Teaching the Harlem Renaissance with Intention

Teaching the Harlem Renaissance

Jazz, poetry, painting, and dancing. What could be more exciting than that? I’ve always loved the allure and razzle dazzle of the 20’s and 30’s, and I always knew my students would relish learning about this time period. As a new teacher in 2012, I really looked forward to teaching the Harlem Renaissance since I knew that it was a way to share a passion for poetry with my students. I did in February, since, you know—it was Black History Month.

It went okay.

Actually, it went really well. One of my toughest classes read The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, and the students transformed before my eyes. They were engaged and sharing stories from their own lives. I felt that I had finally connected with that class—mostly students of color from the low-income neighborhood the school was in. One of my favorite days of my first year of teaching was our Poetry Slam. Here’s the poem I shared:

Dorky, I know, but it gave voice to some of my insecurities from that time period. But as I reflected on that year and grew as a teacher, I wondered if I had really given them my “all”. As I began to get better informed, I wondered if I was guilty of glitzing up an era without addressing any of the systemic racism that spurred the Harlem Renaissance.

Fast forward to this year as I’m planning how to bring the Harlem Renaissance to life for a new batch of students. I’m inviting you, Coffee Shop friends, to come along on the journey with me today as I figure out how to serve my students better during Black History Month and every month.

I’m older now, and wiser. What can I do for my students to elicit conversation? I want to provide rigorous lessons and resources that don’t present just the “glossy images” or a list of inventors. I want to share real stories, real struggle, and real success with my students. I see this as my biggest responsibility in being an honest educator. As TNTP Bridge Fellow Zay Collier puts it, “Our kids are missing stories that can inspire them and remind them of who and what they can be.” Without hearing crucial voices, our students of every color won’t get a full picture of what it means to be an American.

I decided to build an Escape Room to introduce the Harlem Renaissance, and I thought long and hard about how to draw in elements for later, deeper discussions with students. I spent weeks on this, doing careful research and drawing in authentic source material. The result is one of my favorite Escape Rooms yet! I didn’t want to minimize any struggle by gamifying the introduction—that would be a gross injustice on my part as the teacher. Instead, I worked to achieve a balance between rigor and fun that would still be truthful in every aspect.

It’s time to get real with students, all year round. How can we teach Black History in a meaningful way, now and every day? Here are some steps I took, and some resources I used to get informed.

1.       Acknowledge the hard road.

As English teachers, it’s easy to focus on the teaching the Harlem Renaissance as just a series of awesome products [poems, art, literature]. Leave it to the Social Studies teachers to talk about the justice issues leading up to the art, right? Wrong. When teaching the Harlem Renaissance, it’s important to recognize that this outburst of expression was the waters breaking through the dam of oppression. This artistic era was a weapon against centuries of silencing and abuse.

The Goin’ North Project by West Chester University is a collection of oral histories from people who came to Philadelphia in the Great Migration. You can share snippets of these with your students (the full interviews are about an hour apiece) and discuss what people were living through in the Jim Crow South. Students can work in pairs and present one of the histories to another group or to the whole class. This is an excellent primary source for helping students understand the background for the Harlem Renaissance.

2.       Acknowledge the barriers.

As part of my research for developing my Escape Room, I read and learned much more about the Cotton Club and other speakeasies than I’d ever known. As a first-year teacher, I’m not sure I dug much deeper than “this place was where Duke Ellington got his start.” Now, I know I’d be remiss not to let students discover the barriers that existed, even as Black artists took the stage. It wasn’t until Duke Ellington had a hundred successful songs that he was able to convince the club to admit Black patrons (instead of just profiting from Black performers)!

Also, I want students to recognize that Black artists still face many similar struggles as those in the Harlem Renaissance. We still see instances of industry racism and cultural appropriation. Now, I’ll tie in pop culture and non-fiction as we discuss connections to today’s music and art scene. One instance I’ll bring up is Katy Perry’s own bouts of appropriation, as discussed in this Huffington Post article.

Want more inclusive teaching ideas?

3.       Discuss in-fighting and disagreements.

As teachers, we face a constant shortage of time. As a consequence, we can paint eras with a broad brush. This would be a huge mistake when teaching the Harlem Renaissance since so many artists and activists disagreed! Whereas some artists saw any publicity as good publicity (e.g., The Cotton Club), others did not. Langston Hughes gave a harsh critique of the environment he saw at The Cotton Club (remember, white patrons coming to watch Black artists), saying “strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo.” He would have preferred musicians not to perform at all rather than at the Cotton Club.

Black leaders had different ideas about the future of race relations in the United States. This article provides some great context for the competing visions of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey for civil rights.

You can download this free Close Reading passage about the Cotton Club and Prohibition to get these conversations started with your students.

4.       Celebrate the art and progress.

Once you’ve provided your students with context and some lenses through which to view the era, teaching the Harlem Renaissance can definitely include a celebration. There was definitely glitz and glam and music and dance, and you should celebrate those things! I did a lot of swing dancing in college, so I love sharing dance moves with students. We watch some videos of pros [this video of some vintage Lindy Hop is AWESOME] and then we get up and do a few steps together.

And then, of course, we dig deep into some poetry and literature. I like to have my students do a short biographical research project about the Harlem Renaissance and present a clip of a song or read some poetry out loud for the class.

5.       Extend and enhance your thinking.

We continue to read The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes as a class read aloud. I did a whole unit with my 8th graders back in 2012, but I like to at least read the novel with older students. It’s a short book, so we can get through it quickly, even if we read it all together.

A teacher friend also directed me to an online archive of W. E. B. DuBois’ magazine, The Crisis. She uses an article from the September 1917 issue to talk about the Red Summer with students. This source, contemporary to the events described, is priceless.

And even as you extend your own unit, challenge yourself to learn more. What books and articles are you reading to help you integrate history in your English classroom? How are you growing as an advocate for all students and their stories?

You can also grab a free QR Reference Sheet with Discussion & Research Questions for you and your students. 

Final words

And so, friends, as I think about my young teacher self from 2012, I try to have a little grace with her. However you’ve celebrated Black History Month in the past, have some grace with yourself. Celebrate your victories, and aim to improve the weaker elements. And even as we talk about teaching the Harlem Renaissance in February, recognize that we can amplify voices of people of color all year-round.

Further reading:

*Why Cultural Competence? (Article from the NEA)
*Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Black History (Article from Tolerance.org)

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