Episode 12, Season 4
During the Harlem Renaissance, more Black artists than ever before were asking key questions about the role of art in society. Oftentimes the Harlem Renaissance is misconstrued as a discrete moment in American history–not as the next iteration of a thriving Black artistic tradition that it was. Literature scholar Julie Buckner Armstrong urges educators to look deeper into the texts left to us by these artists and come to a fuller understanding of this stage in a long chronology of Black artistic expression.
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- Learning for Justice Article, A Teacher Reflects on the Literary Canon
- Learning for Justice Article, A More Complex Women’s History
- Learning for Justice Lesson, Poetry and Storytelling Café (grades 3-5)
- Learning for Justice: Student Text, I, Too (grades 6-8)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1994. During my senior year, I took Public Speaking—a requirement for graduation. Dr. Anne Watts was the instructor. She taught oratory at Morehouse for 42 years before retiring in 2013.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I took the class with one of my running buddies, Lewis Bingham. Lew was also from New York—Queens, not Brooklyn—and was a history major too. We met during our freshman year, and over the next four years we rolled through Morehouse together. There was no better study partner than Lew. He came to every study session prepared, and on those occasions when we had to pull an all-nighter, he always baked a cake—one as good as anything my grandma made. Public Speaking with Dr. Watts was our last class together.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: After graduation, Lew stayed in Atlanta and attended law school at Emory, while I headed to North Carolina and enrolled in graduate school at Duke. Despite the distance, we remained fast friends. He was in my wedding, and I was in his.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The other day, I sent Lew a text. It read, "Public Speaking. Senior year. Dr. Anne Watts. Brawley Hall 100. Lew Bingham's favorite poem of all time is?"
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And three minutes later he texted back: "’If We Must Die,’ Claude McKay." And then he sent a picture of the poem, framed and hanging in the entryway to his home. It was the same poem he recited for his final presentation for Dr. Watts, Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," written in 1919.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I texted Lew back that I've been teaching that Claude McKay poem in my classes for 20 years, and every time I do, I introduce it by saying, "This is my man Lew Bingham's favorite poem." Then I added, "But all these years, I've never asked why that poem?"
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Lew texted back: "The message. You win some and you lose some, and you might lose your life along the way, but don't let it be said you went out less than a man. Make them taste the pain and acknowledge and respect you even in your defeat." He added, "It's about manhood and pride in Black people. One needs the other."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: A poem written a century ago that inspired Black people then to fight back against racial injustice continues to inspire Black people now—like my brother Lew Bingham—to do the same.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To understand the African-American experience during the Jim Crow era, as well as its lasting legacy, which stretches into the present, you have to understand the way Black people made sense of the world. And one of the best ways to do so is through the work of Harlem Renaissance artists like Claude McKay.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The artists, authors and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance spoke truth to power about the realities of Jim Crow. It was a national movement, and their poems, plays and paintings conveyed complex realities of struggle and resilience. Julie Buckner Armstrong is a scholar of Southern and civil rights literature. In this episode, she spoke with my co-host Bethany Jay about the literary and artistic movements that followed the Civil War, placing the Harlem Renaissance within the longer tradition of Black artistic expression.
Bethany Jay: Dr. Julie Buckner Armstrong is a professor of English at the University of South Florida. We currently have about nine inches of snow and counting here in Massachusetts, so South Florida sounds pretty good. Dr. Armstrong is also the author of Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching, and co-editor of both the Civil Rights Reader and Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement. So we are so happy that you could bring your expertise on both teaching and literature to us today.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: I am thrilled to be here, this is one of my favorite podcast series. I use it all the time in my teaching. And as a side note, I also walk in the mornings, and I use it to accompany my walk, so I get in many steps with these podcasts.
