One of the primary projects of the Harlem Renaissance was one of race consciousness, of pride and understanding of a black African heritage and specifically of what it meant to be black in America. Race consciousness interestingly paralleled a larger current within American art and literature of American consciousness, an attempt to define what was separate, unique, and worth of praise in American culture. In this way, the New Negro movement coincided with and yet remained distinct from the concerns of European-Americans in the 20s and 30s (Huggins, 59). The goal for black artists was, among other things, to "transform the stereotypical image of Negro Americans at the turn of the century away from their popular image as ex-slaves, defined as members of a race inherently inferior . . . into an image of a race of culture bearers" (Gates, 163). Douglas successfully communicates this heritage in his work while keeping sight of the specific struggles and challenges of the race in America.

Relief of Akhty-hotep, c. 2650-2600 B.C.E., Brooklyn Museum of Art

An aspect of this heritage of obvious importance to Douglas was African art. Alain Locke argued for a reconstitution of the "classical tradition" toward African instead of Hellenistic models, and many artists, including Douglas, were encouraged by this perspective ("Ancestral Arts," 256). Douglas started incorporating African figures into his work (mostly Egyptian and Dan Ivory Coast) in the mid-20s when he arrived in Harlem at the suggestion of his teacher, Winold Reiss. He continued to explore African culture as well as that of the African diaspora throughout the thirties.

Douglas, Tut-Ankh-Amen, Sept. 1926

Douglas' knowledge of African art and culture, though enhanced by trips to the Natural History Museum, the Brooklyn Museum (to study Egyptian art) and access to one of the best collections of African art in America (the Barnes collection) was, at this time, limited (Wardlaw, 59). In this respect, Douglas was like other modernists who studied African art in ethnographic collections and synthesized a number of its principles in their work. For Douglas, however, unlike many European and European-American artists, African art was more than a means to infuse a dying, industrialized culture with life. It was proof that "the Negro is not a cultural foundling without his own inheritance" (Patton, 116). Significantly, too, Douglas looked to Egypt, which received more and more attention in the media, starting in the early 20s with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923. Africa, and especially Egypt, was increasingly symbolic for black Americans as the source of an alternative classical tradition.

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Douglas modeled his silhouetted forms in part from Egyptian wall paintings and bas reliefs as well as African masks. He noticeably adopts the perspective of Egyptian artists in his murals. In his figures, shoulders are often parallel to the horizontal plane rather than receding in space as they would in traditional perspective.Mask, Dan Ivory Coast, c. 1925The face is seen in profile, but the one eye shown looks straight ahead. The hips are seen in a three-quarter view, but Douglas depicts the legs in profile (Kirschke, Douglas, 77). Another important influence on Douglas' silhouettes were masks from the Dan tribe, located in the Ivory Coast. The slanted, slit eyes and lips are reminiscent of the masks Douglas would have seen at the Natural History Museum.



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Two of the most important concepts Douglas drew from African art, according to Nathan Huggins, were its underlying guiding principles of design and abstraction, as opposed to concentrating on the materiality of the subject matter (169). Objects like the mountain, the factory, the silhouetted figures in broken chains are references not to actual people but to abstract ideals of racial obstacles, the factory system (both its opportunities and its corruption), and to freedom (both physical and mental). At the same time, Douglas literalizes these abstractions in easily identifiable forms, fulfilling his desire to "to present, interpret and discover the world of the imaginative, the spiritual, the non-material in such a manner that it becomes real, desirable, attractive, accessible" (qtd. in Douglas, 87).

While deriving principles from African art to endow his work with a consciousness of black heritage, he also deliberately addressed the question of connections between African and African-American culture. Rejecting the "savagery," sexual freedom, and irresponsibility of black stereotypes, Douglas focused on the psychological depth and self-awareness of the speaker of Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers":
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I've known rivers . . .
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young,
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep,
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it,
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
And I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers,
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Douglas' silhouettes aided him in establishing a new set of ways to see blacks: "The antiquity and nobility implied in Douglas' Egyptianizing manner becomes a metaphor for black continuity" (Thompson, "Re/Birth," 136).

