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I'll Make Me a World

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, November/December 1998 | Volume 19, Number 6

“The artist is free to take new kinds of risks, to envision art in a new kind of way, to take certain Western standards and turn them on their heads, to bend them, to do whatever you want with them,” says music historian Gerald Early.

He is describing those African-American artists who shaped the cultural world of the twentieth century. I’ll Make Me a World, a new series for PBS, documents the last century of African-American art through the lives of its creators -- from writer James Baldwin to pop icon Queen Latifah.

“The series gives depth, detail, and understanding of what artists had to deal with to make it as creative people in this country,” says Sam Pollard, coexecutive producer of the film. “These artists left a legacy that shapes how all Americans perceive themselves as Americans: how we dress, how we walk, how we talk...what kind of music we listen to. I’ll Make Me a World has an emotional breadth that reverberates.”

This six-hour documentary is divided into three two-hour parts exploring literature, poetry, music, visual arts, theater, and dance. The first, Lift Every Voice: 1900- 1934, examines the artistic development of African- Americans from the turn of the century to the Harlem Renaissance. The second, Stormy Weather: 1935-1963, focuses on African roots, protest genres, and avant-garde styles from the Depression era to the Cold War. The last, Re:Creation: 1964-The Present, looks at contemporary trends in African-American art, from the Black Arts Movement until today.

Through a series of biographies placed in social, political, and economic context, I’ll Make Me a World articulates the development of twentieth-century African- American art. “We tried to find stories and people that would be strong metaphors for the struggles and achievements of African-American artists over the past one hundred years,” says Pollard. “We were also concerned about giving historical context to the characters and events we focused on, so that the stories wouldn’t be too insular, but rather have a larger context.”

One of the first influences was ragtime. At the turn of the century, the Victorian Age was fading and segregation was the status quo. Black musical comedies on Broadway incorporated Southern African-American dance and music, especially ragtime.

“Ragtime,” “ratty music,” “hot music,” “gutbucket music” -- the music of African-Americans from New Orleans -- fused a love of dancing, French, Spanish, and Italian colonial influences, and a distinctly New Orleans style. “It’s a gumbo of influences from the black church, from Africa, lots of places. . . . It’s designed to eat anything in its path,” Quincy Jones explains in the documentary. Buddy Bolden, trumpet player and band leader, was considered the “godfather” of New Orleans jazz. Bolden led musicians playing in Storyville, a pseudo-legal red-light district. Music legends such as Jelly Roll Morton worked in Storyville as pimp, pool shark, and ragtime player.

Wynton Marsalis describes the New Orleans musicians of the time: “They were workers, cigar makers, laborers. . . . The music came from real American experience.” Ragtime was the music of the streets. It was played by people who couldn’t read music and passed on tunes in an imprecise fashion, mixing them with improvisation. Ragtime caught on all over the nation, among whites and blacks alike. The fledgling record industry tried to sign Kid Orrey, Bolden’s successor, but he would have nothing to do with them -- he didn’t want anyone to have any study aids for imitating him.

Two years after World War I ended, African-Americans were migrating north and jazz was sweeping the country. “The Jazz Age is the radical revision of how art is made in the Western world....Jazz came along to say, we’re talking about freedom,” says Gerald Early in an on-camera interview.

Harlem was a magnet for black artists and intellectuals who came from all over America, the West Indies, and Africa to meet, exchange ideas, and create works of art: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Aaron Douglas, Countee Cullen, and Wallace Thurmond. Urban League founders W.E.B. DuBois and Charles Johnson encouraged talented young blacks by organizing awards dinners and introducing them to potential patrons.

Mamie “Bessie” Smith introduced the world to blues with her hit, “Crazy Blues,” in 1920. Her music illustrated the working-class side of life, describing “American culture...from the bottom up, from the roach’s eye view,” poet Amiri Baraka explains in the documentary.

The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing by the early 1920s. RCA and Columbia each opened a new division of record production called “race records,” recording and selling black music played by black musicians. White artists played versions of black music that gained even greater popularity, raising questions for black musicians as to how they could control their own art.

African-American literati announced the “New Negro Renaissance” in 1925. The sense of community in Harlem was strong among writers, artists, musicians, and performers. Langston Hughes writes in a manifesto entitled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain: A Defense of Racial Art in America:

“We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful, and ugly too. . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston joined forces with Aaron Douglas, Wallace Thurmond, and others to publish a quarterly journal, Fire!! In this declaration of independence, Hughes and Hurston distinguished their generation from the previous generation of the Harlem Renaissance, in particular, from W.E.B. DuBois and Charles Johnson’s turn-of-the-century Victorian philosophies.

