AS THE STAGE LIGHTS come up at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Bessie Smith begins to sing the blues. Her voice and other recordings provide the background music to "The Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties." The show takes us back to Harlem, where Charles Spurgeon Johnson was encouraging blacks to enter the American mainstream by way of the arts. Jazz was being born, but that was only a part of the story.
The Renaissance really started in the literary field -- here, among the 225 items we find a first edition of "The New Negro," edited by Alain Locke, an anthology of Renaissance writers. Locke suggested they look to their African roots, as well as to the Deep South.
Museum historian Louise Hutchinson names with relish some of the literary flowers of that Harlem: "Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of Harlem. He had the ability to interact with 'the common folk.' Hughes was a vagabond, bummed around on ships, rode on trains and was too much a free spirit for Columbia University. Contee Cullin, a poet influenced by Browning and other English writers. And Sterling Brown, a poet still living, influenced by folkways and folklore, and by the blues. He had a torrid love affair with Bessie Smith."
The excitement generated by writers spilled over into art and music. African and Caribbean motifs began showing up in black sculpture and painting. Actor and singer Paul Robeson performed Negro spirituals and gave them a new validity. Before that, explains Hutchinson, "many blacks had associated Negro spirituals with slavery, so they didn't want to hear that."
Harlem Renaissance meant bathtub gin and "rent-house" parties, but also marked the beginning of "race records." The Black Swan Label began as the first black-owned record company. Its motto: "The only genuine colored record. Others are only passing for colored."
And so here are some old 78s, as well as an original score by "Jelly Roll" Morton ("Frog- i-more Rag") and an illustration of how to do the Lindy hop. There's a slide show on black musical revues and a video production on black films of the '20s including clips of Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington. There are photos of the Cotton Club and Connie's Inn, white establishments in Harlem, reminding us that the cultural explosion in Harlem was contained.
"One of the ironies," says Hutchinson, "was that in spite of the efforts of the performers to project themselves -- to say, 'Hey, look at us, America' -- discrimination continued. Clubs would bring in black acts but black patrons couldn't come in.
"W.C. Handy, father of the blues, heard that his music was being performed in Connie's Inn. When he went up there, he stood outside and listened."
THE RENAISSANCE: BLACK ARTS OF THE TWENTIES -- At the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum through December, 1986. At 2405 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, hours are 10 to 6 weekdays and 1 to 6 weekends.