Harlem Renaissance Men: Johnny Hudgins and Jack Johnson - Part 2
Join Robert O’Meally for the second part of this two-part series exploring the lives of Harlem Renaissance trailblazers.
Johnny Hudgins will seem an unlikely candidate for Harlem Renaissance Man honors. Blackface comic dancer, with absurd white-paint grin glowing against tar-blackened face, here’s a pantomimist almost completely lost to cultural history. And yet there he was! At the height of his fame a showstopper at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater.
Hudgins was the painter Romare Bearden’s number one “favorite of all the comedians”—the oversize clown-shoe dancer whose smooth silent performances on an empty stage, the artist said, helped show him what to do with an empty canvas. Master of the Charleston and other black dances that became worldwide sensations, Hudgins, nicknamed “The Black Charlie Chaplin,” was an important model for Josephine Baker’s early cross-eyed comic performance styles— Jo Baker who also sometimes performed in blackface. Johnny Hudgins was popular in Europe before La Baker or sax master Sidney Bechet went there, and became a hit throughout the Americas, from Harlem to Cuba and South America. He starred in an important early science fiction movie (French) as well as in filmic “short subjects” of the 1920s and 30s. He took a major Broadway choreographer to court for daring to steal his style of improvisation—and won his case!
Who was this man? How do we square the solid foundation of the Harlem Renaissance with the boomeranging ovals and circles of blackface comic dance? This talk will feature clips of the dancer, images from his extensive scrapbooks, and a live musical surprise.
What kind of Harlem Renaissance man was this! Embarrassment to certain proper Black Americans, then and now, soaring hero to many others, Jack Johnson embodied an unruly black cosmopolitanism that helped define a Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s whose momentum extends into 2020 and beyond.
Many people living during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, including many Harlemites themselves of that era, never heard of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas—or any of that magical time’s leading literary/cultural lights. But the fame of John Arthur “Jack” Johnson (1878-1946) circled the globe. Readers and nonreaders alike throughout the Harlem and Southern Roads of the Black Diaspora, and far beyond, knew the name Jack Johnson, first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He was not your shy and modest champ, proving himself a credit to the race. Instead Mr. Jack was a dancing master and witty trash-talker inside the ring and out, playboy among the races, flamboyant lover of cars and clothes, international traveler daring white heavyweights (or anybody else) to take him on. Badman Jack whose knockout punches were heard around the world, who caused riots across the States. It took an act of Congress to curb (somewhat) the “unforgiveable blackness” of this Texas Jack, who set the stage for Muhammad Ali and for the highly political sports men and women of our time.
This presentation will review Johnson’s history as well as some of the many works of art it has inspired, particularly in painting and music. Highlights will include samples from Miles Davis’s “Tribute to Jack Johnson” and Wynton Marsalis’s soundtrack to the documentary about the boxer’s life.
Robert O’Meally is the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Founder and Director of Columbia University’s Jazz Center.