What figures, connections, or areas of inquiry require further attention or reflection?
I started learning about the Harlem Renaissance when I was a graduate student. I was drawn to the movement by the connections forged among its writers, artists, musicians, and performers. I came to understand many of its features as modernist: the innovativeness of its participants, the ways they challenged the beliefs and practices established by their elders, the ways they linked texts in various media to offer new images of African Americans and new ideas about how texts could do cultural work—or not. I taught courses in which my students and I explored the modernism of the Harlem Renaissance, and I argued—in classes and in my research—that understanding the Harlem Renaissance as modernist helps us better understand both movements. [End Page 436]
Now, though, when I teach the Harlem Renaissance, it’s to high school juniors, and much of that intellectual framework has fallen away from how I talk about it. My sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students aren’t necessarily interested in literary movements, and they don’t particularly want to talk about the implications of how the texts are written. But they do want to talk about the people involved in the Harlem Renaissance: how they lived, why they did what did, and how they knew each other. And it turns out that the things that make the Harlem Renaissance modernist are interesting to them. It resonates with my students that the younger generation of Negro artists, as the creators of the avant-garde journal Fire!! called themselves, were explicitly rebelling against their elders. The fact that participants in the movement integrated the arts draws in those students who are more interested in music, the visual arts, or performance than literature. And the idea that so many of the participants in the Harlem Renaissance—young and old—were trying to “make it new” as they redefined African Americans appeals to students who don’t simply want to do things the way they’ve always been done.
As a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance who is teaching the movement to high school students, then, my challenge is to translate my understanding of the movement and its modernism into ideas and activities that engage my students. Simply presenting the idea of the Harlem Renaissance as modernist does not work at the high school level; if I do that, I have veered into the dreaded arena of “lecturing.” Really, though, the same was true when I was teaching introductory-level courses on the college level. Students who were taking Introduction to Literature courses just to fulfill their general education requirements did not come to my classes with an inherent interest in literature for literature’s sake.
Presenting the Harlem Renaissance to these students, then, makes me wish for more scholarship on how to teach the movement, with an emphasis on classroom activities. Essays and even a few books on teaching the Harlem Renaissance do exist, but the focus of much of this scholarship is on background information that teachers can then present to students. That’s helpful, certainly, particularly for teachers who don’t know much about the Harlem Renaissance and suddenly find themselves needing to insert a unit on it into their American literature or other survey courses. But how do we bring the Harlem Renaissance to life?
My high school students often want to do projects—multimedia, collaborative, and creative—not papers, and these kinds of projects provide some ways into the Harlem Renaissance. What if I have them create group portraits like The New Negro? Or radical magazines like Fire!!? Or illustrated texts like those created by the poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance?
Take, for example, the concept of group representation, which I see as the central mission of Alain Locke’s massive 1925 anthology, The New Negro. When I talk to students about the need Locke and other participants in the Harlem Renaissance felt to redefine African American identity through texts by and about them, my students understand the concept, but it remains a bit abstract to them. That changes if I ask them to create...