Monday, July 15, 2024

The Harlem Renaissance Was a Pivotal Moment in American Culture—We Need To Teach It That Way

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Student Art Exhibit At John D. O'Bryant School

For many, Black history in America brings up images of Martin Luther King, Jr. sharing a dream of freedom for all in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., or Rosa Parks refusing to move from her bus seat for a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Despite what U.S. schools teach students, Black Americans were intellectual and artistic creators in a movement before the civil rights movement. The Harlem Renaissance, an influential period in American culture that flourished in Harlem, New York, deserves a prominent spot in history, literature, and art lessons in education systems across the U.S.

In the roaring 1920s, while many of the major organizers of the civil rights movement were still just children, Black Americans were awakening en masse to what it meant to be Black and proud. This majestic moment in time, when the creative innovation of Black Americans became widely recognized for the first time, became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Kirby Felder, who teaches theater in Atlanta, Georgia, encourages her kindergarten to fourth-grade students to learn about Black history through celebrating the culture. “As a theater teacher, I have the honor of being able to bring history to life,” she says. The vibrant music, art, and literature of the Harlem Renaissance make it easy to turn history into performance art. Felder makes sure her students understand the real-life journeys of the historical figures they portray during school performances. “Once I started teaching, they really wanted to learn,” she says. “There were many teary-eyed classes.”

Though there are challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to Felder's usual hands-on approach, virtual experiences like those arranged by Harlem Heritage Tours offer interactive ways to engage children in learning. The Virtual Harlem Project, in development by Bryan Carter, Ph.D, offers a vivid preview of how children will be able to immersively interact with this time in history even further. 

The History That Fueled the Harlem Renaissance

After the Civil War ended and the emancipation of slavery was cemented, Black Americans who lived in the South still had economic hardships, violent racism, and Jim Crow laws to overcome. Around 1915, to find work and escape the harsh and violent racism in the South, millions of Black Americans, who were largely born free for the first time in American history, relocated to the North and the West as refugees during the Great Migration. By 1920, a large population of diverse Black people found themselves in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. The intellectual exchange that resulted from this cultural contrast of Blacks from around the country proved to be extremely fruitful. “The Great Migration showed how Black people could collaborate and combine their cultures to create new and thought-provoking art,” Felder says. “These Renaissance men and women were redefining what it meant to be Black in America.” 

Indeed, artistic works became synonymous with political reform as Black people showed that they were not the subhuman primitives that society painted them as. Rather, Blacks were gifted, knowledgeable citizens that contributed value to society, demonstrated by the popularity of their works even among white Americans.

Felder still gets excited when recounting the significance of the era. “It was during the Harlem Renaissance when the first non-Blackface theater production happened in America,” she says. “That was the first time Black performers were allowed to show true emotion on stage instead of just entertaining the masses.” 

The Harlem Renaissance produced impressive works from Black Americans all over the country, including Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities in the North, but ample legendary creators gained recognition specifically in Harlem. Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston accumulated notoriety before traveling back down South to study African American folklore, as did famed poet and activist Langston Hughes. With jazz as a defining sound of the era, musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong performed unique numbers at The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, as well as at the Cotton Club, its white-patronized counterpart.

Visual arts, an industry Black folks had been all but shunned from, also saw the emergence of freshly esteemed talents. “Artists like Aaron Douglas constantly used racial themes in his art along with African imagery,” states Felder, who also promotes dancers such as Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers to her students. “I have a video of my kindergarteners trying their best to do splits and tap their school shoes in joy as they watched these talented performers.”

The Relevance of the Harlem Renaissance Movement

Today, with remnants of the Jim Crow South echoing in mass incarceration efforts, police brutality, and more overt racism, there is also revitalization in Black creativity to heed. Kids aren’t simply listening to Beyoncé lyrically praise brown skin or reading comics by Ta-Nehisi Coates that feature characters who pull superpowers from their culture. Children are being uplifted by these art forms to remind them that there is value in Black culture and the Black creators who bring us joy through the likes of Black Panther, popular TikTok dances, and more. 

Felder wants people to pay attention to what was achieved during a time when Black people were celebrated for their imaginativeness in the face of resistance. “The Harlem Renaissance is an example of using our culture to thrive,” she says. So needed when, she says, “so many times our Black babies are taught to shrink themselves. ‘Stop tapping on the desk.’ ‘How dare you try to rap in school!’"

Just like during the Harlem Renaissance, the culture and expressions of pain and joy of Black people by Black people are, by virtue, political. By understanding the significance of such expression instead of dismissing it, we can nurture a movement and a generation of people. “We have to stop silencing the things that are authentically them,” says Felder. “You could be silencing the next Zora Neale Hurston or Duke Ellington.”

Lesson Plans and Resources for Parents and Teachers

Lesson plan for grades 6-12: What Was the Harlem Renaissance? A Walk Through Harlem, PBS Learning Media

Lesson plan for grades 9-12: Harlem Renaissance Lesson Plan,

Additional reading: 7 Prominent Artists of the Harlem Renaissance in NYC, Culture Trip

Additional reading: The Virtual Harlem Project, Dr. Bryan Carter

Read more on how to talk to your kids about Black history in’s Anti-Racist Curriculum, here. 

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