From Harlem to Haiti
African Americans have long had an interest in Haiti and the Harlem Renaissance saw a particular flourishing of artistic and cultural work about the island nation by prominent African American creators.
The Harlem Renaissance was a time of increased Black American interest in global communities around the world. Many African American creatives during this time began to travel outside the United States, particularly to explore regions and cultures with a significant African diasporic presence. One such place was Haiti. As the first free Black republic in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti exemplified Black resilience and freedom for many African Americans. It was a place viewed as culturally pure or seemingly untouched by whiteness, given its primarily Black demographic. As Caribbean scholar, J. Michael Dash notes, Haiti was “…regarded as the place where the Black man could achieve his highest potential.” Haiti was also geographically closer than Africa, enabling African Americans to get in touch with their roots, without having to travel the long distance to the continent. Writer Langston Hughes and jeweler Winifred Mason Chenet are examples of two significant Harlem Renaissance figures that spent time in Haiti and produced important work inspired by their trips.
From the 1910s to the late-1930s, Black creative production in the form of literature, visual art, jazz, theatre, and dance flourished in the United States. During the Great Migration, many African Americans left the South for urban centers in other parts of the United States. One of the popular places of migration—for Black people from both the United States and other parts of the world—was Harlem in New York City. Two of the common threads uniting the different people in Harlem were the struggles of being Black in the Americas and the desire to find new economic opportunities. From this period was born the Harlem Renaissance, a time in which many Black figures diversely and creatively expressed their culture and addressed what being Black in America meant to them. Many prominent figures including anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, activist Marcus Garvey, jazz artist Louis Armstrong, blues singer Bessie Smith, musician Duke Ellington, and performer Josephine Baker launched their careers during this period.
Poet and writer Langston Hughes’ friendship with Haitian poet and activist Jacques Roumain is one example of the cross-cultural connections between Black people from the United States and Haiti during the Harlem Renaissance. While Langston Hughes is considered one of the most influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, he actually spent most of his time traveling outside of Harlem during this time period. During the 1920s and 30s, Hughes traveled around the United States and Mexico; to West Africa and Europe as a crewman on the S.S. Malone; and to the Soviet Union and parts of the Caribbean after leaving his job on the S.S. Malone.
In 1930, Hughes won a $400 prize from the Harmon Foundation, for which noted scholar and theorist Alain Locke nominated him. This award was established by real-estate developer and philanthropist William E. Harmon to recognize distinguished achievement of Black people in literature. Harlem Renaissance writers Countee Cullen and Claude McKay are among the list of previous winners. With these funds, Hughes travelled with a friend to Cuba and Haiti “to get away from [his] troubles.”
During his trip to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, in April 1931, Hughes purposefully avoided interacting with the elite Haitians and instead focused on the lives of the Haitian poor in order to understand the struggles of other Black people. Towards the end of his trip, Hughes reached out to Haiti’s best-known poet, Jacques Roumain. Although he was the son of a wealthy landowner and grandson of a former president of the republic, Roumain wrote poetry about the lives of everyday Black Haitians. Hughes believed that Roumain was one of the few Haitian elites who understood the struggles of poor and working-class Black people.
Hughes’ trip to Haiti and meeting with Roumain inspired a significant interest in each other and in their work. Roumain wrote a poem about Hughes called “Langston Hughes” that highlighted his international travels and made mention of his home in Harlem. Hughes’ work and their shared critiques of the elite would also go on to inspire Roumain to write more about the proletariat struggle of Black people. Politically, Roumain like Hughes would also later become a Marxist, which would eventually lead to his imprisonment and exile from Haiti.
