Tag Archive | Harlem Renaissance

Black Excellence on the Airwaves: Nora Holt and the American Negro Artist Program

Co-authored by Chelsea Daniel and Samantha Ege

Nora Holt (c.1885 – 1974) was a leading voice in Black America’s classical music scene. Her activities as a composer, performer, critic, commentator, and more shaped the Harlem Renaissance and its Chicago counterpart. As the fervor of the Black Renaissance progressed into the Civil Rights era, the energy that drove Black women’s activism sought greater outlets, one of which was the male-dominated world of radio. In radio, Holt continued her mission to broadcast Black excellence and there, her voice found greater power. 

Photograph of Nora Holt by Carl Van Vechten. Retrieved from the Library of Congress website.

As two classical pianists of African descent, we—Chelsea M. Daniel and Samantha Ege—were accustomed to Black women’s voices (as embodied in their compositions, performances, and criticism) being minimized, or muted all together in the Western art music narrative. Hearing Holt for the first time was powerful. 

Chelsea never knew that someone who looked like her existed in classical music, especially someone who had as great of an impact as Holt. Starting her piano studies at five, Chelsea was consistently the only Black female pianist in both her high school and college programs and she felt very isolated. It was nearly impossible for her to find any representation of Black female pianists and she was only encouraged to play a “standard” repertoire, which is dominated by white male composers. In her sophomore year of college, Chelsea took a music history course that taught her about diverse musicians who were omitted from her textbook. This discovery and a meaningful partnership with friends who shared similar experiences to her prompted the beginnings of numerous projects dedicated to showcasing music by diverse musicians, one being her junior degree recital where she programmed Sonata in E minor by the groundbreaking African-American composer Florence Price (1887 – 1953). With few performances of the piece existing online, Chelsea found Samantha’s recording and decided to reach out asking for guidance with the music. 

Samantha’s journey had been very similar to Chelsea’s, from looking to see some part of herself reflected in her studies to actively seeking a classical music history that celebrated the truth of its diversity. These similarities are what led them to Price, and eventually to this collaboration. At the time Chelsea reached out, Samantha was developing her research on Price’s network and its impact during the Chicago Black Renaissance. As Samantha began to piece Holt’s influence together, she couldn’t help but lament the radio silence around her life and legacy in the mainstream musical consciousness. The following tweet from the Red Bull Music Academy certainly rang true. Or so she thought.

Chelsea came across Holt’s literal voice during her internship at WQXR-Radio, to which Samantha’s reaction was: “Oh. My. God.” Chelsea had been trying to track down locations in New York where Price’s friend and collaborator composer-pianist Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) had performed. She was shocked to find a live recording of the artist on the American Negro Artist Program, something that does not even exist on YouTube. For us to hear Bonds on the piano and Holt’s actual voice, with the crisp mid-Atlantic elocution of a bygone era but a message of Black excellence for the ages, was to feel inspired, renewed, significant, and empowered (much like Holt’s listeners during her time). 

***

Born Lena Douglas in Kansas City to a minister father and musically-inclined mother, Holt’s music education began with playing organ in the church. Her musical pursuits aligned with the Talented Tenth thinking that W.E.B. Du Bois promoted around the turn of the century; it was believed that the highly educated top ten percent of the African-American population would uplift the race and that the study of classical music would provide a tool for mobility. However, Holt also lived beyond the limits of early twentieth-century respectability. As a young adult, she challenged the archetype of the modern day Black woman. By the time she had graduated from Kansas’s Western University, a prestigious HBCU, she had been married three times while still managing to graduate at the top of her class. 

In 1917, she married her fourth husband, George Holt, who was a rich hotel owner thirty years her senior. She changed her name to Nora Holt. Prior to meeting her husband, she moved to Chicago and earned her living as a cabaret performer while also actively performing, composing, and promoting classical music. In 1918, Holt became the first person African-American person in the United States to attain a Master of Music degree, which she earned at the Chicago Musical College. For her thesis composition, she presented an orchestral piece called Rhapsody on Negro Themes. The rhapsody was one of over 200 compositions that Holt wrote. Unfortunately, many of them were lost and have yet to be recovered. Holt had kept her manuscripts in storage during her time away in Europe, but returned to find that all had been stolen. The only surviving works were those that had appeared in her publication, Music and Poetry: the art song “The Sandman” and Negro Dance (1921) for solo piano.

