thumbnail of Focus; The Origins Of The Harlem Renaissance In The Discourse Of Egyptology, 1922-25
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In this part of the program our guest is Robert Hill He's an historian at University of California at Los Angeles and he is here to take part in another long running lecture series on the University of Illinois campus and that's the series that they call Miller com. We have had a lot of these folks on this program to bring them to a little bit wider audience outside of Champaign Urbana. This is the seventh annual W E B Dubois lecture. It will take place today at 4:00 in the afternoon at the levels faculty center on the UI campus of course these events are always free and open to the public and anybody who was interesting and interested in attending should feel welcome. He'll be talking about the Harlem Renaissance and its origins and will try and cover some of that same territory here this morning and questions of course are welcome. The number here in Champaign Urbana 3 3 3 9 4 5 5. We also have a toll free line good anywhere you can hear us that's 800 to 2 2 9 4 5. Well thank you very much for Mia. Thank you. It's good to be here. First
I think probably we should or I should ask you to talk about generally about the Harlem Renaissance as I think I'm sure that people are familiar with that with that just at least they've heard of it but I'm not sure that people appreciate just how significant this this period was to. African-American culture but also to American culture and generally this great flowering of the arts. African-American writers writers and artists and musicians you know all of them living and working in Harlem in the in the 1920s so probably could start their talk and talk a bit about the Harlem Renaissance. Well the Harlem Renaissance is a landmark event that developed in the New York area of Harlem run about one hundred twenty five. And it continued right through the Depression years. And it was
a very exciting period it lays the groundwork the foundation of 20th century African-American contributions to American culture in art. So all of the great figure has Langston Hughes Zora Neale Hurston come to call him. The painters like Aaron Douglas many musicians Duke Ellington Count Bass Cab Calloway Lena Horne performers. I mean it was the great cultural flowering that today. I mean anyone who thinks about 20th century African-American culture or American culture usually have it have in mind. This is the backdrop. It was called the Harlem Renaissance.
It was called that by John Hope Franklin in 1948 and that name stuck. But at the time it was known as the negro Renaissance but the negro Renaissance also coincided with one of the greatest most potent creative movements in world culture. The last total complete style I'm referring to what became known as Art Deco and jazz and the Harlem Renaissance were central to the development of art deco and those two really are very intimately connected. So the Harlem Renaissance had a global appeal not just not just a racial appeal.
Well let me ask you to then make the connection with that. And I know this is this is something that you'll be talking about. There was and I guess this would have been beginning in that say the late seventeen hundreds and into the early 80s in Europe an explosion of interest in Egypt a lot of that had to do with the polio having gone into Egypt and stealing a bunch of stuff and taking back your money. And it was very influential. And in the fine arts and you know art and design architecture furniture clothing people got very excited about that. Then there was then I guess another I think connected with that but but somewhat new another resurgence in that in the in the 20s that was in touched off in part by the discovery of the tomb of King Tut. So people got very very excited again about things. Egyptian So what is the connection between that and then that also in influenced that the Art Deco period. I get a very big way
in a very big way again in terms of of Art Design textiles furniture architecture all kinds of things. So what what is the connection between that and between that interest and Egypt and the Harlem Renaissance. Well the the phenomenon that you're referring to is known as Egypt Egyptian revival. The Egyptian revival is something that punctuates all of Western recorded history the first great revival of interest in Egypt took place in Greece. The historian who write it was writes copiously about the importance of Greece the importance of Egypt for Greece Egypt. There's another huge Gyptian revival during the Renaissance and there
is then another revival at the end of the 18th century. As you rightly point out following Napoleons invasion of Egypt. There is yet another great tea Gyptian revival that followed the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s late 1860s. And out of that a great deal of European music would emerge. Many people know the opera Aida but that came out of that revival of interest in Egypt following the opening of the Suez Canal the last great Egyptian revival was the discovery triggered by the discovery of the tomb of King Tutu in common the boy king. It's the discovery of that tomb of the O was the only complete tool of an Egyptian
