The Harlem Renaissance, the black American arts movement that coincided with the Jazz Age, celebrated black folk heritage and so-called “primitive” art and music. Wealthy white thrill-seekers – “Negrotonians” – danced to Duke Ellington hothouse stomps and the ragtime of tin-pan pianos. While it lasted, the Harlem Renaissance bolstered black self-assertion in pre-civil rights America. Thirty years later, Martin Luther King’s message of black “self-improvement” combined with Black Power militancy to create a new age of hope, tempered by rage.

The wonderful Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern (until October 22) charts the work of black artists in America between 1963 and 1983. It opens with a video recording of King giving renewed voice to the black dispossessed at the famous Washington DC rally of 1963. King was proud to call himself a “Negro”. The word, ubiquitous during the Harlem Renaissance, was still widely accepted in 1963 when the exhibition begins. By embracing “Negro” and black race consciousness, King hoped to improve the lot of black people in Lyndon Johnson-era America.

The exhibition, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, traces the progress of black American art over two decades as King’s dream of racial equality gave way to disillusion. A “group of Negro artists” (as they called themselves) known as Spiral set up in New York at the height of the civil rights movement in 1963. Norman Lewis, Spiral’s founder member, worked only in black and white. His extraordinary America the Beautiful shows an abstract tracery of Ku Klux Klan hoods and crosses against a jagged expanse of black.

The riots that erupted in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles in August 1965 provided artists such as John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and Melvin Edwards with a wealth of street junk and detritus, which they worked into strangely imaginative miniature sculptures. Betye Saar’s Afro-animist icons, shimmering with beads and often lit with candles, are a reminder of the survival of African spirit beliefs in American slave culture.

Among the other forgotten riches are copies of Black Panther magazines, photographs of Chicago murals depicting the Harlem Renaissance luminary WEB Dubois, as well as Aretha Franklin and the Jamaican nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Roy DeCarava’s rich, tonally dark photographs of Harlem street life are a marvel.

Could there – should there – be a distinctly black art? Stokely Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton’s book Black Power (1967) called for a recuperation of “African consciousness” in the mind of the modern African American (a strategy that has evolved to its unsophisticated form in today’s obsession with “respect”). The exhibition gives a superb overview of Black Power and its element of radical chic.

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