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.”