Prof: Harlem Renaissance key part of US history

020819 Harlem Reniassance

Dr. Leon Pringle gives a presentation on the Harlem Renaissance as part of the History for Lunch series at Museum of the Albemarle, Wednesday. The museum will open an exhibit on the Harlem Renaissance on Saturday, Feb. 16.


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Friday, February 8, 2019

Elizabeth City State University science professor and Harlem Renaissance aficionado Leon Pringle told an audience at Museum of the Albemarle this week that the Harlem Renaissance is not just African-American history but an important part of U.S. history.

Pringle’s History for Lunch talk at the museum on Wednesday pointed out that while it’s known as the Harlem Renaissance, the eruption of artistic expression among African-Americans during the 1920s and 1930s, also occurred in other large metropolitan areas across the country.

Even so, Harlem — an enclave of New York City that was home to more African-Americans per square mile than anywhere else in the country — was the center of the movement, Pringle said. Poet James Weldon Johnson in fact described Harlem as “a black city, located in the heart of white Manhattan.”

Pringle said a major factor in the Harlem Renaissance was the “Great Migration” of blacks from the South to the Northeast, and especially New York City. The migration occurred mainly in the first couple of decades of the 20th century in response to the end of the Reconstruction era — which had been marked by significant freedom and economic opportunity for blacks in the South — and the emergence of repressive Jim Crow laws.

The Harlem Renaissance was fueled by the energy of artists such as poet Langston Hughes and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, especially as philosopher Alain Locke “tweaked that energy” and helped focus it, Pringle said. One of the writings that laid the philosophical foundations for the Harlem Renaissance was Locke’s book, “The New Negro,” which challenged negative and dismissive stereotypes of African-Americans, Pringle said.

Pringle told the audience that writers led the way during the Harlem Renaissance. They were followed by visual artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers and others.

One of the earliest African-American filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux, produced the film “Within Our Gates” in opposition to the racist, pro-Klan narrative of “Birth of a Nation,” Pringle said.

In addition to film, Harlem Renaissance artists produced the Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” which ran for 500 performances and appealed to both white and black audiences, according to Pringle.

Pringle is active in Albemarle Voices of Diverse Culture, an advisory panel for Museum of the Albemarle that encourages and helps plans diverse programming for the museum.

According to Pringle, the group came together largely out of a concern that few African-Americans were visiting the museum and taking advantage of its programming. Albemarle Voices advocates for programming that will be of interest to African-Americans, he said.

Some six to eight people have been meeting about those concerns and their advocacy has made a difference in museum programming, Pringle said.

“There is no question” that programming at the museum has become more diverse, Pringle said. A good example, he said, is the way school groups are now being introduced to the Harlem Renaissance at the museum.

Museum of the Albemarle will open its “Harlem Renaissance: A Forward Movement” exhibit Saturday, Feb. 16 at 9 a.m. The event will include a ribbon cutting at 11:30 a.m. and art activities for both adults and children from noon to 3:30 p.m.