“Reinventing Blackness” is the name of a new local exhibit about the Harlem Renaissance, but museum officials say it’s a concept that remains relevant today, nearly a century after the movement began.
“Any good piece of art or literature has a kind of universal quality,” said Mark McCormick, executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, where the exhibit on the artists of the Harlem Renaissance runs through Sept. 5. “It really resonates with today that the images of African-Americans remain stubbornly negative, and in the past, and what the Harlem Renaissance is about, African-Americans trying to redefine how they’re viewed by others as well as how they view themselves.”
The Harlem Renaissance coincided with the great migration of African-Americans away from the rural South, violence by whites and Jim Crow in the 1920s. It thrived into the 1930s but had faded by the early 1940s after riots.
“The big cities of the North offered a lot more opportunities for artists,” said Carole Branda, the museum’s curator and the architect of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit. “They really formed this wonderful nexus of talent. … It has to do with jazz and art and literature, and it just kind of exploded.”
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Artists – including those with Kansas roots such as poets Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and painter Aaron Douglas – clustered in Harlem, fusing African folk, oral and musical customs with American traditions. Leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke wanted to show the world the “New Negro” – that blacks were as talented and as intelligent as anyone else. They encouraged expressing pride in their blackness, in opposition to the pervasive racist depictions elsewhere.
Highlights of the exhibit include a 1995 serigraph by Jacob Lawrence called “The March,” based on his 1930s “Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture” series; “Falling Star,” an original Romare Bearden lithograph; a piece called “Monarch” by Selma Burke, known for a plaque she sculpted of Franklin Roosevelt said to be the inspiration for his image on the dime; and an original photograph by famed Kansan Gordon Parks called “Duke Ellington’s Shoes.” Ellington played at the famed Cotton Club. Like virtually all the nightclubs in Harlem then, black performers drew in white audiences, but it was a segregated environment – no blacks were permitted in the clientele.
The exhibit also presented an opportunity for Branda to highlight Oscar Micheaux, a pioneer of independent cinema who grew up in Great Bend and was buried there.
Branda, who has been with The Kansas African American Museum since 2010, hopes to get visitors fired up about history. “We like those a-ha moments,” Branda said. “Black history, I think, is some of the most understudied.”
The Harlem Renaissance exhibit takes up much of the open space on the first floor of the museum in what was the sanctuary of Calvary Baptist Church from 1917 to 1972.
Christyn Breathett, the museum’s education director, works with students on reinventing their images of themselves and changing their perspectives through cross-cultural activities – some of the very things the artists of the Harlem Renaissance were trying to accomplish.
“We are very much so an activist museum – so every exhibit ties into changing the minds of people,” she said. “We’re hoping that when people come in, that no matter what nationality you are, that you want to reinvent who you are to be the best you that you can be.”
McCormick pointed out that some of the racist images that Du Bois, Locke, Hughes, Brooks and others were fighting persist today – in depictions of President Obama, for example.
“This history that we share in the permanent collection or an exhibit like this is really intended to try to bring people together to bridge differences,” he said.
If you go
‘Reinventing Blackness: Artists of the Harlem Renaissance’
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday; through Sept. 5
Where: The Kansas African American Museum, 601 N. Water
Admission: $5.50 adults; $4.50 for students and seniors; $2.50 for children
Information: 316-262-7651, http://tkaamuseum.net