Bethany Jay: [laughs] I can imagine! Before we can dive into how to use literature to teach the Jim Crow era, it's appropriate to sort of get our bearings. Can you give us a sense of how the literature of this era is categorized or sort of understood as a whole?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes. When we're talking about the Jim Crow era, roughly the 80 years between the Civil War and World War II, we're actually talking about three different literary moments. So the first one that I would identify is from the late 19th century through the early 20th—Reconstruction through World War I. We can look at the '20s, the Harlem Renaissance, as another literary era. And then beginning in the 1930s through the 1950s, then we have a third one. So why don't we start with by looking at this first literary period: Reconstruction through World War I?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: That is a period that Charles Chesnutt referred to as "Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem." There's an excellent collection of the same title edited by Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhart that points out how this period gets misunderstood. So on the one hand, these are the years in which the system of segregation that we call Jim Crow was developed, and the lynching violence that reinforced those laws and customs was at an all-time high.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: A conventional way of speaking about this time period, or the 1890s, especially, is called the "nadir" or the low point of race relations in the United States. But on the other hand, these decades were an extraordinarily productive time culturally and politically. A recent podcast series by historian Kidada Williams uses the term "seizing freedom" to refer to the work of defining new forms of Black identity in this post-slavery environment. And literary scholar Koritha Mitchell has another very useful term "homemade citizenship" that describes how African Americans develop strategies that fostered success and civic belonging within an otherwise hostile environment.
Bethany Jay: And, of course, Kidada Williams has an episode on this season of the podcast about lynching. So folks can go back and listen to that.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, she does.
Bethany Jay: What are some of the authors that we might associate with this post-bellum, pre-Harlem period?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well, they include authors Chesnutt, Charles Chesnutt, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, journalist Ida B. Wells, activist and writer Frances Harper, educator Booker T. Washington and the philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois. So these are just some of the figures that were creating the intellectual and cultural conditions for freedom to flower.
Bethany Jay: Hmm. And then after that early period and the nadir, is that when we get into what we think of as the Harlem Renaissance?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes. This movement—the Harlem or New Negro Renaissance—basically of the 1920s, was a branch of modernism, which was the dominant artistic movement of the 20th century's first half, where an international experimentation with new forms of representation tried to capture what was perceived as a break with an older traditional world's way of seeing and thinking and being. For African Americans during the 1920s, that creative energy coalesced in Harlem, which was filled chock-a-block with Black cultural workers.
Bethany Jay: And for those of us who just dabble in literature, these are the names that are going to be familiar to us that we associate with the Harlem Renaissance.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: It's many of the big names: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, just to name a few. In other arts, you have artist Aaron Douglas, dancer Josephine Baker, political activist Marcus Garvey, jazz composer Duke Ellington, blueswoman Bessie Smith. So many.
Bethany Jay: History teachers are used to teaching the word "renaissance" as meaning rebirth. Is that a good way to think about the Harlem Renaissance? Is it really a rebirth of Black culture?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well, yes and no. Alain Locke, who edited the 1925 anthology The New Negro, which the era sometimes takes its name from this, spoke of these years as a spiritual coming of age. And the very word that he uses—"new"—signals a break from something defined as old. But on the other hand, many figures traditionally associated with this renaissance such as Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, had been giving voice to a complex and beautiful and powerful Black identity long before the 1920s. So it's not so much a break from older forms of expression and ways of thinking, but a building on earlier ideas.
Bethany Jay: And we generally think about the Harlem Renaissance as sort of coming to an end as we get into the Great Depression. So what follows in the '30s and '40s from the Harlem Renaissance?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, the way that I would think about this is to paraphrase Charles Chesnutt and call it a "Post-Harlem, Pre-Black Arts Movement" period. And it's defined variously as focusing on urban realism or social protest, where writers took a good, hard look at some of the gritty realities of poverty, violence and injustice. And as the nation plunged into the Great Depression and another World War, the idea that art should directly engage social issues began to dominate.
Bethany Jay: So for this 1930s and '40s period, who are we thinking about when we're talking about key writers and artists?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Some of my favorites include Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison—also very big names—Dorothy West, Ann Petry, Alice Childress, whose play Trouble in Mind is now being staged on Broadway. So exciting times.
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: But also emerging in these decades and continuing into the '50s and '60s were writers such as James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks. And their work would come to define literature of the civil rights era, which was a topic we covered in season three of Teaching Hard History.
Bethany Jay: That's right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources, as well as a full transcript complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Bethany's conversation with Julie Buckner Armstrong.
Bethany Jay: We've thought a little bit about the individual periods, but how can teachers use the distinctions between these different periods or the way that these periods built on one another in the classroom to help their students make sense of this period?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. It's important to think about these different forms of expression and how they dominate at different moments. And situating assigned text historically and artistically, I think, helps to better understand how they work as literary artifacts, and how they respond to their particular historical moments. So the ways that writers approach topics such as Jim Crow violence, there are continuities across time, but they can also shift over time.
