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Place, Culture, and Representation

The Art and Politics of the Harlem Renaissance

The Power and Purpose of Poetry and Visual Art

Learning Targets

  • I can use photographs to identify and explore different points of view.
  • I can identify common symbolic themes among a selected group of poems and art.
  • I can identify the mood of a selected group of poems and art.
  • I can identify clues about racial identity in a selected group of poems and art.
  • I can use poetry and/or art to express a range of emotions.


The Harlem Renaissance began as a series of literary discussions in New York City, and initiated the steady migration of young black writers and artists to Harlem. Among the poets, fiction writers, and essayists to work in Harlem were Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Helene Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jessie and Arthur Fauset, and Jean Toomer. Through their artistry, the literature of this period helped to facilitate a transformation from the psychology of the “Old Negro” (characterized by an implied inferiority of the post-Reconstruction era when black artists often did not control their own means of production) to the “New Negro” (characterized as self-assertive, racially conscious, articulate, and, for the most part, in charge of what they produced). Landmark texts that marked this transformation and encouraged increased exploration of African American experience through literature included The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson, and The New Negro (1925) by Alain Locke. The short-lived literary magazine Fire!! (1926) also had a significant impact on the literary production because it represented the efforts of younger African American writers (such as Hughes and Hurston) to claim their own creativity apart from older artists (such as DuBois and James Weldon Johnson), as well as to establish independence from potential white exploiters.

Countee Cullen, for example, explored in his poems his own and collective African American identity. Some of his strongest poems question the benevolence of a creator who has bestowed a race with such mixed blessings. Claude McKay, born and raised in Jamaica, wrote of the immigrant’s nostalgia and the American Negro’s pride and rage. Several writers, including Hughes, Hurston, Larsen, and Toomer, relied particularly on the rich folk tradition (oral culture, folktales, black dialect, jazz and blues composition) to create unique literary forms.

Several themes can be found in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. These themes include Harlem life and culture, establishing an identity as African Americans, and feelings of anger and frustration about white America, and what they felt was the denial of democracy.

These same themes are also present in the visual art produced during the Harlem Renaissance. Palmer Hayden was one of the first artists in America to depict African subjects in his paintings, including African American folklore. Aaron Douglas produced illustrations for both The Crisis and Opportunity, the two most important magazines associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas was also heavily influenced by African culture. Augusta Savage was an African American sculptor who was commissioned to sculpt busts of both W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. While studying sculpture at the Cooper Union in New York City, she had an experience that would influence her life and work: In 1923, Savage applied to a special summer program to study art in France, but was rejected because of her race. She took the rejection as a call to action, and sent letters to the local media about the program selection committee’s discriminatory practices. Savage’s story made headlines in many newspapers, and she is today considered to be one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Begin the Activity

Part 1
Distribute the following poems.

Either alone or in groups, ask students to answer the following questions:

Student Questions

  • What theme(s) are present in one or all of the poems?
  • What is the setting of these poems?
  • What tone or mood is depicted in these poems?
  • With what or whom do these poets identify?
  • How is racial identity depicted in these poems?

Distribute the following images or project them. Either alone or in groups, ask students to answer the same questions as above.

  • Photo 7027, Song of Towers by Aaron Douglas
  • Photo 7002, The Harp by Augusta Savage

Part 2
Have students find photos of themselves, either current or past, or have them take photos of each other. Ask students to write an interior monologue (from the inside looking out) using the following prompts. Then, have students write from an outside perspective while looking at the photo, again using the prompts. Have students share the two companion pieces aloud and reflect on the differences. Ask students how photographers might have been taking photos from either an insider or an outsider perspective.

Alternately, have students find photos of themselves, find a partner, and work in pairs. Have students trade photos, and write the outside perspective (using prompts) while looking at their peer’s photo. Then, have students return the photos to their original owner, and have the owner write from the inside looking out (using prompts). Students can then compare what they have written, and read their pieces aloud.

As a culminating activity, students can write a two-voice poem, pulling lines from both perspectives (inside/outside) to create a dialogue.

Prompts for writing from the inside:

  • Where are you? Look around and describe the space/place.
  • Who are you? How old? Describe yourself.
  • What is happening in your life at this time?
  • What is the time of day? What just happened? What is about to happen?
  • What are you looking at?
  • Who is with you?
  • What are you feeling? Thinking?
  • What is it that you want?
  • Describe what you don’t see. Is there anything out of the frame that is important?

Prompts for writing from the outside:

  • Describe what you see, starting at the top of the photo and going down.
  • How old is the person? What color hair? Skin? Eyes? Go for detail.
  • Where is the person (or people)?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What may have happened immediately before? After?
  • What is this person thinking or feeling?
  • What do you think this person may want?

Extension Activities

Writing Connection

Ask students to find an object of cultural or emotional significance to them, such as an old family photo, object of art, or a personal memento. Have them compose a poem about that photo or object. Students should describe the photo or object, who gave it to them (or with whom do they associate the object), what feelings are associated with the object, and where it is kept now. Display the photos or objects in class and/or publish the poems on a class blog or website.

Poetry Connection

Have students view “Duality Duel” by Daniel Beaty. This poem explores Beaty’s duality as a black man: the part that has assimilated and achieved, and the part that resists and persists. Thus, his piece touches on the duality found within each of us: whether it is two parts of ourselves that contradict, or the part that the public sees and the part that we keep hidden. After students view the video, have them create their own “Duality Duel” poems, stealing lines from the writing about their photograph and using Beaty’s poem as a model. Thus, their inside self and their outside self are put in dialogue.

CAUTION: This poem is subtitled “The Nigger and the Nerd in Me” and contains language often intentionally eliminated from classrooms. Beaty has created a “school appropriate” version that can be shared in written or audio only format. Please note: there is a fee associated with the audio, so only a short portion can be played without a purchase. Whatever version you use, first have a very earnest and open discussion on the use of the “n” word: Why would an African American artist choose to use that word today? Why or why not should the full version of the poem be shared? How does the “n” word discussion echo the issues that came up in Hurston’s time? For a good setup for the conversation, you can share the following resources with students, then have the conversation, then use the model:

“Cornel West vs. Michael Eric Dyson: The N Word Debate”

“The NAACP Buries The N-Word”

“The N-Word Exposed” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2xrylOu_9A&safe=active

“Today Show: Michael Dyson Speaks on the Soul of Hip Hop”

next: The Power of Jazz

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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