Negro Dance with Samantha Ege, piano

Holt’s advocacy for Black artistic excellence became even more far-reaching with her work as a music critic for the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News. She reviewed all of the concerts with African-American performers and composers that she could find and made history as one of the first women to write for a major newspaper as the Chicago Defender’s first ever music critic. 

Holt moved into radio during the 1940s. Her American Negro Artist Program on WNYC began in 1945 and spanned almost a decade. It was upon this platform that she used her voice to further amplify the work of Black classical practitioners.

Chelsea M. Daniel, Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin. Image courtesy of the authors.

Chelsea found that the NYPR Archive Collections had published Holt’s 1953 American Negro Artist Program. This half an hour segment aired on February 12 at 5pm and was part of WNYC’s 14th annual American Music Festival. Though the scope of the festival was far broader, Holt’s program specifically highlighted the classical artistry of African-descended practitioners. February 12 fell in the middle of Negro History Week–the forerunner of today’s Black History Month–which New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey had proclaimed from February 8 to 15 (a span selected by the Week’s founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, in the 1920s to encompass the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass).  With this program, Holt led her listeners through the multifarious layers of Black diasporic representation.

Samantha Ege, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center. Images courtesy of the authors.

February 12 was also the commencement date of the festival, which was first announced in early February, in 1940. WNYC planned to broadcast an all-American series of concerts (forty in total) that would begin on February 12 and end on February 22, as marked by the dates of Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays, respectively. Morris. S. Novik, WNYC director, told the New York Times (February 3, 1940) that the purpose of the festival was two-fold. He elaborated:

One purpose is to build the municipal radio station into an even greater force in the cultural life of the community, and the second is to promote the cause of good American music. American broadcasters have done a splendid job in developing appreciation of classical music. Radio must do still another important job by focusing attention on American music, and by demonstrating that Americans have written good–even great music.

The American Music Festival was the first of its kind to promote music that encompassed the nation’s musical past and present on such a scale, and with such stylistic variety. According to Novik, no other radio station had attempted to broadcast such a wide cross-section of American music with the same grand vision that he had. The New York Times reported on just how extensive this cross-section was (February 12, 1940):

 The concerts will cover nearly all types of American composition. Simple ballads which the pioneer sang as he plodded his way Westward will be included, along with the professional orchestral works of today. Spirituals and blues, indigenous to American soil, will vie with compositions that incorporate the latest innovations. All types of compositions: mountain songs, barber-shop ballads, vaudeville melodies, marches and the more serious forms of composition which make up the musical life of America will be represented. The festival offers an affirmative answer to the question, “Do we have American music?”

Holt’s program not only evidenced a resounding “yes,” it presented a pan-diasporic purview that affirmed the socio-sonic pluralities of Black artistry. Samantha uses the term “socio-sonic pluralities” to ground the musical developments of Black cultural creators in their environment and to recognize how various social conditions can shape artistic expression. She identifies this as a central component in Holt’s 1953 American Negro Artist Program, particularly as the program went beyond the United States to embrace the Americas. With composers whose backgrounds encompassed Canada (R. Nathaniel Dett) and St. Kitts (Edward Margetson) and musical influences that merged different diasporic folk traditions with Romantic, neo-classicist, modernist, and Black Renaissance aesthetics, the American Negro Artist Program celebrated the interconnected, yet also distinct audiovisual histories of the African diaspora.

