Babylon’s Harps is deeply rooted in the captivity of the Israelites as recorded in Psalm 137. However, unlike the twelve tribes of Israel who wept by the rivers of Babylon with their harps hanging beneath the willow, the Africans too were plucked from the banks of the Congo. By reason of strength, their Harps could not hang! No! For as the strings are to a harp, so are the souls of the African to a Song – even in a strange land.
The career of Augusta Savage was fostered by the climate of the Harlem Renaissance. During the 1930s, she was well known in Harlem as a sculptor, art teacher, and community art program director. Born Augusta Christine Fells in Green Cove Springs, Florida, on February 29, 1892, she was the seventh of fourteen children of Cornelia and Edward Fells.
During the mid-1920s when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, Savage lived and worked in a small studio apartment where she earned a reputation as a portrait sculptor, completing busts of prominent personalities such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Savage was one of the first artists who consistently dealt with black physiognomy.
In 1937 Savage’s career took a pivotal turn. She was appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center and was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture symbolizing the musical contributions of African Americans. Negro spirituals and hymns were the forms Savage decided to symbolize in The Harp. Inspired by the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Harp was Savage’s largest work and her last major commission. She took a leave of absence from her position at the Harlem Community Art Center and spent almost two years completing the sixteen-foot sculpture. Cast in plaster and finished to resemble black basalt, The Harp was exhibited in the court of the Contemporary Arts building where it received much acclaim. The sculpture depicted a group of twelve stylized black singers in graduated heights that symbolized the strings of the harp. The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding music represented the foot pedal. No funds were available to cast The Harp, nor were there any facilities to store it. After the fair closed it was demolished as was all the art.
“I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.”—T. R. Poston, “Augusta Savage,” Metropolitan Magazine, Jan. 1935, n.p.