Morningside Lights Celebrates its Ninth Year with Langston Hughes' 'Harlem Night Song'

BY Angeline Dimambro, November 6, 2020

This fall marked a unique year for Morningside Lights, the annual outdoor procession of community-built lanterns. It is a co-production between Columbia University’s Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre, and is directed by Processional Arts Workshop under the guidance of artists Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles.


For years, Morningside Lights has held week-long workshops, inviting the surrounding community to create small and large-scale lanterns under a chosen theme. The workshops are not only instructional, as participants learn Kahn and Michahelles’ artistic techniques, but inherently collaborative, bringing dozens of volunteers, students, community members, and their families into a creative space together. These public workshops typically culminate in a procession through the Morningside Heights area, eventually lighting up Columbia’s College Walk with the group’s illuminated lanterns. 


This year was necessarily different, starting with its theme: Langston Hughes’ 1926 poem, “Harlem Night Song.” Planning for the event was well underway when the pandemic struck and changed how they thought about the program and its theme. In their artists’ statement, Khan and Michahelles reflected on the choice of Hughes’ poem: “As we mark the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, this particular poem resonates acutely in our own fractured times, when the very act of coming together is fraught with complexities.” While it’s true that participants wouldn’t be able to gather and share their lanterns in person this year, the Morningside Lights team devised a way to “re-create ‘Harlem Night Song’ – line by line – as a digitally-linked collection of home-built lanterns."


Doing so was not straightforward, as Michahelles acknowledged during the live premiere of this year’s video celebration: “As processional artists during the last seven months, we’ve had to really reconsider what our artform is, because a lot of it is bringing people physically together for processions, and also the building process.” As the pandemic continued to evolve, so did their plans for this year’s event, always in service of their core mission—“to bring people together in a shared act of artistic expression.” What is typically a week-long in-person workshop series that culminates in a procession through Morningside Heights became a series of remote workshops and separate, but simultaneous, micro-processions where participants brought their lanterns outdoors into their own communities. 


“When Morningside Lights first started eight years ago, we knew that we were doing something that relied on the participation of the community in a way that we had a lot of uncertainty about,” Kahn shared. Despite the initial uncertainty, Morningside Lights has grown into a large group of volunteers and participants that come out every year. However, Kahn and Michahelles knew the circumstances of this year would present a challenge. “This year is different,” Kahn said. “This year we don’t know, with all the difficulties that everybody is going through, whether people will have the energy, the time, the bandwidth–literally and figuratively–the kitchen table space, the resources, the wherewithal to do the kind of level of work that people have done year after year after year in this project.”


However, it was clear from just how quickly the lantern-building kits ran out during registration that there was still a strong community interest in this event. Kahn and Michahelles designed, sourced, and prepared dozens of lantern-building kits with all the materials participants would need to create their lanterns at home this year. Participants could follow along with Kahn and Michahelles’ instructional video as they worked on their lanterns at home. Each participant was also given a copy of Hughes’s poem “Harlem Night Song,” as well as a specific line or word from the poem that would be the theme of their individual lantern. 


Two virtual workshops were also offered as an opportunity for  the Morningside Lights community to come together remotely, share progress on their lanterns, and ask questions directly to Processional Arts Workshop members. Under normal circumstances, these workshops would happen in person on the Miller Theatre stage, lasting an entire week, but this year has been anything but normal. Virtual meetings allowed participants to connect, share ideas, and hear more from Kahn and Michahelles despite the distance between us.


Though participants made their lanterns individually, they were encouraged to finish by Saturday, September 26, to bring their creations outside, and light up their neighborhoods. Though physically apart, Hughes’s poem would be recreated, line by line, on the same night. The Morningside Lights team also digitally recreated the poem by compiling all the photos and videos of lanterns, as well as recordings of the poem submitted by participants into a truly unique virtual expression. The Arts Initiative hosted a live premiere of the video where participants digitally gathered and watched the video for the first time together, finally seeing their individual lanterns become part of a larger whole.

Watch the video celebration below and browse through the image galleries of Morningside Lights’ past themes. Morningside Lights is made possible by its partnerships with Columbia University School of the Arts, University Programs and Events, Office of Government & Community Affairs, Friends of Morningside Park, and the Down to Earth Farmers Markets.