Review: Harlem Nocture by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocture: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II

by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Review from Good Reads

I couldn’t put this book down. It is a wonderful history that introduces readers to three amazing artist/activist women: Ann Petry, May-Lou Williams and Pearl Primus. She chronicles their artistry (with amazing detail), the vibrancy of a community, a culture of progressive opposition, and resistance movements within 1940s Harlem. Dr. Griffin’s prose transports readers into this moment, allowing one to picture, smell, and hear all that was happening in this moment – I found myself watching Petry dance, or listening to Williams, all while thinking about their collective challenges to white supremacy.

And while the book brings Primus’ dance, Petry’s word, and Williams’ music to life, she is equally successful in bringing the dynamism of 1940s Harlem, the post-war moment, the progressive struggles, and a burgeoning struggle for racial justice, for full citizenship, and recognition. into focus

Harlem Nocture highlights the daily challenges to white supremacy waged by these artists. She shows artistry as the outgrowth of the community, the politics of the moment, and collective experiences. Griffin writes, “New York beckoned, and they came. They gave it substance, word and music, dance and meaning. In turn, it gave them inspiration, a community, and an audience. It contributed to each one’s already strong sense of self. It gave them the world” (187). In this sense, Harlem Nocture is a story of 1940s and three amazing artists. But it is also explicitly a history of three black women whose artistry, experiences, and politics “fueled change” within the community and beyond. They “were agents, not spectators. They advocated for access to education, jobs, and adequate food and shelter. They were concerned with both racial and economic equality. They walked the streets of Harlem during the time that a young Baldwin walked those same streets” (9). This work offers a narrative of these inspiring artists, reminding readers of their “freedom dreams” and our own. Amazing history, amazing artists, and amazing book

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