pharaoh that has ever been found. It is considered. By many to have been the world's greatest archaeological discovery and certainly the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. That set off all over the world. What has come to be known as a wave of Egypt a mania. And my lecture is an attempt to show that that's the real origin of the concept of the Harlem Renaissance that it was an extraordinary African-American interest which unfortunately no one has ever written about in things Egyptian that that paved the way that led the way for this idea of a regeneration of African-American
culture. Now there are competing and complementary notions of Egypt the African-American concept has to a large extent been grounded in the notion of Ethiopian ism meaning that Ethiopia ruled over Egypt meaning that the source of Egypt's greatness really is traceable back to Ethiopia. So there was certainly a tradition of trying to ground. The history and culture of Egypt in an ocean to which African-Americans feel great affinity namely our relationship to Ethiopia. But there is another view of eath of Egypt non Ethiopian view of Egypt which to a large extent comes to us via the Black Mesa. For
example the Prince Hall Masons. And so you have these two views of Egypt one an Ethiopian ist version and the second a more fraternal concept of Egypt. And what I try to show is how the Harlem Renaissance was built out of these two complementary ideas of Egypt. But. Most interesting is is how this wave of Egypt mania set off in November of 1992 with the discovery of the tomb of King Tut could have had such a pervasive impact all over America but particularly among blacks. And yet it's a subject that no one has written about and I find this very interesting. It's interesting to me and that it seems that interest in
Egypt by African-Americans we think of that is being a relatively recent phenomenon that is it has that and it hasn't been that if this indeed goes back a long time and it's to a large extent this is been one of the important intellectual contributions of the black Masons. They have always based themselves on the ritual of Egypt and the belief of course is that Masonry started in Egypt that is its source. It's also the source and let me say that people today who think about these subjects claim that there are really three. You know areas that can explain the allure that Egypt has for people generally. One is the
Egyptian belief in the immortality of the Spirit and the idea that you know. The religion of Egypt was always to go on living in the other world. So this preoccupation with immortality is one that you know we get from the Egyptians. The second is that the Egyptians have a are identified with esoteric or hidden knowledge secret knowledge. And the search for the secrets of Egyptian wisdom is something that people are very attracted to and the third area that might help to explain the fascination of Egypt is of course just plain escapism. One reason for example of that films about the curse of the
mummy or the fact that so many movie houses are called the Egyptian. Kind of escapist fantasy but when you put all three together. It's really very extraordinary people in museums curators and directors know that if you want to have a blockbuster exhibition there's nothing that will rival popular attendance at a museum. As an Egyptian exhibition The only thing that even comes close. Only one thing comes close and it's French Impressionist art. Hands down. Egyptian exhibition as you know beat everything. So people people are really fascinated by this subject of Egypt. Our guest in this part of focus 580 ROBERT HILL He's an historian from the University of
California Los Angeles. He is visiting the campus and will be giving a talk in the Miller series on this very subject we're discussing this afternoon at four o'clock on the U of A campus at the lever center. And anyone interested in attending should feel welcome also here on the program questions are welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 and toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5. When you look at perhaps some of the thinkers that were important in the modern Renaissance or or for that matter people who worked in visual arts where there are some very specific kind of ideas that they took from Egypt or what what they were seeing the version of that that they were getting or from the artifacts that people got a chance to to see. I mean how did that really translate. And you what people were thinking and doing.
Yes well when people think about the Harlem Renaissance or associate to the Harlem Renaissance there is one iconic image that they have in mind. And that is the work of the great African-American painter Aaron Douglas who was also a superbe book illustrator Aaron Douglas's book illustrations for Elaine locks a classic landmark anthology of the new Negro. That and solid published in 1905 is the thing that people date the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance with Aaron Douglas later in life was interviewed when he was a professor at Fisk University.
