Many of us have heard of The Harlem Renaissance, the literary, musical, and artistic movement that exploded during the 1920s in Harlem New York. Also known as The New Negro Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, the Negro Renaissance, and the Jazz Age, the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities like New York produced a national movement centered around black culture and tradition.
Music, poetry, literature, art, and theatre was brought to the mainstream from a black perspective in a huge way. Magazines such as The Crisis (the NAACP monthly journal) and Opportunity (the monthly publication of the Urban League) employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staff, published their poetry and short stories, and promoted African American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. Names like Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston come to mind.
However, though termed Harlem Renaissance, the time was much more complex than Harlem itself (which in many ways can make it hard to define). While standing as the anchor for the movement, Harlem was just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Across the United States and the Caribbean, The Renaissance was taking place. In fact, only some of the writers, musicians, and artists were native to Harlem itself. The Renaissance did not just happen in Harlem but a Black Metropolis was brewing in other big cities as well, such as Chicago.
As the Harlem Renaissance was winding down, The Chicago Black Renaissance was getting started, or rather, continuing. Creativity and activism was blooming from the great number of blacks coming up from the south to escape Jim Crow and The Great Depression. While it’s true many blacks did not suffer as much during the depression due that many of us were already struggling (having been depressed since we got here) there were some who came to Chicago from southern states like Mississippi and secured well paying jobs that were no longer available. While at first blacks could work at factories, meat packing places, and steel mills, the great depression shut this down.
Blacks were also dealing with extremely poor living conditions and fighting housing discrimination. As more and more blacks moved to Chicago the city was also still getting a large immigrant population pouring in from Europe so there was always competition for jobs and since segregation was in full effect, many blacks found themselves at a loss. However, there is great beauty that often springs from the depths of struggle and The Black Mecca of Chicago’s South Side was quite literally a diamond in the rough.
The black belt of Chicago’s South Side, as it was called, was the location for such diamonds. Jazz, Blues, and Literature flourished as an outlet for blacks to voice their discontent not only about the city but also the whole of the black experience in America in general, and when Gwendolyn Brooks passed a pool hall in a Chicago neighborhood and took notice of a group of young men standing around, “We Real Cool” (a poem that speaks from the point of view of these seven young men, see my analysis of the poem here) was born. Chicago exploded in culture from the 1930s through the 1950s and the south side remains the most cultured part of city today.
Music, art, literature, and journalism were all part of The Chicago Renaissance. Though never deemed “Chicago Renaissance” officially, there are many who contributed to the movement whose names we’ve grown to know. The writers: Richard Wright (born in Mississippi but moved to Chicago in 1927), Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley, John H. Johnson (publisher of Ebony), St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (who later co-authored Black Metropolis), Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Lorraine Hansberry; entertainers Nat King Cole, Ray Nance and Oscar Brown, Jr.; dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty; photographer Gordon Parks, and the artists Elizabeth Catlett and Hughie Lee Smith.
Yecheilyah Ysrayl is the YA, Historical Fiction author of eight books, most notably The Stella Trilogy. She is currently working on her next book series “The Nora White Story” about a young black woman who dreams of taking part in The Harlem Renaissance movement and her parents struggle to accept their traumatic past in the Jim Crow south. “Renaissance: The Nora White Story -Book One” is due for release summer, 2017. For updates on this project, sneak peek of chapters and the pending book cover release for this project, be sure to follow this blog and to subscribe to Yecheilyah’s email list HERE.
Growing up, my brother was a collector of the latest Nikes. He was the Air Force One version of the Air Jordan lover. He’ll collect all kinds of pairs of “Air Ones” and stack them in his room or in the basement. It was truly a work of art and since he actually is an artist, sometimes he even drew on them! In any event, it’s no secret, black people love shoes! I don’t say that in a discriminatory way, for African Americans are known to set the trend. There’s nothing wrong with our love for fashion which is often mimicked all over the world. It makes sense then, why it was an African American man who helped to revolutionize the shoe making industry. Meet Jan Matzeliger.
Jan Matzeliger was born in Surinam, formerly known as Dutch Guiana, in South America. Of mixed ancestry, Jan’s father was a Dutch engineer and his mother of African ancestry. Naturally, since his dad was an engineer, Jan would accompany his father to work and developed a skill for repairing complicated equipment.
At nineteen, Jan left home to explore the rest of the world, and began work aboard an Indian ship. He found his way to America and settled in Pennsylvania where he became interested in shoe making and worked at a shoe making factory.
Though Jan was interested in improving how shoes were made, two obstacles were in his way: He could barely speak English and at that time shoes in the U.S. all came from the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts where “Hand Lasters” (people who could attach the different parts of the shoe together by hand), could only produce 50 pairs of shoes per ten-hour day. Though paid well, Jan had the discernment to see that what Hand Lasters were doing was not as good as everyone thought. There had to be a better way.
