One of ours
Father of African-American Art, BFA 1922
The University of Nebraska of the early 20th century was, in the best sense of the egalitarian ideals of its founding charter, a place of ideas and learning for all, located in a city whose name – Lincoln – was still pregnant with meaning, ostentatiously symbolizing equality for all. Within the city was a thriving African-American community, remembered today through the extraordinary visual record created by John Johnson, a former Cornhusker football player-turned-photographer. In short, it was a place young Aaron Douglas would be, and was, attracted to.
Douglas, son of a Topeka, Kansas, baker and homemaker, journeyed from that city to Lincoln in 1918, enrolling in the Fine Arts program at Nebraska then headed by Professor Paul H. Grumman and headquartered in today’s Architecture Hall. While at the university, he was a well-regarded student, participating in Art Club and the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi.
Douglas would receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the May, 1922 commencement, and would shortly thereafter (following a stint as a waiter with Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad) find employment in the Kansas City public schools, teaching art in that city’s Lincoln High School. He had impressed Grumman enough to earn praise for his “unusual qualities” in a recommendation letter: “Mr. Douglas is not only excellent in his art work but made a good record here in his academic work.”
And in Manhattan…
While Douglas was teaching in Kansas City, the literary, cultural, political and artistic ferment of what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance began picking up steam in Manhattan.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine, The Crisis, then a monthly edited by W.E.B. DuBois, was in its second decade and headquartered in the New York Evening Post’s building at 20 Vesey Street downtown. The National Urban League began publishing the monthly magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life in 1923, and it became the emblematic periodical of the artistic, musical and literary culture then centered uptown in the formerly Dutch, Jewish and Italian neighborhood of Harlem.
But it wasn’t until the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic magazine landed in Douglas’s Kansas City mailbox that his future — and his impact on American culture — was charted. The special issue, guest-edited by Alain Locke, was dedicated to “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” With that mailborne lightning bolt, Douglas would resolve to venture to Harlem (it is unclear whether this was an intended permanent stop or simply a waypoint on a planned migration to Paris), where he would strike up an acquaintance which would evolve into a fellowship and mentorship with the German artist Winold Reiss, who had illustrated the cover subject, of the composer Roland Hayes, that adorned that Survey Graphic issue.
Once in Harlem, Douglas fit in almost immediately. In a matter of months, he was contributing important artwork to The Crisis and Opportunity, including cover designs, and quickly making a name for himself as a preeminent artist with a unique style informed by cubism, art deco, and African idioms. Paris would wait. He would soon earn a commission to illustrate Alain Locke’s anthology, “The New Negro” (1926), followed by James Weldon Johnson’s poetic “God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” (1927).
With all of these first-order contributions to the visual arts of the Harlem Renaissance, it’s perhaps easiest to think, well, that’s quite enough. But while Douglas was indeed the leading artist of the movement, he was also one of its foremost philosophers. In a letter to Langston Hughes dated Dec. 21, 1925, Douglas argues for a robust embrace of authentically black culture: “Your problem, Langston, my problem, no 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 and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy, Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.”
Perhaps signaling a more adventurous or impatient spirit, Douglas, along with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and others, started a new literary magazine which would take on taboo subjects within the culture such as sexuality and interracial relationships. The idea for the magazine, first suggested by Hughes at a gathering in Aaron and Alta Douglas’s Apt. 7H at 409 Edgecombe Avenue in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, was far more daring than the established publications. Coming on the scene in 1926, Fire!!, subtitled “devoted to younger negro artists,” and based out of Langston Hughes’ room at 318 West 138th Street, made its inaugural (and as it turned out, final) issue under a stunning red-and-black cover designed by Douglas. As Douglas described its genesis, “We are all under thirty. We have no get-rich-quick complexes. We espouse no new theories of racial advancement, socially, economically or politically. We have no axes to grind. We are primarily and intensely devoted to art.”
As it was prescient in its subject matter by perhaps half a century, Fire!! was a controversy in itself, inviting scathing, moralistic critiques. Volume One, Number One of the magazine is considered one of the most important artifacts of the Harlem Renaissance, and remarkably, remains in print today.
Though Fire!! was something of a triumph and disaster in one, the experience did not extinguish Douglas’s spirit. Eight years later, his spec illustration for the never-published follow-on Spark magazine (1934) predicted the raised-fist black power gesture that would come to symbolize the latter stages of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; its depiction of a shackle and broken chain is seen also in his earlier mural “Harriet Tubman” (1930) and is repeated in several other of his works of the period.
Murals are perhaps Douglas’s most enduring and recognized legacy. On enormous canvases, he depicted four stages of African-American cultural change in his extraordinary “Aspects of Negro Life” series. This 1934 work, installed in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, and collectively realized over a surface of almost 250 square feet, represents Douglas at the height of his powers. The individual works, titled “Song of the Towers,” “The Negro in an African Setting,” “An Idyll of the Deep South,” and “From Slavery Through Reconstruction,” portray a deep and varied cycle of African-American experience.
The library is today the home of NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In 1936, he was commissioned to create four paintings for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas that would adorn the entrance to its Hall of Negro Life. Two of these works survive today, the square canvases “Into Bondage” (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and “Aspiration” (de Young Gallery, San Francisco).
Also in 1936, Douglas contributed two paintings to his alma mater’s 46th annual Exhibition of Paintings; one of these remains in the university’s possession, part of the permanent collection of the Sheldon Museum of Art. Called “Window Cleaning,” this painting signals a stylistic shift. It depicts a man viewing a street scene from a humble apartment window. Douglas, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, would move to a less aggressive and more-pastoral style along the lines of the Ashcan School, a series of quiet moments captured with a sure brush.
In 2008, the Sheldon acquired four 1926 Douglas woodblock prints, these in his earlier and more well-recognized style, inspired by the Eugene O’Neill play The Emperor Jones.
Douglas left Harlem in 1937 to found the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The historically-black university had been a frequent collaborator with Renaissance artists, and had in fact had Douglas in residence in 1930 to paint murals in that institution’s Cravath Library. He taught at the university until retiring in 1966.
Aaron Douglas died on Feb. 2, 1979, in Nashville.
I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything but a proud and majestic people.
In 2008, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas brought together 90 of Douglas’s works for a touring retrospective, “Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist,” which was presented in Lawrence, in Nashville at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 2013, his 1927 work “The Prodigal Son” was selected by the U.S. Postal Service as part of its 12-stamp Modern Art in America series, alongside works of Georgia O’Keefe, Charles DeMuth, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Marsden Hartley.
In 2018, AIGA, the professional association for design, posthumously awarded Douglas its AIGA Medal, the highest honor for American graphic artists.
Douglas’s prolific output of paintings, murals and graphic design represent a lasting contribution to American cultural heritage and to African-American struggle and achievement.
Aaron Douglas Scholarship
These scholarships are awarded to out-of-state students who exhibit superior academic performance.
Aaron Douglas Professorship
These professorships are awarded to faculty at Nebraska who demonstrate sustained and extraordinary levels of teaching excellence and national visibility for instructional activities and/or practice.