And Aaron Douglas said that everything that he painted everything was completely influenced by the Egyptian style. Douglas said that the only thing the only thing that was not influenced by the Egyptian style was that everything else and it's clear when you look at Douglas's art you see this this powerful the strong Egypt and influence. What is curious is that his style which is iconic of the entire Harlem Renaissance era has the Egyptian influence has never been related to the inspiration of the Renaissance. Now I think one reason for that is that Alain long the man who claimed that he was the midwife as he called himself of the Renaissance and with good
reason. Elaine Locke the patron saint of the Renaissance. He promoted the idea of what he what was called at the time a quote unquote primitive negro art. He was taken with the popularity of Central African sub-Saharan art in the work of Matisse Picasso Brock Woodley Yani etc. they haven't guard in Europe were as we know. Cubism was largely inspired by the model of quote unquote primitive negro art so that people who write about the Renaissance or privilege or are taken with this idea of primitivism.
Which was Congress went with what artists in Europe were doing and therefore they don't recognize the classical Gyptian influence that underlay the work of someone like say Aaron Douglas. In other words what you have is a contradiction and that's what I'm going to be talking about. On the one hand you have the classic inspiration that went into the making of the Renaissance. But Alan Locke changed the focus from classicism to primitivism and in so doing distorted the real inspiration of the Harlem Renaissance and caused all of the scholars who came along subsequently. Studying the Renaissance to focus on primitivism but it it means that we now have to go
back to the origin in order to rewrite the real history of the Renaissance where I certainly am not rejecting primitivism I'm just saying primitivism was built on this classical substrate of Egyptology and the representation the visual representation of it is not in my lane because he changed. It's in Aaron Douglas and I'm showing how to read the paintings of Aaron Douglas. Let's take a call from someone who is listening to the conversation here well and wants to contribute. Champaign County excuse me a line number one. I love it. Good morning. Since you seem to be focusing on the international dimension I was already going to ask about the importance of cultural exchange let's call it between we know them so many stories of. Sickly African American musicians going to earth. So I'd like for you to just say what
you. How how how important that was in the Renaissance but then this business about if you know if yo pianism. I'm wondering how much do you know actual political developments on it such as some kind of an untold story about how even before the Abraham Lincoln Brigade when progressive here in the U.S. went to the east in the Spanish-American War that a lot of people particularly African Americans went to fight the fascist Italians in the war in Ethiopia and I believe that is somewhat contemporaneous with the last part of the Harlem Renaissance during the Depression. So in those two subjects. I want to sing up and listen I appreciate your visit. Thank you. Thanks. Thank you for that interesting comment. Well let me take the second part of the comment first Ethiopian sympathy for Ethiopia following Mosul Lyonnais
is attack on Ethiopia in 1035 was tremendous. It was widespread it was. It was deep. I've written about this Langston Hughes has a wonderful poem about the struggle for Ethiopia sovereignty. There had never been anything quite like that. Ethiopia has a position in black life in black memory. The is sacred. Many African-Americans who had never read any history knew of the prophecies concerning Ethiopia in the in the sacred text. And so. Fascist Italy is attack on Ethiopia signal a
tremendous wave of popular support in the black community to come to the defense of Ethiopia. There was a great deal of fund raising publications petitions and at the center of this you might say was a revival of Marcus Garvey is universal Negro Improvement Association. So that's 1935 1936. It was a very radicalizing moment because before Europe had to face down the fascist dictatorships African-Americans had already determined that the world would have to take it take on in this case the leaning and Fascist Italy. Now this
is kind of the culmination of. A powerful strain in Black Thought which is identified with Ethiopian ism and also that Ethiopian ism is one that would have global impact. There is Ethiopian ism for example in southern Africa there's Ethiopian ism in West Africa there's Ethiopian ism in the Caribbean and in places like Brazil. All of them are tracing the inspiration back to America. So African-Americans are identified as the function head of Ethiopian ism. It's as if you have the real Ethiopia and then you have the refracted Ethiopia that African-Americans are