Specifically, there was no machine that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole and this is basically what the “Hand Lasters” were doing and they were the experts. According to them, “No matter if the sewing machine is a wonderful machine. No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the Laster, unless he can make a machine that has fingers like a Laster – and that is impossible.” Jan Matzeliger thought they were wrong and set out to build a machine that would do just that.
Jan is a great inspiration for setting out to achieve something that no one thought would work. He worked hard on this machine using whatever he could find – cigar boxes, nails, paper, scrap wire—and after six months had a workable model. Jan however, did not have much money. He also kept his project secret. Still, the “expert” Hand Lasters found out and made fun of him for his project. Someone offered him $50.00 for the machine but Jan wasn’t having it. They tried to play him, but he was smarter than that. He turned down more and more offers and continued perfecting his machine until a better offer came from which he could acquire the tools to perfect the machine even more.
In March of 1883, the United States Patent Office issued a patent for Jan’s machine, which could produce 700 pairs of shoes a day, to the Hand Lasters 50 pair and the rest is history. Jan had officially revolutionized the shoe making industry.
Some of my brother’s art, “The Shoe King”
How does Jan’s invention help us today?
Today, shoe making involves four departments: Clicking or Cutting, Closing or Machining, Lasting & Making, Finishing Department and the Shoe Room. The Lasting and Making part is where Jan’s invention would come in. “In the early days of shoe making, shoes were made mainly by hand. For proper fit, the customer’s feet had to be duplicated in size and form by creating a stone or wooden mold called a “last” from which the shoes were sized and shaped. Since the greatest difficulty in shoe making was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper shoe, it required great skill to tack and sew the two components together. It was thought that such intricate work could only be done by skilled human hands.” (Wikipedia)
That is until Jan’s machine. Today, soles, which were once laboriously hand-stitched on, are now more often machine stitched or simply glued on by shoe making manufacturing.
The wings are symbolic of freedom. To me writing is the most important kind of art because words live. To me, ink meets paper to create something spiritual. Not only can we see the beauty of words, but we can feel it. I would define my style of writing, poetry or otherwise, as poetic justice because I am always seeking to free people, to include myself, from the limited ways we tend to think and to feel. This is not always an easy task and so as I write, the keystrokes are heavy with the responsibility my purpose carries. The weight of the kinds of things that I write always looms in the background of the page as if daring me to go on. And this is always the moment when I know that I must.
OK, so you’re sitting down somewhere and you decide to read a book. Everything is going well and you’re sure that if given the chance you’ll win “The Best Reader Ever” award. You sit there and you think to yourself: “Wow, I am such a great reader!” All smiles as you professionally turn the pages. Then you decide, at a different time, to read a book. Only this time you decided to read it out loud instead of to yourself. It may even be the same book but somehow it doesn’t seem to be going as well as it did the first time. The same words that flowed smoothly in your head seem to have added more syllables. It’s to the point now that you stumble over words that were hard back in third grade. “Huh? Now I know I can read.” You say to yourself, you cannot understand it and for a second you even close the book and look at the cover. Yes, it’s the same book.
What is the correlation between reading in our heads (silently) and reading out loud? Does speaking guide us deeper into the conversation? What kind of power is there to a voice pumping out words? As I think about this, I wonder how this would sound if I was to record it for you. If instead of a blog post I sent a memo instead, do you think you would understand it better? After all, in this age of technology it is not always easy to discern the intent of text. I wonder if the tone of my voice, my mood, and my pronunciation would change the context in any way.
In my opinion, I think both the written and spoken word is important. And as I write, I do not believe every poem should be spoken. Some of the poems I write are structured in a way that must be read, while others are structured in a way that must be heard. In this way, I believe the difference in the way we react to the written and spoken word is in the differences in structure and style. For instance, in a letter I may write: “I ponder this as I prepare to release…” But if I was verbally speaking to you I would probably say something like: “I thought about this since I’m about to come out with…” It is not that I cannot write how I would speak; it’s just that we tend to speak in a less formal way when we’re talking than when we are writing. It is much more spontaneous, there is no preparation; we use the slang of our upbringing, and neglect complete sentences.
This is what I like most about the spoken word. There are so many additional elements available to help understand the meaning. You don’t just have words to work with, but there is also body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. A speaker is capable of both giving and receiving feedback instantly. Right away he or she is able to determine whether or not their way of dress, hair style, or accent influences the information in any way.
On the other hand when we write, it tends to present itself in a way far more grammatically correct (I use grammatically correct loosely and really for lack of a better word since my writing is not exactly grammatically correct in the English sense of the word but you get the point) than if we were to say it out loud; perhaps a symbolic way of representing things like pauses or tone of voice in speaking. While speaking is straight forward, writing must take on a form of speech in a way that demonstrates the moving of lips without physically seeing which is perhaps the implementation of a more proper usage. You can see my facial expression when I’m talking to you but to write it I must use words to create that image. That is what I love most about the written word, a portrait of something painted not by images but by words. A sound heard not because it is audible, but because it was etched into paper in a way that is loud.
