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  • Writer's pictureW.S. BARNETT

The Singing Harp

“If all the harps in the world were burned down,

still inside the heart, there will be hidden music playing.”

– Rumi



Native Floridian Augusta Christine Savage was one of history’s most prolific artists and educators, acclaimed for her soap box platforms and outspoken activism. Amid the challenges of struggling to coexist in the Jim Crow South and racial discrimination, Augusta struggled to pursue a budding passion for creating. Coming from a strict home, she had a father whose disdain for the arts drove him to chastise young Augusta and unfairly discipline and deprive her of following her passion. 

 

Augusta’s father, a minister, often spanked her to shame her and “beat the art out of her.” Nevertheless, although being forbidden to make things, Savage would play in the red dirt and mud and mold sculptures of animals. Her father called them graven images, going against what the Bible taught. He stomped and destroyed her little masterpieces, crushing her spirit.

 

Dreaming an impossible dream

Augusta’s drive to create led her to pursue an education at the prestigious Cooper Union in New York, one of the most exclusive art education schools, accepting only highly skilled young artists. She was denied acceptance to a tuition-free summer art education program in Fountain Bleu, France because she was African American. Savage’s dream to hone the craft of sculpting eventually led her to Paris, “the City of Light.” She gained invaluable training and experience in an outstanding art-learning community. After moving back to New York, she was inspired to open a public art studio in Harlem, the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, offering free classes in art education for young people and adults. She mentored numerous young artists, becoming the largest tuition-free school in New York by 1934. Some of Augusta’s students included world-acclaimed ones like Jacob Lawrence, Martin Smith, Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis Morgan, and many others. She initially funded the center with her own money and later received a $1500 endowment from the Carnegie Foundation. 

 

Savage founded the Harlem Artist Guild and was the first director of the Harlem Community Arts Center. Her generosity to the community and the countless artists she developed put her at the center of the arts and culture movement. She was commissioned by the Federal Art Project to open and operate a community center for the arts: The Harlem Community Arts Center – which became the flagship hub for quality arts education during the Depression and later became the model for new art centers in communities nationwide. 

 

Despite numerous attempts by others to silence the song and break the chords of melodies flowing through her soul, Augusta emerged from the rubble of a deferred dream.

 

A masterpiece mangled and a dream deferred

The World’s Fair came to New York in the 1930s. Because of her accomplishments and impact on art and culture during that time and the countless artists she mentored, Augusta was invited to enter one of her sculptures at the World’s Fair. Determined to make a statement and showcase African-American artists’ creativity, skill, and accomplishments, Augusta created “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Harp,” inspired by the James Weldon Johnson song of the same name. The massive 16-foot-tall sculpture was a masterpiece - 12 African American children singing in a row designed to resemble harp strings attached to a soundboard shaped like the hand of God. The children’s voices were an instrument in God’s hand. Millions saw “The Harp,” making it the fair’s most photographed art piece. Sadly, at the fair’s closing, there was no storage space for the masterpiece, and it was too tall to get into Savage’s apartment, so they bulldozed it. Devastating.

 

An age-old instrument of hope

The harp was developed from a hunting bow, one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. The walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and caves are adorned with paintings of harps that look like hunter’s bows, dating as far back as 3000 BC. Music was an essential part of life in ancient Ireland. Traditional harpers served the noble as they became street musicians and minstrels, singing and reciting poetry to a musical accompaniment of the harp. Harpers played music before kings, chiefs, and clans. They were required to skillfully evoke three emotions with their music: Laughter, tears, and sleep. Music helps to ease anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders, soothing the soul and boosting overall well-being. 

 

“How can we sing when we're in a strange land? How can we face adversity?

How can we stand in the midst of trouble when the enemy laughs at our beliefs?”

Fred Hammond

 

Creating in a strange land

 Augusta’s story reminds me of the destruction of Jerusalem in about 586 B.C. - the tragic plight of the Jewish people forced them into exile in Babylon. The 137th Psalm is a national hymn of sorrow, symbolizing “paradise lost” for the Israelites amid their foreign captivity. 

 

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our (lyres) harps. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?”

 

Do you ever feel lost, captive in a place of uncertainty? Augusta’s adversities and fears that blocked her pursuit of a career in the arts enhanced her skills and shaped her passion for the arts, enriching the lives of aspiring artists and building community awareness of the arts. 

 

Killing Creativity

A healthy creative identity starts with fear, but not the kind most of us fight for. Our unhealthy fear of people or second-guessing ourselves can steal our creative joy, stop our pen from writing, or silence our song. Fear, rooted in insecurity, freezes and stifles our creative flow. We shouldn’t be afraid of failure, success, being wrong, or wondering if it’s right, but we should have a different kind of fear - the fear of the Lord. Fear, motivated by love, causes us to change, grow, and understand Christ’s power and nature. It’s a fear that fuels our passion for worshipping Christ, knowing that He’s creating through us.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?


Langston Hughes


Copyright 2024

Dr. William S. Barnett

No portion of this content can be copied, electronically stored, or reproduced without the author's express written permission.


Photo: A souvenir model of Savage's 1939 sculpture The Harp, 1939 World's Fair Committee, Eartha M.M. White Collection

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