Hurston wrote fiction about black life in the South, drawing on her Southern roots and her anthropological research on Southern folk stories. When Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1932, it was poorly timed and poorly received; the Scottsboro case had the public’s attention and lynchings were on the rise. Hurston’s book was criticized as “folklore fiction” and a “conscious fraud” that employed minstrel techniques “just to make white folks laugh.” Hurston’s work and her aims were not understood. “The thing that I just can’t understand is how people couldn’t see the love,” comments writer Alice Walker. “They completely ignored it. . . . They had missed the point completely.”

Communism was on the rise at this time and its doctrines, which supported ending segregation, appealed to many African Americans. The works of highly acclaimed writers such as Richard Wright showed this influence. Wright wrote in June 1934:

“I am black
and I have seen
black hands

Raised in fists
of revolt,
side by side
with the white fists
of white workers

And someday...
someday there shall
be millions and
millions of them.”

The economic depression of the 1930s caused many artists, musicians, and singers to lose contracts. African Americans were the first to be cut. Fortunately, a black community of artists was already forming to help through bad times. Sculptor Augusta Savage was one of the most important figure among Harlem visual artists of the period. She founded the Harlem Artists Guild, the Harlem Community Art Center, and taught some fifteen hundred students. She nurtured and supported young artists like Jacob Lawrence, for whom she obtained a WPA commission, and Gwendolyn Knight. In 1936, Savage received a commission to create a sculpture symbolic of the African American contribution to music. A plaster of her sculpture, The Harp, was enthusiastically received at the World’s Fair. However, Savage’s commission did not cover the costs of casting the sculpture in bronze. She never managed to raise enough money and it was eventually destroyed.

During the late 1930s, big-band jazz was called swing. Popular dances such as the lindy and the jitterbug became mainstream. Dizzy Gillespie, a twenty-one year-old trumpet player who wrote and arranged his own music, dreamed of leading a big band and reinventing jazz. Gillespie developed his own style of jazz that was fast, high, and entirely new. “I knew I had something imaginative and unique going for me,” he said. While playing in the Earl Hines Band, he met a kindred spirit: Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Gillespie and Parker joined Billy Eckstine’s band, which had a recording contract with Columbia Records. It was the first band to record and air Parker and Gillespie’s new style of music. But when Gillespie formed a big band and toured the South, his audiences criticized his new form of jazz for being “undanceable.” Critics derisively named the music “re-bop” or “be-bop” and attacked the styles and personalities of bop musicians.

According to I’ll Make Me a World, bebop musicians changed jazz from popular entertainment to “specialized art music.” Quincy Jones remarks, “Parker and Gillespie introduced a radical new attitude that was the point of delineation from musicians of the past. . . . They were like musical astronauts. They took it out there.”

At the same time bebop was being born, a former boy preacher, James Baldwin, knew at age twenty-four that he wanted to be a novelist and playwright. With his half- finished autobiographical novel and forty dollars, he left New York for Paris. Baldwin calls his emigration in 1948 “the best thing I ever did in life. It gave me a time to vomit up a lot of bitterness and allowed me to operate socially without being menaced.” The first wave of black artists and GIs moved to Paris during this time, establishing themselves alongside white American expatriates.

Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Baldwin’s idol, took Baldwin under his wing and got him a contract with his publisher. An emotional crisis led Baldwin to reevaluate his life and he finally set to work on what was to be his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

“Paris gave him the freedom to speak,” says writer Haki Madhubuti in an on-camera interview. With the publication of Notes of a Native Son and a book of criticism, Baldwin became one of the prominent writers of the Parisian cafe scene. However, Baldwin realized that his place was back in the United States when he saw images in the newspapers of the first black children attending integrated schools.

It was a time when African Americans were creating a glowing roster of firsts. Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player, Ralph Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize, Althea Gibson played at Wimbledon, Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Janet Wilkinson was the first black woman to dance in the Metropolitan Opera.

Professional ballet had excluded African Americans on principles of “high culture,” Gerald Early explains. “This form of dance was considered too technical, too cultured, for black dancers. Teachers simply did not admit them.”

Arthur Mitchell, who studied ballet with George Balanchine, was the first and only African American to join Balanchine’s company. When parents found out that their daughters would have to dance with an African American, some wanted Mitchell out of the company. Balanchine responded that their daughters could go or stay, but Mitchell would remain. Similarly, when the company was called on to perform in a television commercial, the producer stopped filming when he saw Mitchell come onto the set -- to which Balanchine again responded, “Either Mitchell is in or none of us are.” This show of support was rare, however, and most black dancers of the time did not receive such backing from directors or teachers.

The energy of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s inspired James Baldwin to write More Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and a series of socio- political essays that responded to the sense of urgency among “everyday people.” His books were bestsellers; he was called “The Angriest Young Man,” by Ebony magazine; the White House and the Nation of Islam called on him; he appeared on radio and TV; and he was on the cover of Time magazine. Fifteen years after leaving America, James Baldwin was a household name.

