An unidentified Black Man stands outside a tent in Tulsa’s previously-affluent Greenwood District. Following the 1921 riot many African American survivors were forced to live for months in tents and other makeshift accommodations. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Gregory E. Brown, Director of the Black Holocaust Society)
While New York City’s Harlem, which the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price referred to as “that most brilliantly lit terrain,” has been rightly celebrated as the focal point of the Harlem Renaissance, there were a number of other communities were African Africans managed to thrive during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s. One such community was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and June 2016 marks the 95th anniversary of its destruction.
The following excerpt from Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and the video from “MPortant Films” (with Tulsa Virtual Media Partners) show why the community was so exceptional why what happened there from May 30 to June 1, 1921, should never be forgotten:
“Prior to the massive waves of African Americans exiting the South to head North, many had been lured to the state of Oklahoma as early as the end of the 19th century in hopes of cashing in on its growing oil industry. By 1921, the state could boast the distinction of having more than two dozen towns populated and governed by blacks. Within Tulsa, approximately 15,000 African Americans made up the city’s district of Greenwood. Forced by segregation to rely upon their own means and resources, the citizens of the community became so successful that the district became known as ‘Black Wall Street.’
16 May, 2016
“The story of African Americans was crafted anew into a poignant commentary on individual and group progress under great pressure, a story that over time became one of the most compelling of American narratives.” ––Dr. Clement Alexander Price
September 2013 represents the landmark 10th anniversary of the publication of the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File, 2003) co-authored by educator Sandra L. West and featuring a foreword by Dr. Clement Alexander Price, founder and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University, Newark Campus, New Jersey. Almost seemingly as if in honor of that event, on August 29 President Barack Obama announced his intent to appoint Dr. Price to the position of Vice Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
While the Harlem Renaissance has long been one of the most studied periods in African-American history, until the publication of Facts on File’s encyclopedia––the first such volume the subject–– most of the focus was on the literature, art, and music of the period. The encyclopedia expanded that focus by placing an equal degree of emphasis on the political and social aspects of the era, which blends seamlessly with the jazz age, modernism, and prohibition timeframe.
In Honor of Ancestors
Among the authors’ achievements with the title was the fact that it allowed them to pay tribute to a number of Harlem Renaissance icons who were still living when it was first published, but who have since passed on. These included the following:
The Harlem Renaissance itself, as Dr. Price notes in his foreword to Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, marked an extraordinary period of transformation (not wholly unlike that created by the current digital age) fueled largely by the sweeping forces of American and world history, as well as by what the great educator W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as “the talented tenth.” Like the current epoch, it incorporated society-changing technological innovations, major demographic shifts, and a number of political initiatives that tested the definition and application of democracy in the world:
“The coterie of talented blacks in the arts and culture, business, and intellectual life who helped to recast the image of black Americana was actually part of a larger stream of black urbanites whose lives were challenged by the legacies of slavery, its blunt realities found in the 20th-century, when many other ethnic groups in the nation moved forward,” Price notes. “Most blacks during the period lived on the margins of urban America, barred from the best employment, subject to daily racial slights and other manifestations of injustice and the society’s obsession with maintaining their social inferiority.”
The Renaissance as Counter-measure to Guerrilla Decontextualization
Despite the official end of slavery at the conclusion of the United States’ Civil War in 1865, varying degrees of widespread overt social and political oppression based solely on race lasted well into the latter part of the 20th century. A substantial part of what made such heinous practices possible was a form of guerrilla decontextualization that erased the actual histories and realities of people of African descent. Slaves were not recognized or acknowledged as the founders of ancient kingdoms, exceptional artists and warriors, spiritual philosophers whose teachings influenced the Greeks and Romans, or as skilled farmers whose genius for cultivating rice crops made plantation owners in the South wealthy.
These histories were replaced with the kind of deliberate misinformation and distorted facts that make guerrilla decontextualization so damaging in contemporary times (particularly as employed in the realm of digital media). Pseudo-scientific theories such as eugenics touted the inferiority of Blacks, and certain Biblical texts were appropriated to justify and verify such beliefs.