After his 1931 trip, Hughes wrote about Haiti many times. This work would often upset Haitian elites because of its emphasis on the stark wealth gap within the Haitian population. In an article written for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s official magazine, The Crisis, Hughes focuses on what he calls the “White Shadows” that had fallen across Haiti and the “people without shoes.” Hughes’ discussion of “people without shoes” in this piece was meant to signify poor Haitians whose lives were drastically different than the post-Revolution Haitian elite. In this article, Hughes shared sentiments that were similar to his critiques of Black elites in the United States, reflecting the common struggles faced by Blacks in the African Diaspora. The “White Shadows” of the article is Hughes’ allusion to the US Marines who were occupying Haiti at the time. Like many African Americans during this time, Hughes strongly opposed and spoke against the US occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934. African American’s opposition to US-inflicted violence against Haiti helped create a sense of political solidary between African Americans and Haitians.
In collaboration with Arna Bontemps, another well-known author during the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes published a novella called Popo and Fifina (Children of Haiti) in 1932 that depicted the life and adventures of Haitian children. Hughes also wrote a historical play about Haitian leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines called Drums of Haiti, which was later turned into a three-act opera called Troubled Island.
Hughes’ friendship with Roumain continued in the form of exchanged letters, solidarity around political issues, and translation. In 1935, when Jacques Roumain was imprisoned for distributing allegedly radical materials in Haiti, Hughes wrote a letter for the February edition of The Crisis called “Haitian Writer in Jail” in which he detailed Roumain’s situation and called for support and protest from fellow Black people. With the help of Hughes, a committee was then formed to help advocate for Roumain’s release from prison.
Hughes and scholar Mercer Cook translated Roumain’s novel Gouverneurs de la Rosé (renamed in English, Masters of the Dew) from French to English in 1947. Considered a Haitian classic, Gouverneurs de la Rosé details the story of a young Haitian man who seeks to save his community from the devastating effects of drought and erosion.
Known for his scholarship on the interconnections of Blackness, France, and its colonies, Cook was a pioneer of Black French studies. Cook received a Rosenwald fellowship and used part of it to travel to Haiti. From 1943 to 1945, he worked as an English professor at the Université d'État d'Haïti (the University of Haiti) in Port-Au-Prince and wrote the Handbook for Haitian Teachers of English as well as Five French Negro Authors, and edited an anthology of Haitian readings. Although Hughes studied French throughout his school years, it can be assumed that he lent more of his narrative and aesthetic skills to the translation of the novel while Cook did most of the actual translation. Cook had advanced French-language skills and extensive experience with translation. Hughes and Cook’s translation for this novel was completed three years after Roumain’s death, reflecting their desire to both continue and expand Roumain’s legacy to a larger, global audience, as well as disseminate Haitian literature to Americans.
Arriving late to the Harlem Renaissance scene, jeweler Winifred Mason was a hidden figure in African American and Haitian arts. Mason got her start during the Modernist Jewelry Movement in the 1930s, which lasted from the mid-1930s to the 1970s, and is reported to be the first commercial African American jeweler in the United States. Unimpressed by what was available to her in department stores, Mason began making jewelry for herself by hand in her parent’s Brooklyn home in 1935. Mason’s homemade jewelry sparked the interest of the African American women in her community. This clientele increased once she graduated with a Master’s degree in Art Education from New York University in 1936. Later that year, Mason began teaching arts and crafts in Harlem for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and continued teaching in WPA-sponsored community centers in Harlem until 1939. In 1940, Mason opened her first workshop in Harlem, which became known as a popular training space for young Black craftspeople. Renown sculptor and midcentury modernist jeweler Art Smith was her shop assistant and an early apprentice.
Like many other prominent African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance, Mason received the Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship in 1945, which allowed her to travel to and live in the West Indies for about half a year in order to gather inspiration for her jewelry. The Rosenwald Foundation (also known as the Rosenwald Fund) was established by American businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in 1917. In 1928, Rosenwald created a fellowship program that gave financial support to African American creatives to strengthen their talents. In addition to Mercer Cook, poet Claude McKay, dancer Katherine Dunham, and writer W.E.B. Du Bois are among the many who received this fellowship.
