To introduce the newest addition to our Vintage collection—a stunning, expressive artwork that captures the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance—we knew we wanted a fresh perspective. To begin with, the artist Charles Henry Alston is a monumental figure. The son of a man born into slavery, he went on to attend Columbia, became the first Black WPA supervisor, and his bronze of MLK became the first depiction of an African-American to be displayed in the White House! But beyond that, Alston also expertly wielded the newest art technologies of the late 1930s to present a positive image of Black triumph in a society largely intent on stifling such a thing.
Enter today's contributing writer, another multi-disciplinary wunderkind: filmmaker, academic, and community builder Gerald Jean-Baptiste. Among other achievements, Jean-Baptiste has expanded on his interest in the arts and media by co-producing Google SoulFest, a music festival and summit celebrating the intersections of Black Culture, Arts and Technology. Read his introduction to Harlem Street Scene below. — Team 20x200
Created by Charles Henry Alston in the late 1930s, Harlem Street Scene acts as a “day in the life” snapshot of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the great eras of economic, social, and cultural prosperity for African-Americans. The original lithograph was made as part of his work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a public program created to help combat unemployment. While at the WPA, Alston used those funds to gain access to sophisticated equipment and develop new techniques around printmaking and lithographs, resulting in rich images like today’s 20x200 release.
Harlem Street Scene resonated with me not only due to its vivid portrayal of Black life, but also for the deep respect that I have for Alston’s career. Alston and I both studied the arts. We both taught in our respective communities (Harlem and Miami), and leveraged art as a tool for empowerment. During my studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I explored how art and media play a key role in identity development for marginalized youth. This is what drove me to work at Google, because I knew that technology is critical to the spread and advancement of art. While at Google, I co-produced Google SoulFest, which celebrated the Black community’s ability to shape arts and culture, and acknowledged the value of their innovative utilization of technology.
Alston not only pushed the boundaries of printmaking, but deployed his art to portray Black life in America. His works for the WPA feature black sharecroppers, city scenes, unemployment lines, laborers, children in parks, industry, and social issues like poverty and lynching. This is what makes his art remarkable; he not only experimented with the technology around image-making, but used his innovation to provide a new perspective on race, class, and society. He used the lithograph to pay homage to the Harlem Renaissance, but also to expand the imagination of his audience.
Throughout history, artists from the African Diaspora have been renowned for their ability to push their respective mediums and reimagine how the art form could be used. The Black experience can’t be codified simply in a book, a movie, a painting, or a song—the Black artist transforms how their respective medium is used. This is how Black art can be a tool of liberation, because it promotes the message of freedom in its mere engagement. Alston continued this legacy by not only turning the lithograph into a canvas of the Harlem Renaissance, but simultaneously creating a vehicle for escapism for those trying to imagine a new reality.
Charles Henry Alston was considered a “Race Man” throughout his academic and professional career. He fought for the advancement of African-Americans through his commitment to education, political activism, and using his art as a platform to portray all facets of African-American life. Harlem Street Scene used the cutting-edge technology of the time to paint a new image of the Black experience in America. New technologies such as streaming and social media have augmented the impact of artists, expediting the spread of their artistry to a global scale. As new mediums continue to emerge for artists to use, new ways to envision freedom and liberation will follow.
Though a lithograph may seem obsolete today, pieces like Alston’s Harlem Street Scene could inspire new works of art—digital or analog—where equity is commonplace. Due to technological advances, spaces of inclusion and imagination can now exist beyond the borders of the seven continents. The artist of today can imagine the eighth continent.
About Our Guest Author
Gerald Jean-Baptiste hails from the great city of Miami and is of proud Haitian descent. Gerald had the privilege to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and received his Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA) in Film and Television in 2012. As an emerging filmmaker, Gerald has directed various shorts, and his most notable work is his thesis film entitled “The Choice”. This film tells the story of a low-income teenager from Brooklyn combating peer pressure and bullying in the academic setting. The Choice won best undergraduate screenplay and third place overall at the 2014 First Run Film Festival.
After Gerald completed his studies at NYU, he felt impassioned to return to Miami to improve the education system in his hometown. Gerald was then inducted as a 2012 Teach For America Miami-Dade Corps Member and placed at Miami Edison Senior High. He had the fortune of teaching English Language Learners at Miami Edison, many of whom were recent Haitian immigrants. Gerald then received a master's degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a focus on Arts in Education.
Gerald currently works at Google as an Account Manager at the Google Los Angeles office, working in the Media and Entertainment Division. Gerald’s commitment to creativity, innovation, and strategy have been the core tenets of his career. He hopes to leverage his experiences to foster creativity and inclusion in the workplace.