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 Against the Odds: The Trials and Tribulations of the Harlem Renaissance
by Erin Lunstrum
Boise State University

Grade: 7-8
Time Allotment: Four to five 45-minute class periods, or three to four hour-long classes
Subject Matter: Art History

         From 1920 until about 1930 an outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City, this African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement and more than a social revolt against racism, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become "The New Negro," a term coined in 1925 by sociologist and critic Alain Leroy Locke.

       By presenting the activities in this lesson effectively, students will become familiar with a relatively unknown artistic American movement in the 1920's entitled "The Harlem Renaissance." Within this movement, students will identify the difficulties of surviving not only as an artist, but enduring issues of race and discrimination. After examining video clips and participating in a web quest, student will present information gathered and discuss issues pertaining to African American art through a power point presentation as well as an oral presentation.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Explain the cause of the rising of African American artists in Harlem
  • Identify at least three primary contributors to the artistic movement
  • Describe the obstacles faced by struggling African American artists
  • Understand and discuss the significance of the Harman Foundation

National Fine Art Education Standards

  • For students to have an informed acquaintance with exemplary works of art from a variety of cultures and historical periods, and a basic understanding of historical development in the arts disciplines, across the arts as a whole, and within cultures.
  • Students should be able to relate various types of arts knowledge and skills within and across the arts disciplines. This includes mixing and matching competencies and understandings in art-making, history and culture, and analysis in any arts-related project.
  • Students should be able to develop and present basic analyses of works of art from structural, historical, and cultural perspectives, and from combinations of those perspectives. This includes the ability to understand and evaluate work in the various arts disciplines.

Idaho State Fine Art Education Standards

  • Students will have knowledge of cultural, ethnic and historical aspects to the fine arts in a variety of forms, contexts and applications.
  • Students will make significant connections between visual arts and other disciplines.
  • Students will learn about and be able to reflect upon, interpret, analyze, and critically assess the characteristics, qualities, processes, and merits of their work and the work of others in the visual arts.

Media Components :

Against The Odds:The Harlem Renaissance Videocassette Dist. By PBS Home Video, 1994

Web Sites

Handout, "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes
Copy of web quest, "Identifying the Harlem Renaissance"
Access to computer lab with Power Point or presentation software
Posterboards, markers
Paper and pen or pencil
Glue sticks, colored paper

Prep For Teachers
Prior to teaching this lesson, overview and bookmark the above listed websites and read the information about the Harlem Renaissance. Be prepared to give a brief introductory lecture on the Harlem Renaissance before activities begin.

  1. Provide a copy of "Let America be America Again" for introductory activity for each student.
  2. Make copies of Harlem Renaissance Web Quest for each student
  3. Have poster board, presentation software available and other necessary materials for student presentation at the end of this lesson.

Introductory Activities
Provide a brief overview of the Harlem Renaissance by discussing the impact WWI had on the pride of black Harlem. Review information listed in overview of this lesson and convey to students. Distribute the poem, "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes. Have students take turns reading individual stanzas out loud to the classroom.

After students have read the poem, discuss the meaning. Ask questions such as, "What was your reaction to this poem?" " What lines stood out, or what do you think he meant?" "What emotion did this poem stir up? Anger? Resentment? Redemption? Finally ask students "How do you think art was represented in this era?"

Go to media lab and have students log on to the website and click on the artwork of Louis Marilou Jones and toggle through of her artwork. Then explore the other two artists William H. Johnson and Palmer Hayden. Ask students about the initial reaction to the art displayed on the website. Ask, "Were you surprised to see this art as something more personal and less reactionary?" Discuss.

Assist students in realizing that, even though bitter oppression took place, a great deal of the art was represented mostly as soft, sensual and took into account the beauty of the human spirit. Write on the board this quote by Marrianne Williams, "Our internal state determines our experience of our lives; our experiences do not determine our internal state" and discuss correlation between art viewed and the society at the time.

Learning Activities
After your students have finished viewing and discussing the Harlem Renaissance web site, insert the video, "Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance" into your VCR. START the tape (7595). PLAY until 7881 where the color images from the Harman Institute Gallery are displayed. After stopping the tape; create a discussion with students regarding the difference between the propagandistic film clip of the Art gallery opening and what the reality of the situation was.

PLAY the video until 8597 or the point of discussion with the art historian. STOP at 8597. Discuss the definitions of complex, subtle, human and compare with the definitions of contentment and struggle, as discussed in this section of the video.

STOP the video at approximately 9666 and discuss the aspect of the Parisian influence beyond just the study of art for African Americans. (Optional: FAST FORWARD to 9718)
PLAY video until 0214. STOP video at this point where they discuss how African Americans have found their won voice. Repeat or write on the board the ending few lines of the poem recited in this portion of the video: "We stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves," and discuss student's reaction to this statement. Ask students about the struggle for African Americans to find the middle ground. The combination of discussion and viewing the Harlem Renaissance video will take approximately 45 minutes to one hour at this time.

Culminating Activity
Explain to the class that they are about to explore the Harlem Renaissance. Ask students whether they would like to be a poet, an artist, or an activist. Divide class into the three groups evenly. Distribute Web quest assignment and go over in detail, focusing on the scoring rubric. Tell students they will be graded primarily on their presentation. Allow one to two days for students to gather the information necessary to formulate a presentation at the end of the unit. Explain to students that each group has approximately ten to fifteen minutes to present their information.

Language Arts
Present a written journal accounting the events that took place in the Harlem Renaissance
Write a poem similar to the ones listed on the Web site

Social Studies
Compare and contrast the Harlem Renaissance to the post World War II African American situation.
Describe the events that lead up to the artistic and cultural movement in Harlem in the 1920's.


  • Visit your local history museum and investigate the African American situation of the west. What impact did they have out west? What were their primary occupations? Was segregation prevalent?
  • Access the public library in your local area and conduct further research on African American poetry and art. Compare and contrast later 20th century African American art to that of the 1920's.
  • Visit your local art gallery and investigate artistic movements that are currently on display. What comparisons can you make? What about other cultural art? What similarities are there? What is different?

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