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Farah Griffin conjures up Harlem’s heroines of the 1940’s

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Format: hardcover, 2013, http//, ,

& Kindle available

Full title: Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists of Progressive Politics During World War II

Author: Farah Jasmine Griffin

Genre: World history, Black history, Black, female history

**Fascinating note: Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor of English and comparative literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she has served as director of the Institute for Research in African American studies. In addition to editing several collections of letters and essays she is the author of Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative (Oxford, 1995), If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (Free Press, 2001) and Clawing At the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever (Thomas Dunne, 2008).

*Background info:



Synopsis: Readers will find that this book engages the scope and impact of a war upon a people, gender, culture, city, country, and world. The author, Farah Jasmine Griffin, is an African American scholar that manages to communicate a period and a time in the lives of three, influential, female figures. Before presenting the heroines of her text, she acclimatizes readers to the era and tempo of Harlem within the 1940’s. We are gently thrust into the pre-civil rights era through the background information that she generously provides. The Harlem, of the old New York, was a mecca for Black artists, creators, and migrants escaping the Jim Crowism which dwelled down past the Mason- Dixon line of America. Hungry for opportunity and a better life they came..... the heroines …..Pearl Primus, Ann Petry, and Mary Lou Williams. Each of these women was distinctly different and they represented a different facet of the aesthetic and political landscape of Harlem during this era.

Pearl Primus arrived in Harlem to engraved her name upon the historical texts of dance. And it was through dance that she illustrated the journey of her people and gender from Jim Crowism to the Promised Land of the northern, urban cities. The famed Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus were contemporaries that were often contrasted and compared by the critics of the time.

Ann Petry used the printed word as a canvas for painting a picture of the struggles of Black urbanites. Fiction was often Petry’s medium of choice. Yet, as editor, columnist, and short story writer, she expanded her influence to convey the sentiments of her people.

Mary Lou Williams cultivated a voice and a career through music. She commenced to write, arrange, and play the piano. Harlem was the ideal place for her to merge musical voices and aesthetic aspirations with contemporaries Billie Holiday, 3 Deuces, and Duke Ellington.

Farah Jasmine Griffin brings the heroines of Harlem of the 1940’s back to life. Devotees of the history of Harlem, New York, will enjoy and learn much through this book.

Critique: Harlem Nocturne (2013) is a rare, literary gem. Farah Jasmine Grifffin carves a niche for herself celebrating the unknown heroes of her gender. The book is easy to read and it does not encumber the reader with mounds of data. I did feel, at times, that I wanted more information. But, this is not a work geared exclusively for academics. The merger of the romantic, the personal, and the historical worked well under Professor Griffin’s crafting. I do recommend this book to historians and laymen (and laywomen) too.


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