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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Community

Augusta Savagae working on The Harp, 1937
Image of Community, 1939
- Augusta Savage, Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp), plaster sculpture, 1939 (PDF)

In the accounts of the Dixie brothers (see #3: Community and Self-Help) we see the extent to which self-help, self-reliance, and close-knit cohesion characterized the black community. Artist Augusta Savage (1892-1962) embodied those virtues in her sculpture Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp). Savage was born in Florida into a large and poor family. She developed a talent for sculpture at an early age and in 1919 won a county fair award for her work. Unable to support herself as an artist in Florida, she moved to New York in 1921, where she briefly studied at Cooper Union. She held various menial jobs until she was commissioned to do a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois. She followed that with a series of busts depicting other African American leaders, which won her considerable recognition among the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1923 she hoped to study in Europe under a fellowship from the French government but was turned down when the selection committee discovered she was black. She eventually got the opportunity to study in France and travel throughout Europe in 1930-31. Upon returning, she continued to sculpt but also began a long career as an influential teacher of art.

In what turned out to be her last commission she was hired to do a sculpture for the New York World's Fair of 1939. Taking her inspiration from the black national anthem, she created a sixteen-foot-tall plaster sculpture. A muscular male figure, clad only in pants and boots and either kneeling or rising, gazes downward to a plaque in his hands on which are inscribed the first notes of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Directly behind him stands a column of singing children in choir robes. Their faces look outward in different directions, just as their individual size and detail diminish steadily. This series of figures forms the outline of a harp, united in a base crafted both as a forearm and a hand. Thus the visual image melds with its symbolic content. Like much art of the World's Fair, the sculpture was destroyed when the Fair closed. (1 page.)

Discussion questions
  1. What does the fluting of the twelve upright figures suggest?
  2. What do the arm and hand suggest?
  3. What effect does the decreasing size of the upright figures have upon the work?
  4. What does their decreasing size suggest?
  5. What does the front figure represent?
  6. What is the relationship between the front figure and the other twelve?
  7. How does one's interpretation of the kneeling/rising front figure affect the interpretation of the entire work?
  8. How does the sculpture represent community?
  9. What community values does it represent?
  10. Compare Lift Every Voice and Sing to Reginald Gammon's painting Freedom Now in Theme III: PROTEST.
  11. What is the significance of Lift Every Voice and Sing's display at an international exposition?

Framing Questions
  •  How has the African American community defined itself?
  •  How has the African American community functioned in the lives of its members?
  •  How have changing notions of African American identity affected definitions of African American community?

The Harp: 1 page

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Augusta Savage working on The Harp in her studio, 1937, photograph by Morgan and Marvin Smith, 1936. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Permission pending.

1. Community as Place   2. Community on Film
  3. Community & Self-Help   4. Image, Community 1939   5. Race as Community
6. Community & the Folk   7. Community & Memory
8. Community & Culture   9. Image, Community 1968   10. Global Community

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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Revised: February 2017