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

Aaron Douglas, Song of the Towers, 1934
Song of the Towers
New Art
- Aaron Douglas, Song of the Towers, in mural series Aspects of Negro Life, 1934

In the anthology The New Negro, Alain Locke urged African American artists to draw their inspiration from black history and sociology. And that history, he argued, reached all the way to Africa. In Aaron Douglas (1900-1979), Locke found one of the first artists to heed his call. Douglas contributed African-inspired illustrations to The New Negro and produced covers for African American publications such as The Crisis and Opportunity. He also illustrated literary texts such as James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. As his career progressed, he emerged as an iconic figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, he was graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1922. He studied art in Paris in 1928-29 and later founded the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, where he taught for twenty-nine years. Under the tutelage of German artist Winold Reiss, he developed a rhythmic style which moved away from conventional Euro-American aesthetics and effectively captured the spirit of the "New Negro." Indeed, as he writes in a letter to Langston Hughes (ca. 1925), "Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painted black. . . . Let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people . . ."

Song of the Towers is part of Aspects of Negro Life, a series of four murals sponsored by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The murals outline black history from its African roots through the Great Migration. Complex and multi-layered, Song relies on graphic designs as well as patterns of geometric shapes. Dominating its center is a series of concentric circles, framed by jutting rectangular prisms. While the distant background features the Statue of Liberty, more prominent in the mural's center is a saxophone player, with his instrument and free hand raised aloft. Placed before the city, this jazz musician seemingly lifts his anthem, one of cultural promise and progress. Yet complicating any overwhelmingly positive interpretations are images of the destructive forces that tempered the North's promise of hope and cultural vibrancy. (1 page.)

Discussion questions
  1. What do the central rectangular prisms suggest?
  2. What do the concentric circles suggest?
  3. What do the vaporous green strands suggest?
  4. How does Douglas portray the three figures?
  5. What do they suggest?
  6. How does Song of the Towers reflect Locke's essay "The New Negro"?
  7. In what ways is this painting about striving?
  8. Compare Song of the Towers with Romare Bearden's Sermons: The Walls of Jericho in OVERCOME?, Theme V of this toolbox.
  9. Is this painting ultimately an optimistic or pessimistic portrayal of the black urban experience?

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

Song of the Towers: 1 page

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Image: Aaron Douglas, Song of the Towers, 1934. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Works Progress Administration Collection. 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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