The Harlem Renaissance: Not Forgotten

Today’s post pays tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, which might be one of the most overlooked periods in American cultural and sociological history, but which is certainly one of the most overlooked topics in public K–12 classrooms.  Most students I talk with know almost nothing about the Harlem Renaissance, including students who live within 25 miles of Harlem.

Parents, the next time your child needs to do a report or project for Black History Month, please take a look at the wealth of content that the Harlem Renaissance has to offer.  That is true whether your child is in first grade or in twelfth grade.  I have done Harlem Renaissance lessons with students in a wide range of grade levels and have found something remarkable and suitable at every level.

For starters, my guess is that way too few parents have studied the career of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the brilliant sociologist who was the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance.  The leadership that Johnson displayed regarding how to improve the futures of African Americans was every bit as extraordinary as the artistic endeavors of the painters and poets and musicians and sculptors and novelists and actors and editors who are better known to many of us today.

Parents, read up on Johnson, who left Harlem for Nashville in 1928 to become a professor at Fisk University and who later became its first black president in 1946.  Fisk, of course, is one of our nation’s most respected HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  Fisk is also the home of the world-famous Jubilee Singers, whose story of saving Fisk from bankruptcy in its early days as a result of their worldwide singing tour is legendary.  Johnson eventually brought with him to Fisk some of the black artists and writers he had nurtured in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance—including inimitable visual artist Aaron Douglas and masterful writers James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps.  By the way, Bontemps collaborated with the now-better-known Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes on two fantastic children’s books, which most kids have never read, but absolutely should:  The Pasteboard Bandit and Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti.  (Parents:  This paragraph alone has enough Black History Month topics for your child to research every year he or she is in school!)

Earlier this month, my daughter did a project for an after-school program of elementary school kids.  She chose about 30 artists of all kinds who had contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and wrote a short paragraph about each one.  Each of the children in the program chose one of the artists to learn about, including making a small poster (with a photo) about the artist and presenting that poster to parents who came to a Black History Month celebration.  Your young children could have done the same; your older children could have done even more.  Here are some of those Harlem Renaissance artists, in addition to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, of course—in case you need them next February or, ideally, even sooner:

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, musician

Arnaud “Arna” Bontemps, poet

Countee Cullen, poet

Aaron Douglas, painter

Edward “Duke” Ellington, musician

Jessie Redmon Fauset, writer

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, sculptor

Palmer C. Hayden, painter

Fletcher Henderson, musician

James Mercer Langston Hughes, poet

Zora Neale Hurston, writer

May Howard Jackson, sculptor

James Weldon Johnson, writer

William Henry Johnson, painter

Mary Edmonia Lewis, sculptor

Claude McKay, poet

Horace Pippin, painter

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, sculptor

Paul Leroy Robeson, actor

Augusta Christine Savage, sculptor

Bessie Smith, singer

Henry Ossawa Tanner, painter

James Van Der Zee, photographer

Laura Wheeler Waring, painter

Ethel Waters, singer

When your child needs some source materials, here are two excellent books to hand over:

Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance, by P. Stephen Hardy and Sheila Jackson Hardy—This book has short, readable biographies of many of the leaders and the artists, with photographs.

Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance, by Laban Carrick Hill, with a cover illustration by the fabulous Christopher Myers—This is the single best book I have read on the Harlem Renaissance.  It provides more interesting information than you could ever use.  Read it yourself, even if your child does not have a report to do!

Parents:  You will know that you have done your homework on the Harlem Renaissance when you can explain to your child the significance of each of these (or vice versa, depending the age of your child):  the National Urban League’s Opportunity, the Civic Club Dinner, “The Weary Blues,” the NAACP’s Crisis, the Savoy, and the Cotton Club.  So, get Harlem Stomp! and start reading.

Carmen de Lavallade: Enough Said

Carmen de Lavallade: Enough Said

As Black History Month is coming to a close, I have been thinking about an appropriate post and settled on two.  Today’s post pays tribute to the inimitable Carmen de Lavallade.  I am not sure how many schoolchildren study the creative accomplishments and boundary-breaking life of De Lavallade, but I am sure that it is not nearly enough.

De Lavallade, almost 86 and still looking like the most classically beautiful dancer you ever saw, not only has had a brilliant career of her own in dance and theater (in dance companies, on Broadway, on television, and in film), but also has been surrounded for decades by icons of the dance and theater world—from her high school friend Alvin Ailey to her multi-talented husband Geoffrey Holder.  Let me say a word about De Lavallade’s background, just in case you don’t know as much about it as you should.

De Lavallade met a young Alvin Ailey when they were classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles (she graduated in 1948).  She took her friend Alvin to a dance class she had been attending with the great modern dance creator/teacher Lester Horton, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As you might know, De Lavallade started taking dancing lessons at a time in our history when black students were not welcome everywhere.  According to a Los Angeles Times interview last October, De Lavallade said, “You couldn’t even get into a dance studio without some student walking out.  I was lucky to find teachers like Melissa Blake, Carmelita Maracci, and, of course, Lester Horton. . . .  Lester opened up that place to everybody—every kind of person in the world was there!”

De Lavallade and Ailey went on to dance with Horton’s multicultural company and learned firsthand everything there was to know about running dance companies.  When Horton died in 1953, Ailey became one of the main proponents of the Horton technique (which is still used today by his world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Ailey School and which is the basis of many of Ailey’s best-loved and timeless works).  Ailey and De Lavallade came to New York City, danced together and separately in various companies and Broadway performances, and became the monumental stars they were both born to be.

De Lavallade met Holder in her Broadway debut, House of Flowers, in 1954.  Holder’s career later took him from dancing to painting to costume design to directing.  He won Tony awards for best direction and best costume design in 1975 for The Wiz, the well-known African-American musical version of The Wizard of Oz.  Holder and De Lavallade were an iconic couple until his death in 2014.

Last November, De Lavallade returned to her alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School, to talk to the students.  Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Gelt describes the scene in the auditorium:

Tall, slender and elegant with her hair pulled back in a tight bun and a bright red scarf around her swan-like neck, De Lavallade, now 85, choked up when she first began to speak at a morning assembly.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” she told students. “I was you. Alvin was you. You are a part of that history, and you will be a part of that history, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

. . . She shared with the students an anecdote about how she wasn’t allowed to dance with her partner on “something called The Ed Sullivan Show” because the partner was white.

As she talked about making her life’s path as an artist of color, about how the students were part of her history, about how students could make their own history, [s]he asked, “Do you understand?”

. . . “We came through times when everybody told us we couldn’t do it, and we believed it,” she said. “Don’t you believe it.”

My guess is that De Lavallade was a lot for the students to take in.  My guess is that they probably had never seen anyone like her.  Who really has?  The high school, which was about 80 percent black when De Lavallade and Ailey attended it, now serves mostly Latino students.  What must they have thought about “this person who came from outer space,” as De Lavallade described herself later to the reporter?

According to the Times article, De Lavallade spoke insistently to the students, “People are people all over the world.  Don’t let anybody tell you who you can be.  Do you understand?”  It was a simple, but powerful message, delivered by someone who never let anyone tell her who she could be.

And here is one last reason I wrote this post for Black History month.  At the close of the assembly, De Lavallade told the students something that Holder had said.  It is as memorable as any quotation you would ever want to hear during Black History Month.  Here it is:

“I walk through doors. If I’m not wanted in a place, there’s something wrong with the place, not me.”

Thank you, Ms. De Lavallade, for bringing those words to students who need to hear them.  Let’s hope that your life story and Mr. Holder’s words and Mr. Ailey’s works travel in some way to every school every February.

Parents:  Make it happen.