Harlem Renaissance


BETTY BOOP - The Original Story

Ms. Esther Jones, known by her stage name, “Baby Esther,” was an African-American singer and entertainer of the late 1920s. She performed regularly at the (The Cotton Club) in Harlem.

Ms. Jones singing style went on to become the inspiration for Max Fleischer cartoon character’s voice and singing style of “Betty Boop”.

YES: “Betty Boop” was a black woman. 

Singer Helen Kane saw her act in 1928 and copied it, stole it. Ms. Jones’ “trademark” singing style for a recording of, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” with interpolated words such as ‘Boo-Boo-Boo’ & 'Doo-Doo-Doo’ in her songs at a cabaret was a style all her own. 

An early test sound film was also discovered, which featured Baby Esther performing in this style, disproving Kane’s claims. During the $250,000 infringement lawsuit, Esther’s manager testified that , “Helen Kane & her manager saw Baby’s act somewhere between 1928-1929.Baby Esther’s manager also testified that Helen Kane had saw Baby Esther’s cabaret act in 1928." 

Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled: "The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force”. In his opinion, the “baby” technique of singing did not originate with Kane.

As an added note, scholar Robert G.O'Meally said, Betty Boop, the WHITE CARTOON character herself had, as it were, a BLACK grandmother in her background. 

Baby Esther was presumed dead by 1934, just when the lawsuit had ended.

On Rachel Dolezal

This Rachel Dolezal situation is all sorts of fucked up (and hilarious imo). But since I heard about her, I can’t stop thinking about the history of white women trying to “pass” for black in order to co-opt the struggles black people faced, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance. I don’t recall any of them going to quite the same lengths as Dolezal, though Lillian Wood, author of “Let My People Go,” was believed to be a black woman for some time and just…never corrected anyone. 

During the Harlem Renaissance, there was a pretty active group of white women who basically moved to Harlem and basically forced themselves into black social spaces, calling themselves “voluntary Negroes”. They made themselves “authorities” on black issues, collected black art and commissioned work from Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston for photos and papers on “authentic” black life, and in some cases, really did consider themselves to be black at heart: Nancy Cunard, “I speak as if I were a Negro myself,” and Charlotte Good Mason, “I am a better Negro than most of the Negroes I know.”  (Mason would also make her patrons, including Hughes and Hurston, refer to her as “Godmother”.) This phenomena was discussed in Carla Kaplan’s needlessly empathetic book Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Harlem Renaissance, published in 2013, that more or less paints them as forward-thinking revolutionaries…

These women fetishized the experiences of black men and women to the point that they convinced themselves they intimately knew what it meant to be black–and even become black themselves.  Because most of these women were wealthy and privileged, they exerted power over these black artists who were often just trying to make ends meet. Without their financial contributions, a lot of the work we enjoy from these writers especially would likely have not seen publication. 

They used Harlem artists as textbooks and walked away with only the most basic, surface ideas of a “black identity” that was built on stereotypes. Similar, as I suspect, to Dolezal, this kind of mimicry has less to do with a genuine desire to aid the struggle for civil rights, and more to with a desire to enjoy “exotic” black culture while co-opting blacks’ oppression for their own purposes. I also feel that in many cases, this has to do with some white women/peoples’ issues of privilege and wanting to align themselves with oppressed minorities, so that they may claim that oppression for themselves and deny their own racial privilege.

There isn’t a ton of scholarship on the subject, unfortunately. (If anyone has addt’l links they want to add, please feel free.) I’m mostly going off of what I learned from an amazing professor I had, Autumn Womack, who taught us about the role white women had during the renaissance. I’ve linked to a video of her giving a lecture on the subject below; it’s definitely worth the watch. 

Some links:

Uptown Girls: “Miss Anne in Harlem” by Carla Kaplan -NYTimes

Women Without Race: Miss Anne in Harlem - The Daily Beast

The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes “Slave on the Block” from The Ways of White Folk

Artist Lecture Series - Autumn Womack [on White Patronage in the Harlem Renaissance]



– Most known for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s

– Considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, a time in which African American art reached new heights not just in New York but across America.

– Specialized in portraiture and saw it “as a means of affirming racial respect and race pride.

