Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and The Beinecke Library
In an era that made Bessie Smith and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson household names, taught the world to Charleston, and introduced America’s favorite poet, Langston Hughes, Black American cultural and intellectual endeavor surged into the American mainstream. Hughes himself described the period most aptly, just after it ended, as the time “when the Negro was in vogue.” Called a “movement” or “renaissance” by many of its own participants, and now most commonly remembered as the Harlem Renaissance, the period from about 1917 to about 1939 saw unprecedented achievements in Black American publication, performance, and visual arts. In the century since, this period has captured the American popular imagination with its style, music, and dance.
This web exhibit seeks to return us to the documents, photographs, artworks, and objects that have generated this tremendous response of scholarship, inquiry, and homage. Commemorating the 2017 exhibition at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the web exhibit brings together the original exhibit's narrative text with images of just shy of half that exhibit's objects. Those interested in seeing more are always welcome to visit the Beinecke; a complete checklist of the original exhibit is included in this web version.
In addition to its revolutions in creative expression, the Harlem Renaissance produced a revolution in the act of saving and collecting the black past. In 1926, the year after Alain Locke’s landmark anthology The New Negro was published, Afro-Puerto-Rican bibliophile Arturo Schomburg sold his massive collection of Black books, periodicals, and pamphlets to the New York Public Library. Schomburg’s library became the nucleus of the Schomburg Center, today one of the world’s foremost research institutions for the study of Black history and culture. Other library collections founded around the same time include the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, formed by two major donations in 1914 and 1946, and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters, founded in 1941 at Yale University, from which this exhibit is drawn.
The work of this period has long raised some of the best questions about culture and its purpose: What is beautiful? What is good? What is it for? Who owns it? Can art change the lives of those who are poor and suffering? Many scholars have characterized the renaissance as a “failure” for not ending racial discrimination by the pen and the brush, or for presenting a unified front while silencing gay, West Indian, and leftist voices. Sterling Brown, reflecting back on the movement in 1955, objected to the association of the movement with Harlem, calling it “the show-window, the cashier’s till, but no more Negro America than New York is America.” Gather Out of Star-Dust brings these questions and criticisms back to the materials, to show the complexity of the era through the juxtaposition of its artifacts. We can ask and remember, but also enjoy.
Exhibitions display objects from the library's collections that document literary and cultural history. Some objects use language and/or images that are now recognized as offensive and unacceptable. In some cases, such language and images were viewed as unacceptable at the time of their creation. A display of those objects is not an endorsement of such language and images. Libraries exist to help contemporary readers and viewers to understand and to confront history in context and thereby to inform the present in the service of the future.
The 2017 exhibit was curated by Melissa Barton, Curator of Drama and Prose for the Yale Collection of American Literature and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters. This web exhibit was co-curated by Melissa Barton and Kassidi Jones GRD '24 and compiled by Jones.