Bethany Jay: Can you give us an example of a particular set of texts that work well for thinking about that issue?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So a poem such as Dunbar's "The Haunted Oak" from the late-19th, early-20th century post-bellum, pre-Harlem era, it makes a political statement that addresses lynching. But this is a very different kind of poem from Richard Wright's 1935 poem "Between the World and Me," which is from a different literary period. Wright focuses on the gruesome details, and that's just something that a writer from Dunbar's time period is not going to do.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So why don't we take a look at Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "The Haunted Oak?" And this is a poem about a lynching, like many from that era, that is trying to humanize the victims. You know, lynching itself is the ultimate act of dehumanization. So Dunbar narrates this poem from the perspective of the tree in which a lynching victim hangs. The tree is looking at the victim with compassion, foregrounding his humanity.
I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
A guiltless victim's pains.
I bent me down to hear his sigh;
I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
And left him here alone.
They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
And why does the night wind wail?
He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
And the steady tread drew nigh.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: And I would like to just read a portion of the final stanzas from "Between the World and Me" by Richard Wright.
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun.…
Julie Buckner Armstrong: In this one you see, again, Wright is trying to humanize his victim, but he also wants you as the reader to envision quite directly the horror of lynching. It creates this sense of horror, of disgust. You know, it makes you upset. And from that emotional place, it intends to spur you as the reader to some kind of social action.
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: As a side note, in episode three of this podcast series, which you alluded to before, Professor Williams does a great job of addressing how teachers from different grade levels can confront difficult topics such as explicit violence. And this is very much a gruesome poem, and probably too much for students in earlier grades. But I don't think so much for high school students. I think they're able to handle this.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm. And those are great examples of how the periodization of Jim Crow in terms of literature changes the way that it engages with the same history.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Indeed, it does.
Bethany Jay: So how would you approach these two poems in your own classroom with your students?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: That's a very good question. I think if I were looking at each one individually, for Dunbar, I would focus on the regularity of the verse. With this pre-Harlem Renaissance poem, it's a very regular rhyme scheme and meter. Whereas when one gets into the 1920s with the experimentation in forms and so forth, we get fewer and fewer poems that are more traditional in this way. I think an exception is Claude McKay's, who often uses the sonnet form. But Dunbar is definitely the product of an earlier, pre-1920s literary moment. So I would look at it formally first, and have teachers ask their students how does this poem work as a poem? You know, how does it form a sense of a regularity, but out of that regularity, how does this image of a lynching explode and destroy that sort of comforting feel of the rhyme and the rhythm? And how does this act as a kind of disjuncture from the formal qualities of the poem—the juxtaposition of the meter and the rhyme and the emotion of the image?
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: With Richard Wright, I would do something very similar. It's not a poem that is formal. You could even cast this as a kind of prose poem, in the lineation and the meter and the rhyme. Why is Wright moving away from the regularity of poetry? It's not because he doesn't know how to rhyme, or he doesn't know how to use the meter. It's a conscious aesthetic choice to do something that's much more fragmentary, that's much more open ended. How does this free verse poem, how does that format help readers to approach the question very differently? But it's definitely a formal literary production here, because there are some very conscious images. We have the quills of the white feathers. How is he using imagery of whiteness here? And how does he use other colors like red? And what's the effect of something like that? So I would approach this as a literary artifact and think about the juxtaposition between some of the poem's formal qualities and the subject matter, right?
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: But to put these two into comparison—and I think this is really good with older students. First of all because, you know, the Wright poem is definitely more appropriate for them than it is for, say, middle schoolers.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: But it's also a higher-level critical thinking skill to compare and contrast, rather than just to strictly analyze. So if you put these two poems in conversation with one another, how do they work to create emotion or kind of feeling in you as a reader? And how do they work differently? If you want to get even higher-level thinking skills, how does that feeling that the poem creates in you, how is that dependent upon historical circumstances or aesthetic practices of the time or rhetorical possibilities?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: There are things that Richard Wright could say as a writer in 1935 that were just not appropriate in the 1890s. You know, there was language that people could use that they did not in an era that was much more formal or traditional.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: A very important side note here is that the title of this poem by Richard Wright, "Between the World and Me," is where contemporary author Ta-Nehisi Coates takes his own title for a 2015 book that is about navigating the new Jim Crow. So again, these continuities occur between literary moments that show them as building upon one another.
