LectureHop: Harlem Nocturne
Written by Courtney Couillard
Bwog is a firm believer in taking advantage of all the cool and hip lectures held on Columbia’s campus. On Thursday, Bwog sent history junkie Courtney Couillard to the book talk for one of Columbia’s own professors.
Considering I am both a woman, live in Harlem, and had a free Thursday night from midterm studying, I decided to stop by one of Columbia’s fascinating lectures/talks called Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists Progressive Politics During World War II. Featuring the book of the same title, the intimate book talk sponsored by The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University was held in Dodge Hall. Led by Columbia English, Comparative Literature, and African American studies professor and author Farah Jasmine Griffin, the talk focused on Griffin’s book, which chronicles the lives of three women in Harlem as they navigate through their artistic passions in the 1940’s.
The talk began with Griffin explaining why she decided to write about Harlem, particularly in the 1940’s. Her explanation began with recalling her experience on 9/11 while living in New York. Griffin took a walk the day of the attacks, and she said that being in Harlem felt quite different than the rest of the city in the wake of the crisis. This stillness and almost indifference from Harlem fascinated Griffin, inspiring her to further research the history of the neighborhood and what cultivated the response. Griffin also notes that while working on writing liner notes for a Lena Horne CD, she became engrossed with researching the 1940’s in regards to Harlem; she used this experience to determine the setting of her book. Griffin’s tale of the inception of her idea of the book felt genuine and real. Also, I appreciated her personal anecdote as it exposed the real connection she feels as someone living in Harlem.
Griffin went on to speak about the three women she features in the book and why she chose to include them. The featured women include noted writer Ann Petry (who Griffin explained to be the hardest to write), dancer Pearl Primus, and musician Mary Lou Williams. All women developed their artistry in different forms, but Griffin claimed they all represented how women felt being both constrained and liberated in their creation of self in Harlem. Griffin also explained the importance of the women in the political spectrum in the 1940’s, and praised each of the women for being a part of “a range of possibilities for being progressive.”
After explaining the context and content of the book, Griffin opened up the discussion to questions from the audience. Many admired Griffin’s writing style and praised her for choosing such a topic to focus on in her work. In response to my own question as to why Griffin chose to focus on women (Barnard question, I know), she explained that she wanted to highlight the women of the 1940’s that are not immediately recognized when studying the history of 1940’s Harlem. She also added that this is not just a book about black women, but all women in this period.
I have not read the book thus I cannot speak to the actual content and writing of the book; however, this talk made it clear that it is a brave tale of a few forgotten tales in our American—even more local, Harlem—history. Pick up the book, take a class with Griffin, or stop by her office. She offered a delightful recollection of her book and offered an open forum to discuss the importance of both gender and race in the history of our own neighborhood.
Cover photo via Griffin’s website