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One of the most consulted collections at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, which has thousands of objects related to the Harlem Renaissance. This archive of art, literature, photographs, and ephemera is the foundation for Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library, a building-wide exhibition at the recently renovated institution.
“The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts & Letters at the Beinecke Library is one of the most used of all the library’s collections by scholars and students,” Michael Morand, the Beinecke communications director, told Hyperallergic. Gather Out of Star-Dust, named for a Langston Hughes poem, features over 300 objects, from art by Aaron Douglas and sculpture by Augusta Savage, to manuscripts by Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison.
“The exhibition’s overarching goals are to emphasize the many individuals involved in creating and promoting African American arts in this period, and to demonstrate the depth and breadth of Beinecke’s holdings,” explained Melissa Barton, the exhibition’s curator and the curator of prose and drama at the Beinecke. It opens with 51 portraits of these individuals, many photographed by Carl Van Vechten, explorable through a touchscreen that includes their biographies. The following displays offer a documentary chronology and sections on topics like the performing arts, visual arts, and formation of libraries and collections focused on African American materials, such as the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Its establishment in 1941 was marked in a smaller exhibition last year, which celebrated the influential civil rights activist and author.
Also on view is a recently acquired 1932 map of Harlem nightclubs, illustrated by E. Simms Campbell, who is recognized as the first black artist to be regularly syndicated in national magazines. The detailed map, punctuated by the dancers at the Savoy Ballroom and well-coiffed performers at the Cotton Club, is among the many objects emphasizing the vibrancy of art from roughly the early 1920s to ’30s. Contrasting with these dynamic venues is a large collection of rent party cards collected by Langston Hughes, advertising private apartment bashes aimed at raising money for the exorbitant rent charged to black tenants.
“We were also trying to convey the continued relevance of the primary concerns of this period, including both the aesthetic questions surrounding African Americans in the arts and the fight for political and economic rights for African Americans and other underserved populations in the United States,” Barton said.
The Great Migration had concentrated many black communities in urban areas, and organizations founded in the early 20th century, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, helped organize power. Yet segregation in a pre-Civil Rights period often limited artistic and personal advancement. And, for instance, although Porgy in 1927 and Run Little Chillun in 1930 brought large casts of black performers to Broadway, there were still blackface performances nearby, such as Ethel Barrymore as Scarlet Sister Mary in 1930. “Among the items I see people stopping and reflecting on frequently, the photograph of the Negro Silent Protest Parade in July 1917, when 10,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City against white terrorist violence, resonates in powerful ways across a century,” Morand stated.
Gather Out of Star-Dust, through its diverse array of original materials, importantly creates a human connection to the individuals of the Harlem Renaissance, whether a letter from W. C. Handy to Langston Hughes, or Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 manuscript for Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“And numerous visitors have mentioned how vital it is to see the handwriting — in letters and manuscripts — of the actual people who made the Harlem Renaissance real,” Morand said. “Many who have read Their Eyes Were Watching God have exclaimed with awe and delight to see her manuscript, in her hand. Those moments of inspiration are why libraries like Beinecke exist, to bring the past alive in the present in the service of the future.”
Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library continues at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University (121 Wall Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through April 17.