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (part 2 of 3)
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and co-author of ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love
Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
This post was originally published as part 3 of the article series 3 Poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day 2013:
Jazz and poetry have been close cousins in creativity ever since the music provided the classic soundtrack for the prohibition era of “the roaring 1920s.” It is therefore appropriate that both Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month are celebrated during April. It also makes a jazz poem (see below) the most suitable for the third Poem in Your Pocket Day title featured in this series.
Readers acquainted with the definitive 1925 Harlem Renaissance anthology titled The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, are familiar with its inclusion of Langston Hughes’ jazz-influenced poems, “Jazzonia” and “Nude Young Dancer.” Those titles arguably marked the debut of what is now known as jazz poetry (sometimes referred to as “jazzoetry”) and additional works published in Hughes’ The Weary Blues in 1926 further established the genre. The relationship between jazz and poetry grew even stronger during the Beat Movement of the 1950s and the Black Arts Movement in the decades that followed. It remains strong in modern times.
For the Love of Jazz
One reason April was elected Jazz Appreciation Month––and subsequently April 30 tagged as International Jazz Day––is because it is the birth month of numerous jazz musicians. These include, just to name a few: the great Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Carmen McRae, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Often referred to as “the First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 acclaimed albums, including her celebrated American Songbook collections. The third poem for this special Poem in Your Pocket series, “Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll,” is a tribute to the musical artistry of the singer and that of other women whose talents helped to make jazz the great world treasure it is today. It is from the manuscript for Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black:
JAZZ HARLEM RENAISSANCE BABYDOLL
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
does the music mold your face
like a mask of mink desires
and rainbow butterfly wings
or does your face
shield the heated heart of the music
when your lips diddly-be-bop-sweet
like Ella Fitzgerald swing-singing
back-up and up-front, catching
God’s Coltranic future love supreme
as if making it up yourself?
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
I saw your favorite saxophone strip you
naked. And what was love gonna do
except beg to lick those crazy solos
straight off your throat. I saw you
twirl A-flats like swords
on the tip of the tongue of your tears
until E refused to equal MC squared
and Einstein’s gorgeous silver afro
crackled “Blow your soul-horn Jazz Babydoll
and don’t you take jive for no answer!
Said swing that horn and take not jive for thine answer!”
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
you inhaled seven known planets
and out of your creation came
four billion heavens.
Each time you exhale a star
I recall a previous life
and I comprehend flawlessly
the trigonometric bolts of rhythm
that shoot from your hips to your lips.
Shall we do the be-bop Lindy-hop waltz
and dance Josephine Baker
laughing out of her grave?
Let’s do the be-bop Lindy-hop waltz
and give all these poets something to rhyme about.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
(Continuation from Part 1)
Setting aside for the moment debates about starting dates and end dates, the Harlem Renaissance is now among the most documented and studied events in world history with encyclopedias, biographies, major films, theater productions, and conferences all dedicated to sustaining its legacy and preserving its ideals. One contribution toward that effort, and which hopefully will see a makeover by the time of the event’s centennial, is Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts On File/Infobase Publishing) written by Sandra L. West with this author, and featuring a foreword by Clement Alexander Price.
To write an award-winning volume on the phenomenal Harlem Renaissance is to do a lot more than simply author a good book about African-American history. Any sane author, though, would greatly appreciate the honors that have been bestowed upon Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance for some important reasons. Such recognition provides major validation of the years of labor required to create such a work; and, perhaps more importantly, they pay just tribute to the lives of the volume’s Jazz Age heroes.
Considering that these heroes did what they did at a time when the United States witnessed its second resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups determined to exterminate African Americans (as well as Jews, Europeans, etc.) their accomplishments can never be over exaggerated. As Clement Alexander Price has noted, “They wrote, painted, composed, argued, marched, and protested on a scale not seen, or accounted for, earlier.”
To propose a volume in recognition of such individuals is also to find oneself humbled by the privilege of contributing to a global legacy established by the likes of: historian W.E.B. Du Bois, author Ralph Ellison, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, jazz-master Duke Ellington, blues empress Bessie Smith, the great artist Romare Bearden, iconic poet Langston Hughes, renaissance man Paul Robeson, and many extraordinary others. These were the individuals who comprised African America’s “Greatest Generation.”