Program:

 

“The Breadth of a Rose”

William Grant Still, composer

Viola John, contralto and Margaret Bonds, piano

 

“I want Jesus to Walk With Me”

Negro Spiritual arranged by Edward Boatner

Viola John, contralto and Margaret Bonds, piano

 

“His Song” and “Juba Dance” from In the Bottoms

  1. Nathaniel Dett, composer

Una Hadley, piano

 

“One” and “Genius Child,” based on poems by Langston Hughes

Edward Lee Tyler, composer

Edward Lee Tyler, bass-baritone and Norma Holmes, piano

 

“First Movement” from Fantasy on Caribbean Rhythms

Edward Margetson, composer

The American String Quartet: David Johnson, 1st violin; Frank Sanford, 2nd violin; Felix Baer, viola; and Marion Combo, cello

 

“By the Sea”

Julia Perry, composer

Adele Addison, soprano and Margaret Bonds, piano

 

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” based on a poem by Langston Hughes

Margaret Bonds, composer

Adele Addison, soprano and Margaret Bonds, piano

On a scholarly level, Holt’s American Negro Artist Program adds another dimension to the way Samantha interprets the socio-sonic pluralities of Black artistry in the post-war era. Accessing Holt’s voice in the context of radio reifies connections between growing technologies and Black classical propagation at this time. In the absence of Holt’s full composition catalogue, hearing Holt amplify the work of her esteemed peers gives an enhanced perspective on her musical developments—from composer to curator, off the score and onto the airwaves.

On a personal level, however, it is upsetting to not have learned about Holt sooner and, as Chelsea elaborates, to not have a face like Holt’s to look up to during the loneliest moments of our education. Holt’s work validates Chelsea’s own pursuits, particularly in radio. Holt successfully created her own space in classical music, and did so unapologetically. She provided opportunities for Black musicians to be at the forefront and challenged a system that was not built for first-person Black narratives. And so, we take a leaf from her book, recognizing that the (re)sounding of her story is also the celebration of our own.

Listen to Holt and the American Negro Artist Program here.

Featured image:”Music stand (1)” by Flickr user Rachel Johnson, CC-BY-ND 2.0

Chelsea M. Daniel is a senior at the University of Texas, Austin, pursuing her Bachelor’s in Piano Performance. She is devoted to showcasing the stories and music of marginalized people and musicians. Daniel is the co-founder of the award-winning Exposure TV, which was created to highlight composers and musicians from underrepresented backgrounds. Daniel came across the American Negro Artist Program during her internship at WQXR-FM.

Samantha Ege is a scholar, pianist and educator. Her PhD (University of York) centres on the African-American composer Florence Price. Ege’s upcoming article on Price, Holt and the Chicago Black Renaissance women is called “Composing a Symphonist: Florence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship” and appears in Volume 24 of Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. As a concert pianist and recording artist, Ege continues to amplify Black women composers in her repertoire.

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My Music and My Message is Powerful: It Shouldn’t Be Florence Price or “Nothing”-Samantha Ege

Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa Valdes

Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low

“I Dreamed and Loved and Wandered and Sang”: Sounding Blackness in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess

Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online ForumSO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”

It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years.  How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?

Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey,Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.

Readers, today’s post by Kristin Moriah looks at Du Bois’s novel Dark Princess, and explores the relationship between sound and freedom in the text.

–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.


Summer is come with bursting flower and promises of perfect fruit. Rain is rolling down Nile and Niger. Summer sings on the sea where giant ships carry busy worlds, while mermaids swarm the shores. Earth is pregnant. Life is big with pain and evil and hope. Summer in blue New York; summer in gray Berlin; summer in the real heart of the world!

W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess (1928)

 

“Malcolm X BLVD” by Flickr user Alex Proimos, CC BY-NC 2.0

It is summer in Harlem now. Thick blankets of heat roil the city, and the pavement shimmers. Even the most die-hard city dwellers try to create distance between themselves and the noisy streets where political tensions threaten to boil over this season, as they always seem to. Airy tunes are often sung in vain here. More often than not, summer in New York City can be characterized by the sounds of the protests Julie Beth Napolin writes about so powerfully. At the moment, many of those protests are directed towards immigration detention centers and against forced family separation policies. Harlem, long a nexus for African diasporic and Latinx immigration and culture, has become a site of forced migration for migrant children separated from their families at the U.S. border and relocated to foster shelters like East Harlem’s Cayuga Center. Thus, contemporary nostalgia for Harlem as a site of creative freedom can be belied by reality.

