Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Harlem Nocturne

Farah Jasmine Griffin's Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists of Progressive Politics During World War II (New York: Basic Civitas, 2013) focuses on three artists in the context of 1940s Harlem: dancer Pearl Primus (1919-1994), writer Ann Petry (1908-1997) and musician Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981).  
Context: the World War II years "provided African Americans a perfect opportunity to challenge every aspect of segregation. Jim Crow laws and practices were seen as the primary challenge to American democracy. . ." (Harlem Nocturne, page 98). The Double V or Double Victory campaign was one of many, this one aiming for Victory over Fascism abroad and over Jim Crowism at home. The US military was still segregated during the course of the war, and in August of 1943 an incident involving white police and a returning black soldier (not unlike the incident that would later spark the 1967 Detroit Riot) began the "Harlem Riot of 1943." Has it ever fully recovered?
Here, individual agents of cultural entertainment -- and change. Mary Lou Williams is flanked by musician-comic actor Imogene Coca and singer Ann Hathaway ("Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea"), in the 1940s. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress). 
Activism in the 1940s came in many forms, and in all art forms certainly. 

While dancing, Pearl Primus (pictured here) could leap five feet in the air! Though born in Trinidad, she moved to New York City with her family when she was only two years old. She graduated from Hunter College in 1940 and began graduate school there the next year, then received a scholarship to the integrated, politically progressive New Dance Group program. She began her dance career in earnest in 1943 and almost immediately began performing at Barney Josephson's Café Society Downtown. By then, she was fully launched. 

As Griffin notes, after its 1938 opening in Greenwich Village,Café Society quickly became a gathering place for liberal and leftist socialites, intellectuals, artists and political activists." It was eventually squeezed shut thanks in large part to J. Edgar Hoover's "obsession with [rooting] out Communists" (Harlem Nocturne, pages 44-45), but in the meantime, Josephson opened a second venue, Café Society Uptown. (The fancy name was a bit of a jape or joke, sort of like "Country Bluegrass and Blues" -- CBGB -- down the pike of space and time).         
Mary Lou Williams built on her early talent as a pianist, eventually traveling (such as to the Kansas City scene), performing, composing, and developing a base of operations in Harlem, where she also served as godmother of bebop. All sorts of cool cats congregated in her pad, playing music and regrouping -- anyone from "Miles Davis, [Thelonius] Monk, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie all found their way to 63 Hamilton Terrace" (Harlem Nocturne, page 160). She completed a first version of The Zodiac Suite by 1945, and near the end of her life, taught at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she died in 1981. 
Ann Petry lived in Harlem during the war years, writing and absorbing the milieu. The Street (1946), her first novel, sold over one million copies!  But she hated the subsequent limelight and fled to New England for the rest of her life.

In Harlem Nocturne, Griffin notes how the World War II years were productive and in many ways progressive in parts of Harlem, New York City and the USA in general. With the war's end, however, things would backslide to a harsher status quo in terms of liberty, equality and "race relations." Jim Crow persisted, anti-fascism became out of fashion and anti-Communism was in -- including the demented machinations of powerful men of influence such as J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy. Until the next cycle, and the next after that. In the meantime, a salute to the artists -- and to Harlem Nocturne!

Today's Rune: The Mystery Rune. 


jodi said...

Erik-cool post! Those women surely were pioneers against all odds.

the walking man said...

There are wars of bombs bullets and lunatic politics and there are wars of class. The former will come to an end before the latter.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Fascinating! And I love the photos you have found.