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The context suggests immediately how absurd it would be to divorce the Harlem Renaissance from questions of sociology and — most obviously — race. And yet it’s worth insisting that what makes the Harlem Renaissance special — what makes it such a shining moment in American history — is its legacy of literary, artistic and musical brilliance.
That’s why it matters that “I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100,” a wonderful show at the Columbus Museum of Art, is named for a poem by Langston Hughes. (“Besides,” the poem concludes, “they’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed,–/ I, too, am America.”)
Haygood has worked for both the Boston Globe and The Washington Post (his 2008 Post story about Eugene Allen, an African American who worked in the White House under eight presidents, was made into the film “The Butler,” starring Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding Jr.) His journalistic background shows: The catalogue, focused on facts, personalities, and events, is a pleasure to read.
What’s more, he and his fellow curators, all from the Columbus Museum of Art, avoid the pitfalls the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell into in 1969 when it mounted “Harlem on my Mind.” That show, intended as a progressive-minded celebration of the black community, was a fiasco for reasons hard to sum up in a sentence. (Susan E. Cahan offers a riveting account in “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power.”)
Suffice it to say that it was a show about the culture of Harlem that failed to include original art by African American artists; that it was organized by a well-meaning but overly controlling white curator, Allon Schoener, who tried to deploy respected African Americans for window-dressing; and that the catalogue’s introduction, by a 17-year-old high school student, contained an extraordinary claim linking African Americans with anti-Semitism.
The Met show broke attendance records. Many people loved it. But in terms of PR, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Artists picketed the show. Art critics condemned the Met’s move away from art toward leftist sociology. The American Jewish Congress took out a full-page ad in the New York Times condemning the Met.
In Columbus, things have been done differently. The artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance are front and center. Their achievements are not celebrated just in the abstract; they are on the walls and on pages bound between beautiful book covers.
We see in the first galleries, for instance, Edwin Augustus Harleston’s 1930 portrait of Aaron Douglas, palette and brushes in hand. “I create,” it calmly announces. Nearby, offered as proof, are Douglas’s stylized images in gouache of Harlem jazz clubs; his woodblock prints illustrating a Eugene O’Neill play; his dusk jacket illustration for James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones”; and his cover designs both for FIRE!!, a single-issue magazine of lasting impact; and the May 1928 issue of The Crisis, the most widely read and distributed magazine of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Crisis was (and still is) put out by the NAACP. In operation since 1910, it was edited until 1933 by Du Bois, whose 1925 portrait, by the German artist Winold Reiss, we see in the second gallery.
Reiss was a big influence on Douglas. The German’s pastel portraits were commissioned by Locke for “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Among them was a double portrait of two young public school teachers that is as freshly beautiful today as it was confronting to racist mind-sets then. (At a reception for Reiss, one man declared that the two teachers would have scared him had he encountered them on the street. Galleries wouldn’t show them, Anastasia Kinigopoulo writes in the catalogue, “out of fear they would attract black clientele.”)
“I, Too, Sing America” tells the story of the central figures in the Harlem Renaissance. But it also takes a wider look at the movement’s legacy. It shows great art made in the ’40s and ’50s, for instance, by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis. All three were stars of the next generation, but they were taught by the sculptor Augusta Savage, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
The show takes us beyond Harlem, too. Allan Rohan Crite painted black life in Boston, but very much under the influence of Harlem Renaissance figures. Several of his pictures are here, along with sculptures by Meta Fuller, who studied with Rodin in Paris and was close to Du Bois and Savage but who never lived in Harlem.
Accusations of intellectual snobbery have long hovered around the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was the first black Rhodes scholar, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, and a philosopher who had studied in Paris and Berlin. Du Bois, despite his misguided impatience with art that was not overtly propagandistic, could seem cautious compared with Garvey, whose more radical, Pan-African rhetoric and entrepreneurial energies were also part of the story of Harlem in the 1920s.
Locke may have papered over some sociopolitical realities in favor of vaguer conjectures in the realm of culture. But what his energies helped make possible should not be underestimated: a truthful, respectful and authentic depiction of black humanity and recognition for burgeoning black creative brilliance. The message — essentially, that black culture matters — should never have been required; but it was as important then as it remains today.
I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100, through Jan. 20, at the Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St., Columbus, Ohio. columbusmuseum.org.