Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences
Minutes of the CAAS 1418th Meeting
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
at New Haven Lawn Club, Yale University
Lecture by Robert Stepto, Professor of English, American Studies and African American Studies at Yale University
Some 35 members and guests attended the lecture and 22 stayed for dinner. President Ernest Kohorn called the meeting to order at 5:30 pm. There were no announcements. President Kohorn then introduced the evening’s speaker, Robert Stepto, Professor of English, American Studies and African American Studies at Yale University. Professor Stepto has published extensively in the field of early African American narratives, as well as the American Renaissance authors, the New Negro Renaissance, African American fiction, to mention just a few. He has a particular interest in and appreciation for book art. His topic was: American Artists and the African American Book.
The audience was treated to a range of book illustration art in the field of African American literature, starting with a picture from an 1899 publication. In 1925, The New Negro, an anthology of fiction, poetry and essays was published, covering works by such writers as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois. The original issue was illustrated with a number of photographs, many of them by a German American photographer named Winold Reiss. The book contained 37 portraits of people in Harlem. When reprinted in the 60s, the illustrations were not included. One can only guess as to the reason. Professor Stepto presented a range of works published through the 30’s, 40’s and up to the present time. The illustrators included Aaron Douglas, E. Simms Campbell, Charles Cullen and Sterling Brown. Douglas created the book plate for The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, as well as God’s Trombone… Charles Cullen did the cover for Copper Sun. (no relation to Countee Cullen, though they co-operated on several works.) E. Simms Campbell’s work was featured in every year of the first 25 years of publication of Esquire and his work set the tone for today’s cartoon art. He created stunning figures of African American style and culture. Sterling Brown adds critical realism to the literature and some of his books were illustrated by E. Simms Campbell. New urbanites included Richard Wright and his contemporaries. During the 30s and 40s, pictures now depict the urban metropolis and the migration to the north. One of the photographers from this era was Russell Lee, who’s Negro Cabaret photo, taken in Chicago, illustrates the societal issues of the time, depicting young light-skinned women as scantily clad dancers, a white audience sitting in the more expensive seats closest to the stage, with varying other levels of audience in less expensive parts of the salon in what appears to be a “separate by equal” order of things. An interesting, colorful and moving experience that brought to life the importance of illustrations and their relationship to works they enhance.
The books featured in Professor Stepto’s presentation are all in the Beinecke Library, and he encouraged the audience to go there and see them in person. The audience had several questions of Professor Stepto about the collection, book illustrations and ways to interpret some of the material he had shown. The Academy is grateful to Professor Stepto for an enlightening and inspiring presentation.