Love Letters from the Harlem Renaissance Through the Generations

Love Letters from the Harlem Renaissance tells the story of the relationship between Alta Sawyer Douglas and her husband, Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. Catch Me Bird’s C. Derrick Jones, the great nephew of this seminal American painter, shares his family’s story with guest blogger Elspeth Michaels. Tonight at Friday Nights at the de Young Jones will speak about the factors that propelled his great uncle to establish himself as one of the 20th century's visionary artists. This fall Catch Me Bird, in collaboration with Artist Fellow Sarah Wilson, will premiere a brand new production inspired by the art of Douglas entitled Off the Walls. The performance combines music, aerials, and dance as an expression of Douglas's painting Aspiration, which is currently on view in Wilsey Court.


Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979). Aspiration, 1936. Oil on canvas. 1997.84

“On June 18, 1926 I was married to Alta Sawyer, who became the most dynamic force in my life, my inspiration, my encouragement, until her death in 1958. It is 10 years since her passing, and I am still lost and bewildered in a world where nothing seems complete without her.” —Aaron Douglas

Tell us about the context in which your great aunt and great uncle were writing to each other?

They were high school sweethearts in 1917 Kansas. After high school, Alta married another man and my great uncle went off to study elsewhere, traveling to New York and Europe. From 1923–25, even before Alta’s divorce, she was corresponding with Douglas from Missouri and Kansas. All those letters got destroyed because she couldn’t let them be found. There was a bit of a scandal, but as we now know, loves trumps all.

Aaron and Alta

Aaron and Alta Sawyer Douglas

Can you describe the content of these letters?

Aaron Douglas was in his early 20s and just starting out; he really set out to be a famous painter from the start. Quite often he would write about his struggle to be an artist in New York. He had to hold down jobs that were beneath him because African Americans didn’t have a lot of opportunities to work in well-paid jobs. When he was in New York City, W.E.B. Dubois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes and other prominent African American figures of the Harlem Renaissance recognized Douglas’s work and asked him to contribute to their publications.

Uncle Doug was a really good writer as well as a visual artist. He was friends with Langston Hughes, and I think they really worked hard to push each other to write well. What I really appreciate was that my great aunt and uncle took the time to write these letters. They were always longing to receive each other’s letters when they were apart. She was very much his muse, his backer, his supporter, and his inspiration.

Group Portrait

Nathella Sawyer Bledsoe (Administrator of St. Louis, MO, Public Housing), Frank S. Bledsoe (Judge, Magistrate Court, St. Louis, MO), Aaron Douglas (Harlem artist, NY), and Alta Sawyer Douglas, ca. 1930–1940

How did this book come about? Was it a family project?

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture holds a lot of the African American art, culture, and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. These letters were found in the basement of the historic apartment building at 409 Edgecombe Avenue [in Harlem], where a lot of famous artists and writers lived during that time. As part of our heritage and pride, my family took a vested interest in the letters, started a foundation, and fashioned a book compiled of Alta and Aaron’s letters to spread awareness about these two people and Douglas's influence on African American art.

Love Letters

How has your family’s heritage, which is so entrenched in African American history—particularly your great uncle’s role as an important artist and driving force of the Harlem Renaissance—inspired and shaped your own art?

I see it as a responsibility that the work I create references the African American experience: where we are and where we need to go within the community, as well as efforts outside of the community. We’re all together; we’re all as one. That easily transfers to other minorities and women, to the haves and have-nots. It might not always be overt, but it’s always in there somehow. Why are we treating each other in this manner when we can easily treat each other so much better and create a more equal world?

Catch Me Bird

Catch Me Bird, Are You Sleeping? Spinning and soaring together in the same dream. Photo by Martin Cohen.

I would love to create a full-length dance-play based on Love Letters. I want Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and W.E.B. Dubois to make cameos. They were all working in that time frame and seeing people accept their expressions in such a grand way—that’s what the Harlem Renaissance was about.

Don’t miss Derrick Jones’s lecture tonight, July 20 in the Koret Auditorium at 7 pm. Through July 28, Catch Me Bird will present their open process to the public from Wednesday–Saturday, 1–5 p.m. in the Kimball Education Gallery. A closing reception featuring a special performance of music and dance by the Off the Walls ensemble with Sarah Wilson will take place on Friday, July 27. Off the Walls premieres at the de Young on September 21. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here.