Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II, by Farah Jasmine Griffin, Basic Civitas Books, 230 pp. ISBN 978-0-465-01875-8

Review by Nicholas Mancusi

The history of black people in America is, largely, a history of a people’s experience with irony. Irony is, after all, woven into this nation from the very founding, when it proclaimed itself the new cradle of human freedom, while at the same time relying on chattel slavery to shoulder the load of the burgeoning economy. For many (although not all, it should be said) who signed the Declaration of Independence, this was no contradiction. But what black person would not feel this irony acutely, would not detect it as so patently absurd as to be nearly laughable if it was not so unjust?

A similar irony was still there 160 years later, during World War II, when America joined a conflagration in Europe, for the second time in a single generation, in order to preserve democracy and uphold the rights of man, while on the homefront still maintaining that all men were not created equal. Note how that last sentence, twice, subtlety excludes women from the very language that we use to talk about freedom. All three biographical subjects of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s new work, entitled Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II, dealt with the two-fold challenge of being segregated as African-American and condescended to as women. The book covers three different artists, active in Harlem during the 1940s: dancer and chorographer Pearl Primus, writer Ann Petry and composer Mary Lou Williams. At that time, African Americans were engaged in what was called “The age of Double V”—victory abroad against fascism, and victory at home against bigotry. It would be another twenty or so years before the victory against sexism was thought even to be obtainable and therefore worth struggling for. But all three of these women laid important groundwork for equality, both in respect to gender and race, in their specific art forms.

Griffin’s main interest here is the political impact of her subjects’ work at the height of their influence. Primus, as a dancer who slowly gained cachet with white audiences, petitioned for the dignity of black bodies themselves, on the most simple physical level, to say nothing of the moral implications and considerations that would necessarily follow. Let the fact that the following review of one of her performances, by influential New York Times critic John Martin, was received as a rave stand as evidence for how difficult it was for these women to be taken seriously: “It would be manifestly unfair to classify her merely as an outstanding Negro dancer, for by any standard of comparison she is an outstanding dancer without regard for race.” Griffin also quotes Martin as saying that “movement… in and of itself is a medium for the transference of an aesthetic and emotional concept from the consciousness of one individual to that of another.” In this case, the emotional consciousness transferred from Primus was a simple, essential one: “I deserve the respect due to a human being.”

Ann Petry used a different art form but achieved a similar goal. In her fiction, she revealed herself to be both a sensitive observer of life as it was in Harlem and a motivated political actor with full faith in the power of art to improve the human condition. She wrote in an essay titled “The Novel as Social Criticism”: “I find it difficult to believe that art exists for art’s sake.” In realist novels such as The Street, she depicted characters with no recourse, trapped between the rocks and hard places attendant to the poor black experience, as a clear call for “a fundamental change in the economic and political structure” of the country.

Mary Lou Williams shared her aesthetic and political philosophy. Griffin writes: “For Williams, black music offered transcendence by directly confronting and acknowledging human suffering.” In the years after the war, and in the wake of the riots of 1943, Harlem had abandoned nearly all traces of optimism, and there was plenty of human suffering to acknowledge. “I had never in my life,” Williams writes, “been in such a terrible environment with people who roamed the streets looking for someone to devour.” She did not only use her music to increase the estimation of black art for white audiences; she also used it for social uplift, dedicating much of her life to playing for Harlem audiences that she thought needed the most spiritual attention, from at-risk school children to recovering drug addicts and the homeless.

Although Griffin describes with gusto their artistic and political projects, she seems reluctant, almost out of a sense of respect (or even decorum, that worst trait in a biographer), to get into the darker aspects of her subjects’ lives. All three women saw their careers hampered (if not halted) by the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, but Griffin dedicates only a few sentences to explaining how they were most likely innocent of the charges. They deserve either a full exculpation, or at least a defense. And in the very last paragraph in the section on Williams, we get this: “During her time in Europe, Williams suffered what some called a nervous breakdown. It might also have been a spiritual crisis, ‘a dark night of the soul.’” This is all the detail given. What reader would not want to know more about the nadir of an artist’s life, and how she pulled out of it? It might have blurred Griffin’s focus on the war years, but it seems that in order to best understand a person (or even a person’s work, which is perhaps the tighter aim of the book), their full lifetime of triumphs and failures must be taken into account.

Despite the occasional gilded positivity, this book is still a strong corrective to the fact that many have forgotten the contributions of these three women. Longer odds can scarcely be imagined: to be both black and female when the country was hospitable to neither. Yet through their unshakable decency and undeniable talent, they were able to make their mark on the social fabric, woven as it with equal strands of both art and politics. It would be dishonest to say that they left Harlem better than they found it; the neighborhood had many more dark years to face before the tide of blight would be reversed. The same could be said about the Civil Rights movement. But looking at their achievements, though one would surely have been given that most precious commodity in hard times: hope.

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