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

Basic Bks: Perseus. Sept. 2013. 256p. photogs. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780465018758. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780465069972. HIST
Many readers are likely to be unfamiliar with Pearl Primus (1919–94), Ann Petry (1908–97), and Mary Lou Williams (1910–81). Yet as World War II raged overseas, these three African American artists were mothers of social change in the United States. All three came to Harlem in the 1940s with the intent of pursuing their dreams—for Primus, dance; for Petry, authorship; and for Williams, jazz composition and performance. In turn Harlem shaped them and their ambitions. Griffin (English, comparative literature, & African American studies, Columbia Univ.) has done her research, and it shows as she demonstrates how these women's passion for their crafts became a passion, as well, for creating social change and promoting democracy in America. These artists produced cathartic work that compelled others, who might otherwise have remained oblivious to their progressive messages, to listen to and witness not just their art but their activism.
VERDICT It is refreshing to learn about Harlem's history beyond its well-known Renaissance and to be reminded of the essential roles African Americans, women, and artists have played in U.S. history. Readers of African American, U.S., urban, or cultural history and those studying feminism, female artists, and activism will benefit from these stories.
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