Griffin (English/Columbia Univ.; If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, 2001) explores the brief period of opportunity in the 1940s when the remarkable talents of Pearl Primus, Ann Petry and Mary Lou Williams changed art and society.
Unlike the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, when people with talent flocked to Harlem, the war years fostered homegrown talent and enabled artists the freedom to mix their art with politics. The music, dance and writing of these three women, mixed with their politics, helped to usher in the modern civil rights movement. Four factors laid the foundation for this grand awakening: World War II, the second great migration from the South, the Popular Front in politics and culture, and the Double V Campaign. With Double V (Victory at Home and Abroad), black Americans insisted on their social and civil rights while fighting for their country overseas. The author meticulously shows how each woman used and expanded her art to increase awareness of a society that had been ignored and abused too long. Their extraordinary talents ensured that she would find abundant information about each, and Griffin effortlessly relates each story. All three women were associated with communist activities, but only Primus was an actual party member. In a period when class differences were finally being threatened, it was the communists who attracted the downtrodden and taught them how to affect politics with the tools at their disposal. Petry, Primus and Williams exposed the limits of the democracy of their time while unceasingly clinging to the firm belief that these wrongs could be righted.
An engaging biography of three remarkable women who taught art to reflect life.