"Too often, the victories we have won have proved to be ephemeral or incomplete, and our full acceptance as Americans has once again been denied. We have learned to trust only those who will stand with us against the worst storms, who have proved themselves to be our friends not out of electoral expediency but through our shared belief in the best principles of this country and our common humanity." - Harry Belafonte, Nov. 2, 2020











Harlem Renaissance
The prolific flowering of literary, visual, and musical arts within the African American community that emerged around 1920 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. The visual arts were one component of a rich cultural development, including many interdisciplinary collaborations, where artists worked closely with writers, publishers, playwrights, and musicians.
There was no single style that defined the Harlem Renaissance, rather artists found different ways to celebrate African American culture and identity. Often, they combined elements of African art with contemporary themes, creating a link that dignified and expanded the history of the African American experience, countering the derogatory caricatures that dominated popular culture.

Aaron Douglas, Crucifixion (Simon carrying the cross), in James Weldon Johnson's, God's Trombones, 1927.
Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting, 1934.











In 1934, Douglas was commissioned to create a series of four murals titled Aspects of Negro Life, for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, funded by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South, 1934.


Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1934.











Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers, 1934.











Oscar Micheux, Within Our Gates, 1919

Oscar Micheux, Murder in Harlem, 1935


Josephine Baker
Bessie Smith

Paul Robeson

Billie Holiday











Dubois "feared that black writers were jeopardizing the civil rights cause by depicting the 'Negro underworld' versus the Talented Tenth to appease white patronage. He espoused his own view [ in "Criteria of Negro Art"], in which he insisted that 'all art is propaganda'—a tool for race uplift." - NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom

Archibald Motley, Self Portriat, 1920

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934.











"African-American artists, like many other Americans, were disillusioned with capitalism in the wake of the stock market crash in 1929. Art became a part of the intense ideological struggle, provoked by the crisis in United States capitalism, and by the possibility of a socialist future. Social Realism caught on among artists and writers at that time, as it provided a means by which they could address their concerns regarding socio-political issues. Among the visual artists, images of the urban working class, labourers, and industry connoted economic exploitation, and soical and racial inequality, and quickly became aligned with leftist politics" (Patton, African-American Art, 148).

Dox Thrash, Defense Worker, 1941.











Walter Bemjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936


Social Realism = a style of art popularized in the 1930s and characterized by figurative representations that extol the working class or promote a socialist agenda; Social Realist artists were often influenced by Marxist theory










Works Progress Administration
1935 - 1943
  • Federal Art Project
  • Federal Music Project
  • Federal Theatre Project
  • Federal Writer's Project

"The form and content of WPA murals were greatly influenced by the Social Realist artists of Mexico, who had come of age in the 1920s, after the Mexican Revolution....[their] stylistic approach...took the form of figurative monumentality: imagery that portrayed the working class as heroic; depicted revolutionary political history as epic; and promoted gender, racial, and economic equality" (Farrington, 152).

Charles Alston, Modern Science in Medicine, and Magic in Medicine, near the Women’s Pavilion foyer of Harlem Hospital, photograph by Levy for the WPA/FAP Photographic Division, 1940.











"Between 1935 and 1943, the FAP supplied some 10,000 artists with salaries, training, and supplies. During the eight years of its existence, the WPA spent $85 million in support of the arts and refocused sponsorship away from private patrons toward the public sphere. It also introduced incalculable numbers of Americans to the fine arts and permanently mainstreamed fine arts into American culture. More importantly, the WPA rescued hundreds of African-American artists from destitution, largely due to its mandate against discrimination. An estimated 15 percent of the WPA artists were African-American, which was higher than the percentage of the African-American population in the country at the time" (Farrington, 152).


Charles Alston, Modern Medicine, 1936. Oil on canvas.

Charles Alston, Magic in Medicine, 1937-1940. Oil on canvas.











Alfred Cimi, Modern Surgery and Anesthesia, 1936. Harlem Hospital, fresco.











Paul Revere Williams, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company building, Los Angeles, CA, 1948.












Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company building, Los Angeles, CA, Oil on canvas.

Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company building, Los Angeles, CA, Oil on canvas.










Selma Burke, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1945.









"By 1939 works sponsored by the WPA were under attack by the press and the United States Congress, who feared the artists would use their government-sponsored freedom to organize labour unions or produce communist propaganda (in the United States, there was little distinction between socialism and communism). Social Realism's association with socialist ideas made it inappropriate after 1945" (Patton, African-American Art, 148).

socialism = a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of productiondistributionand exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
communism = a political theory derived from Karl Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned, each person works, and is paid according to their abilities and needs.
William H. Johnson, Early Morning Work, c. 1940. Oil on burlap.