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  • Writer's pictureLynne Kornecki

Black History Month Starts 2/1/24; Guest Author Discusses the Dynamic Artistic Movement of the "Harlem Renaissance"

Updated: Jan 29

Artist, Aaron Douglas (American, 1899 to 1979), "Harriet Tubman" mural 1931, oil on canvas, © Heirs of Aaron Douglas / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s.

In this article, Guest Author, Denise Laurin of Bartlett, IL, focuses on the work of Alain Locke and Aaron Douglas. She is a fine artist and art historian who holds an M.A. in art history.

"Alain Locke and Aaron Douglas: Groundbreaking Artistic Forces of the Harlem Renaissance"

By Denise Laurin

The Harlem Renaissance is a familiar term to most people, but how and when did it begin? I’d like to honor Black History Month by delving into the genesis of The Harlem Renaissance, a period of rich cross-disciplinary artistic and cultural activity among African Americans between the end of World War I in 1917 and the onset of the Great Depression and the events leading up to World War II in the 1930s.


Alain Locke was a writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts. In 1907 he earned the distinction of becoming the first African American Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University. Ultimately, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1918.



In 1925 Locke heralded the Harlem Renaissance with the release of The New Negro: An Interpretation (See #1 footnote below) an anthology edited by Locke that featured poetry, fiction and essays by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Anne Spencer, and Countee Cullen, among others.  “The New Negro” asserted the unique qualities of black American culture and life and encouraged ownership and pride in its art and heritage. Locke is considered the philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance, and the ideas presented in “The New Negro” set the agenda for a black artistic flowering which Locke believed “would facilitate the Negro’s demand for civil rights and for social and economic equality,” as an alternative strategy to political activism.


The epicenter for the artistic movement was New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in northwestern Manhattan, where many African Americans escaped the violence of the South during the Great Migration. Locke urged black visual artists and musicians to look to African sources for inspiration, rather than the European-based Western cultural tradition. By following Locke’s directives, African American artists experienced unprecedented freedom of expression for the very first time.


Beyond the literary and performing artists associated with the first modern Afrocentric cultural movement in American History, many sculptors, painters, and printmakers whose work reflects Locke’s guidelines for a new African American art include Aaron Douglas, James Lesesne Wells, Richmond Barthé, Archibald Motley, James Van Der Zee, Augusta Savage, and Selma Burke. In this article, the focus is on Aaron Douglas.


Douglas illustrated another well-known book of the Harlem Renaissance titled “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” by James Weldon Johnson, (1927). The content combines interpretations of Biblical parables written in contemporary verse with bold illustrations that reflect Locke’s directive to look to African sources for inspiration. Later, in the 1930s, Douglas painted new works of art based on the illustrations.



One of these paintings is called “Judgment Day.” The central figure represents the archangel Gabriel who serves as God’s messenger. The other figures respond to Gabriel’s call and the forms suggest the trumpet’s echoing sound and an energized, pulsating feeling of movement. Call and response are integral to the musical tradition of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and influenced the development of Jazz. The artist uses complementary colors, overlapping arcs, zigzagging shapes, hierarchic proportion inspired by ancient Egypt, and patterns that suggest African influence.


Among Douglas’s most important works are large‐scale murals. He uses modernist imagery to depict Harriet Tubman, 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 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 instructed by Locke, he asserted pride in Black life and Black identity, a rising consciousness of inequality and was among the first to express his ideas through the visual arts. He influenced the next generation of artists including Archibald Motley, Jacob Lawrence, and Elizabeth Catlett.



#1 While the term “Negro” is outdated and potentially offensive today, it was a sign of respect and used by the African American community during the early 20th century.


________________________________________________________________________ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Denise's interest in the "Harlem Renaissance" was first spawned when she was asked to deliver lectures on African American art at Benedictine University beginning in 2022. She was inspired to learn even more after spending three weeks living in Harlem during the summer of 2023.

Throughout her art practice -- Denise Laurin Visual Art -- she focuses on the universal idea of moving from darkness into light expressed through the human form and exploring the duality between the physical body and the spiritual soul. She accepts portrait commissions and provides engaging presentations to organizations on a wide variety of art-related topics. Learn more here:





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