Martin Luther King Jr. Day has inspired me to write about the Harlem Renaissance, a period of rich cross-disciplinary artistic and cultural activity among African Americans between the end of World War I (1917) and the onset of the Great Depression and lead up to World War II (the 1930s). Artists associated with the movement asserted pride in Black life and identity, a rising consciousness of inequality and discrimination, and interest in the rapidly changing modern world—many experiencing a freedom of expression through the arts for the first time.
Beyond the literary and performing artists associated with the movement, such as Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, sculptors, painters, and printmakers were key contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, the first modern Afrocentric cultural movement in American History.
Some visual artists include Aaron Douglas, James Lesesne Wells, Richmond Barthé, Archibald Motley, James Van Der Zee, Augusta Savage, and Selma Burke. My focus today is on Aaron Douglas.
In 1925 Alain Locke announced the birth of the Harlem Renaissance with the release of The New Negro– an influential anthology of poetry, fiction and essays that set the agenda for a black cultural flowering. The New Negro asserted the unique qualities of black American culture and life and encouraged ownership and pride in its art and heritage. It is considered The Bible of the Harlem Renaissance.
Another well-known book of the Harlem Renaissance era, God’s Trombones combines interpretations of biblical parables written in contemporary verse with bold illustrations by Aaron Douglas that reflect Locke’s guidelines for a new African American Art.
The central figure represents the archangel Gabriel who serves as God’s messenger. (See Douglas's painted version above. 1939, and his illustration for the book, 1927, at left.) The other figures respond to Gabriel’s call and the pulsating forms suggest the trumpet’s echoing sound and an energized feeling of movement. The artist’s uses complementary colors, overlapping arcs, zigzagging shapes, and patterns that suggest African influence.
Among Douglas’s most important works are large‐scale murals. He uses modernist imagery to depict Harriet Tubman, 1931, who was responsible for leading more than three hundred slaves to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad.
Douglas wrote that he portrayed Tubman “as a heroic leader breaking the shackles of bondage and pressing on toward a new day.” Behind her and stretching back symbolically to Africa are the black men and women who toiled and prayed through three hundred years of servitude. The group of figures to the right symbolizes the newly liberated people as laborers and heads of families. The last figure symbolizes the dreamer who looks out towards higher and nobler vistas, the modern city, for his race. He represents the preachers, teachers, artists, and musicians of the group. The beam of light that cuts through the center of the picture symbolizes divine inspiration.
Aaron Douglas is a pioneer of African American art and as guided by Alain Locke, he asserted pride in Black life and identity, a rising consciousness of inequality and was among the first African Americans to express his ideas through the visual arts.