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Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II

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As World War II raged overseas, Harlem witnessed a battle of its own. Brimming with creative and political energy, the neighborhood’s diverse array of artists and activists took advantage of a brief period of progressivism during the war years to launch a bold cultural offensive aimed at winning democracy for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Ardent believers in As World War II raged overseas, Harlem witnessed a battle of its own. Brimming with creative and political energy, the neighborhood’s diverse array of artists and activists took advantage of a brief period of progressivism during the war years to launch a bold cultural offensive aimed at winning democracy for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Ardent believers in America’s promise, these men and women helped to lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement before Cold War politics and anti-Communist fervor temporarily froze their dreams at the dawn of the postwar era. In Harlem Nocturne, esteemed scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin tells the stories of three black female artists whose creative and political efforts fueled this historic movement for change: choreographer and dancer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, and novelist Ann Petry. Like many African Americans in the city at the time, these women weren’t native New Yorkers, but the metropolis and its vibrant cultural scene gave them the space to flourish and the freedom to express their political concerns. Pearl Primus performed nightly at the legendary Café Society, the first racially integrated club in New York, where she débuted dances of social protest that drew on long-buried African traditions and the dances of former slaves in the South. Williams, meanwhile, was a major figure in the emergence of bebop, collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell and premiering her groundbreaking Zodiac Suite at the legendary performance space Town Hall. And Ann Petry conveyed the struggles of working-class black women to a national audience with her acclaimed novel The Street, which sold over a million copies—a first for a female African American author. A rich biography of three artists and the city that inspired them, Harlem Nocturne captures a period of unprecedented vitality and progress for African Americans and women, revealing a cultural movement and a historical moment whose influence endures today.


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As World War II raged overseas, Harlem witnessed a battle of its own. Brimming with creative and political energy, the neighborhood’s diverse array of artists and activists took advantage of a brief period of progressivism during the war years to launch a bold cultural offensive aimed at winning democracy for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Ardent believers in As World War II raged overseas, Harlem witnessed a battle of its own. Brimming with creative and political energy, the neighborhood’s diverse array of artists and activists took advantage of a brief period of progressivism during the war years to launch a bold cultural offensive aimed at winning democracy for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Ardent believers in America’s promise, these men and women helped to lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement before Cold War politics and anti-Communist fervor temporarily froze their dreams at the dawn of the postwar era. In Harlem Nocturne, esteemed scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin tells the stories of three black female artists whose creative and political efforts fueled this historic movement for change: choreographer and dancer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, and novelist Ann Petry. Like many African Americans in the city at the time, these women weren’t native New Yorkers, but the metropolis and its vibrant cultural scene gave them the space to flourish and the freedom to express their political concerns. Pearl Primus performed nightly at the legendary Café Society, the first racially integrated club in New York, where she débuted dances of social protest that drew on long-buried African traditions and the dances of former slaves in the South. Williams, meanwhile, was a major figure in the emergence of bebop, collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell and premiering her groundbreaking Zodiac Suite at the legendary performance space Town Hall. And Ann Petry conveyed the struggles of working-class black women to a national audience with her acclaimed novel The Street, which sold over a million copies—a first for a female African American author. A rich biography of three artists and the city that inspired them, Harlem Nocturne captures a period of unprecedented vitality and progress for African Americans and women, revealing a cultural movement and a historical moment whose influence endures today.

30 review for Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II

  1. 4 out of 5

    David Leonard

    I couldn't put this book down. It is a wonderful history that introduces readers to three amazing artist/activist women: Ann Petry, May-Lou Williams and Pearl Primus. She chronicles their artistry (with amazing detail), the vibrancy of a community, a culture of progressive opposition, and resistance movements within 1940s Harlem. Dr. Griffin's prose transports readers into this moment, allowing one to picture, smell, and hear all that was happening in this moment - I found myself watching Petry I couldn't put this book down. It is a wonderful history that introduces readers to three amazing artist/activist women: Ann Petry, May-Lou Williams and Pearl Primus. She chronicles their artistry (with amazing detail), the vibrancy of a community, a culture of progressive opposition, and resistance movements within 1940s Harlem. Dr. Griffin's prose transports readers into this moment, allowing one to picture, smell, and hear all that was happening in this moment - I found myself watching Petry dance, or listening to Williams, all while thinking about their collective challenges to white supremacy. And while the book brings Primus' dance, Petry's word, and Williams' music to life, she is equally successful in bringing the dynamism of 1940s Harlem, the post-war moment, the progressive struggles, and a burgeoning struggle for racial justice, for full citizenship, and recognition. into focus Harlem Nocture highlights the daily challenges to white supremacy waged by these artists. She shows artistry as the outgrowth of the community, the politics of the moment, and collective experiences. Griffin writes, "New York beckoned, and they came. They gave it substance, word and music, dance and meaning. In turn, it gave them inspiration, a community, and an audience. It contributed to each one's already strong sense of self. It gave them the world" (187). In this sense, Harlem Nocture is a story of 1940s and three amazing artists. But it is also explicitly a history of three black women whose artistry, experiences, and politics "fueled change" within the community and beyond. They "were agents, not spectators. They advocated for access to education, jobs, and adequate food and shelter. They were concerned with both racial and economic equality. They walked the streets of Harlem during the time that a young Baldwin walked those same streets" (9). This work offers a narrative of these inspiring artists, reminding readers of their "freedom dreams" and our own. Amazing history, amazing artists, and amazing book

