Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

English lecturer explores shades of black

Sidra Smith Wahaltere likes to explore how people define themselves racially, especially between the 1880s and 1920s. It’s a topic up for discussion at Wahaltere’s upcoming salon, “Shades of Black: Words and Images of the Harlem Renaissance,” Feb. 9 and 16.

Wahaltere, a lecturer in DU’s English department, says authors and artists were exploring racial identities long before the civil rights movement.

“For example, a character might be one-twenty-third black and look white, but define themselves as black,” she says. “Do they do this because that is how they see themselves or because of how society sees them?”

During the salon, Wahaltere will talk about works from authors Charles Chestnut, Nella Larson, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Jean Toomer. She also will show artwork from the time by painters Aaron Douglas and Palmer Hayden and ask salon attendees to discuss them.

“We’ll look at the breadth of work represented during the Harlem Renaissance,” Wahaltere says. “While this is rich historically, it is relevant today too. Barack Obama is mixed racially but defines himself as black. We’ll talk about how racial identity takes shape and plays out in peoples lives, particularly in the art and literature we’ll examine in the salon.”

“Shades of Black” is one of 10 salons the Humanities Institute is hosting this spring. A complete listing of topics can be found on the Humanities Institute Web site.

The practice of “salon-going” dates back to the 18th century, when many of the intellectual leaders of the day congregated in private homes to discuss the latest thinking and artistic development.

Editor’s note: This salon has been cancelled due to lack of enrollment.

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