Bethany Jay: I'm glad that you mentioned continuities because we focused on Dunbar and Wright as an example of change that occurs across these literary periods, but there's also some significant continuities across these three periods. Could you talk with us a little bit about those?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Certainly. And great segue, by the way. [laughs]
Bethany Jay: Thank you.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Continuities do exist across these three different time periods. So for instance, writers help us imagine other possibilities beyond Jim Crow. So many, like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, did this very literally—they relocated to places like Paris. But what about speculative fiction or Afrofuturism? Two modes that are very popular with students these days. But they're not just contemporary forms, right? So there's a brilliantly satiric 1931 novel by George Schuyler titled Black No More, which looks at what happens when a scientist develops a process for turning Black people white. So I think students might find that interesting as well.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Another point—and this is one I get from literary scholar Koritha Mitchell's recent books—is writers responding to Jim Crow, not necessarily creating a literature of social protest but providing models of success. And this could be writers from the late-19th century, you know, the 1920s, or even more contemporary figures. Mitchell looks at Michelle Obama. So she takes it from someone like Frances Harper to Michelle Obama in her book. So people providing these models.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So think about the ways that someone like Hurston creates spaces of Black joy, love and freedom. She acknowledges racism in her work. And you can think about a short story like "The Gilded Six Bits" where that comes in at the end. But the primary focus of that story is not racism, it's the deepening relationship of the young newlyweds Missy May and Joe.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Similarly, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, now this is clearly set in the Jim Crow South. But the plot centers on its main character, Janie's quest for a relationship that's romantic, that's based in equal partnership, and that values her desire to be a strong, independent woman.
Bethany Jay: That's interesting. Is there anything specific from Their Eyes Were Watching God, for example, that might exemplify that point?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: There is a marvelous passage about midway through Their Eyes Were Watching God, where the protagonist, Janie, has a realization about herself and her relationships. Right before this passage, she had been listening to the storytellers on the front porch, which is the central gathering place of their community. They're telling stories about a man named Matt Bonner and his mule. And the mule is very much mistreated, and Janie begins to identify with the mule as a mistreated human being. Right after listening to the story of the mule, she begins to stand up to her husband, Jody, Joe Starks. And afterwards, she has this realization. It's almost as if her idealized version of her husband falls down and she is able to see things much more clearly. And it's a moment of self-awareness for her. I'll just read that passage.
Bethany Jay: Great.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: "Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it, she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams, just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way, she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings, dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now, and suddenly she knew how not to mix them."
Julie Buckner Armstrong: And then right after she has this realization, she takes a bath, she puts on a fresh dress and a fresh head kerchief. And it's almost like with the new clothes there is a new woman.
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Hurston is writing a novel about a Black woman's quest for freedom and independence. And in this section, you clearly see how Janie is coming into awareness of herself as an independent woman separate from her husband. And Hurston says in that passage, "She was saving up her feelings for some man she had never seen." And that's ultimately what comes to pass is that shortly after that, Janie's husband passes away, which paves the way for a new man to come into her life with whom she has this equal partnership that is joyful for both of them.
Bethany Jay: So again, Hurston is providing these kinds of alternative ways to be that aren't necessarily grounded in the Jim Crow experience.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. And they're not just not grounded in the Jim Crow experience, but they're also moving apart from a patriarchal way of thinking about both women and men.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningforJustice.org/PodcastPD—"PD" for professional development. That's "PodcastPD," all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: "identity"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: We've talked about three literary moments, and that does cover quite a lot of ground, especially for one podcast. So why don't we do a deep dive into the Harlem Renaissance? It's just such a popular period. It's highly teachable, and it's a great way for students to learn about the realities of Jim Crow, while also seeing a range of the Black experience that's beyond the hard history.
Bethany Jay: Great. What are the literary beginnings or ends of that period, knowing that these things are always a bit fluid?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: The Harlem Renaissance, the period is typically dated from 1919 to 1929. It's linked to historical moments: the post-World War I years to the Great Depression. Typically, one dates the Harlem Renaissance from the publication in 1919 of Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die." It's kind of an opening salvo, I guess you might say. It speaks to that defiant spirit of The New Negro that Locke identified, and also to the Jim Crow violence that exploded in what James Weldon Johnson called the 1919 Red Summer, because of blood flowing in the streets, so much racial violence during that time period. And as far as the end of the Harlem Renaissance, many people link that to the Great Depression's falling economic opportunities, especially as they impacted writers and artists. But, you know, this time period can be difficult to pinpoint. It's not as if someone got together in 1919 and said, "Hey, Great War is over. Now we're all going to be modernist." It doesn't work that way.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is probably one of the most frequently taught novels of the Harlem Renaissance, was published in 1937, and that's just one year before Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children, which was clearly a product of the social protest era.
