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RU basketball teams don jerseys celebrating Harlem Renaissance

The Rutgers athletic department has partnered with Adidas Basketball to celebrate Black History Month by having the men’s and women’s teams suit up in uniforms inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. The uniforms made their debut last night in front of a sold-out Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), when the Rutgers men’s basketball team took on No. 7 Michigan.

The uniforms were designed based on “the wooden floors of the ballrooms where basketball became culture,” according to a press release by Rutgers Athletics. 

The uniforms are our trademark bright crimson and reference the panels of the legendary Harlem ballrooms where, unbeknownst to many, basketball teams practiced and played. On the top left of the jersey, there’s an eye-catching insignia featuring a basketball with the letters "CBC" spelled out in a white gothic font. The ball is encircled by a ring of purple, with the words “Celebrating Black Culture,” spelled out in black. The badge is enclosed by a loop of black. Sleek with an old school feel, the uniforms combine the best of the old and the new. 

The importance of the ballroom in the Harlem Renaissance has been well-documented. By day they were community centers and practice facilities, and by night they doubled as the meeting grounds for poets, musicians and visual artists who expanded the nation’s understanding of the Black experience. A widespread blossoming of Black writers, thinkers and artists was deemed impossible prior to American icons like Langston Hughes, Fats Waller and Jessie Fauset proving preconceived notions of Blackness wrong.

The artistic movement was a direct result of the Great Migration of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, with industrial jobs drawing Southern Black communities to the North. Harlem was the borough that Southern Blacks and Caribbean immigrants concentrated in after moving to New York City. 

Early forms of jazz traveled from Chicago and the South, allowing swing music to reach maturity in the famed ballrooms, infecting the nation with a new groove. Publications like W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Crisis” helped to elevate many writers from obscurity to fame, printing the work of Black literary legends like Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and many more. Then, of course, there was the stage.

Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson, along with other members of the Harlem Renaissance, offered the first proper representations of Black people on the stage. Fighting against the stream of massively popular minstrel shows, distinguished plays written by or featuring Black artists also went against the grain. The recent yearbook photo scandal involving Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) shows that the scourge of blackface hasn’t been completely eradicated, but the writers and performers of the 1920s took the initial steps in the continued fight for dignity and respect.

Speaking about the intended purpose of the uniforms, Rutgers Director of Athletics Pat Hobbs said, “Our hope is that it will also inspire everyone to learn more about this remarkable period that produced the jazz of Duke Ellington, the poetry of Claude McKay and the stage career of the great Paul Robeson, Rutgers College.”

To see the efforts of these trailblazers represented and emblazoned on jerseys nearly a century later is indicative of the impact of the Harlem Renaissance and the beauty of political, social and artistic self-determination. The movement was a dam in the hegemonic stream of American culture, redirecting the flow toward a more egalitarian future. Work done in the Harlem Renaissance laid the groundwork for future artistic movements like the Black Arts Movement of the late 60s and the emergence of hip-hop culture in the 80s and 90s.

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, these uniforms are a welcome reminder that much of the social and political change we desire is manifested in art, often far ahead of the curve compared to the actual politics of the time. Art from the margins of society is a lived experience synthesized by the mind, based off an individual framework and a collective history, reinterpreted into a clarion call for understanding and acceptance. 

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