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Images from the Almost There sequence in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. The Almost There animated sequence was inspired by and styled after the artwork of Aaron Douglas (the last three images are works of his). Douglas was one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance.


Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Crash Course Literature 215

In which John Green teaches you about the poetry of Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes was a poet and playwright in the first half of the 20th century, and he was involved in the Harlem Renaissance, which was a cultural movement among African Americans of the time that produced all kinds of great works in literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, and other areas. The Harlem Renaissance mainly happened in Harlem, the traditionally black neighborhood in upper Manhattan in New York City. Langston Hughes was primarily known as a poet, but he was involved deeply in the movement itself as well. John will teach you a bit about Hughes’s background, and he’ll examine a few of his best known poems.

Harold Jackman (1901-1961) the public schoolteacher and patron of the arts best known as a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in an undated photograph (likely 1920s) by Max Ewing and in 1940 by his friend Carl Van Vechten. Mr. Jackman was born in London to a mother from Barbados and a German father and arrived in the United States as a toddler. He earned a bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1923 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1927. Mr. Jackman is usually noted for his relationships with Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, especially Countee Cullen. Mr. Jackman and Mr. Cullen met while attending DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City and remained friends until Mr. Cullen’s death in 1946. Arna Bontemps once noted how they were commonly referred to as the “David and Jonathan of the Harlem Twenties” because of their close relationship and Langston Hughes famously wrote Mr. Bontemps that he was still laughing at the headline in a black newspaper that ran after Mr. Cullen and Mr. Jackman sailed to Paris just two months after his lavish wedding to Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois, “Groom Sails With Best Man.”

Mr. Jackman maintained his position as a high school social studies teacher in the New York public school system for more than thirty years. During that time, he built an impressive memorabilia collection which theater programs, sheet music, manuscripts and audio tapes. He began donating portions of his collection to Atlanta University in the 1920s and encouraged influential friends like Langston Hughes to do the same. The collection Mr. Jackman amassed along with his vast personal letter collection have been invaluable to later scholars of African American culture and the Harlem Renaissance. He also helped Mr. Van Vechten build the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale University. He was also a member of the executive board and the historian for the Negro Actors Guild, an organization co-founded by Fredi Washington (best known for her role in the 1934 film version of “Imitation of Life”) for the benefit of black performers. When Mr. Cullen died at the age of 42 in 1946, Mr. Jackman requested that his collection be named the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection. It was renamed the Countee Cullen-Harold Jackman Collection when Mr. Jackman died in 1961. Photos: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library


Josephine Baker, a.k.a. Freda Josephine McDonald, June 3, 1906 - April 12, 1975.

Badassness: Josephine grew up poor in St. Louis, Missouri, dropping out of school at 13 to be a busker and supporting herself with her dancing. At 15 she joined a vaudeville show and then moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance to perform in Broadway revues. She found her home and fame in Paris, where she was adored for her erotic dancing and performances at the Folies Bergère. She also starred in 3 French films.

Everything this woman did was badass: she was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture (Zouzou), adopted 12 children from all over the world, owned a pet cheetah named Chiquita (as well as a pet gorilla, pig and goat, parrot, monkeys, mice, and snakes), and was close friends with Grace Kelly, a.k.a. Princess Grace of Monaco. She was also active in the US civil rights movement, speaking at the March on Washington and leveraging her position as a popular entertainer to boycott segregated venues.

To top it all, Josephine was a spy for the French Resistance in World War II. She would gather information about German troops movements at society parties, and would carry intelligence info around Europe written in invisible ink on her sheet music, or pinned to her underwear. After the war Jospehine received medals of honor and was made a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor.

Bisexuality: Josephine was confirmed as bisexual by her son, Jean-Claude Baker, in his book, Josephine: The Hungry Heart. Josephine was married 4 times. Although secretive about her relationships with women during her lifetime, 7 of her relationships with women have since been confirmed (including fellow badass bisexual Frida Kahlo), and she was rumored to have had dozens more affairs with people of various genders. In fact, she was so loved that two men once dueled over her with swords in a cemetery (no one died - she let them fight for a while and then calmed them down).

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