“I, TOO SING AMERICA: THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE AT 100” WITH A MISSION TO CREATE A CATALYST TO UNITE, COLLABORATE, AND CELEBRATE THE COLUMBUS BLACK ARTS COMMUNITY THROUGH EDUCATION, EXPOSURE, AND EXPRESSION.
IN THE 1940s, ‘50s AND ‘60s, THE SOUNDS OF JAZZ spilled out onto Mount Vernon Avenue and Long Street. Up-and-comers jammed with the masters they revered at the Yacht Club, the Pythian Theater and the 502 Club. Audiences clamored for performances at the Lincoln Theater, the Cameo, the Dunbar and the Empress.
Will Haygood grew up on the Near East Side toward the end of this decades-long period of exuberance and art. What he saw in a landscape of slowly fading speakeasies and jazz clubs were the remnants and simmering legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, a specifically African American cultural and artistic explosion born in New York in 1918 that spread to other American cities, including Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.
The Harlem Renaissance gave us artists and a body of work that remains unparalleled. Out of this groundswell of African American art, writing, theater, music, political thought and journalism emerged Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Eubie Banks, Jacob Lawrence. Chester B. Himes, the seminal crime novelist, got his start writing under inauspicious circumstances — tapping out short stories while doing time in the Ohio Penitentiary just a mile from where we sit today. “It really is the story of America, not only black America,” Haygood says. “It is the story of a nation through the prism of artistic soldiers. And all they wanted was peace. There’s not been another epochal period like this when we saw giants — and I mean giants.”
In 2018, Columbus hosts a thrilling and accessible opportunity to appreciate the past and understand what the Harlem Renaissance can teach us about our nation today. “It’s hard enough to create art that will endure, but it endures,” says Haygood, who curated an exhibition of Harlem Renaissance art and ephemera that opens in October. “Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories endure. Langston Hughes’ poetry has been quoted by Black Lives Matter activists. It endures.”
Haygood found himself at a profound personal and professional crossroads while researching the Harlem Renaissance during the last year. The movement has been a ribbon woven between the lines of his biographies — including those about Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson and Thurgood Marshall. “To research that period now, when this nation is undergoing another racial crisis and there are constant assaults against blackness and ethnicity, it really dawned on me: When freedom erupted in this country, art and poetry and writing were an underpinning of freedom.”
Several Columbus arts organizations have committed to this opportunity to unite, collaborate and make a statement that will be heard far and wide. Just as the Harlem Renaissance was ignited in a crucible stirred by outsiders, cabaret performers, self-taught students of jazz, as well as academics, scholars and classically trained artists, I, Too, Sing America will draw from and re ect our city’s diverse community of creators, makers, artists, educators and organizations.
“At the beginning of ‘The Butler,’ there’s a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that says only light can drive out darkness,” Haygood says. “Throughout that history of dark tyranny against minorities in this country, artists’ light has served to change minds.”
We will create. We will inspire. We will raise our voices to form a resounding chorus.