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    Thought this book would be a survey instead it's about 3 women (I should have read the subtitle carefully). I read it to get information about this time period. I was particularly struck by the section on Anne Petry- the writer. I think she's an excellent writer but I didn't know much about her. I know more now and will probably buy her daughter's book . It's well written and as far as I know historically accurate.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    This book really gives you ag ood feel of Harlem in the forties and what people were up against. Artists were in an interesting spot because they could influence, but were hounded for being progressive by Hoover and the FBI. Very interesting history lesson and the writng takes you there.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dawn

    I enjoyed reading this book that explores the lives of three creative women artists living in Harlem in the 40s. It examines how they used their artistry to further their commitments to the social justice movements and causes that were happening during that time period. I am also grateful that this book found me because it introduced me to the dancing of Pearl Primus, the music of Mary Lou Williams and re introduced me to the writings of Ann Petry. If you are into history and the creative arts, I enjoyed reading this book that explores the lives of three creative women artists living in Harlem in the 40s. It examines how they used their artistry to further their commitments to the social justice movements and causes that were happening during that time period. I am also grateful that this book found me because it introduced me to the dancing of Pearl Primus, the music of Mary Lou Williams and re introduced me to the writings of Ann Petry. If you are into history and the creative arts, you will enjoy this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

    Just lovely. The narrative is engaging and flows effortlessly, and there's an abundance of information and substance. I was all the more pleased to be learning so much about a time, a place, and these three women along the way, all of which was relatively new to me. This book is a bit like what I've wanted from Erik Larson, I think. A little more substance, a little less titillation?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sheryl

    I this is a wonderful book, if you are a fan of the jazz era this is a book for you. The author did a fantastic job researching each of the three women , she left wanting to read more about these strong women.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Petersen

    Here are three women I'd never heard of ... but probably should have. Griffin tells of their lives and works and the Harlem milieu in the days after Harlem's more famous renaissance. She writes without much depth or analysis but competently and often with feeling.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    704.04208 G8514 2013

  9. 5 out of 5

    Weckea

  10. 5 out of 5

    capturethemoon

  11. 5 out of 5

    Elle

  12. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  13. 4 out of 5

    Shalewa Mackall

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kodiaksm

  15. 5 out of 5

    Can

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

  17. 5 out of 5

    Izetta Autumn

    I've had Harlem Nocturne since it was published in 2013. It was a book I knew that I would fall into, so to speak, enjoying it and the women it revealed. For this reason, I kept holding on to it, moving it among my to-read list, because I didn't want the enjoyment of the book to be over too soon. And the book lived up to what I expected: moving, revealing of the lives of Primus, Petry, and Williams, and teaching me more than a thing or two. We've heard so very much about Ellison, Wright, and I've had Harlem Nocturne since it was published in 2013. It was a book I knew that I would fall into, so to speak, enjoying it and the women it revealed. For this reason, I kept holding on to it, moving it among my to-read list, because I didn't want the enjoyment of the book to be over too soon. And the book lived up to what I expected: moving, revealing of the lives of Primus, Petry, and Williams, and teaching me more than a thing or two. We've heard so very much about Ellison, Wright, and Hughes; more still about Miles Davis or Coltrane. I needed this book and its dedication to the lives and contributions of three extraordinary women.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jen

  19. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  20. 5 out of 5

    a.novel.femme

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kris

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura Van Wormer

  23. 4 out of 5

    Cecelia Mcfadden

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kalisha Buckhanon

  25. 4 out of 5

    Steven G.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Marc Schorin

  27. 5 out of 5

    Vickie

  28. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

  30. 5 out of 5

    Emily

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