Honoring the Harlem Renaissance
by The Press and Standard | April 12, 2019 5:00 am
Last Updated: April 10, 2019 at 3:23 pm
Blues and jazz music filled the children’s room at the library Thursday night, as performers from the Harlem Renaissance filled the room.
The Colleton County Memorial Library program featured women of the 1920s who were writers, singers and actors through dramatization by local educators: Jessica Williams as Bessie Smith; Alice Behlin, Ma Rainey; Leila Williams, Billie Holiday; Edith B. Washington, Josephine Baker; Vennie Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston; and Shiela Keaise, Maya Angelou. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Xi Omega Omega Chapter, helped coordinate the program.
The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, N.Y., from 1918 to the mid-1930s. It was considered a rebirth of African American arts in music such as blues, spirituals and jazz, as well as writing and the black culture in general.
Some of the greatest influences were:
Bessie Smith: (1894–1937) was an American blues singer. Nicknamed the Empress of the Blues, she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists.
Ma Rainey: (born Gertrude Pridgett, 1882 or 1886–1939) was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. She was billed as the “Mother of the Blues.” She began performing as a young teenager and became known as Ma Rainey after her marriage to Will Rainey in 1904. They toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later formed their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Her first recording was made in 1923. In the next five years, she made over 100 recordings, including “Bo-Weevil Blues” (1923), “Moonshine Blues” (1923), “See See Rider Blues” (1924), “Black Bottom” (1927), and “Soon This Morning” (1927).
Billie Holiday: Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959), better known as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz singer with a career spanning nearly 30 years. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had a groundbreaking influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of formal music education. After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by the producer John Hammond, who commended her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson yielded the hit “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, which became a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall before her death in 1959.
Josephine Baker: Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald, naturalized French Joséphine Baker; 1906–1975) was an American-born French entertainer, activist and French Resistance agent. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. During her early career she was renowned as a dancer and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in Paris. Her costume, consisting of only a girdle of artificial bananas, became her most iconic image and a symbol of the Jazz Age and the 1920s.
Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the “Black Venus,” the “Black Pearl,” the “Bronze Venus” and the “Creole Goddess.” Born in St. Louis, Mo., she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. She raised her children in France.
Baker was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film “Siren of the Tropics,’ directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant.
Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968 she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. After thinking it over, Baker declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children.
She was also known for aiding the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Zora Neale Hurston: (1891-1960) was an influential author of African-American literature and an anthropologist, who portrayed racial struggles in the early-20th-century American South, and published research on Haitian voodoo. The most popular of her four novels is “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1937. She also wrote more than 50 short stories, plays, and essays.
Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., and moved to Eatonville, Fla., with her family in 1894. Eatonville became the setting for many of her stories and is now the site of the Zora! Festival, held each year in her honor. In her early career, Hurston conducted anthropological and ethnographic research while attending Barnard College. While in New York, she became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her short satires, drawing from the African-American experience and racial division, were published in anthologies such as The New Negro and Fire!! After moving back to Florida, Hurston published her literary anthropology on African-American folklore in North Florida, “Mules and Men” (1935) and her first three novels: “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (1934); “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937); and “Moses, Man of the Mountain” (1939). Also published during this time was “Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica” (1938), documenting her research on rituals in Jamaica and Haiti.
Hurston’s works touched on the African-American experience and her struggles as an African-American woman. Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades, but interest was revived after author Alice Walker published an article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine. Hurston’s manuscript “Every Tongue Got to Confess” (2001), a collection of folktales gathered in the 1920s, was published posthumously after being discovered in the Smithsonian archives. Her nonfiction book “Barracoon” was published posthumously in 2018.
Maya Angelou: (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; 1928–2014) was an American poet, singer, memoirist and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.
She became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, *** worker, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Beginning in the 1990s, she made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her 80s. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
With the publication of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokesperson for black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of black culture. Her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide, although attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries. Angelou’s most celebrated works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics consider them to be autobiographies. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family and travel.