Closing in on the 100th Anniversary
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, the gifts it showered upon humanity grow more and more relevant. The combination of music technology and musical genres it gave us in the 1920s and 1930s has since evolved into the cross-cultural powerhouse known as hip-hop. Seeds of tenuous literary beginnings have blossomed into strong ongoing traditions. Strategic protests against American apartheid, including the routine brutal lynching of African Americans, developed into a movement that eventually saw the election of the United States’ first African-American president: Barack Obama .
The men and women of the Harlem Renaissance made up a kind of peaceful army of agents of change. Their creative genius as literary artists, musicians, visual artists, social theorists, educators, and political leaders helped move the world forward from times of war, oppression, and poverty, to times of greater political cooperation, racial equanimity, and economic growth. Much of the world is struggling with such issues at this very moment. And, also at this very moment, many of those who are creatively inclined are trying to help humanity weave its way around the bloodshed to more life-enhancing solutions.
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance has come to serve as one of the fundamental works for understanding the wider scope of the much-celebrated movement. Its publication helped to inspire further studies of the period and readers can find it cited in numerous biographies and reference books that were published later. It is a title that is much bigger than the authors who produced it and one that continues to add to the discovery, and re-discovery, of one of humanity’s great cultural heirlooms.
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and The American Poet Who Went Home Again
The celebration of major historic milestones is a favorite pastime in pretty much every culture. This year, 2011, in the United States, many are commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. That means four years from now, numerous festivities will take place to observe the same anniversary for Jubilee Day, or the liberation of America’s slaves.
In addition, countries around the world are currently honoring the first United Nations-declared International Year for People of African Descent.
Flip the calendar forward by almost a decade and we find ourselves approaching another major milestone: the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. The past couple of years have already seen celebrations of the centennials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. Both organizations during the Harlem Renaissance played key roles–– as advocates for racial equality and as publishers of influential magazines that featured prize-winning works by now major authors like Dorothy West, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Exactly When did the Harlem Renaissance Start?
Marking the centennial of the NAACP and the National Urban League was relatively easy because records indicate clearly enough when they started. The actual beginning and ending of the Harlem Renaissance itself is not so well defined, though most scholars will say it lasted from 1920 to 1940.
One of the great leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson, noted in his book Black Manhattan, that the 1922 publication of Claude McKay’s book, Harlem Shadows, represented a major history-altering event. In Johnson’s words, “Claude McKay’s poetry was one of the great forces in bringing about what is often called the ‘Negro literary renaissance.’”
But celebrated author Langston Hughes thought the history-making Broadway musical Shuffle Along kicked the Renaissance into high gear in 1921. As he put it, Shuffle Along “gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan, which reached its peak just before the crash of 1929…” Still others will say it started with the end of World War I in 1918, or with the Great Migration of African Americans into industrial areas of the U.S. North and Midwest during the 1910s.
Enter “The New Black”
NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar co-wrote On the Shoulders of Giants, the recent acclaimed documentary on the Harlem Rens basketball team. From his highly-regarded perspective, the Harlem Renaissance never truly ended at all but simply changed names, at one point becoming the Civil Rights Movement, and at another the Black Arts Movement.
In these ultra-techno days of 2011, some authors such as Diann Blakely ––taking her cue from the title of Evie Shockley’s newest poetry collection–– have adopted the term The New Black to describe the current wave of African-American author-poets who have won substantial recognition for their literary labors. A number of authors listed in this group are in fact well-established literary veterans. Blakely, a White southerner who has sought to honor the positive influence of Blacks in her life, described the cultural significance of the years 2010 and 2011 as follows:
“…A perfect microcosm of a great third flowering of African-American poetry in less than a century because of the great number of distinguished titles published, plus the awards and honors conferred upon African-American poets.”
Blakely’s list of “New Black” poets was recently published on the Best American Poetry Series website. One should note that her assessment is a well-honed one informed by her own status as an award-winning author of three volumes of poetry, as a former editor for Antioch Review, and a nominating editor for the highly-acclaimed Pushcart Prize Series.
Continues with: The Approaching 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Part 2
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.