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Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin.

December 12, 2014

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II, by Farah Jasmine Griffin.  Basic Civitas Books (2013). Hardcover, 264 pages.


An engaging account by an African American woman scholar about three black women who expanded their art and the politics in Harlem in the 1940s.


During World War II, New York City and Harlem drew African Americans into its artistic and political circles, and they, in turn, contributed their creativity in ways that reached beyond the neighborhood. Historian, Farah Jasmine Griffin, tells the stories of three women; Pearl Primus, a dancer, Ann Petry, an author, and Mary Lou Williams, a musician. Each found her place in Harlem during these years, a place where they could develop aesthetically and actively pursue their goals to improve the lives of African Americans.


Griffin is a respected historian with a Ph.D. from Yale now teaching at Columbia. Her book is obviously the result of diligent research and careful documentation. Unlike many academics, she writes with a grace and energy that belies her expertise. Rather than arguing the validity of her findings, she is foremost a storyteller, easy to read and comprehend.


While telling the story of individuals, Griffin relates how and why Harlem was a dynamic location for African American activists and artists in the 1940s. In doing so she adds to our understanding of how the war years laid the foundation for the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Possibilities of work in defense industries created a new wave of emigration of African Americans from southern states and from the Caribbean. Still facing discrimination, African Americans organized a “Double V” campaign against fascism abroad and racism with U.S. society. The movement aimed at affirming patriotism at the same time it spoke out against continuing discrimination, especially within the military. In addition, leftists of various descriptions were working together as a Popular Front bringing together activists and artists, some but not all of whom viewed the Communist Party as the best hope for addressing racial oppression in America. Such activity ended as the Cold War and McCarthyism led to the silencing of a wide range of people working for change.


The women on whom Griffin focuses were varied. Pearl Primus was born in Trinidad and had come to the United States with her parents. After studying biology in hope of becoming a doctor, she turned to dancing. In her dances she incorporated patterns she learned in the American South and in Africa.   Ann Petry had grown up in New England and was the decendent of free Africans. Working as a journalist on a radical African American newspaper, she was in the middle of the activism of the time. She also wrote fiction which depicted the diversity of blacks on the streets of Harlem. In her best-known work, The Street, she reveals the vulnerability of African American women in the city. Mary Lou Williams wrote, arranged, and performed her music on the piano. She was an integral part of jazz and bebop popular at the time. Her attempts to assist those in need where more on an individual than an organizational basis. All three women made major contributions to American cultural and deserve to be more widely known.


Harlem Nocturne is a contribution to African American and US Women’s History.  Enjoyable as well as informative, it is worth the time and attention of a wide range of readers.  I recommend it heartily.



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