In 1934, Aaron Douglas created an epic four-panel mural series, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), for the branch library on 135th Street in Manhattan, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The panels answered a call, issued by the first major program for federal support of the arts in the United States, to represent “an American scene.” In them, Douglas traced the trajectory of African American history in four stages and across two mass migrations: from Africa into enslavement in America; through Emancipation and Reconstruction; into the modern Jim Crow South; and then northward with the Great Migration to Harlem itself. The narrative Douglas constructed was remarkable in both its historical sweep and as a story of America seen through Black eyes. This essay explores how Douglas's approach to the trenchant and understudied Aspects of Negro Life panels was shaped by rich conversations across a decade-about what it meant to be Black in America, how the “African” in “African-American” was to be understood, and what a distinctly African-American modernism might be-with an interdisciplinary nexus of thinkers, activists, and artists that included W. E. B. Du Bois; a co-founder of the NAACP and co-editor of the Crisis, sociologist Charles S. Johnson; poet-activist James Weldon Johnson; bibliophile Arturo Schomburg; and philosopher-critic Alain Locke. Looking at Douglas's visual narrative in this context offers insight into how parallel practices of archive-building, art making, history writing, and criticism came together not only to shape a vision of America but also to champion a model of Black modernism framed through diaspora.
An early version of this essay appeared as “An American Scene: Aaron Douglas and Aspects of Negro Life” in a special issue of Marg magazine on Art and Conflict (June 2020), edited by Glenn D. Lowry, pp. 84-93. Much of the writing and thought that transformed this essay from the form in which it appears there to its current incarnation took place in the spring and summer of 2020, during the shock waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd and so many others and the racial reckoning they prompted, and the spectacle of a base and corrupt president who often invoked the myths of the Lost Cause. This essay has been shaped by all of these things, and also by the ways in which research departed from normal access to books, archives, and libraries. I have often used Kindle and other electronic editions, have made use of digitally accessible materials, and have checked archival sources via email. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, now more than ever, remains an invaluable place to engage with a heritage of ideas. Special thanks to Kevin Young, Michelle Commander, and Tammi Lawson. Emily Stoller-Patterson and Francesca Lo Galbo provided critical research assistance. Homi Bhabha, Laura Brodie, Rachel Churner, Huey Copeland, Hal Foster, Jennifer Harris, David Joselit, Adam Lehner, and Khalil J. Muhammad all offered thoughtful comments at various junctures along the way. Iam grateful for such a community of friends and colleagues.