identified with so that. In Southern Africa a lot of independent black churches are re renamed themselves with the name Ethiopia and they trace the origin of those churches back to the visit of Henry Mack Neil Turner to South Africa at the end of the 19th century. So that Ethiopian ism is one that is a profoundly important part of African American consciousness and the consciousness of others about African Americans. Now the first part of that question had to do with the music. The reason why the Harlem Renaissance is so important to Art Deco is precisely because of jazz not only of course was Egyptology and the
Egyptian aesthetic important as an inspiration for Art Deco and it we see that in the skyscrapers of New York City the Chrysler building Rockefeller Center or Radio City Music Hall that Channon building American skyscrapers built after 1926 all carried the Egyptian style. You see it also in some of the work of American home architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and and his the prairie School of Architecture. But the music of the 20s which. It's so important to the Harlem Renaissance. How had the year that Art Deco started in Europe was the year that Josephine Baker arrived in Paris and created a whole revolution in terms
of dance and performance in France. She led the way to what has been called the black tumult or the art ne ared phenomenon. Today it's very clear that Art Deco when it came to America after 1925 Reese had the kind of reception that it did because of the jazz age here in America. When Art Deco arrived in America it was never known as Art Deco that term only began to be used in 1968 and many people think that it began in the 20s. The term Art Deco is a very recent term. It was known as jazz McGurn. That was what the style was known as. And then it was known as
streamlined modern and then eventually just modern. I don't think that jazz. Let me say this. The commentators and the people who write knowingly and very knowledgably about our record today can't always agree on a definition of the start but the thing they say that it must have is jazz and if jazz isn't it then it's Art Deco. So yes I mean the the reach of black American music beyond America in this period of the 20s is extraordinary. I just love the past mid-point Maybe I should introduce Again our guest for anybody who might have tuned in we're talking with Robert Hill He's an historian and member of the Department of History University of California Los Angeles. He's are visiting to give a talk in the Miller com series talking about the Harlem Renaissance and how that was informed by or shaped by interest in Egypt.
There would this interest peak periodic late but particularly here we're focusing on the point where it was. It peaked in the 20s beginning with inspired by the discovery of the tomb of King Tut the as. As he pointed out that's the only time either before or after that at the tomb of a pharaoh was found intact entire undisturbed nobody had had broken in and all the others had been pillaged but that was the one that they found. And I guess that that archaeologists still have this dream that someday they might find another. But not since 1922 has not had to write that. I know that you have written a lot about and done a lot of research about Marcus Garvey. Yes I am and I'm interested in having you talk a little bit more about Garvey and his movement and also its significance in the Renaissance. The Garvey movement. Was part of something called the
new Negro. The new Negro was the term that described this wave of black consciousness that arose in 1917 the year America and the First World War. There was a sharp discernible turn in black thinking and a younger more militant. Black a rose identified with several publications. If Philip Randolph and the messenger Marcus Garvey and the negro world Cyril Briggs and the Crusader deputy Domingo you had a whole slew of and many of them very left wing or very nationalistic. Now
this new Negro phenomenon is also the framework or the backdrop of what is called the Harlem Renaissance. So that Alain Locke's famous anthology is called the new Negro. New Negro is the big on vol up in which every single movement between 1017 and say 1927 they are coming out of this. Now Garth is movement was as you know a very popular movement. It had a great appeal in terms of the the mass constituency of black Americans in that sense. The Harlem Renaissance was drawing on a lot of that energy and a lot of the
ideas about relating African-Americans to Africa. But Garvey symbolized this this idea of. The restoration of black people to Africa and their African heritage is one that Garvey largely was responsible for in the years after 1917. Well you can have a Harlem Renaissance without a concept of Africa. Clearly the two belong together so you could say that the Garvey movement paves the way cleared the space for the Harlem Renaissance to come through. The problem is the Renaissance was a more elitist phenomenon made up mainly of white patrons and their black writers and artists whom they wanted to promote.
