Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.

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