MHC Seminar 1, Professor Casey Henry

Category: Brooks, Womack, and Studio Museum (Page 1 of 2)

Victor Studio Musuem

The Studio Museum has many powerful influences that have shaped the world of Harlem art. Kenneth wiley is a very skilled painter who depicts people in a new light which allows for social commentary. His skill in the compositions is shown by his ability to balance the frame with contrast of light and dark and well placed colors which bring out the subjects and their place. The subjects always have a very powerful expression and the composition usually features a lot of vibrant saturated  colors. The compositions draw from history to show social commentary.

Womback states, “Because of how the situation was for black people in America at that time, there were a lot of struggle songs around. It seemed to be something that really moved the people around me. I felt the power of music to raise people up; to make them angry or proud.”. This song, and Womack, has a vision to highlight what Harlem was and may always be regardless of the movements it may undergo. In the song it notes,

Across 110th Street
Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak
Across 110th Street
Pushers won’t let the junkie go free
Across 110th Street
Woman trying to catch a trick on the street
Across 110th Street
You can find it all in the street

This form of visualization Womack provides is what many assume Harlem truly is.  With “Woman trying to catch a trick on the street”, Harlem is shone under a negative light, one that is engrained in American’s minds whether gentrification succeeds or not. Womack, however, accepts this image and embraces what it represents. He confirms that Harlem’s negatives exists and it shaped Harlem and its citizens in to what they are now.

The Weary Blues exposes another, more heart wrenching view on the people of Harlem. It states, “With his ebony hands on each ivory key. He made that poor piano moan with melody.” Hughes displays the extreme pain these people go through using a medium that captures their gloom well. With the melancholy sounds of Jazz, it gives Harlem a softer edge; that not every one is a criminal, but people in torment.




Studio Museum

After reading Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues” and listening to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street,” I understood that both of these works depicted the difficult early life experiences of African Americans in New York City. The places in which people of color lived in is hinted as being marginal and at times even dangerous. In “Across 110th Street,” Bobby Womack tells the life of a character living in Harlem. The character is said to be “the third brother of five” who had to do whatever was at reach in order to survive. The character of the song goes on to explain the difficult reality of living in Harlem with the lines “Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight/ You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure.” In “Weary Blues” a character listens to the singing of an African American “down on Lenox Avenue.” The man sings about his dissatisfaction with life, and how being alone made him long for death.


While looking through the works of art on display in the “We Go As They” exhibit at the Studio Museum, one artist that captured my attention was Andy Robert. Robert’s Check II Check work depicts a check cashier in Harlem near the museum. Reading the depiction of the painting helped me understand the possible motives behind the authors choice of focus for Check to Check. By making the check cashier place the main focal point of the painting in Harlem, Robert perhaps wanted to get across the idea that people in Harlem get ready day after day for what will come. Financially, making a living is does not come without its problems. The painting captures the vibrancy of Harlem at night on Malcom X Boulevard with bright, almost glowing, colors that create a sense of change in the neighborhood from the previous descriptions of Langston Hughes and Bobby Womack. With Check II Check, Robert in this was is able to capture the life in Harlem today. By walking the streets of Harlem today, one is able to appreciate the evolution of the neighborhood through the countless of new businesses running as well as through the greater diversity of the people living in the area.

Womack, Studio Museum, and Harlem

Womack and the culture-rich exhibit at the Studio Museum both exhibit a quality of Harlem that is unapologetic in its level of ecclesiastic allure and shows pride in the culture that has arisen in its prime. Of course, the wealthier southern half of New York City tends to view anything past 110th Street as something of a “ghetto” wasteland, whereas the term ghetto’s meaning is not something for them to define or characterize in the first place. Bob Womack’s song Across 110th Street serves to convey this outsider-looking-in attitude held by the wealthy businessmen and “fine arts” that take their home in Midtown while the upper half of Manhattan’s art and business remains totally stigmatized. This was conveyed in a majority of the pieces in the Studio Museum, depicting Harlem culture as something of an inside joke that only Harlemites understand, and celebrating this closed space they have built for themselves. Of course, this didn’t sugar coat Harlem at all, and the mess of metropolitan imagery layered with dark, austere colors in some of the image conveys some of the darkness in the area, but rather than shun or disregard that darkness, it incorporated it into the art and made something of an artistic yin-yang balance that reflected that of Harlem itself.