Bethany Jay: Hmm. Gotcha. So they're not these discrete moments in time.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, not at all.
Bethany Jay: And they're not all in Harlem. Not all of these authors and artists are located in Harlem too, correct?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: You are quite correct. Harlem was a geographic center, like maybe Paris was for modernism. But these ideas and these forms of expression that writers were employing are much more general and widespread. People like Hughes and McKay, they traveled the world, they saw themselves as citizens of the world. It's important to note Washington, DC, was also quite central because of figures like Alaine Lock and writer Georgia Douglas Johnson, who ran these literary salons that were a very important place of artistic conversation and thought.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Here in Florida, we love our Zora Neale Hurston. We also love our James Weldon Johnson, who has a scene in his novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man about cigar rolling in Tampa. And so, of course, we talk about that in our classrooms and use it to say it's the Harlem Renaissance, but it's happening everywhere.
Bethany Jay: I was thinking before about the possibilities of interdisciplinary work between English and social studies teachers for this moment. And as we're thinking about this period in a kind of interdisciplinary unit as it were, what factors are really influencing the Harlem Renaissance authors, both within and outside of the literary world?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. I think we might start to answer that question by looking at a couple of historical links. So first, the Great Migration, which your podcast series dealt with very well in episode seven. One of my favorites. So here you have millions of African Americans beginning in the 19-teens migrating from the Jim Crow South to urban centers north and west and the Midwest. So a place like Harlem which, you know, is a small area, it's about three square miles, developed a critical mass of Black people and Black talent that became a percolator for the arts, right?
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Another historical link that I would make would be to World War I, which you dealt with in episode nine. You know, after the war is over, you have Black soldiers returning from the front and from experiences beyond the brutal violence and segregation that they faced in the United States. And they brought with them this fighting spirit that spread outward to that "spiritual coming of age" that Locke called it.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: I would also like to note from a literary perspective that there was a significant increase in Black-focused means of publication. So organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League had magazines that featured Black writers. The NAACP's Crisis, the Urban League's Opportunity, are just two examples of many publication venues for emerging writers. Publications such as Locke's New Negro included not just writing, but visual arts like Aaron Douglas. There was a short lived but very important magazine Fire!!, which was founded by Hurston, Hughes, Cullen, Bruce Nugent, artist Aaron Douglas, among others. And it's many different literary forms. There are plays, there's poetry, there's essays, and some very stunning visual works by Aaron Douglas. And I think it's important to note that anthologies like The New Negro and Fire!!, both of which you should be able to find online, are great teaching tools because of the way that they blend writing with the other arts. They're in conversation with one another. They're not discrete or isolated products.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, I might also mention alongside of this James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, which is collections of what he calls "Sermons in verse." And those too are illustrated by Aaron Douglas. So one frequently sees the visual and the literary working in concert with one another.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. So it sounds like there's both this historical context and cultural context, but then there's also infrastructure of publication and money behind this moment that helps it to flourish.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes. And that infrastructure, some of it is also developed by wealthy patrons, many of them white like Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason, who financed and promoted the work of Black artists like Hurston and Hughes. But some of it is also developed by African Americans for African Americans. It's about keeping the voice and even keeping the money within the Black community. And that becomes even more especially true as one moves into, say, the Black arts movement. But this was happening in the Harlem Renaissance as well.
Bethany Jay: What makes the Harlem Renaissance work in the classroom so well?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: That is a great question. I have two answers to it. So first of all, this period produced a large amount of literature that's both beautifully written and accessible for broad audiences. It's not like some of the other modernist productions, say, by Picasso or T.S. Eliot that one has to be educated into to understand. So it's infinitely teachable, right? A second thing that makes it work is that we might look at the Harlem Renaissance years as a great time of questioning, exploration, experimentation and boundary testing. And I think that speaks to young people in particular. Young minds tend to be more open and are developing, asking questions themselves, exploring. That's why they find it fascinating.
Bethany Jay: As the mother of a teenager, I can sympathize with boundary testing.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes.
