Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Part 1

The period between the 1920s and the beginning of World War II marked a blossoming of African American literature, especially in New York. Events that precipitated this period, now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, included a widespread migration to northern cities by African Americans from the South; job and educational opportunities for African Americans; the publication of periodicals specifically aimed at the African American audience and a rising consciousness of a black identity as a result of the work of leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Philip Randolph. Educated middle-class black authors as well as those living on hard times in Harlem, rushed to publish their ideas in poetry, fiction and essays widely circulated and, in many cases, still well-known. As Seattle Reads My Jim by Nancy Rawles this spring, a book that emphasizes the importance of passing our stories on to the next generation, read some of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance express their own experience in writing.

Langston Hugheswhite-folks
Most of us know Hughes chiefly for his poetry, especially his signature, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” but his fiction has the same lyrical and insightful flavor. Hughes’s first novel, Not Without Laughter, features a family experiencing racial discrimination. His first short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, illuminates for his readers the complexities and humor in black/white everyday relationships. Hughes is also the creator of Jesse B. Semple, an African American everyman you can get to know in the Simple stories, which are often incredibly funny!  

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is an all-time favorite of mine. How can you help but admire Janie Crawford, a strong black woman who married three men, was accused of murder and is accountable to no one? Hurston used colloquial dialects in her writzora-neale-hurstoning, which infuriated many black writers who accused her of encouraging racial stereotypes. Now she’s admired for her accurate portrayal of black life, of women in particular, and her writing is widely read and studied. Try a sampling of her stories and essays in I Love Myself When I am Laughing… and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, or one of her other novels that explore the vagaries and conflicting desires of the human heart— Seraph on the Suwanee or Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

Countee Cullen
Cullen, a prolific and highly regarded Harlem Renaissance poet, was raised by a man who was not only a pastor, but also the president of the Harlem chapter of the NAACP, and learned early that racial politics and injustice demanded his talent as a writer. His taut poetry reins in, but never truly subdues, the rage that lends it such incredible power. His work was often published in The Crisis under the editorial aegis of W.E.B. DuBois. Best-known for his prize-winning poem “Ballad of the Brown Girl,” Cullen published his own poetry anthologies, beginning with Color in 1923. You can read his work in My Soul’s High Song and One Way to Heaven, a reprint of a 1932 edition.

A book leads to redemption: Bringing honor to Fort Lawton soldiers from World War II

The tale begins in WWII era Seattle. Our city was host to 200 Italian prisoners of war and a number of African-American servicemen in transit, at Fort Lawton on Magnolia Bluff. The Italians were treated more hospitably than the African-Americans — and tension rose. In one dramatic night of violence, one of the POWs was killed, and found hanging the next morning. The ensuing trial (prosecuted by, among others, Leon Jaworski, later of Watergate fame) focused exclusively on the African-American soldiers, who were given various sentences, the lightest of which involved dishonorable discharge.

Many years later, local author and television reporter/producer Jack Hamann became intrigued by a chance comment. It led to a find in Discovery Park (which was originally the site of Fort Lawton): The 1944 headstone of the murdered Italian. He began looking into the story (doing some of his research at the Central Library), eventually making a documentary for KING TV that questioned the guilt and the convictions of the African American soldiers. The film gained much attention, but was based only on secondary evidence, much as the original trial was.

However, Hamann did not give up. He and his wife, Leslie Hamann,  began to focus on finding the truth, and eventually uncovered hard evidence Continue reading “A book leads to redemption: Bringing honor to Fort Lawton soldiers from World War II”

You Must Learn: A Hip-Hop Education with Black Star

Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star

Among hip-hop fans, the group Black Star is known for its lyrical muscle and strong literary-bent. Members Mos Def and Talib Kweli pack their tightly crafted rhymes with intelligence and wit that seems lacking in much of contemporary hip-hop. Their 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star  was a welcome return to the days when the quality of a rapper’s rhymes was more important than what car he drove or how diamond-encrusted his knuckles were. Mos Def and Talib Kweli were among a small cadre of artists that ushered in a new era of underground hip-hop that strove to be meaningful, empowering, and intelligent and are filled with references to historical events, works of literature, Jazz musicians, and other artist.

The group’s name is a reference to the shipping line created by Marcus Garvey, the early 20th century African-American orator, journalist, entrepreneur, and leader of the “Back to Africa” movement. With intelligent Continue reading “You Must Learn: A Hip-Hop Education with Black Star”

The Making of a Museum

With the oFacade of African American Museumpening of the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) on March 8, 2008, Seattle’s cultural map expands to include one more unique and interesting destination. Through interactive exhibits, programs and events the museum promises to “document the unique historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.” NAAM is, clearly, the new kid on the block of established and honored museums in the region.

Planning a trip to the museum? Enhance your visit before you enter the Journey Gallery by reading In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 by Quintard Taylor or The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District, from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, also by Taylor.

The Northwest Gallery features painter Jacob Lawrence and sculptor James Washington Jr. In addition to their works of art, the tools each artist used to shape and develop their creations are on view. While Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Murals (1935-1999) A Catalogue Raisonné by Peter Nesbitt is Continue reading “The Making of a Museum”