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.