But Garvey also was responsible for developing a concept of a black renaissance even before the Harlem Renaissance. So teasing out the the points of similarity and difference between Garvey and the Renaissance is necessary but they're certainly in the same in the same flow of history. I'm also interested in hearing a little bit more about Elena Locke. He was a philosopher. He taught at Howard for decades you know he was the first black Rhodes scholar. Yes. He so heres a figure who is important and in providing a kind of intellectual underpinning for what as we're talking here. Yeah and I'm interested in and I'm just obviously just learning about. I am interested in hearing more about him and his influence and also and again going back to this idea that we're talking about what it is that
he drew if indeed he did inspiration or some ideas from from Africa or from Egypt I mean did those things in influential or instrumental in shaping his thinking. Oh very very much. Most people don't know this but. In nineteen twenty three within two months of the discovery of the tomb. And when Locke was approached by Arthur Schomburg the great black bibliophile as well as Johnny Bruce and they requested the president of Harvard University to grant leave to Locke and they sent him to Lux or Locke went out to Egypt and spent many months there observing what was happening and in order
to come back and report on just what exactly was coming up out of that tomb. Schomberg and Johnny Bruce and people close to them as well as many African-Americans felt that the European archaeologist would tamper with the evidence and they were convinced that tooth in common was a black person and they wanted to be sure that they had someone present who could testify to this. So they sent lark out to Egypt. And it's in Locke's field notes in Luxor where he begins to sketch out the concept of a renaissance and he publishes a very important essay when he comes back. But it's published in an obscure source obscure to people today but it was the
alumni magazine of Howard University it's called The Howard alumnus. And in that essay entitled impressions of locks or with wonderful photographs that Locke took in looks or he says that the only way to explain the really extraordinary treasures that were found and the quality of the craftsmanship. That went into the making of those treasures he said. This was the product of the first great black renaissance. And he says The time has now come for us to have a second renaissance. And then he comes back to America. In other words the concept of the rule of the new renaissance that we have come to know is inspired not here in America but while Locke is out in in Egypt traveling and observing what's going on at the at the site of the of the
tomb. It's it's very clear in this essay the impressions of Luxor that Locke is talking about the regeneration of cultural and national spirit the national spirit which he is no advocating when he returns to America in the late 924 is is where the whole idea was born. Let's talk with someone else we have a caller here in Champaign line 1. Hello. All right are you familiar with the book Black Athena and its sequel. Oh yes very much very much so. What is your opinion of that. This isn't that stuff. I don't think that I'm qualified professionally to pass a judgment on it. I think it's a very. Of course it has had a huge huge impact whether people in Dorset or whether
people attack it the it's probably one of the most significant pieces of work published I'd say in the last 25 years. I would agree with that based on the sheer impact of the work. No I think he has some important things to say. Whether he carried it off and proved it is another question. Go ahead. Well I personally would like to first of all read a science for myself intellectually and I would say absolutely. Ever guesses but I think they backed off from the ancient model which I think is probably more accurate than his modified model which is probably why the book wasn't more successful. Bennett on the other hand I think it is sort of racist in the sims all people from Africa are black and that therefore it's a color coded Continental accomplishments Poso a group of people working together. And yes I see that that disturbs me and
also it would be more proper to call it a Berber Athena I don't see the Egyptians who peopled Europe as Berbers if you weren't racist. After the ice ages are not necessarily as races nor in Europe. Time to catch up everybody and civilization. I don't know that's my that's my personal thing. I'll hang up and listen. OK. Something I wanted to ask you about it in this this kind of raises the issue of just in the more recent wave of interest by African-Americans in Egypt has been controversy because scholars and other peoples have have said well that the kind of connections that that effort some African-Americans are drawing between them and ancient Egypt are are 10 US at best some some people I'm I'm not I'm not taking a stand on this I'm just saying these people show sides are saying that and I guess I'm interested in to the extent that when the Harlem
Renaissance was going on when people were saying some of those same kinds of things was there that within the the scholarly world were those ideas getting enough attention so that some people felt like attacking them at that time. Yes no I don't think that in the 1920s there was any control of AC or any focus on you know what African-American authors were saying. Garvey was the person who was largely the figure attacked in the 20s. Do boys to a lesser extent. But they weren't being attacked because they were advocating they the black identity of Egypt. This new wave of what has come to be called Afro centrism or
series of Nile Valley Civilization is. An explicit attempt to write a racial history. I am troubled by that. I think that if you're going to vindicate African-Americans and Africa you have to do it with history a racial history is I think fraught with problems. And that is is another subject for another time. But I certainly think that the way the value of our for centrism is that it once again gone back to this whole question of Egypt and Ethiopia and what you see is they take an Ethiopian ist view of Egypt they see the origin of Egypt South in metal and
what's called Merril another name for the area of the ancient Ethiopian lands they seek to explain Egypt through Ethiopia. A little bit earlier when in the conversation we're talking about going back into them to the Harmer Renaissance talking you talked about it being in some part a phenomenon of black artists and their white patrons. Yes. Was there did at the time did the Harlem Renaissance have some meaning for or some impact on the lives of the the the mass of African-American people made it did it really go out and and and have some a significance for people who were black people who were living elsewhere in the United States.