But is there another place like this, not here, where one can go? An urban metropolis where one can be more attuned to sounds of the city and cries for justice? Where summer sings songs of freedom? Historically, there have been other options, especially for black travelers and migrants, and those options can tell us much about the way African American writers have conceptualized the relationship between sound and freedom. There was a strong correlation between sound and travel for African American intellectuals and performers during the Harlem Renaissance. During the brief period between Reconstruction and World War II, Europe, particularly Berlin, presented African Americans who traveled abroad with opportunities to hear and be heard differently. In The Sonic Color Line (2016), Jennifer Stoever has argued that W.E.B. Du Bois’s attention to the problem of the color line should inform our understanding of the centrality of sound in U.S. racial formations. But what happens to perceptions of the sonic color line once you cross the U.S. border? How have African American writers reflected on the sonic color line from a distance? W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1928 novel Dark Princess is an ideal place to begin exploring these questions.

Cover of Dark Princess, fair use

W.E.B. Du Bois fictionalized the experience of traveling to Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. As a whole, his work on travelling in Europe while black contributes to the discourse around race and sound by illustrating the importance of sounding blackness to political discourse. Du Bois continually accounted for sound in both his prose and fiction about his European travels during the early 20th century. For instance, in his autobiography Darkwater, Du Bois writes “as a student in Germany, I built great castles in Spain and lived therein. I dreamed and loved and wandered and sang; then after two long years I dropped suddenly back into ‘nigger’—hating America!” (16). Here and elsewhere, Du Bois portrays singing, performing, and listening–or what I identify here as sounding blackness–as crucial activities that foster intellectual development, creativity, and political awareness. In “Death Wish Mixtape,” Regina Bradley observes that contemporary instances of sounding blackness in popular culture are often linked to commodification and death. But the act of sounding blackness can be pliable, even as it signifies keen political awareness. In the Harlem Renaissance, sounding blackness was linked to black internationalism. In Du Bois’s work, sounding blackness involves testing the limits of blackness abroad and making African American culture audible by introducing blackness into political discourse for progressive purposes.

In the opening epigraph of the novel Dark Princess, at the beginning of this post, a summer journey begins with a song in the wake of tragedy. Written during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess, African American hero Matthew Towns travels to Europe to heal himself from racism’s psychic wounds, macroagressions, and foreshortened career prospects. Like Du Bois, Towns seeks respite from the systemic racism he encounters in the U.S. educational system, in this case at the University of Manhattan, a fictional Harlem medical school that is a stone’s throw from the City University of New York’s City College. In other words, Towns is a refugee of American racism.

Matthew Towns experiences new forms of freedom when he travels abroad. Fin-de-Siècle Berlin’s ambiguous racial boundaries allow Matthew Towns to practice American citizenship, perform an unfettered African American identity, and act as a spokesperson for the first time. Faced with the question of whether African diasporic “blood must tell,” or reveal its weaknesses through inarticulate discourse, Towns boldly asserts that it won’t tell “unless it is allowed to talk. Its speech is accidental today” (22). He begins to advocate for African Americans using various performative modes. Du Bois depicts Towns as what Alex Black might term a “resonant body,” a performer who uses embodied sound to shape the viewers’ perceptions of his or her humanity. In Berlin, Towns becomes a resonant body who sounds blackness outside the boundaries of the American color line in an attempt to ameliorate conditions for African Americans at home. As such, Towns echoes Du Bois’ insistence on the importance of song to the African American tradition and socio-political ambitions in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Thus, Dark Princess picks up on the sonic themes Du Bois proposed in his earlier works.