Brooks, Womack, and Studio Museum

In Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”  the main theme is one of survival and leaving Harlem. Womack mainly sings about the need to “break out of the ghetto” and brings up the drugs and other bad things that go on there thus, portraying well the desperate situation in Harlem in his times. I liked how he sings about it in a very matter of fact way without emotions involved.

“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks portrays in a very concise manner the life in Harlem by talking about specifics. The poem tells us it is considered cool to drop out of school, “lurk late…thin gin” and so on. The last line “We die soon” conveys the hopelessness of the whole situation.  “The Weary Blues” is similar in that it also portrays the hopelessness but in an emotional way without specific examples of life in the streets.  Hughes uses words such as “drowsy”, “lazy sway”, “old piano moan” to make the mood one of depression. It is especially sad when he “heard that Negro sing….I ain’t happy no mo’ and I wish that I had died.” In both poems it seems that there is no way to escape the miserable situation in Harlem unlike in “Across 110th street” where Womack sings about such a possibility though it may be difficult.

Representations of Harlem

          Each piece– We Real Cool, The Weary Blues, and Across 110th Street– depicts a different side of Harlem that all shares the same setting, the streets. Across 110th Street almost seems like a summary of all the pieces, as it discusses the various interactions in Harlem and their meaning. Many interactions are somewhat criminal, as he discusses pimps and drug pushers. It also depicts Harlem as a tough area filled with many challenges. For example when he says “you don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure.  Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester” he shows that Harlem is a place that many face pressures and have to act accordingly. These lyrics are paired with an upbeat and spirited tune, perhaps depicting that Harlem may be tough but it is a magical place that is a home to many people. This song captures the physical space of Harlem through its lyrical meaning and musical undertones.

          The poem We Real Cool also captures the street in Harlem, but in a more specific way than in Across 110th Street. We Real Cool discusses the life of young men on the streets. After dropping out of school these seven young men are now pool players who operate on the streets, “We Lurk late. We Strike straight.” It also discusses how the life of the streets is short-lived as the author states “We Jazz June. We Die soon.” Brooks in this poem, similar to Womack in his song, depicts the physical streets of Harlem and the people who occupy it, representing the streets of Harlem. 

          Lastly, Hughes’ The Weary Blues depicts the music of the streets, another way to capture the physical space of Harlem that is different, yet similar, to the depiction in Womack’s song and Brooks’ poem. According to Hughes, the music of Harlem is one that is spiritual, sad and desolate, as well as neverending. This can be seen through Hughes’ word choices of “Coming from a black man’s soul. O Blues!”, “He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool”, and “The singer stopped playing and went to bed While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.” Perhaps this is symbolic of the streets of Harlem which can be spiritual, sad and raggy, as well as neverending. All three artists capture the physical space of Harlem and perhaps the black experience in Manhattan.

The structure of the poem “We Real Cool” relates an uncertainty of the identity of these pool players. There is some conflict, or some confusion, in how they are seen by Gwendolyn Brooks or how they see themselves. The rhythm of the poem draws us into the dimly lit, smoky pool hall, and we are immediately told that this is “cool.” These boys have fun in their relaxed lifestyle, no school or work to get up for in the morning, just staying out all night drinking and dancing. Their life is desirable, we think, until the poem ends. “We die soon.” Our perception is flipped, and we see the difficult lifestyle of inner-city kids, a vision in agreement with Bobby Womack’s Harlem. He creates an image of a dangerous place, a ghetto that is difficult to break out of. Womack also comments on the institutional formation of ghettos in the line “The family on the other side of town would catch hell without a ghetto around” – the upper-class inhabitants of Manhattan or any city like New York, look down on the ghettos, but it is their control of government and finances that creates the ghettos. This alternate view of cities, the lower-class and, in Harlem, the black perspective, is present anywhere: “In every city you find the same thing going down, Harlem is the capital of every Ghetto town.”

