HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, is a period piece rich with historical detail. The show often references contemporary cultural touchstones as a way to develop its characters. The reference in last night’s episode to Harlem Renaissance poet, writer and Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay is a good example.
The second episode in the new season features a brief conversation between the bright and relatively well-off daughter and son of Chalky White, an African American gangster and bootlegger. Lester White (Chalky’s son) is presumably back from his first semester at Atlanta’s historic Morehouse College and he tells his sister about playing jazz piano in a roadhouse near campus. Before he departs, the two share a laugh over jazz being the “devil’s music” (it’s certainly a far cry from “Clair de lune,” which Lester performed for his father in an earlier episode) and Lester hands Maybelle (Chalky’s daughter) a book of McKay’s poems, telling her “They’re worth a look.”
One of the episode’s general themes is parenting and, specifically, the plot line with Chalky White and his children is about the disconnect between generations. Although Chalky pushes his children to attend college, he’s clashed in previous episodes with them over his illiteracy and his allegiance to Southern traditions. Chalky pays for his children’s education (primarily through illegal means) but he’s cut off from their academic and emotional growth.
McKay’s poems, like “The Lynching” and “If We Must Die,” were formative for young readers in the early 1920s, but they remained inaccessible to many from the previous generation, like Chalky White. McKay and other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance pointed the way to a new future with their artistic expressions, but “Boardwalk Empire” does a good job displaying the conflict of this vision with the pre-Civil Rights hopelessness of bitter racial division and violence. The scene also concisely shows how the cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance made their way around the country through word of mouth.
Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times reports that as Harlem Hospital gets a substantial makeover, a group of large murals that have graced the walls of the hospital since the 1930s are undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration. The murals were commissioned as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA in the 1930s, and depict a variety of scenes from the history, everyday life and symbolism of African American culture. The murals, which have deteriorated and in some cases been covered up, will have a place of honor in a new publicly accessible gallery in the hospital.
A panel from Charles Alston’s “Modern Medicine,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University
Among the murals is a diptych by Charles Alston entitled “Magic in Medicine/Modern Medicine,” which shows the history of folk medicine alongside modern innovations and contemporary doctors. Alston, who received consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1940 and 1941, was a primary driving force behind the murals. The WPA initially blanched at the black-centric subject matter, citing concerns that the content could offend the black community and claiming it was shortsighted to focus on black history in a community that may not always have the same racial complexion. Their misguided criticisms may have resulted from the fact that, according to the New York Times, this was perhaps the biggest federally-funded art project to date that commissioned black artists. In response to the WPA’s pushback, Alston formed the Harlem Artists Guild (with another Harlem-based Rosenwald fellow, Augusta Savage) and successfully lobbied the WPA into allowing the project to proceed. The murals were worked on by a wide variety of artists, including other Rosenwald fellows such as Ronald Joseph.
A panel from Vertis Hayes’ “Pursuit of Happiness,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University
In addition to Alston’s murals, “Pursuit of Happiness” by Vertis Hayes is a particularly interesting part of the collection. One panel of Hayes’ work in particular (pictured above) depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern industrial cities. This hopeful painting utilizes a dramatic symbol of progress, a giant cog, which is a common motif in art from the time period that depicts African American history, and can be seen in artworks by two Rosenwald fellows: Lamar Baker’s “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” and Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life,” pictured below. The latter was another WPA-commissioned mural and was originally displayed in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (which is nearby to Harlem Hospital as well as the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA).
A panel from Aaron Douglas’s 1934 “Aspects of Negro Life”
Photographed by Hane C. Lee (flickr)
Below is an excerpt from “A Study of Negro Artists,” a 1937 film which depicts several Harlem artists at work. The video is cued to a scene from the film that shows muralist Aaron Douglas painting in his studio. Douglas received his Rosenwald fellowship the same year the film was made, probably on the strength of his recent WPA murals and the paintings he contributed as cover art to Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay. With his grant, the New York-based artist traveled to the south to gain new inspiration for his work. If you stay tuned to the film, the next section features another WPA muralist named Palmer Hayden.
Although it was initially resistant, the WPA’s Federal Art Project became a valuable patron of African American art. It’s no coincidence that there are many intersections between the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund. In the early twentieth century, before the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rosenwald Fund and the WPA worked toward a common purpose, and together they made up a huge proportion of the support nationally for black artists.
This blog featured some more murals a couple of weeks ago by a different Rosenwald fellow, Hale Woodruff. Daniel Schulman has written that Charles Alston shared Woodruff’s spirit of experimentation, moving between different artistic styles. It’s great that both of their works are being restored and displayed publicly.
Last week, in the New York Times, Felicia R. Lee reported about a Columbia doctoral student’s discovery of a heretofore unpublished and basically unknown manuscript by the great Harlem Renaissance writer, intellectual and Rosenwald fellow, Claude McKay. Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep was found in a personal collection of rare books and papers left by deceased publisher Samuel Roth. The novel has been authenticated by several scholars and McKay’s estate gave its permission for it to be published.
McKay received his first Rosenwald grant at a turning point in his career. In 1935, he had already published his famous novel, Home to Harlem, and two others, and after this time he focused on autobiography and poetry. The discovery of this new manuscript changes that picture, however. 1933’s Banana Bottom was thought to be McKay’s final novel, but now it appears this 1941 book is his last work of fiction. Two years after completing Amiable With Big Teeth, McKay received another grant from the Rosenwald Fund in 1943 (again for creative writing).
Quoted in the Times, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is enthusiastic about the discovery of the novel for its contemporary depiction of attitudes in black cultural life and for the light it sheds on the later, less well documented, period of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel’s satire of communists illuminates McKay’s personal politics and also provides a look into a different facet of his artistic practice.