In 1927, James Weldon Johnson published a book of poems based on the oratory of black preachers. Johnson got one of his friends, legendary artist Aaron Douglas, to do the artwork for the book. Their effort turned into one of the masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance period. Johnson used trombones as a metaphor for the deep, wide-ranging voices of black pastors in the eight pieces which he wrote and Douglas interpreted with his art.
I attended Fisk University in the mid-seventies, not long after Aaron Douglas retired after 29 years of service as Chairman of the Art Department he founded. He continued to live in Nashville until his death in 1979. His art survives him at Fisk and was there for all to see in Cravath Hall. now the Administration Bldg which once served as the Fisk library.
I’m ashamed to say I cut through Cravath Hall two to three times a week. Never wandering up to the second floor to see for myself, the artwork of the man that portrayed black people with pride and not shame. Dr. David Driskell; Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland called Douglas, “The father of black American Art.” He further said:
“Mr. Douglas was the one who actually took the iconography of African art and gave it a perspective which was readily accepted into black American culture.”
I returned to Fisk last weekend for Homecoming. I came for multiple reasons. The Modern Black Mass choir was celebrating their 50th Anniversary and performed a wonderful concert. Various sports individuals and teams were inducted into the Athletic Department Hall of Fame. I was fortunate enough to be included. I came to see friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. I met current students, reminding them of the legacy of the institution. Before leaving, I made my way to the second floor of Cravath Hall to see for myself the artwork that was ever so near during my time as a student.
In researching this piece to get some information right. I discovered I missed some of the pieces that were elsewhere in the building. Over the years, some works deteriorated to the point where a 2008 restoration couldn’t help them. Douglas himself restored some works when alive, reinterpreting a few of them to suit his current mood. Knowing there is more to see; I have little choice but to return to Fisk for graduation to again see old friends, celebrate with the graduates and alumni, and see in-person some of the wonderful art that I ignored as a student who didn’t know what he was missing.
I was fortunate enough to have been taught about the Harlem Renaissance by someone who you had to know to appreciate fully, Dr. L.M. Collins. He passed away at the age of 99 in 2014. Dr. Collins would lend me books to read and smile when I returned them, reporting on what I discovered. I’d like to think he’s still smiling, watching from above as I harvest more knowledge of the era he found so transformative. Rest in Power Dr. Collins.