Unlike many modernist jewelers at the time who were inspired by European designs and culture, Mason was heavily inspired by Africa and its Diasporas and took this fellowship as a chance to explore her interests more closely.
Through the medium of jewelry, I shall aim to express the desires and aspirations of the West Indian people which are parallel to the desires and aspirations of the American Negro or any other group which has felt the yolk of oppression and injustice.Winifred Mason Chenet, 1945Personal Statement, Rosenwald Fellowship Application
Mason spent her fellowship in Haiti observing daily life and the work of many Haitian artists at the indigenous art gallery known as Le Centre d’Art in Port Au-Prince. This trip inspired Mason to incorporate themes of Haitian folk art and Vodou symbolism within her work and ultimately was the catalyst for a long-term connection to Haiti for the artist. After her visit, Mason also began broadening her material and product use; most of her early work was in copper, however, later she expanded to silver, aluminum, gold, and pewter. She started making products other than necklaces, including earrings, brooches, and bracelets.
An example of a piece by Mason that demonstrates Haitian influence is a copper and brass diamond design cuff designed in 1945. The bracelet has thin strands of copper wrapped around copper pegs in a crisscrossing diamond pattern, possibly meant to replicate the peg drums Mason saw in Haiti.
In 1948, Mason transformed her jewelry storefront (which had moved from Harlem to Greenwhich Village in 1943) to a store called the Haitian Bazaar, where she sold imported Haitian art, such as oil paintings by Haitian artists, as well as home and fashion accessories. That same year she married Haitian artist Jean Evan Chenet who previously worked at the Centre d’Art and was one of the first Haitians to receive the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. In 1949, Mason moved to Haiti with Chenet and built a jewelry manufacturing business that catered to tourists. The couple designed an innovative style of souvenir jewelry under the name “Chenet D’Haiti.” The jewelry was heavily inspired by the religious symbols and iconography of Haitian Vodou and sold in stores around Haiti as well as internationally.
An example of a piece of jewelry made from Mason Chenet’s business in Haiti is a pair of silver earrings with a Vodou vèvè engraved on it (see below). The vèvè, a religious symbol for the spirits or loa of Haitian Vodou, are on the front. The backs of each earring bear the “Chenet D'Haiti” stamp, an indication that this piece was made after 1949. The incorporation of Vodou elements in much of Chenet D’Haiti’s pieces suggests Mason Chenet’s desire to highlight and celebrate an essential part of Haitian culture to non-Haitian people. Unlike many of the American Hollywood portrayals of Vodou around this time that sensationalized the religion and demonized Haitian people (e.g., White Zombie, 1932; Voodoo Man, 1944), Mason Chenet’s work diverged from this by focusing on the beauty and aesthetics of the religion. Like Hughes, she offers a counterpoint to the negative media portrayals of Haiti and Haitians during this period.
African Americans have long had an interest in Haiti and the Harlem Renaissance saw a particular flourishing of artistic and cultural work about the island nation by prominent African American creators. With the help of the Harmon Foundation and Rosenwald Foundation fellowship grants, Langston Hughes and Winifred Mason Chenet were able to immerse themselves in Haitian culture and ultimately produce work for their largely American audiences that highlighted different aspects of the country. While Hughes’ work on Haiti highlighted the similarities between Haitian and African American struggles, Mason Chenet’s work emphasized the deep religious and cultural aspects through her focus on Vodou symbolism. Both of Mason Chenet’s stores in New York and Haiti were also ways for non-Haitians to take pieces of Haiti home with them. Other notable African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance—such as artist Aaron Douglas, anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham, anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, and artist Jacob Lawrence—also created work inspired by trips and/or research on Haiti. Moreover, the work of many African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance highlights the long-lasting linkages between Black Americans and Haiti, as well as the continued desire for connections across the African Diaspora.
Written by Karen Bauer, Curatorial Research Intern
Published on April 19, 2021
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