Faculty Q&A: Farah Griffin Examines Three Pioneering Women Artists in 1940s Harlem

Editor's note:

The following is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared on Columbia News on September 30, 2013. Griffin is now the Chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia.

Wilson Valentin (Columbia News)
February 01, 2021

When Farah Griffin asked her mother what she remembered about World War II, her response was, “All the handsome soldiers who drove the buses in Philadelphia.” Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English, Comparative Literature and African American Studies, was perplexed. Then she thought, of course, she was a teenager, she remembers handsome young men! It was only while researching her new book set during the period, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II, that Griffin put it all together: During the war, white transit workers went on strike over integration of their union, causing a nationwide uproar, and black soldiers were brought in by the federal government to drive the buses.

The 1940s have always held a special allure for Griffin, who grew up hearing “stories about the era that just made it very interesting to me, very glamorous and mysterious,” she says. While researching the book, she unearthed lots of evidence of the many anecdotes and stories her mom had shared. Griffin, whose previous works have focused on Billie Holiday and other jazz greats, says her mother has also always been one of her most important early readers. This was especially true in the case of Harlem Nocturne, which is dedicated to her mother.

Q. One of the things you teach is African American studies. Is your approach strictly historical or do you also look at contemporary culture?

Contemporary racial issues always come up in my classes, even though my classes are very historically based. My approach is to tackle a question with the resources of a number of different disciplines. I teach literature as well but from a historical basis. What I try to give my students is a long view, a historical context for the things that they see happening. I hope that after having been in my class they understand where things fit historically so that they can engage in conversations about contemporary issues with the kind of knowledge that will make their analysis and understanding much richer.

Q. We often hear about Harlem in the context of the 1920s-era Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance. What was happening in Harlem in the ’40s, the period you explore in your book?

The Harlem Renaissance is perhaps the most popular historical period for people who are interested in the history of Harlem or African American studies because it was so vibrant. The 1940s were just as exciting in many ways – Harlem had come through the Depression, which brought with it a kind of radical politics that had always been there but became more prominent as people tried to address the economic devastation that the community had suffered. So we have the remains of that kind of radical politics in the ’40s, but also a new sense of possibility as the country goes to war—a war for democracy, a war against fascism. African Americans begin to press for their own rights, and Harlem is central to that.

Read the full interview at Columbia News.