“There comes a time when the world that despised you comes again bearing gifts,” Baldwin said. “You become, or could become, a very important person, and you must decide whether you want to be famous or whether you want to write. And the two things, despite all the evidence, have nothing whatever in common.” Baldwin left the country periodically to find time and peace to write, away from his political activities. He did not consider himself a civil rights activist, “But,” he said, “I can’t very well lock myself up in a tower and cultivate my talent.”

At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was roaring ahead - - the bus boycott had succeeded and lunchroom sit-ins were spreading -- Malcolm X appeared on the scene as spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X supported social change through violence, when necessary, in opposition to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of passive resistance and nonviolent change.

“Malcolm made you feel uncomfortable,” says poet Sonia Sanchez in an interview, “but he made you reappraise your life and yourself.”

Malcolm X’s death in 1965 left a void in the Black Pride Movement. Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) and others called for artists to come to Harlem and create a Black Arts Movement based on cultural nationalism, self-empowerment, and a concept of art as a function of politics.

Not everyone embraced the Black Arts Movement. Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks said in an interview at the time, “My poetry has often been called Negro Poetry and I have been called a Negro Poet. It’s true I am a Negro and I hope I am a poet, but when I begin to write a poem, I don’t have any social classifications in mind. I am impelled by an emotion or a thought.” Brooks was criticized by some other African American writers for this refusal to join the Movement.

After attending the Black Writers Conference at Fiske University, where she read with Amiri Baraka, Brooks held workshops in her home. These gatherings were part literary salon and part political forum on Black Pride. Brooks’s conversations and involvement with young writers such as Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and others led her to publish an “inflammatory” book, In the Mecca. “It has some fierceness that was criticized,” Brooks says. “If you are fierce, you will be criticized.”

Conflict and controversy marked the visual arts world as well. Disputes erupted concerning shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The first African-American solo shows were held at the MOMA, featuring works by Richard Hunt and Romare Beardon.

When Dr. King was shot in 1968, the United States exploded. Riots spread across the nation. African American writing and artwork had a new sense of urgency.

“Black life in political context came out of our own philosophy, who we were, in a fresh, new, exciting way with no holds barred,” says artist Faith Ringgold.

By the early 1970s, the Black Power Movement was exerting an influence on the Women’s Liberation Movement. Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, ran on Broadway in 1976 to much acclaim. Alice Walker “discovered” the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and erected a headstone that read “A Genius of the South” over her previously unmarked grave.

Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, won the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Later, In 1984, Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones produced a movie based on her book.

The seventies saw a proliferation of “blaxploitation” movies, such as Shaft and Super Fly, that glorified misogyny, drugs, and the hustler’s life, and portrayed the African-American community in terms of stereotypes. Rebelling against these “skinflicks,” independent filmmakers Charles Burnett and Pamela Jones created films about real people and real life. But because they were working outside of Hollywood and had little funding, they were seriously restricted in their marketing and distribution.

In the eighties, Spike Lee, a graduate of New York University’s film school, wrote a screenplay through the eyes of an African American woman: She’s Gotta Have It. The film was shot in twelve days and employed no elaborate film techniques. Yet, the movie was praised at Cannes and at the 1984 San Francisco International Film Festival. She’s Gotta Have It opened in New York City in 1986 and was a huge box office success. Film critics hold the release of the film She’s Gotta Have It as a dividing point in African American cinematic history.

“We thought we could prove a point with this low-budget, independent film and all-black, unknown cast,” says Spike Lee in I’ll Make Me a World. “People -- moviegoers, black and white -- would respond to it. We knew there had never been a film like it. We thought we could fill a niche and we were right about that.”

Dance and choreography at this time were increasingly avant- garde, breaking with formalist costume and music conventions. Dancer Bill T. Jones says in the documentary, “The white avant-garde didn’t talk about race or identity, but for me, dance was a way to talk about who I was.” Offended by being called a “black artist,” Jones explains, “Calling me a black artist made me feel like I was subjected to a kind of apartheid -- it made me smaller, kept me separate -- I felt like a separate case, a developing country.”

Jones and his partner, Arnie Zane, performed contact improvisation pieces that pushed the limits of race and gender. “Contact improvisation allows anyone to dance with anyone else,” Jones explains.

The documentary I’ll Make Me a World concludes with a sampling of young, contemporary African American artists: visual artist Kara Walker, spoken-word writer Saul Williams, and dancer/choreographer Savion Glover. Quincy Jones says of Glover, who choreographed the Broadway musical Bring in da’ Noise/Bring in da’ Funk, “He is the prime example of defying where we came from and taking it into the future.” This is the cohesive element among I’ll Make Me a World’s many stories: African American artists defying history, redefining identity, and reinventing art for the future they envision.

About the Author

Rachel Galvin is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Funding Information

Blackside, Inc. received $800,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce I’ll Make Me a World, which will appear on PBS early next year.