Bethany Jay: Can you give us some specifics that work in the classroom to help our students understand the experimentation, and perhaps identify with some of the experimentation and testing that's happening in the Harlem Renaissance?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, certainly. You know, the Renaissance and then modernism more generally was all about breaking taboos. We know our young people love to do this. So it's all about breaking taboos, pushing boundaries of identity and artistic form. You know, you have a writer like Jean Toomer who saw himself primarily among modernism's avant garde. He circulated in New York's Greenwich Village. He also was part of those DC circles of Georgia Douglas Johnson and others. The major work that Toomer produced in 1923, the book Cane, blends poetry, fiction and a form that they call the closet drama, which means that it has dramatic elements, but it's meant to be read rather than performed. This sort of hybrid format with its fragmentary style was, I think, very indicative of the era, and not something that writers were doing prior to the 20th century. So they're figuring out new ways of writing that respond to what they perceive as a new world.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: And along with the writing, Toomer, along with many others, was not just questioning literature and what it could do and what it should do, but questioning conventional notions of race, racial and sexual identity. So Toomer defined himself outside of constructed boundaries. And in his letters, he famously says two quotes. One is about sexual identity. He says, "I am neither male nor female nor in between." And with regard to race, he said, "I am of no particular race. I am of the human race." So this is definitely questioning these boundaries about what it means to be not just an artist, but a person.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. Sounds like it could have been written last week. [laughs]
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes. [laughs] You know, the writing of this time period speaks to ours. It can be a fun classroom exercise for teachers to just put in a poem from the time period and not give students the author or the title or the context, and just ask them when it was written.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. [laughs]
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Very often they'll say, "Oh, I think this was from this past year." It's like, "Well, no. That's 100 years ago." So just to add to that, I would direct listeners to Nella Larsen's novel Passing, which deals with a character who's Black but lives as a white woman, and an extremely popular film version on Netflix.
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So it obviously speaks to these notions of identity that we're thinking about in our own era as well.
Bethany Jay: And in this moment, it's really interesting to be able to explore some of those overlapping intersections of gender and sexuality and sexual expression, because it's so much a part of what kids in particular are grappling with today.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes.
Bethany Jay: Can you give us a couple examples of good resources to use for those particular topics?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, yes. These were important topics and conversations that people were having in the 1920s as well. So, you know, drag balls were all the rage in Harlem clubs. In Fire!!, that anthology I mentioned before, Bruce Nugent has an openly gay short story, "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." Blues woman Ma Rainey has a song, "Prove It On Me Blues," where she sings—I'm not going to sing, however, I'll just read the text. [laughs] She says, "It's true I wear a collar and tie." And then in another section she says, "I went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must have been women because I don't like no men."
Bethany Jay: Hmm.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: "Wear my clothes just like a fan. Talk to the gals just like any old man."
Bethany Jay: Oh, interesting. My colleague teaches with that song, and I know he learned about it from the first episode of Queer America, where Daniel Hurewitz has a very good discussion about how to teach with Ma Rainey.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, that sounds fantastic. I would love to look that up.
Bethany Jay: Well, and in addition to these terrific resources that will resonate I think so powerfully with our students, are there other sort of go-to online resources that our listeners can use to pull up some material for the classroom?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, one of my favorites is from the National Humanities Center, which has a website on the making of African-American identity from 1917 to 1968. And this site offers specific teaching tools and classroom exercises. And in addition to the National Humanities Center materials, the Jim Crow Museum out of Ferris State University has curriculum materials that link to its very amazing and eye-opening collections.
Bethany Jay: Yes.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: PBS has a great site for grades 7 through 12 on both the Harlem Renaissance and Jim Crow. Columbia University has a Harlem Renaissance curriculum guide for grades 6 through 8. Library of Congress has some very good visuals and documents. And, of course, the best teaching toolkit I know of is found at LearningforJustice.org.
Bethany Jay: And for those who are listening, we will link to any resources that we talk about in this episode in the show notes. Can you walk us through some of your go-to assignments for teaching the literature of the Harlem Renaissance?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: That is a very big question that one could answer in many ways.
Bethany Jay: We could do a whole other series of episodes on it, I'm sure.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, we could. So for today, I think I might focus on one text, which is one of my favorite poems, Langston Hughes's 1925 "I, Too," and look at the ways that a teacher could scaffold up different assignments. "I, Too" by Langston Hughes.
