Black Girls Explore the Jazz Age?

I’d heard lots of good things about the exhibit Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s since it opened in September. The Roaring Twenties,  particularly the Harlem Renaissance, has been one of my favorite eras since college. I’d hope to see the exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) before it closed January 14th.


What solidified my commitment to go was the December 16 panel discussion, Beyond Glamour: Considering Race and Inequality in an Era of Opulence featuring Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative art and design, Key Jo Lee, CMA Assistant Director of Academic Outreach, and Mordecai Cargill from Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

Each panelist brought to light sobering aspects of this exciting era the casual museum visitor might fail to realize because of the luxury filling the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall.

Harrison pointed out the overt and covert racism that marked the era:

  • All black entertainment existed for whites-only audiences in famous establishments like Harlem's Cotton Club.
  • The not-so-obvious plantation undertone of the Cotton Club’s antebellum-esque interior design.
  • The 1925 Ku Klux Klan march in Washington D.C.
  • The so-called acceptance of blacks outside of America highlighting the impact of jazz music, Josephine Baker, and other aspects of black culture in Europe, particularly Paris.

Lee shared an image of a topsy-turvy doll representing how the unnatural division between black and white womanhood became naturalized during that time.


Cargill spoke about “the New Negro Movement”, the influence of black nationalism, how Harlem (and our beloved Cleveland) became the crucible of black culture. Yet despite the glitz, the glamour, the progress, the transformation, our presence, and influence, in the U.S. we could not get into places where our culture could.  


Too bad the panel was a one-time event. I believe it prepared me to explore the exhibit through a wider lens than I might have had if I hadn't attended. (Side Note: Do a little homework before going. It helps to have context and insight. Read Stephen Harris's interview in the Collective Arts Network Journal.)

I walked through the exhibit hall slowly. I wanted to take it all in. I gazed at everything and even read all the captions to gain a broader perspective of the era. Style, detail, and excitement stood out to me. 

Paul Colin’s Josephine Baker poster captivated me because although his muse, he portrayed her as a caricature. I relished the gondola sofa and the floral/fauna motifs in some of the textiles. I marveled at the brilliance of the grand chandelier and the collection of fine jewels. I admired an orb-shaped tea set and the symmetry of the Mondrian painting. And of course, drooled over all the fashion.

Attending the panel before the exhibit filled-in a few blanks for me, helping me appreciate narratives the exhibit didn’t much elaborate on. Had I not learned about Aaron Douglas’s painting of James Weldon Johnson’s poetic sermon, Go Down Death (1934),  Archibald Motley’s Blues (1929), or Man Drake’s Noire et Blanche photo (1926), I probably wouldn’t have studied them so intently once inside the exhibit.  

If you’re curious about the exhibit and want to travel back in time for a glimpse of history, you have a few more weeks to check it out. Full price admission to the Jazz Age is $15 for non-members. Members of CMA can attend free. CMA recommends buying tickets in advance because of the exhibit has been extremely popular.

If you’ve explored the Jazz Age already, what was your favorite part of the exhibit?