Every year, I finish the year with my 8th graders studying the history and geography of New York City to get them ready for their class trip there in June.

We visit Central Park, so we study Central Park ahead of time. We spend time in Times Square, so we study that too. We visit the World Trade Center, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, so we study them, as well.

One place we visit, that I haven't always devoted enough time to, is Harlem.

For the past several years, one of the highlights of our trip has been visiting the Apollo Theater on 125th St. The students get a tour of the theater, hear stories about its history and even perform on stage. It's really memorable.

Except that our almost entirely white student population has no context to put any of it into.

Yes, we talk about African-American history throughout the year. We watch, discuss and blog about Roots. We discuss Jim Crow, Plessy Vs. Fergusson and segregation. I try really hard to relate how various historical topics - like Immigration or Jacksonian politics relates to African-Americans. But when it comes right down to it, our well-to-do, white students, who live in a homogenous, rural community in New Hampshire don't really have any way to relate to the Black Urban Experience.

So, this year, I decided to tackle the Harlem Renaissance.

I don't know if I'm the ideal person to teach ANYBODY about the Harlem Renaissance - I'm a middle-aged white man with no real musical or artistic background or credibility - but I'm the teacher available, so I decided to take my best shot and give them at least SOME background about Harlem and what makes it so historically remarkable.

After consulting with colleagues much, MUCH smarter than me, I decided to approach the Harlem mini-unit through the theme of "Finding Your Own Voice".  The way I see it, what made the Harlem Renaissance so mind-boggling is that a group of people who had never been able to express themselves before, suddenly had the opportunity to do it and the challenge of figuring out what the heck their "voice" was. This is a state of affairs that adolescents can relate to pretty well. They desperately want to communicate SOMETHING, even if they aren't really sure what that is, yet.

I start the mini-unit with this quote:

For generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being – a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be “kept down,” or “in his place,” or “helped up,” to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden.

…The Negro today wishes to be known for what he is, even in his faults and shortcomings

-Alain Locke “Enter the New Negro”, 1925 

In class, we discuss the meaning of the passage. Why would someone resent being seen as someone to be "helped up"? What does the phrase "in his place" mean? How do they - the students - feel about being labeled?

I explain to them that the Harlem Renaissance was a beautiful example of a group of people who had never been allowed to express themselves before finding their voice. They weren't even always sure WHAT they were trying to say, but they were changed by the fact that they could try.

So - unfortunately - that raises the question of why African-Americans had not been able to express themselves before this. What was preventing them from expressing who they were?

This is where the discussion get really rough. (Be advised - there are some very, VERY difficult photos below.)
(It's interesting to note that the year when the Supreme Court sanctioned segregation, the rate of black lynchings spiked and white lynchings fell to almost zero.)

Lynching is a very difficult topic to discuss.

(I found my statistics for this graph here, by the way.)

I explain what a lynching is and emphasized that it is always done outside the law and always publicly - as a demonstration of power. I show my students a series of very graphic, very disturbing photos.

[Please note that this is not done gratuitously. I have spent a year of class-time leading up to this. This is presented in a very particular context and is appropriate as such, but I would be very careful about using these pictures with any students and certainly none that are younger than my 8th graders.]
I use this opportunity to introduce my students to the political philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.
[Okay. Technically, neither of these men had much to do with the Harlem Renaissance, but this is a good opportunity to talk about a couple of important American figures that my students are unlikely to have ever heard of.]

At this point, my students are pretty depressed. This is tough stuff to discuss and definitely a side of American history that no one likes to think too much about. But the point has to be made that African-Americans hadn't been kept from developing their own voice by snarky comments or subtle social pressure. They were often suppressed by deliberate mob violence.

So, the question I pose to my students is this: What will happen when African-Americans suddenly have an opportunity to express themselves freely?
The answer to that question starts with the building of the New York City subway system in 1904. When it was announced that a subway line would run underneath Central Park to the northern end of Manhattan, real estate developers realized that they could buy property very cheaply in areas like Harlem and put up luxury brownstones to cater to the crowds of professionals they envisioned commuting to work in MidTown.

Except that the new tenants didn't show up in the numbers that the developers had hoped for and they were left with some very nice, but very empty units in Harlem and were going broke. 

What happened next isn't as straightforward as I present it to my students, but essentially, a small number of affluent African-Americans were allowed to move into Harlem. Almost all African-Americans in New York at the time had been restricted to a not-very-nice area of the West Side known as "Black Bohemia", but there was a small-but-important population of well-off black professionals who were eager to live somewhere nicer. (This is the "Talented Tenth" that W.E.B. Dubois saw as the key to African-American advancement.)

As more African-Americans moved to Harlem, more white people moved away, which kept rents low enough that African-Americans of different classes could start moving there.

By the early 1920s, Harlem had become a predominantly black city-within-a-city that could start to explore its own culture in a way that had never been available to African-Americans before.

This is where the discussion gets fun.

[A disclaimer - I don't pretend to be an expert about art or jazz and certainly not about poetry, but I am enthusiastic about it, especially jazz. I can't authoritatively tell students why a painting or a poem is good, but I can go into great detail about why I like it so much. I'm kind of an idiot, but an enthusiastic one.]

As I looked for Harlem Renaissance poetry to share with my class, I found many good ones, but most of the ones that I thought I could have a good discussion with my guys about were long-form poems that wouldn't fit neatly onto a PowerPoint slide and would require more time than I could afford to devote to it. In the end, I went with this poem, which I love.

[I include this clip of Bing Crosby to give my guys a point of reference for what mainstream white audiences were listening to. Yes, I realize that Bing wasn't exactly contemporary with the Harlem Renaissance, but it's surprisingly difficult to find good footage of Rudy Vallee.]
[I love the above clip with a burning, white-hot passion.]
At this point in the school year, we are desperately short on time to cover anything in any kind of depth. I'd like to discuss the history of Harlem in more detail - indeed to learn about it in more detail - but I feel like I've opened the door for my very, VERY sheltered, white students to widen their world view.

I hope I've done this topic justice.

Your comments and suggestions are, as always welcome.
5/21/2012 02:42:22

Wow. what an amazing lesson! So fabulous for your students to get to experience this, the ups, and downs, and music and joy and pain. Just wonderful!

5/23/2012 05:31:04

I love your lesson. I didn't learn about any kind of African American history in depth until my undergrad year. Do you have ANY African American kids in your class. In high school, I was often the only one, and of course, while learning about slavery, everyone in the class would stare at me or look at me then look away when I met their eyes. I eventually had to address the class and tell them...yes I'm black, no I'm not a slave, and yes, I'm a student in the class learning about this topic the same way you are...so stop staring at me. I always worry about the minority in the room and their experience of processing the information as the only black person in the room.

When I taught at Monarch (97% Latino from Mexico), I had similar issues. Our jobs as teachers are so important. Some of my students never leave the immediate neighborhood so their view of the world is narrow. I'm grateful that you are expanding your students' knowledge.


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