- IntroductionEncounter Tradition, Make It New: Essays on New Approaches for Teaching the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance remains one of the most productive, influential, and creative periods in American and African American history and culture. Not simply a literary movement, the period signaled a rebirth in national ideology. In The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents (2007), Jeffrey B. Ferguson describes the Harlem Renaissance as “a braiding of history, memory and myth … a layering of the official historical record, the unofficial popular account of the racial past, and the broad frameworks, or narratives … about the ultimate meaning of American life” (2). Thus, a course on the Harlem Renaissance presents college-level instructors with opportunities to explore political and aesthetic dimensions that emerged during this period through a variety of media.
Unquestionably, today’s scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance is substantially different than it was twenty years ago. Although recent scholarship continues to explore the period through the paradigm of culture, politics, and history, an increasing number of scholars are employing compelling frameworks to do so. As a result, new and innovative approaches are now accessible to undergraduates. In addition to seminal texts — Nathan Irvin Huggins’s Harlem Renaissance (1971), David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981), and Cheryl Wall’s Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995) — current scholarship explores, through increased interdisciplinarity, gender and sexuality, class politics, and the visual and performing arts. For example, Gary E. Holcomb’s Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (2009) explores the impact of McKay’s staunch Marxist ideology on the erosion of his literary reputation. [End Page 353] Holcomb applies different theoretical and pedagogical approaches — queer theory and transnationalism — to reassess McKay’s works that are outside the traditional constructs of the Harlem Renaissance. Another example, James Wilson’s Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance (2011) rediscovers historically neglected plays and performances of the Harlem Renaissance. Using queer and critical race theories, Wilson examines plays and performances that challenge preconceived notions of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation during the period. The recovery of these plays and performances represents a new voice and perspective on what became a palpable aesthetic during the period. Furthermore, the recent scholarship of Caroline Goeser’s Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity (2007) and Anne Carroll’s Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance (2007) explores “traditional” texts through “new” approaches by using print culture to analyze the ways in which the visual and graphic artists of the period played a significant role in redefining African American identity.
As the aforementioned texts illustrate, recent scholarship continues to reshape and redefine critical and pedagogical approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance. Current scholarship not only expands the existing canon by introducing students (and instructors) to “forgotten” artists of the era but also introduces new pedagogical approaches and resources that address these crucial changes. In essence, it is important to create approaches that extend our understanding of familiar texts, as well as assess the unfamiliar ones.
Whether focusing on the visual artists, the musicians, or the writers of the period, the vast majority of teachers design Harlem Renaissance courses to reflect the innovation and originality that symbolize the period. Yet, it is the innovation and originality of this period that frequently creates the greatest challenge. While current scholarship offers new opportunities, the difficulty facing college-level instructors remains. Because the works produced during the Harlem Renaissance reflect an ongoing dialogue between the individual (or ethnic/racial collective) and mainstream cultures — among other social, religious, and political concerns — teachers often find it especially challenging to encapsulate, analyze, and critique the period within the confines of a one-semester course. Having taught the Harlem Renaissance in different academic environments, I have encountered similar difficulties in each environment despite the diversity within the student populations that I teach. [End Page 354]
For most scholar-teachers, examining the Harlem Renaissance within a cultural, political, or historical context offers a broad and inclusive approach to the study of the works...