Saturday, February 28, 2015

JCUF VOL 2 NO 1 (2015) - "The Harlem Renaissance" by Njoroge Mungai

The Renaissance in Harlem like all significant movements reflects a spiritual migration. During the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, former sharecroppers and farmers abandoned Southern towns and their history of bondage for Northern cities promising an absolution from involuntary servitude. Artists during this movement continue to inspire creatives seeking to master the science of truthful expression.
Each participant in the Renaissance in Harlem resembles an atom, restructuring reality and the laws governing the physics of creativity, being that, voice inflections, choreography, brush strokes, composition, stage directions, and the written word are inextricably linked not only to the chorus of expression, but also to individual imagination.
This dialectical relationship is a rhetorical rendering that struggles to emancipate art from the shackles of caricature. Writers such as Langston Hughes comment on the struggle that confront creatives as he posits that:
The (Negro) artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes (from the whites). "Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are," (say the Negroes). "Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you, don't amuse us too seriously. We will pay you," (say the whites).
Issues of identity are fraught with conflict. Artists struggle to produce work that is definitive of their talent in an environment that is resistant to autonomy. Independence and cultural differences are celebrated yet the causes of exclusion are not interrogated. This occurs even within groups championing multiculturalism. George Elliot Clarke observes that this may occur “Because they were interested in identifying with a kind of ethnic--celebrating ethnic difference, but not examining the question of racism. Not at all. That was too disruptive too, it would get into questions of class, privilege, etc. etc. and the people we were associating with who were part of that movement back then did not want any part of that. What they wanted us to do was come and sing our spirituals, but don't talk about racism, don't talk about employment equity and don't talk about anything that is going to upset other people who are part of this "coalition."
Choreography transforms unpredictable motions into precise movement that create order out of chaos. It celebrates continuity and harmonizes the struggles and triumphs that accompany our lives. Pearl Primus, an influential creative during the Renaissance in Harlem captures the fluidity of movement within African traditions. She recognizes that these rhythmic undulations ripple into other communities. In doing so, she eclipses the restrictions of her aesthetic and transforms dance into a weapon wielded against exclusion. In her words:

... Dance is ... the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustration of all human beings who because of race, creed, or colour are “invisible’. Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice. 

The tide of exclusion continues to recede yet Misty Copeland, the first and only African American female soloist for the American Ballet Theatre notes that restrictions to access still linger. Although indebted to figures like Peal, she acknowledges that exclusion is a result of:

... racism and not wanting to change this very traditional art form that has been successful in the way it is for so long.

The Renaissance in Harlem reminds us that creativity eclipses the confines of time and space. It leaps above exclusion and defies convention. As conscientious curators, we hold the gifts that this period bestowed on us so that future generations will be inspired to contribute their unique voices to the ongoing narrative of creative expression.

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