A photo essay. To view all 15 shots, check out the email version.
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This time there is no bell to ring calling me to class, no lessons to get, no students to knock, no hundred and one little, pressing, unimportant things to be done: I’m quite graduated, have the “A. B.” in my trunk, and am now, as the boys say, “out in the world.”
—Langston Hughes writing to Claude McKay, 1929
Thanks to a new exhibit at Yale’s Beinecke Library, the seminal black poets Hughes and McKay—and many of their contemporaries active in literature, theater, dance, music, photography and criticism thereof, like the cabaret dancer Josephine Baker and the literary editor/novelist/etc. Jessie Fauset—are now a little more out in the world than they were last month. So, too, is the almost legendary period of history in which they starred: the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1917-39), whose explosion of black cultural output is widely known, but whose finer nuances are probably not.
The exhibition, whose broad, deep bounty ranges from first editions to photographic treasures to private correspondence, is called Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library, and, as the title indicates, the Beinecke itself, thanks to its extraordinary role in chronicling the period, is both the host and a subject. In weaving together history and historiography, curator Melissa Barton enacts a critical self-awareness that also appears in one of the exhibit’s most illuminating features: a look at the more or less internal debates that raged among black creative leaders, who worried about the most productive ways to portray their people in light of a desperate status quo.
Recognizing culture as a means of softening white resistance to political improvements for blacks, was it better to highlight the lower realities of the black working class—“the so-called common element,” as Hughes put it—or to hide them in favor of the respectable activities of the black middle class? Out in the world, would it better serve the movement to proclaim a distinct, nuanced cultural identity, or to convince their oppressors that they really weren’t so different after all?
Members of contemporary political minorities will recognize the tension between truth-telling and image-crafting—between holding to cherished principles and pursuing perceived pragmatism. Star-Dust, of course, doesn’t purport to settle such a timeless problem, among the other dynamics it raises. It does, however, give us a wealth of fascinating data to consider, and a gorgeous library in which to do it.
Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library – 121 Wall St, New Haven (map)
Mon 10am-7pm, Tues-Thurs 9am-7pm, Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 12-5pm
Opening Reception: Today, January 27, from 5 to 8pm
Website | Special Events
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.