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Douglas, like many of his contemporaries, also saw spiritual continuity between Africans and African Americans, expressed through music and dance: "music, the dance, that spirit beneath the substance-soul-were a connective tissue between the African and the Afro-American" (Huggins, 169). "The spiritual, the music, the dance, the language, were distinct because they were from an [African-American] source" (Huggins, 151). His mural for the College Inn Room of Chicago's Sherman Hotel, a notable jazz venue in the 1920s (for white musicians and white patrons), emphasizes the influence of African rhythmic forms on jazz and blues. In Dance Magic, commissioned in 1930 by the designers of the Tribune Tower, a cabaret is framed on either side by African-inspired dancing figures. Douglas locates a trumpet's bell on the other side of the cabaret curtain, on one side of the African scene.

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The connection between African and African-American cultural forms is expressed in other murals as well, such as the Aspects of Negro Life series, painted under the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), an early form of government funding for the arts in the 30s and the predecessor to the Section of Fine Arts (which supported the post office murals) and the more well-known Works Progress (later Projects) Administration (WPA). In this mural series, painted in 1934, the African dancers of the first panel (The Negro in an African Setting) return to hover behind the banjo player in Idyll of the South.click for larger imageEvolution of the Negro Dance, still housed in the Harlem YMCA where it was painted in 1933, obviously has dance as its main theme. It begins with young men and women dancing in Africa on the left side. "The group moves towards the right, with some figures appearing to be in a position of prayer" (Kirschke, "Depression," 24). On the right are a banjo player and contemporary, dancing figures completing the cycle. In these and other murals, the rhythmic connection between African and African-American music and dance is figuratively represented not only through dancers and musicians themselves, but also through the overlapping planes of color and concentric circles. These elements create a kind of synesthetic experience, where music is expressed visually, and they also emphasize the interconnectedness of the rhythmic expressions.

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The concentric circles and overlapping planes also point to the layered consciousness of African Americans. W.E.B. DuBois explored this concept first in The Souls of Black Folk, describing the double consciousness (black and American) of African Americans. Hughes revisits the idea of various controlling perspectives in the mind of the African American in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," using a thinly veiled reference to a comment by Countee Cullen to illustrate his point: "One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, 'I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,' meaning, I believe, 'I want to write like a white poet'; meaning subconsciously, 'I would like to be a white poet'; meaning behind that, 'I would like to be white' This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness . . . to be as little Negro and as much American as possible." Hughes and Douglas encouraged blacks to be conscious of racial heritage as well as nationality. Douglas' concentric circles point to a way of seeing this layered consciousness of blacks in America as somehow successfully holding both identies at the same time.

Lois Mailou Jones, The Ascent of Ethiopia (1932)

Other black artists not generally associated with the Harlem Renaissance were similarly working on race consciousness in their work, but none sought to express the continuity between Africa and the diaspora as Douglas did. Louis Mailou Jones' painting Ascent of Ethiopia (1932) probably approached Douglas' work the most; it also recalls Hughes' racial mountain (Hayward Gallery, 123). Not being a mural, Jones could not address the issue on the same scale that Douglas did or reach the same audience, however. Charles Alston's mural for Harlem Hospital, painted in 1936 for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), consisted of two panels, Primitive Medicine and Modern Medicine. Though thematically the mural deals with African and African-American medical practices, Alston's pairing emphasizes not continuity but difference, where the modern (American) replaces the primitive (African). The latter panel depicted black and white surgeons, doctors, and nurses working together, a radical notion at the time, making the mural a extremely significant statement in favor of integration. This integration was a more controversial message than what the hospital administration attacked it for: depicting too many blacks.

Douglas was not alone in emphasizing the perpetuity of the past in the 1930s. It was essential for some muralists, especially those working on the federal art projects. It is to them and to the idea of a past usable in the present that we now turn.