"We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

Aaron DouglasSo concludes the poet Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” the essay published in 1926 that became known as the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes here becomes a mouthpiece for the younger generation of African American writers and artists, including his close friend and collaborator Aaron Douglas. This group of young artists aimed to explore aspects of African-American culture dismissed by the older generation’s W.E.B. DuBois—who focused on a “talented tenth” of the black population fulfilling and surpassing mainstream, white expectations—and overlooked by Alain Locke—who was less elitist than DuBois but rejected significant cultural forms such as the Blues (so important to Hughes’ poetry) and saw Jazz (which figures in Douglas' work) as an undeveloped, if more respectable, art form (Locke, "Ancestral Arts").

Hughes encourages black artists to break free from or reconfigure these standards—which were also supported by the growing black middle class—so that their individuality might be expressed “in the face of American standardization” (Hughes, "Racial Mountain").While this goal, significantly, paralleled that of many American artists after World War I, the racial mountain specifically symbolized the obstacles black artists had to create significant, relevant, original work in the face of these standards and the barriers against “chang[ing] through the force of [their] art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of the people, to ‘Why should I want to be white! I am a Negro—and beautiful!’” (Hughes, "Racial Mountain").

The New Negro, 1926Aaron Douglas was one of the darlings of the Renaissance in the eyes of both its older and younger participants, and he was the only black visual artist featured in the “bible” of the movement, The New Negro. He created, in Hughes’ words, “strange black fantasies [which] cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty” (Hughes, "Racial Mountain"). Clearly, Douglas was “negotiating” the racial mountain—alluding to it, critiquing its presence, and working to surmount it—during the Harlem Renaissance.Douglas, Sadhi, illustration from The New NegroThe question is, what happened to this project in the face of the Depression? As Arnold Rampersad writes in the introduction to The New Negro, the book, originally published in 1926, did not “prepare its readers for the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression, which effectively destroyed the Harlem Renaissance” (xix). The optimism and possibility for social equality in the 20s seems, in the minds of many historians, to have been wiped out by the economic downturn and political backlash of the Depression era.

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Despite the even greater obstacles for blacks, especially black artists in the 30s, the racial mountain persisted as a symbolic and literal focal point for Douglas to communicate around. He in fact used it more prevalently as a symbol in his murals of the 1930s, despite the death knoll that Black Tuesday is for many historians of the Renaissance. Far from petering out after the Depression started, Douglas produced seven murals in seven years from 1930 to 37, generally thought of as his best work. Douglas was not alone in his prolific production in the 30s. In some ways, the 30s provided the first fruits of the Harlem Renaissance. Through government sponsored art programs, the commitment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to develop their art programs, and philanthropic organizations like the Harmon Foundation and the Rosenwald Foundation, art by African Americans was not obliterated in the midst of economic chaos, and in many cases it thrived despite escalated racism, discrimination, and ignorance on the part of institutions who supported the arts.

Although it is important to note that the death rate in Harlem was 42 percent higher than in other parts of the city well before the Crash and that Harlem's black population was becoming more economically depressed at the same time that the Renaissance artists were gaining recognition, the Depression era saw an sharp increase in racism across the country, especially in the South where lynchings rose again (Gates, 166). This change created an added urgency for the race consciousness first explored by Douglas and other artists and writers in the 20s. With the whole country experiencing economic hardship, Douglas learned more about and experienced first hand the American labor movement and the Communist party and became aware of and involved in black labor issues. Douglas’ illustrations in the 20s certainly referenced an African past, but he more fully explored the continuity between African and African-American heritage in the 30s and used American historical references as guideposts for the future in a bleak present. He also further developed and made more sophisticated his unique and signature modernist style, using it to express a modern African-American consciousness.

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The murals gave Douglas a space in which he could connect all of these elements to work toward the project of "bar[ing] our arms and plung[ing] them deep through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected.” (reference) This statement, though made in the 20s, continued to be his focus in the 30s when, interestingly, it also became the concern of many other American artists, both black and white. While Douglas’ work has been identified most readily with a Harlem Renaissance separate from other modern movements, Douglas’ incorporation of race consciousness, a usable past, social realism and modernist aesthetics dovetails with the work of many other muralists working in the 1930s. This site aims to recontextualize Douglas’ work within the work of other American muralists during the Depression while keeping the racial mountain firmly in sight.