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Moon over Harlem

William H. Johnson
Moon over Harlem, ca. 1943–44

Excerpt from Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson

[The] philosophical and political sensibility of Johnson emerged again after the summer of 1943, following one of New York's worst race riots. On the evening of 1 August, a heated exchange in a Harlem hotel between a white policeman and a black woman quickly escalated into a fistfight between the policeman and a black soldier, who had been standing nearby. During the scuffle, the soldier hit the policeman with his own nightstick and then, according to witnesses, ran. The policeman pulled out his revolver and shot the soldier, wounding him in the arm. As the policeman arrested the soldier and took him to a nearby hospital, a crowd gathered and followed them. While the soldier was being operated on, the crowd grew in numbers and emotional frenzy. After someone shouted "A white cop shot and killed a black soldier," angry people began streaming onto the adjoining avenues, demanding that justice be done, gathering momentum and soon, in their outrage, breaking windows, looting stores, turning over cars, setting fires, and turning Harlem into a chaotic hotbed of destruction. On Monday, after the city's police had restored some semblance of normalcy, the reports showed that six people had been killed, over one hundred people had been arrested, with loss of property estimated in the millions of dollars.

In Moon over Harlem, his version of the 1943 Harlem riot, Johnson abandons the compositional structure based on bands of interlocking, high-keyed colors. Instead, he takes a flatter and more organic approach, with the figures, city pavement, urban skyline, and horizon all resembling the off-kilter pictures of an amateur artist's hand-painted shop sign. Johnson's ghostly silhouette of New York, recalling another work from around the same time, evokes an alien and remote image of the city that echoes the mood of estrangement and anger in Harlem that night.

Several of Johnson's figures in Moon over Harlem were adapted from newspaper photographs of the rioters, showing beaten and bloodied suspects and underage offenders wearing stolen top hats and tuxedos. These photojournalistic documents are stripped by Johnson of their melodramatic quality, as he creates in their place a kind of expressive distortion and calculated rawness. The central figure in Moon over Harlem—a black female rioter, bloodied, with one breast exposed, and turned upside down by three uniformed men—is the very embodiment of the riot's victims: an oppressed and debased community, whose frustrations and self-destruction prompted an authoritative abuse of power. Although many felt that the riot was a spontaneous, violent reaction to a perceived incident of police brutality, others saw it as a symptom of Harlem's deeper, festering problems: urban poverty, racial oppression, and economic exploitation. In Moon over Harlem, Johnson uses a new visual language, joining those who felt indignation over the second-class status of Harlemites and all black Americans.

Source: Richard J. Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991), p. 180. ©1991 Smithsonian Institution and Richard J. Powell. Electronic version: ©1998 National Museum of American Art. All rights reserved.

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