“Perhaps the mission of the artist is to interpret beauty to people – the beauty within themselves”
– Langston Hughes
During the Spring Semester of 2018, Melissa and I had the opportunity to spend twelve weeks studying the Harlem Renaissance through weekly workshops at Talking Stick Learning Center. In every way possible, we learned from the rich beauty of the leaders of this key time period. We studied timelines of African American culture in the United States and then zoomed in on what was happening in the US and specifically in New York City during the 1920’s and 1930’s. We asked a lot of questions as we studied race and privilege. We talked about our own ethnic backgrounds too. We looked at discrimination and stereotypes and asked what it means to be disenfranchised. We also discussed the arts and explored the ideas of transformation and renewal.
That’s great, you might say. But it sounds like a lot of lectures.
While we value learning to take notes and we did practice the skills required to get information from a speaker, we made a concerted effort to center the voices and experiences of the black and brown voices of the Harlem Renaissance. We looked at this rich concentration of people. So from the artists, performers, writers, leaders and visionaries we learned about this movement that took place in such a concentrated place.
Throughout the semester, we listened to a lot of music and poetry from people like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. We took turns reading and listening to the writing and ideas from Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, Claude McKay, and Marcus Garvey. We studied a lot of Langston Hughes and even tried our hand at emulating his poetry style. We looked at painters such as Aaron Douglas and performance artists such as Joesphine Baker and Paul Robeson.
We sang, we danced, we recited, we drew, and we listened a lot too. Each young person gave a presentation on a key figure from the Harlem Renaissance. We made bits of theater together and made music videos of our favorite songs. We made connections from the art of the Harlem Renaissance to pop culture today. We had these thoughts and ideas in our minds and hearts and bodies in a variety of ways. Finally, it was time to go see their neighborhood, look for their faces on murals, read their words where they were written, and see Harlem for ourselves.
What would it be like to take a group of fifteen young people through New York for the day? Of course, we had already scouted the trip and thoughtfully organized the day. We had a packet with pages for each of our carefully planned stops. We spent twelve weeks learning and playing together during weekly workshops, but as they say, travel is when you really get to know one another.
We left early in the morning and made our way to New York. And this is when the magic began. We spent the entire day with an engaged and thoughtful group. They were so excited to make the connections from what we had studied to where we were now walking.
We studied murals along our way to the Schomburg Center. Here, over the site where his remains are entombed, we read some of our favorite poems by Langston Hughes. We also visited their special exhibit. While our main study was from earlier, we knew that the current special exhibit at the Schomburg Center on Black Power Movement was too good to pass up, so while still doing our workshops, we also zoomed forward to be ready for this special exhibit. We believe in making those connections when there are rich opportunities.
We visited the National Jazz Museum and interacted with music. We even got to see Duke Ellington’s white baby grand piano!
By this time, we were more than ready for lunch. We ate at a soul food buffet alongside people who live and work in the neighborhood.
After lunch, we made our way to the subway so that we could take a stroll in Central Park. We found the Duke Ellington statue and sang some songs here. Then we explored some green space for awhile before making our way to the National Black Theatre.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of their unique theater. The National Black Theatre [NBT] was founded in 1968 in the heart of Harlem by the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, an award winning, visionary artist and entrepreneur. NBT is among the oldest Black Theaters in the country, and amongst the longest owned and operated by a woman of color.
We were taken around on a tour of the theater and had the privilege of taking part in some improvisational exercises on their stage. It was truly an honor and I did not want to leave.
Eventually, we made our way past a few more key sites, such as the Apollo theater, more murals, and everyday street vendors and well established shops.
Finally, it was time for a quick dinner before returning back home to Philadelphia. We were given one more gift, when there happened to be a gospel choir performing at our dinner location. Truly, the day was magical. But it was so much more than this day thanks to the many ways that we studied the Harlem Renaissance before we visited.