Harlem Renaissance Reborn In Science Park
by Allan Appel | Aug 28, 2012 4:09 pm
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment, Black History, Newhallville
Marcus Stovall had never heard of Langston Hughes or James Weldon Johnson before this summer, when he used a computer program to put his own face onto the body of a one-legged man from the era of the Harlem Renaissance.
The 16-year-old (pictured, with mom Judith Stovall) and 25 others took part in a seven-week Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT) summer camp using digital technology, photography, spoken word and performance art, along with those old standbys—painting, dance, and writing. The aim was to explore themselves through exploring the Harlem Renaissance, the great flowering of African-American culture in 1920s-1930s New York City.
Last Thursday 60 people, including family and friends of the 7th-through-9th-graders attending the Harlem Renaissance-themed camp, gathered at ConnCAT’s beautiful studio spaces in Science Park for an end-of-season exhibition and performance.
Marcus and fellow campers learned how to cruise and cull the Internet for images. Then they used Adobe Photoshop, with all its magnetic lassos, filters, and special effects, to create work that links the present to the past and that expresses their own identities.
Through Google Images Marcus discovered a portrait of two anonymous, slim young black men in fashionable 1920s dress. One had no leg. That intrigued him; it spoke to him of a trauma that the man must have undergone. What had happened? Where? Why?
The Hamden High student wants to be a dancer and has two strong, young legs propelling him in that direction. With Photoshop he “dragged” his own face onto the body of the one-legged man.
He did so right down the hall from where a first group of young adults have been training with ConnCAT to step into fields like phlebotomy and medical billing and administration.
The connection between the arts, technology, and finding a vocation for yourself in the world?
‘If you fill a place with sunlight, art, and beauty, it provides an intense level of hope, and purpose,” said ConnCAT Executive Director Erik Clemons.
The summer camp was divided up into units such as dance, writing and photography. The kids learned composition and technology. They studied the pictures of James Van Der Zee, one of the great Harlem Renaissance photographers.
Many of the kids had never heard of the Charleston, the Jitterbug or the Lindy Hop, said the digital technology instructor, Cody Norris. Now they have. They researched the moves and their origins. They visited the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem. Then they returned to Science Park and created their own digital dances, steeped in history.
Isaiah Allen made his composition superimposing his own face into a period portrait of jazz great Duke Ellington.
Tracy Lyons, another camper, superimposed his own face on that of a young black boy from the 1930s, in what appears to be a kind of Boy Scout recruiting image. “It was mind-changing” to do the work and learn about the Harlem Renaissance, he said. “It was hard to believe there were poets back then. It feels better, and connected. The Harlem Renaissance will never die, it will just get stronger.”
Two other students, Daniel Hunt and Tylon Ray, gave a reading of Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” interspersed with lyrics from the contemporary, if now dead, rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
Two other students, Jailynn Vidro and Joy Andrea recited a powerful spoken word call to arms, especially against misogyny. “Stop waiting for a miracle when you can invent one,” they said.
They called the camp experience a study of “the Harlem Renaissance and our own personal renaissance.”
“The biggest takeaway for me is there’s power in their [the kids’] voices and identities, and it starts with them,” said Frank Brady, the spoken word and poetry teacher. He built parts of his teaching on the curriculum developed at Urban Word NYC, whose aim is to harness poetry and poetry slams in the service of social justice.
The “Hi-De-Ho” of Cab Calloway and similar call-and-response styles of the Harlem performers are now laid into the “DNA” of today’s deejays, he said. These kids know now, in detail, how the past is currently connected to the present, he argued.
“It gave me a better feeling of what we all went through,” Marcus said.
Marcus’s mom, Judith Stovall, concurred: “Our kids live such sheltered lives. It became real to him. I think he [now] appreciates who he is and how hard he has to work, because he’s looked at as if he’s going to fail. We came out” of slavery into the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. She said and that’s an inspiration for her son to work even harder.
The arts- and writing-based curriculum, though not specifically with a Harlem Renaissance theme, is going to morph into an after-school program with a college-prep focus. It will begin in October. About 70 percent of the summer kids are expected to enroll, said the program director, Genevive Walker.
Marcus Stovall said he wasn’t sure if he’d be among them, but his mother and ConnCAT’s Erik Clemons had a different opinion.
“He’ll be here,” said Clemons.
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