Brooks, Womack, and Studio Museum

The text brings out the idea of surviving and living. Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”  supplies vivid images  of Harlem having streets busy with activities like drug dealing, alcohol, soliciting, etc. While these activities are looked down upon, Womack’s lyrics portray these as activities people do to survive

“You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure
Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester”

and that to live in these streets you have to be strong which is stated in the following lines, “You’ve got to be strong, if you want to survive,” and in the lines, “Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak,” or “Pushers won’t let the junkie go free,” implying that those with a weak will won’t endure in these streets.

On the other hand, if you pair it up with Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” which describes a black man who lost his purpose and will to live then the mentioned activities are not just survival but also the last thread that keeps them living.

And yet in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” you get the sense that they are also living in the streets as they go about life without a care and enjoying themselves. Even in Womack’s lines

“Hey brother, there’s a better way out
Snorting that coke, shooting that dope man you’re copping out
Take my advice, it’s either live or die”

The singer recognizes that there is more to life than what is being handed to them and that its best to live and work for it than to die waiting. Even Brooks’ states this in the last lines, “We Jazz June. We Die soon.”

Harlem is full of busy streets and people struggling but they are also holding on and living.

Studio Museum

“You can find it all in the street”. This lyric/sentence in Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” stood out to me the most. This can be interpreted as it literally states that you can find it all in the streets of not only Harlem, but New York City as well. There are both positive and negative connotations to finding it “all in the streets”. The negatives are the drugs, gang activities, prostitution, etc. While I believe that there’s more positive than negatives, I came to a realization that people don’t often recognize and acknowledge the issues in the city. The resident artists in the We Go as They exhibit at the Studio Museum carries different messages and feelings through their paintings. The one that stuck out the most to me as Andy Robert’s Call II Mecca, Oil on linen. It was a large art piece combined from six smaller pieces. On each of them, I noted the chunks of paint throughout where some places are heavier than other. And the words “metropo”, shortened from Metro Police.

An interesting piece I really liked at the Studio Museum was Miatta Kawinzi’s Streetspeak.

The hands and fingers in the artwork point towards the phrase “my sista”. I enjoy this work mainly because of the “family” feeling that it gives off by the artist in Harlem. I take note of that familiarity with the members of the community walking down the streets of Harlem, where many people seem to know each other. In a sense, they are like each other’s “sista” and even brother.

Studio Museum

In his song, “Across 110th Street,” Bobby Womack relays the rough and ready lifestyle of Harlem. He takes on issues relating to drugs, crime and prostitution, eventually singing how “In every city you find the same thing going down,” but how “Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town.” I remember when I chose to go to college here, my mom was pretty critical of my decision. She was marked with shame when she told her friends I was going to school in Harlem. Why couldn’t it be Fordham? or NYU? or some other preppy school with unreasonable tuition rates? Because I’d rather have a house than student loans. That’s why the line “ The family on the other side of town, Would catch hell without a ghetto around,” resonated so much to me because back in Staten Island, I rarely experienced any accounts of crime or danger. With Harlem, I’ll see some instances of crime, but as weird as it is to say, I’ve grown accustomed to the nitty gritty lifestyle and actually really like it. I love the liveliness of 125th Street, and walking out the the train station never knowing what to expect. This feeling is best represented in Andy Robert’s “Check II Check” oil canvas painting.

The painting displays a crowded yet lively scene of individuals bustling about a street. The painting really portrays your average outing on 125th street: the line of street vendors, the overly excited children running about, the blaring music from radios, the pounding of drums by musicians, the occasional catcalls from guys leaning against the wall, and the frantic individuals (such as myself) who are just going about their business.  All in all, Harlem isn’t just a place, it’s an experience.

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