August 2013

Vanessa Willoughby


Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II by Farrah Jasmine Griffin

With her blunt relay of information and measured prose, Farrah Jasmine Griffin makes it very clear that her focus in Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II is not on the Harlem Renaissance as perceived through the popular masculine heroes of the time period. Instead, the author is keen on showcasing the legacy of three culturally underappreciated women. The rise and fall of Harlem as an African-American cultural Mecca is embodied by the careers of dancer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, and writer Anne Petry. However, the women are never meant to represent an anomaly as much as they are presented as intellectual daredevils, regardless of gender. Following a brief introduction, the author spends a significant amount of time tracking the successes (and failures) of three exceptional artists.

If we're to believe Griffin, Pearl Primus was destined for political activism. Griffin makes it a point to show that Primus's talent for dance was not only her form of artistic and spiritual expression but a direct reaction to the social and political upheaval of race relations during and after World War II. Surprisingly, Primus never set out to be a dancer. After graduating from Hunter College, she intended to find work as a lab technician. Unable to secure a job, which Griffin understands to be a misfortune bred not of laziness but of sexism and racism, Primus undertook graduate classes at New York University. While at NYU, she joined the New Dance Group, which thus spurred her path toward acclaim. Griffin's descriptions of Primus's dedication to the physicality of dance, rather than adhering to feminine gracefulness, paint the dancer as an unconscious symbol of feminism. She was an athlete, a storyteller, a woman who was able to transform the injustices of racism into a full-bodied manifesto. As Primus becomes more prominent in the public sphere, she becomes a target for Joseph McCarthy's communist paranoia and J. Edgar Hoover's hyper-vigilance. Primus is ultimately deemed not a threat and escapes the clutches of McCarthy and Hoover. Griffin exercises economy with her words, avoiding the trap of romanticizing her subject by substantiating her observations with outside resources, from personal correspondence to newspaper clippings.

Griffin treats the artist Anne Petry with the same admiration and scholarly dissection as Primus. Like Primus, Petry utilized her talent as a writer; she carefully crafted a cultural narrative of the black experience as a way to encourage social progress. The author cites Petry's fascination not with the lives of the black bourgeoisie, but with the underdogs, the resilience of the working class, the everyday people who were often overlooked or ignored. Like Primus, Petry finds both wisdom and enlightenment in the streets of Harlem. Her job as s a journalist served as muse to her writing. Additionally, Griffin notes that Petry used her literary heroes to engage in conversation about the limited, crippling scope of the American Dream. With Petry's chapter, Griffin hits her stride, as her portrait of Petry does not feel condensed, but finely-tuned.

Griffin closes out the book with Mary Lou Williams, child prodigy turned jazz queen. She became a friend to the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, and Jack Teagarden. With Williams, the author is able to capture Harlem's thriving artistic community; the ingenuity and musicianship of Williams serves as the embodiment of progressive politics fueling progressive art, and vice versa. Whether it be an official venue like that of Café Society or from the comfort of her own living room, Williams promoted the exchange of ideas of among an integrated artistic community.

Some may find Griffin's writing style to be dry, even monotonous. Griffin is determined to prove that these three women artists have left a lasting mark on the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement. Sometimes her tone dangerously leans toward that of a formal lecture or a textbook, but the inclusion of source material adds a needed break. It doesn't hurt that each artist followed surprising and inspiring paths to success. Griffin is so enthralled by these artists that sometimes her words are merely a frame. This technique would probably not be so successful if Griffin had picked the more ubiquitous figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that Griffin trusts the luminosity of her subjects to engage the audience -- a decision well made.  

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II by Farrah Jasmine Griffin
Basic Civitas Books
ISBN: 978-0465018758
264 pages