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The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond

Seminar Leader:
Herman Beavers


This seminar seeks to achieve several objectives. First, it seeks to demystify the processes by which there came to be a “literary movement,” often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. In so doing, the seminar seeks to complicate the ways that faulty acts of historical periodization lead us to reduce what we understand as the Renaissance to a brief interval in African American literacy history (most often 1912-1929) more often associated with failure and underachievement as an isolated cultural phenomenon rather than with the more wide-ranging and complex processes emerging out of Modernism. As such, this seminar seeks to understand Harlem, not as a segregated community designated as the “mecca” of black life in the U.S. but rather as a part of the overall cultural scene in Manhattan, where artists engaged in cross-racial and cross-cultural contacts such that influence flowed in both directions.

Second, the seminar seeks to explore the impact of the Great Migration on the life chances of African Americans leaving rural (and agricultural) life for the challenges of urban (and industrial) life in cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Though a number of narratives of the Renaissance paint it as a heroic circumstance, where black writers sought to portray the African American community in positive terms, closer examination of the materials in the anthology (along with more recent historical scholarship) suggest that a more accurate portrayal of what went on leads us to characterize the Renaissance as an instance where a plethora of cultural tensions were played out when writers sought to represent black life. These tensions often sprang from the divergent perspectives of blacks long established in Northern urban life and newly-arrived blacks from the South, whose adjustment to their new surroundings produced stories of both tragedy and triumph. To be sure, the association of black life with urban impoverishment becomes a staple of representations of black life beginning in the 1920s. Further, because the residual effect of slavery produced caste and class conflicts between those who sought to be “modern” and those who sought to live according to traditions passed down from previous generations a number of debates arose with regard to how black life would (and should) be represented. However, there were other struggles being played out along lines of gender and sexuality that are only now being understood as intrinsic elements of the Renaissance. As a phenomenon in which black women were deeply involved at all levels- e.g. editorial, creative, and critical- an assessment of the Renaissance must attend to the silences, erasures, and slippages that have diminished their role, just as the sexual politics of urban life led both men and women to reconfigure (often via acts of masking and misdirection) their notions of romantic love.

In the curricular units arising out of this seminar, readers will see a variety of approaches, some of which emphasize performance and creativity, others which insist on reimagining what we think we know as women’s history or hiphop culture. Extending from elementary to secondary education, these curriculum units also put a premium on the notion that the Renaissance, whether it took place in Harlem, Chicago, Washington, or Paris, is best understood as a conscious effort of self-fashioning. As such, these units understand that writers during the Renaissance sought to acquire a literary voice capable of articulating the challenges of trying to negotiate urban life, eve as that voice enacted the Modernist formulation of “making it new.”

Unit TitleAuthor


The American Dream Redefined – How the Harlem Renaissance Questioned and Changed the Idea of the American Dream

Laura C. Jacklin
Keywords: History, Literature, maryann dicker, poetry, The Harlem Renaissance

A Celebration of African American Oral Tradition in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Deborah Samuel
Keywords: African American oral traditions, The Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston

Poetry and Music of the Harlem Renaissance and Today

Alexandra Volin Avelin
Keywords: African American activists, Alain Locke, poetry, The Harlem Renaissance

The Women of the Harlem Renaissance

Catherine Thornton-Brownlee
Keywords: African American culture, African American literature, The Harlem Renaissance

Women of the Harlem Renaissance

Megan Wapner
Keywords: African American literature, The Harlem Renaissance, women

Hip Hop Renaissance: The Struggle for Self-expression

Russell Kaback
Keywords: African American culture, hip-hop, poetry, The Harlem Renaissance

Philadelphia’s Relationship to the Harlem Renaissance

Keysiah M. Middleton
Keywords: African American History, Harlem Renaissance, New Negro Movement, Philadelphia

Soul to Spirit to Speak to Writers: Poetry and Song

Bonnee L. Breese
Keywords: african american poetry, Black Poets, Harlem Renaissance, poetry, Women poets