Weekend Heller: Harlem On My Mind Revisited

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Last week, Holland Carter in The New York Times wrote a recollection of the famously and harshly criticized Metropolitan Museum of Art 1969 exhibit “Harlem On My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America.” Curated by Allon Schoener, cultural historian and organizer of exhibitions that focus on topics such as African Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans and the history of the Lower East Side, it was a courageous yet politically charged, and criticized, attempt to represent the black experience in the citadel of art. Black artists were up-in-arms over the employ of a white curator and whites were offended by the catalog, which contained an essay by a 17-year-old high school student that was “laced with anti-Semitic slurs …”


Carter wrote: “It was the response to the exhibition itself, however, that put ‘Harlem on My Mind’ in the history books as both a benchmark event and a cautionary tale. On the one hand, the show was, with cause, reviled as culturally patronizing, and as an example of a phenomenon common now: the art exhibition as entertainment aimed at pulling traffic through the door. Attendance was indeed substantial, with record numbers of black viewers. And high-census events of its kind became a specialty of the Met’s [Thomas] Hoving years.”

The response to the exhibit at the time was vociferous. Mayor John V. Lindsay threatened to withhold financial support for the museum if it didn’t withdraw the catalog, which the museum eventually did, raising the specter of censorship. In hindsight many critics praise the show as “landmark.” A letter to the Times in 1995 noted: “‘Harlem on My Mind’ was a step toward moving the African-American experience into a white milieu. It wasn’t a perfect step, but it was a first step.”

Schoener rebutted on Aug. 26: “I find some aspects of Holland Carter’s “Lessons Learned From a Disgraced Show,” appearing on page one, August 20, 2015 of The New York Times’ Arts & Leisure Section, hard to understand. The piece displays what seems to be a kind of personal animus. Moreover, the facts behind the show contradict his critique.”

I recall the exhibit and the firestorm that followed. It appeared that given the tenor of the times, this would be the proverbial hot potato under the best of circumstances. Whatever the flaws, it was an exhibition that polarized people while shedding light on racial attitudes. Today it is a building block in cultural history and its curator deserves a cheer for having made a major mark.

The book Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America was reissued after a prolonged struggle to obtain the rights from its original publisher. Editions were published in 1979, 1995 and 2007, with forewords by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel.


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