No. A short time so only the music of this period could be said to have had any kind of popular outreach. The the writers and the artists certainly drew inspiration from the the energy of this period and the fact that black people had been thrown. Thrown into a situation after the end of World War One where they had to resist just to survive and to resist tremendous waves of white Tara that took the form of race riots all over this country in the summer of 1919 it was called the red summer. There were over 50 race riots that summer that
willingness that determination to stand up to white violence really was very inspiring to these these authors. But whether they're writing whether their production was read by or had great great widespread dissemination in the black community I don't think so. I don't think there's any any doubt that this was a very elitist. You know phenomenon in terms of its production. The period that we're talking about of eventually came to an end although once I suppose one could argue that it didn't didn't really but I guess there are we did we thinking of a peer that was was was a defined time. Well this is something that people disagree about. Most people who write about it either say that the
Renaissance came to an end with a great crash or the early years of the Depression. They generally agree that it ended and they many do believe that it failed. I'm not so sure. I take the view that the Harlem Renaissance didn't really and it got folded into art deco And so when Art Deco in 1941 it just ended very abruptly. I think yes you could say that the Harlem Renaissance. As a as a style ended with the end of Art Deco. But that's a very different novel reading from the more traditional reading that the Harlem Renaissance ended. Are there some can you still others ways in which used can still see it
now. The Harlem Renaissance. Oh yes well the development of African-American literature is clearly deeply inspired by the writers of the Renaissance. Everything we do today an African can start is is built around the achievements intellectually politically culturally of the Renaissance. So you might be able to see it overtly but it's the great inspiration of everything we do today. We're sort of coming down to the point we have maybe a couple of minutes left and I guess I wonder if there's some sort of a last sort of ideas that you'd like to leave with folks. Well I'm still trying to sort it's sort through a lot of these themes myself. I
think that what I'd like to see I've been pushing this you could say in the last several exchanges I'd like to see a broadening of the approach to the Harlem renaissance in the context of its relationship to Art Deco. In other words I'm even suggesting that Art Deco might have began here in America in Harlem that it's just possible that this is were really where it started. But you can't get to that. You can't really examine that unless you are willing to see these two movements together. That's the first point. The second point is that the Harlem Renaissance was a style. And just like Art Deco it was a total style. Now the thing we need to recognize is that
African-Americans we don't have the where with all the money and the capital to put up tall buildings and to create an architectural style the black architectural style is the black body. And that's why dance is so important to this period because it's the refashioning of the black body in motion in this period. That is what attracted Art Deco to Harlem. And I'm suggesting that Don says In other words could now become. A way into an understanding of style and this whole period that connects. I mean it's no coincidence that the thing that made Josephine Baker what she was and this iconic figure for the Art Deco movement was her diamonds. She
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Focus
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The Origins Of The Harlem Renaissance In The Discourse Of Egyptology, 1922-25
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WILL Illinois Public Media
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With Robert A. Hill (professor in the Department of History, University of California at Los Angeles)
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2004-02-23
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49:47
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Chicago: “Focus; The Origins Of The Harlem Renaissance In The Discourse Of Egyptology, 1922-25,” 2004-02-23, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 10, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-hd7np1wx8j.
MLA: “Focus; The Origins Of The Harlem Renaissance In The Discourse Of Egyptology, 1922-25.” 2004-02-23. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 10, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-hd7np1wx8j>.
APA: Focus; The Origins Of The Harlem Renaissance In The Discourse Of Egyptology, 1922-25. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-hd7np1wx8j