Julie Buckner Armstrong:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, using this poem, we can almost follow Bloom's taxonomy of learning. So on that first lower tier, there's understanding or that basic tier, understanding. And second, you can move into analysis, more basic to more complex forms of analysis. And then, as you're getting into those upper levels of learning, you're looking at creative and critical application. So one can use the strategy for all grade levels depending on how far in the scaffolding process one wants to go.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So in teaching this poem on those first two analytical levels, you know, you can start by reading it and just appreciating it. You know, just listen and hear the beauty of the poem. Or one can move up and analyze its literary elements. So who is the speaker, and what is the situation? How does eating in the kitchen operate as a metaphor of segregation? What does it mean for the speaker to say at the beginning "I sing America," versus the end when he says "I am America?" So there's a repetition with a twist that has a lot of meaning that students can talk about.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Taking the analysis a step further, what historical events or other artistic works is the poem in dialogue with? I called this assignment "Text in context," and so I look at text in the broader historical and literary context. So obviously, this poem is a response to Jim Crow, and it offers a good way to introduce the time periods, racial divisions and attitudes, as well as resistance to Jim Crow. In terms of artistic dialogue, the first line of "I, Too," is an allusion to Walt Whitman's 1855 poem "I Hear America Singing."
Bethany Jay: Hmm.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Hughes's poem is in free verse, and Walt Whitman was one of the first poets in the US to employ this form. But Whitman's poem also presents a very idealized version of the United States, where many different voices come together equally to create the Great American song. Now Hughes is both critical of the idealized America, and also hopeful that one day that idealized America will come into being.
Bethany Jay: Hmm. And then publication date, I would imagine, is also important.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, and that's a next level that I would take the analysis of this poem. I would take it up to the next level by looking at its publication history. You know, with any text, where is it published and by whom and why? So "I, Too" first appeared in a March, 1925 issue of the magazine Survey Graphic, which was called—the special issue was called "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro." And that was a precursor to Alain Locke's collection, his anthology, The New Negro, where it was also republished there as well.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So I would ask students, "How does 'I, Too' embody the spirit of the new Negro?" Hughes says, "They sent me to the kitchen, but I'm going to be there laughing and eating well and growing strong." We can think of the kitchen as a segregated space. But you know, it's also where the food is. So… [laughs]
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So how does it embody the spirit of The New Negro? And what else appeared in Survey Graphic or in Locke's anthology alongside Hughes? And what can we learn from how these texts interact? So I think looking at that publication history and that context is also very important to get a richer, deeper understanding of what's happening in the literary text.
Bethany Jay: I think the fact that "I, Too" isn't visually intimidating must also help to sort of get students engaged with it. I know when I give my students a very long source to look at, I feel like sometimes they just kind of turn off. They're intimidated by it. But when you give them something that doesn't look intimidating, then they're more prone to kind of engage with it.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, they can just give a visual glance on the page and see,"Oh, this is a short poem!" And they think, "Oh, it must be easy! I won't have any trouble with this assignment." But, you know, going deeper and deeper into it, you see how a short poem can really pack a punch.
Bethany Jay: Have a lot of depth.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yeah.
Bethany Jay: For younger classes, what strategies might work to engage them with this kind of content in the classroom?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well, you know, for younger grades, I mean, I remember being in first and second grade and my teachers reading to me and, you know, I loved being read to. You know, with younger audiences, you don't necessarily have to do a deep dive into the analysis. They respond to the beauty of the language.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: And I'm thinking about my son's experience as a learner. In third and fourth grade, this is where his teachers were teaching him about metaphor and simile and poetic elements or literary elements such as this. So you can do that with Langston Hughes. It has the foundational elements of literary analysis in very approachable ways to them.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: By the time you get into middle school with students, then you can think about some of these other issues about, well, when was this poem published, and how is it part of a movement? And how does it compare to other works and contrasts with other works? And how is someone like Hughes responding to someone like Walt Whitman? And what does it mean for him to quote Walt Whitman and sort of riff off of that and create his own literary work?
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So keeping with that "I, Too" conversation, a different and more creative assignment I use all the time in my college classes is also easily adaptable to lower grades. And I call the assignment "I Too am America." And it's very popular. Students love it. So what I ask them to do is to interview elders, and by that, I mean grandparents or community members. It's unfortunate sometimes with our younger students that they see an elder as someone who's in their 30s, but you know, whatever. But someone older, right? And, you know, record stories of family or community practices, or sayings or songs or, you know, gather photos, gather recipes, things like that. It's kind of like an oral history, but not as in depth, and something that focuses on forms of expression, right?
