“Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C.
in the Thirties and Forties”
After 150 years of collecting cultural dinosaur bones—ball gowns from the first ladies, the Fonz’s leather jacket—the Smithsonian Institution has recently realized that over the years it has devoted pretty scant attention to the history of the city that houses it. Making up for lost time, the institution is finally giving Washington, D.C., its due. It just published a collection of essays, Urban Odyssey, giving us a “multicultural history” of the city. And it has now put together “Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties,” an exhibition of the work of six black photographers.
Moving between shots of everyday life, celebrity mugs, and newsworthy events like Marian Anderson’s famed 1939 Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial or Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s fiery orations, “Visual Journal” helps give dimension to complex but understudied decades in black history. Some of the photos are familiar, virtually iconic: Langston Hughes hunched over his typewriter, Joe Louis readying for a bout. Others are street scenes and snapshots taken inside the homes of anonymous working-class families as they are eating dinner and lounging about. These glimpses are the potent stuff of social history, helping us to imagine the lives of the photos’ subjects.
Much of the exhibition is typical of the relentlessly realistic photojournalism that emerged during the Depression under the aegis of New Deal programs, for which several of these men worked as staff photographers. The most familiar images of the Depression, the dirty, austere faces of men in overalls and women in gingham dresses captured by Walker Evans and published in the classic book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men resonate here. One particularly powerful shot by Gordon Parks, the legendary Life staff photographer, shows the emaciated, wrinkled face of an old peanut vendor against a brick backdrop on Seaton Road NW. We are meant to flinch at the grotesque details of his face, the scars of economic hardship.
This brand of photojournalism emerged from the muckraking and socialist realist traditions. Like Evans, these men pounded the pavement with boxy handheld cameras. They set out to record “the everyday life of everyday people.” Sometimes the approach romanticized those lives. In another Parks photo, “Workman,” the camera points up at a man with a huge coil of rope slung over his shoulder and his face turned boldly rightward. It is worker as heroic figure, but also black man as heroic figure—the flipside of the victimized peanut vendor. Describing his friend Parks’ work, James Baldwin wrote that “black people needed witnesses.” These photographers believed that they would be documentarians, exposing the evils of poverty and racism, producing images that would convince the world to change its wicked ways. But also they wanted to provide “race heroes” who would embolden their own people into action.
Creating a “Visual Journal” that combines images of Harlem and D.C. from these two decades makes more sense than the organizers of the exhibition realize. There was significant interchange of the black people between the two cities, and it was no mere coincidence. History linked the trajectories of the two communities. To understand the real wisdom behind the curators’ choice of subjects requires going back some time before the exhibit’s earliest photos were shot.
Jean Toomer—the great Harlem Renaissance poet and author of Cane, a portrait of black life circa 1925—talked incessantly about growing up in Washington. Memories of the city fill his letters and unpublished autobiographies. They were maudlin memories, and from our vantage point we can see that there was much to be maudlin about. When Toomer lived in Washington, during the first 15 years of the century, black Americans looked to the city with a jealous but worshipful eye. Black Washington’s professional and entrepreneurial class, the largest in the country, behaved, in Toomer’s words, like an “aristocracy.” It commanded political power, inhabited stately neighborhoods, and sponsored a vibrant cultural scene. However, a race riot in 1919 and the entrenchment of Jim Crow—first, in the federal government under Woodrow Wilson, and then in the streetcars and residential neighborhoods during the ’20s—added to an increasingly grim economic situation. By 1925, Toomer tagged the city a “bastard of prohibition and the war,” evoking images of decay to describe black Washington. The black elite remained, but the grandeur was gone.
The D.C. photographs in the exhibition illustrate growing divisions within the black community and show the signs of stagnation. Images of the city’s black elite (mainly we see men and women connected with Howard University) are set next to photos of families living in the crumbling, makeshift houses of Washington’s once heavily populated alleys. And while we see plenty of cultural goings-on, there isn’t evidence of new indigenous developments. The actors, musicians, and authors photographed in Washington are New York imports.
New York’s ascendancy as black America’s cultural capital came at Washington’s expense. Around the time of the first world war, Harlem became the rage, a magnet for black migration. Tens of thousands of black people from the South and border states made their way to the crammed neighborhood north of 125th Street—including Washingtonians like Toomer and Duke Ellington. The migrants brought a confident optimism about their future that was soon tempered by a nihilistic hopelessness about the prospect for equality. In the ’20s, these sentiments coexisted, finding their artistic expression in the Harlem Renaissance and their political expression in Marcus Garvey and other spokesmen for the “New Negro.”
This is a story we are becoming increasingly familiar with. The literature and politics of the Harlem Renaissance are the latest scholarly fad, receiving a disproportionate amount of attention. There is much, though, that requires exploration. When it comes to the next several decades, historians and literary critics have dropped the ball. For instance, we know that the Depression’s impact was felt disproportionately by black people. But the efforts at grasping the extent of the calamity rarely go deeper than statistics and leave out discussions about culture. Nor do we know much about political activity among black people, except for the celebrated case of the Scottsboro Boys and the overemphasized efforts of the Communist Party, which were noticeably ignored by these photographers.
An introduction to the exhibition tantalizingly quotes Henry Louis Gates and hints that the photos might fill in some of the scholarly gaps. “African Americans,” he argues, “reinvented themselves, as more than a million souls removed themselves from the provinces to the metropole…from South to North.” Never mind that this doesn’t apply so well to Washington, D.C., which received comparatively few migrants during this period. The idea is an interesting one. The suggestion is that the energy of the Harlem Renaissance didn’t fall off in the ’30s and ’40s but simply shifted gears. During the dimmest days of the Depression there continued to be heady moments. There is Ellington at the New York Watergate, the late Ella Fitzgerald fronting Chick Webb’s orchestra, and the scholar Carter G. Woodson. And there was the political energy that we see in the Harlem rallies led by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the pickets outside the Justice Department organized by the women of the NAACP, and other lesser-known protests.
The photographs show a confluence of culture and politics that was unthinkable 10 years earlier. The modernists of the Harlem Renaissance had written detached works about the condition of black America. In the ’30s and ’40s, black artists began to engage themselves more directly in politics. We see a picture of the jocular bandleader Cab Calloway looking dead serious, perusing a document with Walter White, the national secretary of the NAACP. Or a throng surrounding the Communist actor/singer Paul Robeson. More to the point, these photographers, even more than the subjects of their photographs, represented the new activism. Parks claimed: “I learned to fight the evil of poverty—along with the evil of racism—with a camera.” In his voice and in his photos we are overwhelmed by his optimism about the power of his craft, the possibilities for change, and the ability of black people to be agents for change. These are sentiments that we associate with black activism during the ’60s rather than the ’30s and ’40s, and it is exciting to uncover them.
Washingtonians will also walk away from “Visual Journal” with the rush that comes from seeing unfamiliar sights in familiar settings like Union Station, the commercial drag along U Street, or Howard University. I do, however, wish the curators had held our hands a bit more, filling us in on decades about which we are fairly ignorant. As a third-generation Washingtonian, I am bothered by the fact that local history receives so little attention. I appreciate the Smithsonian’s recent contributions but am, quite frankly, jealous of New York, Atlanta, and Chicago, which have stacks of quality books devoted to describing their pasts. Consider all the scholarship that went into the Encyclopedia of the City of New York, one of the best-selling works ever published by an academic press, and think of the depressingly long time it will take before we’ll have the scholarly interest and knowledge to generate an Encyclopedia of the City of Washington.CP