Additionally, the most important, and also the most fun, thing about writing vs. speaking to me is also that it tends to live on longer. This can be a good and a bad thing. It can be a good thing because it gives us the chance to record beautiful words like poetry and stories to live on for as long as they need to. Our books can be passed down to our children and grandchildren like pictures. But it can be a bad thing because if you recorded something wrong or irrelevant that can also live on! I think this is one of the reasons writing has been associated with being a kind of skill. Perhaps it is because we learn to speak before we learn to write. We pick up the language of those around us and attach to them the context of our environment. Before you know it we’re “Mama” and “Dada” all over the place! Now, because we have understood this language and associated it with the people around, this does not mean we know at that moment how to write it which will come much later.
But today is a new day, and with technology the power of speech has taken on new meaning and it too is also considered a skill. Not only can you record permanent versions of speech such as poetry, memos, speeches, lessons, etch, but today writing is not alone but “Public Speaking” has also evolved into a skill.
When I think of storytelling, a familiar image creeps into my mind: an elder with the strength of several generations. Eyes covered with glasses slightly tilted off the nose, he or she nodding slowly to the beat of a rocking chair. Their hands or knees are stiff with arthritis so it is rubbed continuously as the history of whatever crawls out of their mouth. And when it does, the ears jump with excitement, wondering how a single individual can be so vivid with detail. The story is told from somewhere down south under the roof of an inherited home, one passed down from generation to generation. A place where even the oldest relative once had his/her diapers changed, a place to always come back to and to always call home. This is a house on the countryside or perhaps a peaceful place in the city. Storytelling has been around since forever. It predates writing and has proven to be one of the most oldest and most effective ways to relay a message. Stories have been shared in every culture as a means of education, cultural preservation, entertainment, and instilling moral values.
One of the characteristics of storytelling that makes it so powerful is the colorful expression as showcased by the orator. The tone of voice, gestures, creativity, and point of view of the speaker. I always enjoy a good sit down with the elderly in that I may relive moments to which I had not existed. Even in my mind, as I pass an elder on the street, I cannot help but fathom what today’s world must look like through their eyes. It is a silent and private game between me and that person. Quickly and excitedly I create a background for them. Did that old black lady experience Jim Crow? What was it like for her? Did that old white lady experience the first integration of schools? What was it like for her? As I remember it, I was one day standing under a foyer at the Veterans Hospital waiting for my husband. It was raining out so I was careful to keep under the hood of the building. An elderly white man came walking out of the building. His back slightly hunched as he glided from one step to the next. “Is it still raining?” he asked, more so to the air than anyone in particular. “Yep”, I said looking into the sky. As he walked away, muttering a phrase under his breath I’d never heard but cannot remember accurately enough to share, I wondered about his youth and about how he would compare today’s world to the one he grew up in. Did he think the direction of things had bettered or worsened? I wondered, as I do always.
Perhaps Storytelling is so impactful because of its ability to both educate and entertain at the same time. Spoken Word Poetry, Theater, Photography, and writing in general, for example, is built from the foundation of the orator. It is in its basic form, Storytelling. While we may add the glitter and gold of our own poetic technique, it is the expert story teller who catches the peoples attention. It is the person who can design for us not just a collection of good-sounding words, not just a picture, but a reality. A stepping forth into someone elses world. Maybe we will enjoy our stay, maybe we will not. But whether or not we like it here is of no relevance, the whole point is to be taken there. The author has taken you there and you must then decide if you really want to continue to be a part of this persons world. If you believe you can extract from them some portion of themselves that may be of benefit to your own life. What can I learn from the history and the experiences of this individual, whether character or real live personnel. In short, Storytelling is a means for sharing and interpreting experiences. Stories are great teaching tools because, like love, it is a universal language. Universal in that they can bridge cultural, linguistic, and age-related divides. Although my image of the storyteller is that of an elder, Storytelling can actually be adaptive for all ages, and can be used as a method to teach ethics, values, and cultural norms and differences. Books and organized / structured schooling is one way to acquire information, but experience has taught us that social environment and contact physically with others is of great benefit to learning. It provides real life examples about how knowledge is to be applied. Stories then function as a tool to pass on knowledge in a social context.
In the end, stories exist to create a visual example of word in the mind of the listener / reader. To take the creative skill and the imagination and express them in a way that can literally be seen. And since Art is defined as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination (typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture), Storytelling is also a form of art, producing stories to be appreciated primarily for its emotional power and for the beauty in which it is told.
Forget about birthing masterpieces, but when you sit down to write, understand your purpose for doing so. Think of nothing else. Un-expectantly you will stumble upon a work of art. Only, do not think of art. Think only of the ambition to write the story. As for the story itself, the drive will take you there.