This Day in Black History: April 15, 1889

Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph was born.

072611-National-Black-Herritage-Stamps-A-Phillip-RandolfA. Philip Randolph, a major force leading the 1963 March on Washington, was born on April 15, 1889, in Crescent City, Florida.

Randolph moved to Harlem to become an actor after graduating from Cookman Institute. He held several jobs and later co-founded the Brotherhood of Labor to organize against impoverished conditions for waiters on a steamship where he worked.

In 1925, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and served as its president. He also pushed the federal government to address racial discrimination in the war industry workforce and the U.S. Armed Forces.

Perhaps his most noted accomplishment was speaking at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Randolph would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson for his dedication to labor and civil rights.

Randolph died on May 16, 1979, at age 90 in New York City.

By Natelege Whaley
Posted: 04/15/2013 08:00 AM EDT
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The boy Harry from Harlem did good

To most younger people who remember him, Harry Belafonte is mainly known for singing infectious but vaguely annoying 1950s Afro-Caribbean pop songs like Day-O.

Indeed, anyone under 30 may not know who he is at all.

If so, this expansive and entertaining, if sometimes hagiographic, documentary from Susanne Rostock will definitely set them straight.

And if Rostock’s film is a little fawning now and then, it’s hard to blame her, because Belafonte’s has been a truly extraordinary life.

Born in extreme poverty in a Harlem tenement in 1927, Harold George Bellanfanti Jr was the child of a Caribbean housekeeper, and was partly raised in Jamaica by his grandfather.

After finishing high school in Harlem, he served in the US Navy during World War II and returned to New York. He was working as a janitor’s assistant when a tenant gave him tickets to a show at Harlem’s American Negro Theater.

The theatre’s resident company used plays to give a voice to the black American experience, and the young Belafonte was entranced.

He met Sidney Poitier and began acting, but also experimented with singing and developed a keen interest in folk songs, both American and Jamaican. In 1956 Belafonte had a big hit with Caribbean folk song Matilda, and his debut album Calypso became the first LP to sell over a million copies.

He became an overnight sensation, and audiences went wild for his sensual live performances, but Harry was no mere pop star.

Inspired by the fearless campaigning of black singer Paul Robeson, Belafonte became increasingly exercised by the fate of black Americans, and would be a key player in the Civil Rights movement.

It’s this period of Belafonte’s life that Rostock’s film spends most time exploring, and understandably so, because the singer’s contribution to that cause cannot be overstated.

He bailed Martin Luther King out of Birmingham City Jail; supported the preacher’s family; financed the Freedom Riders; courted the Kennedys; and helped organise the iconic March on Washington in 1963.

Belafonte also rallied Hollywood chums like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston to put their names to the Civil Rights movement, and the singer also put his own career, and even his life, at risk.

His energy and commitment is remarkable, and his engagement against injustice has continued; he’s campaigned against apartheid, famine in Africa, and the American engagement in Iraq.

Admirable stuff, and at 85 he’s still going strong.

But Rostock’s film is too respectful to provide genuine insight; the recollections of Belafonte, Poitier and others about the ’60s are fascinating, but Belafonte’s personal life is only nodded to respectfully, and no hard questions are asked.

Why, for instance, has he been so consistently ambivalent about the presidency of Barack Obama?

– Paul Whitington

Gordon Parks: 100 Years on display at ICP

© Gordon Parks. Collection of the International Center of PhotographyIn honor of the centennial of the birth of photographer Gordon Parks, Manhattan’s International Center of Photography (ICP), in conjunction with the Gordon Parks Foundation, presents “Gordon Parks: 100 Years.” This window installation will include a large-scale photo mural and slideshow of more than 50 images captured over Parks’ long and illustrious career and was curated by Maurice Berger.

Also on display is a 20-by-13-foot mural featuring “Emerging Man,” an image Parks captured in Harlem in 1952. Three video screens will display evocative images through which he explored racism, urban and rural poverty, politics and the Civil Rights Movement.

“As we celebrate Gordon Parks’ life, we also celebrate his legacy as a humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice,” said Berger. “The body of work he left behind documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006.”

Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kan., on Nov. 30, 1912. He became a photographer in 1937. He went on to become a true renaissance artist and one of the most important figures in 20th-century photography. Largely a self-taught artist, his first job was with the Farm Security Administration. He went on to become a renowned fashion photographer, shooting for Vogue magazine in 1944. In 1948, Parks became the first Black staff photographer for LIFE magazine. His extraordinary photo essays looked at life in Harlem, urban poverty and segregation. Two of his most celebrated essays featured Flavio da Silva, a poor Brazilian boy, and a Harlem street gang called the Midtowners.

The gifted Parks was also the first African-American to direct a Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree,” based upon his novel of the same name. Perhaps his most famous film was “Shaft” (1971), which helped usher in the Blaxploitation film era and netted an Oscar for Isaac Hayes, who composed the film’s score.

In addition to being an extraordinary photographer and filmmaker, Parks was a prolific artist, writer, musician, composer and painter.

“Gordon Parks: 100 Years” is on view May 18 through Jan. 6, 2013, at the ICP, located at 133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street in Manhattan.

By JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews

Voices Stifled by Solidarity

Occasionally an art exhibition comes along that is more engaging for the issues it raises, the questions it prompts and the viewpoints it offers than for the artworks hanging on its walls. Such is “Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Collective” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Organized by Lauren Haynes, in collaboration with Emily G. Hanna of the Birmingham Museum of Art (where a smaller version of the show originated), “Spiral” features 22 works of painting, printmaking, collage and photomontage, most in black and white, by 10 of the 15 members of Spiral, a New York art collective active from 1963 to 1965.

In July 1963, anticipating the following month’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Romare Bearden invited Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff to his Canal Street studio for weekly meetings to discuss their relationship to the civil-rights movement and their cultural responsibilities, as African-American artists, to achieve solidarity and to further the cause. They took the name Spiral, which refers to the Archimedean spiral, and within weeks had grown to 15 members. Understandably, they expanded the conversation to address changes in America and in American art, including the rise of what Bearden referred to as a concentration on themes of “absurdity” and “antiart.” Apparently, equal rights for women didn’t figure highly in the discussion, as only one woman, the figurative painter Emma Amos, was invited to join the collective.

Spiral was among the first postwar groups to urge artists to promote social change—to turn self-expression into expression for the greater good of the group. And “Spiral” offers a glancing view, from the African-American perspective, of the birth and early stages of what came to be known in the 1970s as identity politics. The show asserts that disenfranchised groups need spokespeople. And it asks some of Spiral’s original questions: “Are aesthetic sensibilities specific to racial identity?” “What relationship should artists have with the social and political concerns of black Americans?” And “Is there a Negro Image?” These are big questions the show doesn’t begin to answer.

“Spiral” succeeds art historically, in that it adds a new chapter to our understanding of an influential group amid a turbulent period; and it flourishes as an exhibition about black history and racial, social, political and artistic issues, but not really as an art exhibit. That is unless you take the show as a snapshot of the social experiment that Spiral was—a mix of many conflicting styles, influences and ideologies, aesthetic and otherwise, attempting unsuccessfully to cohere. The Studio Museum’s exhibit includes several pictures from Spiral’s 1965 exhibition, “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White.” In that original show’s catalog essay, the artists stated: “We, as Negroes, could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation, or fail to relate to the self-reliance, hope, and courage of those persons who were marching in the interest of man’s dignity. . . . If possible, in these times, we hoped with our art to justify life . . . to use only black and white and eschew other coloration.”

This act of artistic solidarity is reasonable; and, on the surface, empathetic and metaphoric. But you realize, even in this small exhibit, that an artist’s palette is a personal thing—that color as it relates to painting has nothing to do with race; that some artists can work well tonally and some cannot. You realize that no matter how much you might want to make color political, a strong black-and-white picture will speak to the pantheon of great black-and-white artworks much sooner and more fully than it will trigger in a viewer’s mind that race—not light—is an artist’s primary concern.

There are a handful of good artworks in “Spiral,” but the best of them speak to art and express universal values that extend beyond their contemporary social subjects. Bearden’s black-and-white “Conjur Woman” (1964), a photo projection on paper of a torn-paper collage, depicts a haunting, composite figure who is surrounded by animals, and acts as a magical cave or portal in dense woods. William Majors’s striking series of abstract etchings, seemingly inspired by aboriginal art, cave painting and Wassily Kandinsky, combines ancient and modern sensibilities. Also of note is Lewis’s “Untitled” (1964), a mystical, washy oil on paper (part Color Field, part Paul Klee), in which colored light, shining from out of a dark, bluish mist, reads as hints of emerging geometry, cloud, landscape or architecture.

Paradoxically, “Spiral”—no matter what its artworks’ subjects—is an aesthetically marginal show whose pictures often come across as watered-down versions of European Modernism and Abstract Expressionism. Alston’s “Black & White #7” (1961) reads as a weak, horizontal approximation of Jackson Pollock’s vertical masterpiece “The Deep” (1953). Woodruff’s “Africa and the Bull” (c. 1958) is a Picasso pastiche; and his “Portal” (undated) is a pastiche of Wifredo Lam. Occasionally, as in bombastic, agitprop paintings such as Reginald Gammon’s “Freedom Now” (c. 1963) and Merton D. Simpson’s “Confrontation (Harlem)” (1964) and “Untitled (Angry Young Man)” (1965), the pictures act as posters barking messages about civil rights. All of this makes “Spiral” feel propagandistic, derivative, even dated. But “Spiral” is also an exhibition whose topics remain central, even timely, to any contemporary discussion regarding the meeting and merging of art and politics, or the social responsibility of artists.

And the show speaks to larger truths. As a group, artists are as political or apolitical as any other segment of the population. An artist can be politically or socially active outside his studio; inside his studio, however, his allegiances tend toward the causes of art. “Spiral” represents a group with good intentions. But it also reveals that art is made primarily by individuals alone in the studio; that a group mentality can hinder artistic development; and that artists generally do not do well when a subject is thrust upon them—especially one as charged as civil rights.

“Spiral” reveals that here, at least, individual expression won out, and that the influence of contemporary art had more sway in the studio than did the influence of contemporary politics. Muses can come at any time and from anywhere, but they tend to be heard more easily by contemplative individuals than in and among the din of groups.

Spiral:
Perspectives on an African-American
Art Collective

Studio Museum in Harlem

Through Oct. 23

By LANCE ESPLUND