As Du Bois’s novel unfolds, readers learn how Berlin could both confound and appeal to the African American imagination as a utopic site of black performance. Towns sings to a multi-ethnic group of elite political activists at a dinner party in Berlin. Invited by Princess Kautilya of Bwodpur, at first, “Matthew felt his lack of culture audible, and not simply of his own culture, but of all the culture in white America which he had unconsciously and foolishly, as he now realized made his norm” (24). Initially, American racism prevents Towns from sounding blackness and participating in global discourses around race and freedom. And yet, at the same party in Berlin, Towns is also overcome by the memory of Negro spirituals. He becomes a resonant body by reclaiming black working-class sensibility and pride: “it was as if he had faced and made a decision, as though some great voice, crying and reverberating within his soul, spoke for him and yet was him” (23). For Matthew Towns, sounding blackness abroad is not just personally empowering; sounding allows him to imagine himself as a key contributor to larger social movements and, potentially, black liberation. In both examples, the acts of hearing, verbalizing, and singing are depicted as necessary modes of political awareness and engagement. Without access to these sonic forms, Matthew is divorced from meaningful political participation.

Eventually, Matthew finds his way into the conversation by making a powerful argument for the cultural achievements of African Americans, or “the black rabble of America,” (26) by way of Negro Spirituals: “silence dropped on all, and suddenly Matthew found himself singing. His voice full, untrained but mellow, quivered down the first plaintive bar…” (26). It is the most striking instance of black performance in the novel:

The blood rushed to Matthew’s face. He threw back his head and closed his eyes, and with the movement, he heard again the Great Song. He saw his father in the old log church by the river, leading the moaning singers in the Great Song of Emancipation. Clearly, plainly he heard that mighty voice and saw the rhythmic swing and beat of the thick brown arm. Matthew swung his arm and beat the table; the silver tinkled. (25)

Du Bois continues: “He forgot his audience and saw only the shining river and the bowed and shouting throng […] Then Matthew let go of restraint and sang as his people sang in Virginia, twenty years ago. His great voice, gathered in one long deep breath, rolled the Call of God” (26).

Towns’s newfound ability to sound blackness in Berlin, or in other words vocalize African American claims to citizenship and freedom, stand in contrast to his earlier inability to respond coherently to Northern racism in New York City, where he is left “sputtering with amazement” at his exclusion from a medical school at which he has rightfully earned his place. In that instance, Matthew is rendered speechless. When “his fury had burst its bounds” it resulted in not a stream of invectives or vain pleas for justice, but a physical response. He throws “his certificates, his marks, and commendations straight into the drawn white face of the Dean” (4). Afterwards, isolated and alone, he stalks New York City.  If there is a distinct sonic dimension to this flight from discrimination, readers are not privy to it. The sounds of Matthew’s footsteps, and cries of righteous indignation, fade into the background of Harlem’s streets. They are perhaps indiscernible amidst the ebb and flow of any number of similar city sounds and experiences. In this instance, Du Bois seems to suggest that the sound that emanates from physical gestures loses potency in certain urban contexts.

When Matthew Towns returns to Harlem, we are told that it’s with a renewed ear and life purpose. Standing on Seventh Avenue, with City College to his left, “he turned east and the world turned too – to a more careless and freer movement, louder voices and easier camaraderie” (41). From the sounds of church music to the accents of West Indian immigrants, he is much more attuned to the city’s diverse African diasporic presence. Hearing these African diasporic connections in a new way, he is fueled for black leadership and political activism.

Thus, Towns’s experiences sounding blackness abroad are a pivotal step in his political awakening and activism on U.S. soil. In locating the project of sounding blackness between Harlem and Berlin, Du Bois’s fiction makes space for the privileged summer traveler, the forced migrant, and immigrant. All are bound by the desire for social progress on local and global scales. Finally, I argue that the dynamic relationship between sound, space, justice and travel that Du Bois maps out has striking relevance to contemporary political and ethical crises. As in Dark Princess, justice in the here and now can be measured by the ability to sound aloud and effect social change the world over and on street corners.

Featured image: “Mapping Courage” by Flickr user Laurenellen McCann, CC BY-NC 2.0

Kristin Moriah is an Assistant Professor of African American Literary Studies in the English Department at Queen’s University. She is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her work can be found in American QuarterlyPAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Theater Journal,  and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin, the CUNY Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative and the Harry Ransom Center. In spring 2015 Moriah was a Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka –Kristin Moriah

“Most pleasant to the ear”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Itinerant Intellectual Soundscapes — Phillip Luke Sinitiere

The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant

 

 

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