DANBURY, Conn. — Lionel Bascom, a writing instructor at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, puts his own spin on the Harlem Renaissance in his new book, "Harlem: The Crucible of Modern African American Culture."
"The book took 18 months to write, but the research has been going on for about 10 years," the New Fairfield resident told Daily Voice.
In researching the book, Bascom found that not only has the Harlem Renaissance's cultural, social, and artistic explosion gone on much longer than just in the 1920s, it also lasted long enough to change his own life.
“When you read about the Harlem Renaissance, you believe it is a brief period where Harlem art scenes flourished until it disappeared in 1929. But what ended?" Bascom said.
"I can't get an answer. Thurgood Marshall was still in Harlem during his legal fight for desegregation. The Civil Right movement mounted in Harlem in the 1960s. Other leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League were based there," he said.
“I wondered, ‘Why 1929?’ I didn’t believe that number. No one seems to know when the Harlem Renaissance began. No one used the phrase ‘Harlem Renaissance’ until the ’40s. In the ’20s and ’30s no one wrote about this thing called the Harlem Renaissance.”
The dates are not as important as knowing that much of black culture in the United States happened in Harlem.
"When most people think of Harlem what comes to mind? The Cotton Club. Bojangles. Blacks weren't even allowed in the club during segregation," Bascom said.
And although the Great Depression caused residents of Midtown Manhattan to stop traveling uptown to Harlem for the famous music and culture, which caused many clubs and theaters to close, black intellectuals and artists such as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin continued to work there.
Activism found a home there and so did the birth of a national movement.
Then, when leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. called for a march on Washington in 1962, Bascom, then 16, who was the president of the Danbury NAACP Youth Group, got involved.
He got on a train in Danbury for Washington.
“When we got there, churches and organizations put us up. Howard University opened its dorms. We were only there overnight. They had water stations with buckets of water that we dipped our cups into — there was no bottled water. There were plenty of sandwiches and dinners at the churches, though. We left at 7 p.m. after the speeches, then came back to Danbury,” he said of that memorable trip.
“Harlem was always a special place for me,” said Bascom, who as a child spent weekends in Danbury with his parents and went to high school in Brooklyn, where his grandparents and brother lived.
He shined shoes at his brother’s barbershop for tips and learned his way around New York.
"Harlem was always a special place for me,” he said.
Bascom also writes of a new guard of black leadership who came to be known as “the New Negroes.” They openly campaigned against racism and segregation.
One of them was Marcus Garvey, a Black Nationalist who traveled around the country gathering raucous crowds with his sermon-like message.
He attracted a young man from Nebraska, Malcom Little, who later became famous as Malcolm X, a leader of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X drew large crowds, too, when he spoke in Harlem in the 1960s, a continuing example of the social imprint the neighborhood exerted on the U.S., even after the jazz clubs of the Harlem Renaissance closed.
“I thought this book was necessary because I wanted to say that when the music stopped playing, these people in Harlem were working toward justice,” Bascom said.
“It was a coming together of progressives who said, ‘We have got to change.'"
Bascom’s book, "Harlem: The Crucible of Modern African American Culture," is available online and at bookstores.