History Through an Artistic Lens

The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social, artistic and influential movement in Harlem, Manhattan, during the 1920s. More recently, it was the inspiration for an interdisciplinary project in Class 7, which spanned six weeks of the school year.

Head of Middle School Arts and Integration June Anderson shared, “We have been doing this project for several years, and each year we try to go deeper in creating context for our study of this important time. Students need to have some knowledge of the ancient and medieval empires of Africa as well as the African American experience of enslavement and Jim Crow laws in order to understand the broader story from which the Harlem Renaissance emerged.”

To begin their diligent study, the students explored a “museum” of images, music, poetry, essays and dance both prior to and during the Harlem Renaissance. As a class, they listened to the poem “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes – a moving piece that reflects the American dream that was stripped from immigrants and people of color – which Ms. Anderson noted as a “touchstone for our study.”

This immersive and far-reaching integration combined History with Art, Music, Dance and Drama. After studying aspects of the Harlem Renaissance in relation to their respective classes, the students came together to share their own creative work inspired by the writers, artists, choreographers, composers and performers of this transformational time.

Drama students examined the play “Rachel,” written by Angela Weld Grimké, which highlights racial injustices suffered by African Americans ranging from restricted job opportunities to lynching. In the Black Box Theater, students brought this play to life through a “living museum,” with focus on set, sound and costume design and characterization.

Students were seated in three areas throughout the museum and, when prompted, recited emotional dialogue or passages from the play. Through a superb set and a calming ambiance, visitors were instantly transported into the world of the play.

After spending time absorbing this dramatic exercise and sharing observations and feedback on the large poster board displayed outside the Black Box, the 7th graders traveled down to the Assembly Room.

There, students debuted their original dances based on the work of inspirational Harlem Renaissance choreographers and dancers including Pearl Primus, George Snowden and Katherine Dunham, among many others. “We explored the multifaceted role dance played; it was an avenue for physical innovation, rhythmic experimentation, entertainment and protest,” Ms. Anderson commented.

The first dance was a riveting performance of the “Tranky Doo,” an upbeat piece composed of authentic jazz steps. Dressed in all black and in bare feet, the dancers impressively swayed, spun, stomped and clapped to the beat of the music.

Following the dynamic dancers, music students shared their original percussion pieces inspired by Langston Hughes’ poems. They reflected on how certain choices and interpretation can affect the listener and the story they hear. After studying vocabulary such as tempo, dynamic changes, repetition, imagery and meter, they used drums to express the meaning of the words.

Earlier in the year, students also enjoyed a visit from the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, who helped to underscore that roots of blues and jazz came from the South and that the Great Migration brought this music to the North.

Finally, through a “gallery walk,” art students showed off striking collages. Their art was informed by the work of artist Romare Bearden. Vivid color popped from every canvas, each displaying a unique reflection of the Harlem Renaissance. Their classmates circulated through the room, asking the art students thoughtful questions, while a soft melody by Ella Fitzgerald hummed in the background.

To conclude the day, Art teacher Duane Neil rolled out a long, white piece of paper, stretching from one side of the Assembly Room to the other. Students were instructed to write or draw what resonated with them from their Harlem Renaissance study. The young scholars quietly reflected, adding a colorful spread of wide-ranging remarks to the blank sheet such as “inspired,” “individuality,” and “creativity.”

This merely captures a brief synopsis of the in-depth analysis and collaboration put forth by Class 7 students and their teachers. It is a valued experience that will surely stay with them into Upper School, where they will continue the experience of Arts Integration.