Julie Buckner Armstrong: So basically, you're asking them to think like Zora or think like Hurston, to follow Hurston's anthropological model of participant observer, recorder. And, you know, you can also find a lot of examples of her work online in this mode. But, you know, have students interview people, and then after the interviews and the gathering of materials, get your students to write up their work and collect it into a book form. It can be print or online, whatever. It may be adding accompanying music and art. So you're getting into the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and that interdisciplinarity of it. Again, going back to Locke and The New Negro Anthology or that magazine Fire!!, they're both great examples of how those different forms can work in collaboration.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: And, you know, what I like about this assignment is that students then have a tangible takeaway from the class, plus a sense of accomplishment and plus a celebration of their diverse experiences as individuals. And honestly, I think this insistence upon the inclusion rather than segregation of diverse voices into the broader American story is ultimately what the Harlem Renaissance was all about—that celebration of identity provides a direct counter to the challenges of Jim Crow, old and new.
Bethany Jay: I can't think of a better way to end than on that note. Thank you so much for being with us.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, thank you. This was such a pleasure. I enjoyed the conversation.
Bethany Jay: I did too. I learned a lot as well.
Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well as a listener, I continue to learn from these podcasts.
Bethany Jay: That's wonderful.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Julie Buckner Armstrong is a professor of literature at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. She is the editor of The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Reconciliation, as well as The Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature. Dr. Armstrong is also the author of Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching, which received an honorable mention for the C. Hugh Holman Award from the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight—examining its history and lasting impact.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Buckner Armstrong for sharing her insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Poetry Foundation, Claude McKay
- Julie Buckner Armstrong, Talks/Interviews
- Julie Buckner Armstrong, English, University of South Florida
- Julie Buckner Armstrong, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching
- Julie Buckner Armstrong (editor), The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Reconciliation
- Julie Buckner Armstrong (co-editor), Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom's Bittersweet Song
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance
- Charles W. Chesnutt Archive, Biographical Sketch
- Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard (editors), Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877-1919
- Kidada Williams, Seizing Freedom, a podcast on Black liberation, progress & joy
- Koritha Mitchell, Books + Articles
- Teaching Hard History, Lynching: White Supremacy, Terrorism and Black Resilience
- The New Yorker, The Man Who Led the Harlem Renaissance—and His Hidden Hungers
- Alain Locke (editor), The New Negro: an Interpretation
- The New York Times, LaChanze on Alice Childress’s "Trouble in Mind"
- Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Haunted Oak
- Richard Wright, Between the World and Me
- BlackPast, Richard Wright (1908-1960)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
- George S. Schuyler, Black No More
- Zora Neale Hurston, The Gilded Six-Bits
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Time, What Is Red Summer? What to Know on 1919's Deadly Race Riots
- Richard Wright, Uncle Tom's Children
- James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
- Teaching Hard History, Premeditation and Resilience: Tulsa, Red Summer and the Great Migration
- Teaching Hard History, Black Soldiers: Global Conflict During Jim Crow
- NAACP, History of The Crisis
- National Urban League, The Opportunity Reader: Stories, poetry, and essays from the Urban League's Opportunity magazine
- POC Zine Project, FIRE!! Devoted To Younger Negro Artists (1926)
- James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
- Poetry Foundation, Jean Toomer
- Jean Toomer, Cane
- Nella Larsen, Passing (audiobook)
- Nella Larsen, Passing (film)
- Bruce Nugent, Smoke, Lilies and Jade
- The Reckoning, ‘Smoke, Lilies & Jade:' Queer Harlem Renaissance Short To Make Atlanta Debut At Out On Film
- Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Prove It On Me Blues
- Queer America, Incorporating LGBTQ History in your Classroom
- National Humanities Center, The Making of African American Identity: Vol. III, 1917-1968
- Ferris State University, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
- PBS NewsHour Classroom, Lesson Plan: The Harlem Renaissance
- PBS LearningMedia, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
- Columbia University, Curriculum Guide: Harlem Renaissance
- Library of Congress: Classroom Materials, The Harlem Renaissance
- Academy of American Poets, About Langston Hughes
- Vanderbilt University: Center for Teaching, Bloom’s Taxonomy
- Walt Whitman, I Hear America Singing
- Poetry Foundation, Walt Whitman
- The Survey Graphic, Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro (March 1925)
- Julie Buckner Armstrong (editor), The Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literatur