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Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During WW II

Farah Jasmine Griffin (Basic Civitas Books, 2013) 264 pages with appendices, notes and index

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During WW II narrates an extraordinary moment in American history through the careers of dancer and choreographer, Pearl Primus, writer, Ann Petry and jazz pianist and composer, Mary Lou Williams. Following their careers through much of 1940s, author Farah Griffin illuminates the confluence between the politically engaged work of these black women artists and a community actively committed to social and political change. With remarkable economy and eloquence, Harlem Nocturne explores the symbiotic relationship between the artist and her community; each woman drew on Harlem’s great strengths and weaknesses for instruction and inspiration for creative expression in dance, in literature and in music. Harlem Nocturne begins with a description that perfectly illustrates this point.

When the second annual Negro Freedom Rally at Madison Square Garden took place on June 7, 1943, D-Day was a year away and the world would struggle through two more years before the War ended. But the Freedom Rally, where 20,000 people had assembled to celebrate the African-American participation in the war effort, was animated by the Double V Campaign: victory over fascism abroad, and racism at home. After a speech from Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and several songs from Paul Robeson, the relatively unknown dancer Pearl Primus appeared on stage. In a dance that choreographed the journey from bondage to freedom, the audience gasped as Primus leapt almost five feet, “Treading air, the dancer seemed to linger there in flight. It was this leap for which she would be remembered.” In this opening scene of Harlem Nocturne, Griffin brings together the artist, her art and politics and the community that made this fusion possible. This scene structures and sustains, with a rich archive of evidence, Griffin’s argument throughout Harlem Nocturne. The individual artist in performance before her community, articulates and confirms their collective commitment to social and political justice; the artist and her community are interdependent. For the women artists of Harlem Nocturne, artistic expression was imbued with an obligation to enlighten, support, celebrate and most importantly to acknowledge, the struggling community of foot-sore fellow travelers. Griffin’s lively prose-style narrates their individual stories with the joyful wonder one must have felt hearing Mary Lou Williams bang out a boogie-woogie or watching Pearl Primus sail through the air, or reading Ann Petry’s salient stories drawn from the everyday, work-a-day world of Harlem during WW II.

Although born between 1908-1919, the three women artists of Harlem Nocturne came from very different segments of the African-American community. The important differences in their backgrounds underscores the vital role Harlem in the 1940s played in each woman’s artistic achievement. Primus, the daughter of West Indian immigrants from Trinidad, came to New York as child. The immigrant family encouraged and supported her education. In high school she was preparing for a career in medicine. Ann Petry’s was born to an old and solidly middle-class New England family that traced its origins back to the Colonial era. Just as Primus’ immigrant parents encouraged their daughter’s education, Ann Petry’s parents sent their daughters to college. After three semesters at the Hampton Institute, Ann Petry completed her education at the University of Connecticut. Unlike either Pearl Primus or Ann Petry, Mary Lou Williams was born in the Jim Crow South. Williams was the second child of an unwed mother who worked as a live-in maid during the week. Her mother married and the family moved from Atlanta to Pittsburgh when Williams was five years old. Her musical genius was evident as a toddler and by age twelve she was playing at movie theaters, funeral homes and brothels. Her formal education ended before she finished high school or even learned to read music. That Harlem would nurture these black women of very different backgrounds and very different talents underscores Griffin’s larger point: the social, political and cultural moment of Harlem in the 1940s attracted creative artists from throughout the African Diaspora. Pearl Primus’ education and career is a vivid illustration.

Of the three women of Harlem Nocturne, only the immigrant was a child of the City. The Primus family arrived in 1921 and moved to 69th and Broadway, in what was then a West Indian immigrant neighborhood. Primus was one of the few black students to attend Hunter College High School, after which she enrolled at Hunter College, majored in biology, excelled at track and field and took classes in every other sport. In a journal entry from 1937, Primus confessed, “I’d love to specialize in dancing but it is not stressed more than the others.” In another entry, Primus writes that she “would also like to hike through Tibbetts Brook Park. I want to see the Frick Collection too.” These glimpses of the artist as a young woman underscore the extent to which New York City was an accessible and integral part of her education. Some City venues provided opportunity for instruction for the young dancer. Primus was one of only four students selected by The New Dance Group, a politically progressive dance company committed to social change through dance. At a leftist children’s camp in New Jersey, Primus worked as a counselor where one of her campers was Paul Robeson, Jr. The City’s progressive political culture generated such organizations that became early venues for Primus’ political and artistic education.

Ann Petry moved to Harlem as a newlywed in 1938. She went to work as a journalist for the People’s Voice and began to write fiction inspired by the everyday features of her life in Harlem. She cofounded the Negro Women Incorporated, a consumer rights group and her friendship with trade union organizers prompted her to create programs for the children of working parents. Petry’s interest and activism inspired her writing. She was also a patron of the Café Society and the American Negro Theater, even performing in, On Striver’s Row, an experience that informed the writing of dialogue in her fiction Frustrated that her early stories were often rejected, Petry enrolled in Mabel Louise Robinson’s creative writing course and workshop at Columbia University. As it had for Primus, Harlem and New York, provided Petry instruction and opportunities for political and creative engagement.

Mary Lou Williams arrived in Harlem at the end of 1943, already an accomplished composer and performer. In 1943, Williams was only 33 but had spent the past 20 years on the road. Williams’ apartment on Sugar Hill became her home and gathering place for jazz legends from Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonious Monk. Williams performed at the Café Society and in 1945 she obtained her own radio show, The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop. The photographs of Mary Lou Williams in Harlem Nocturne, at home with musician friends around the piano or at the radio station surrounded by smiling fans, make explicit that Harlem, and New York City, gave Williams the community, with, and for whom, she would compose and perform. Williams debuted her major work, The Zodiac Suite at Town Hall in New York City on December 31,1945. From Café Society to Town Hall may not have been a great leap for an artist of Mary Lou Williams’ genius. But well into the 1950s, few American cities provided venues audiences and performers of avant-garde in music or dance. Like Primus and Petry, Williams was committed to social and political justice. Concerned about juvenile delinquency, she offered to do jazz concerts for school audiences and later established the Bel Canto Foundation to help jazz musicians recovering from substance abuse.

Despite the Riot of 1943 and consecutive plagues of heroine and McCarthyism, the legacy of Harlem and the women artists it nurtured during this remarkable moment is rich and generous. Pearl Primus taught dance to Maya Angelou and inspired subsequent generations of dancers and choreographers among them Alvin Ailey and the Urban Bush Women; Ann Petry’s writing influenced the generation of black women writers who would transform American literature and literary studies, and Mary Lou Williams inspired and instructed everyone from Duke to Dizzy and all who came after. “New York,” Griffin writes, “beckoned, and they came.”

Harlem Nocturne departs from conventional narratives of great artists by insisting that cultural and political currents of their time encouraged and enriched their creativity. New York City, the people and places that made it a progressive, dynamic site for political and cultural expression during the 1940s made it possible for three young black women artists to imagine themselves as “makers and doers” of the essential social, political and aesthetic work of their time. Farah Griffin’s Harlem Nocturne invites the reader to discover, with gratitude, their individual gifts, of Dance, Story and Music. The greater gift was each woman’s extraordinary example. Through this fine narrative of three gifted, idealistic and ambitious young black women, we are inspired, reminded and perhaps recommitted to the work of “achieving America.”