NEW YORK—Each time actor and activist Danny Glover passes the 135th Street YMCA, he reminisces of the days that the cultural hub used to host and house Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, and actors such as Ossie Davis and Paul Robeson.
“I’m reminded of how art reflects so many things, [like] the role that it plays in the development of human beings,” said Glover at a Harlem Arts Alliance (HAA) awards ceremony on Oct.1.
“The purpose of art and culture is to find the best of who we are as human beings, and embellish it, so that we not only live in the past but look to it for the present and create a new presence.”
Some may think of the Harlem Renaissance as an era that ended 80 years ago, or a movement that has become stagnant in modern times—but not so for Glover. He was celebrating the continuation of the profound impact artists play in the black community at the City College of New York’s Aaron Davis Hall, on the very stage Nelson Mandela spoke during his first trip to the United States.
The organization awarded the HAA’s Humanitarian Award to Glover, an actor and a political and humanitarian activist. Vy Higginsen, a producer and publisher, and Mikki Shepard, executive producer for the Apollo Theaters, also received awards at the event.
HAA, a nonprofit organization, has been helping artists in Harlem and throughout greater New York grow and find funding for 10 years. In an area that is notorious for high crime rates and drug abuse, it is all the more crucial to preserve its cultural history and maintain the renaissance’s momentum.
“The arts can absolutely bring down crime and poverty,” said Kim George, associate director of the HAA. “The ability to create is tapping into energy in oneself that is creative and not destructive. … [It’s] deterring those types of activities.”
HAA is holding a weeklong series of free performances and screenings that encourage the arts in Harlem and other communities of color.
Tami Tyree, the founder of Echoes of our Ancestors, conducts workshops, lectures, and concerts that educate people on African-American history and music.
“The HAA has been an invaluable resource for artists, helping you get your dreams off the ground,” she said.
In 2010, HAA granted Tyree the funds to visit Fisk University, a predominantly African-American liberal arts and science college in Nashville, Tenn. It was only in Fisk that she could find the original scores of Thomas Dorsey, a famed gospel musician (1899–1993).
For Tyree, her work is all about incorporating history and sociology with music. “Music comes from within, it’s so much more than notes on a page,” she said. “It comes out of experience, and if you are not rooted in the experience, your music is not authentic.”
“I’m a music historian, so it meant a lot that I was able to go there, study, and bring back [Dorsey’s] sheet music,” Tyree said.
Continuing the LegacyOne may wonder why no more Hugheses or Robesons have emerged from the YMCA since then, but George, argues that they have emerged through a different medium.
“We need to maneuver in the 21st century. We need to use the appropriate methods and tools to communicate,” she said, emphasizing the works of Vy Higginsen, Mikki Shepard, and Danny Glover.
“I’d like to think a new renaissance is emerging,” said Kenneth Knuckles, CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.
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