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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Migrations

Moon over Harlem, ca. 1943-1944
Moon over Harlem
The Promised Land?
- Rudolph Fisher, "The City of Refuge," short story, Atlantic Monthly, February 1925 (PDF)
- William H. Johnson, Moon over Harlem, oil on plywood, ca. 1943-1944

Charles Johnson's family histories (see #3: The Chicago Riots) offer insight into life within the black urban community in the early twentieth century. To explore that life more fully, we offer Rudolph Fisher's short story "The City of Refuge" and William H. Johnson's painting Moon over Harlem.

A leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Rudolph Fisher (1987-1934) was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. He received a BA and an MA from Brown University and an MD from Howard University Medical School. Physician and author, he wrote novels and short stories in a straightforward style with colloquial language set in the urban North. "The City of Refuge" is a quintessential bumpkin-comes-to-town tale. King Solomon Gillis arrives in "Negro Harlem" full of hope. Although initially disoriented by the unfamiliar sights and sounds accosting him while leaving the railroad station, Gillis, who has escaped probable death by lynch mob for shooting a white man in North Carolina, positively beams when contemplating his new life. He seems particularly attracted by the economic opportunities awaiting him, musing, "Everybody in Harlem had money. It was the land of plenty." Yet encounters with two relatively "foreign" individuals leave him even more astounded: a woman in dark green stockings and a black police officer. He also meets Mouse Uggams, a mulatto from his home town, who finds him a job but also presses him into service as a distributor of some valuable "medicine" he encountered while serving in France during World War I. "The City of Refuge" highlights the remarkable contrasts between a character's expectations and life's outcomes. Fisher also complicates the idea of community, suggesting that as a result of migration, old values and loyalties break down. What flourishes instead is an almost predatory mentality, with the urban environment destroying natural human sympathies.

William H. Johnson (1901-1970) was born in Florence, South Carolina. Cultivating a talent for drawing at an early age, he left the South in 1919 for New York, where he eventually enrolled in the National Academy of Design. In Paris from 1926 to 1929 he encountered the work of prominent contemporary artists and adopted an expressionist style, which he pursued until the late 1930s, when he embraced what he termed a more "primitive" approach to art. With vivid colors and two-dimensional figures, he painted scenes of everyday African American life. The title of the piece offered here, Moon over Harlem, suggests a placid evening with strolling couples bathed in gentle light, yet the painting's violent content belies its name. A brilliantly colored full moon connotes passion and madness. While the represented storyline appears somewhat ambiguous, the fact that crime, assault, and bloodshed have occurred seems clear. With the darkened skyline visible in the distance, the city seemingly watches as the impulsive, explosive drama unfolds. Involving at least six uniformed men as well as three male citizens, the lone woman constitutes the composition's centerpiece. All ten figures are black. With the unsettling distortion of the female body, Johnson raises important questions about gender. Who is this woman in the colored stockings, and what does she represent? Who has committed the violating, punishable acts? Are the pedestrians or the policemen at fault? What is the source of this riot? These questions remain unanswered; however, Johnson's painting, like Fisher's story, calls into question the image of the North as the Promised Land. (13 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What is the significance of names and naming in "The City of Refuge"?
  2. In "The City of Refuge," how does Fisher portray the South?
  3. How does he portray Harlem?
  4. How does he portray the mulatto?
  5. Why is King Solomon Gillis "exultant" at the end of the story?
  6. In both "The City of Refuge" and Moon over Harlem, black policemen assume prominent roles. What do the policemen represent?
  7. What emotions do the composition and color scheme of Moon over Harlem provoke?
  8. How does Johnson portray Harlem?

Framing Questions
  •  What migrations did African Americans undertake in the twentieth century?
  •  What were the effects of these migrations?

"The City of Refuge": 11
Moon over Harlem:  2
13 pages
Supplemental Sites
Rudolph Fisher, biography and resources, in The Black Renaissance in Washington: 1920-1930s, from the District of Columbia Public Library

Rudolph Fisher, biography and resources, in PAL: Perspectives in American Literature, from Paul P. Reuben, California State University, Stanislaus

William H. Johnson, overview and selected works, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

William H. Johnson, biography, in African Americans and South Carolina, from the University of South Carolina-Aiken

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: William H. Johnson, Moon over Harlem, oil on plywood, ca. 1943-1944. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.577. Permission pending.

1. Leaving, 1920   2. Writing for Help   3. The Chicago Riots   4. Promised Land?
  5. The Blues   6. Old Timers, Newcomers   7. Leaving But Staying
8. New Consciousness   9. New Art   10. Painting the Migration   11. Leaving, 1960

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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