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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Place, Culture, and Representation: The Art and Politics of the Harlem Renaissance

Introduction

#7051
Photographer: Berenice Abbott

Between 1910 and 1930, the African American population increased by about forty percent in northern states (especially in major urban areas) as a result of the Great Migration. Cities including Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City (including Harlem) had some of the largest population increases in the early part of the twentieth century. African Americans, who had until that time resided mostly in the southern United States, were not only fleeing violence that occurred in the South, but were also being recruited for industrial jobs that were offered in these northern cities. Because jobs were concentrated in urban areas, which had also attracted millions of new or recent European immigrants, tensions rose as people competed for employment and housing. At the same time, the return of many soldiers from World War I, both black and white, added to this competition for jobs and resources. In the summer of 1919, also known as “Red Summer,” race riots occurred in more than three dozen cities.

Many African Americans were disappointed with the lack of opportunities open to them as the United States struggled to transform itself from a rural to an urban society. There was a palpable disparity between the promise of U.S. democracy and its reality. They were angered by the racial prejudice and violence they often encountered. A larger, better-educated urban population fully comprehended the limitations that white-dominated society had placed on them. As African Americans became increasingly disillusioned about achieving the justice that wartime rhetoric had seemed to promise, many determined to pursue their goals of equality and success more aggressively than ever before.

This post-war era also gave rise to several organized political and economic movements that helped fuel the Harlem Renaissance. These movements created a new sense of empowerment in the African American community. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had nearly 44,000 members by the end of 1918. In the early 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s message of racial pride drew hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women to his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and its Back to Africa movement. At the same time, wealthy white patrons “took up” New York’s African American community, financially supporting young artists and writers, opening up publishing opportunities and financing Harlem’s “exotic” music scene.

#7013
Photographer: unknown
Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University & Getty Images

What followed was an artistic rebirth, or renaissance, of art and ideas that has been compared to the European Renaissance, beginning in the fourteenth century. During this time, African Americans saw the opportunity to create a new identity for themselves. Within this artistic output, two ideologies were dominant. The first—represented by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, and others—viewed the arts as an area where talented and culturally privileged African Americans could lead their race’s fight for equality. They wanted artists to draw on their cultural heritage and experience, proving the beauty of their race and its critical contribution to American culture as a whole. Artistic success, they believed, would not only foster pride in the African American community, but also prove to white Americans that blacks were their equals. Du Bois hailed the “Talented Tenth” and Alain Locke the “New Negro” as thinking persons whose race had survived war, migration, and prejudice, and aimed to lead the way to future social justice.

Some African American artists, on the other hand, opposed the art-as-propaganda view supported by Du Bois and others. Artists such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Aaron Douglas believed that they needed to depict the ordinary African American person as an individual, while simultaneously speaking to a unique African American experience, and celebrating life and all it had to offer. They argued against depicting only “cultured” and “high class” African Americans who mirrored the standards of white society. These young artists advocated art for art’s sake. Some artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston, were criticized for accepting white patronage.

The Great Depression slowed the Harlem Renaissance, mainly due to the loss of patronage from white supporters. Influential journals of the time, including the National Urban League’s Opportunity and the NAACP’s The Crisis also reduced their financial support of African American artists, and some artists moved on to other artistic opportunities outside of Harlem.

Standards

U.S. History Standards

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression

Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1935)

  • The causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society

Historical Thinking Standard 2: Historical Comprehension

Historical Thinking Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Historical Thinking Standard 5: Historical Issues

Common Core

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2

  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6

  • Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4

  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.4

  • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.3

  • Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

References and Further Readings

Library of Congress
http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/harlem/harlem.html

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library

Gifford, N. The Harlem Renaissance: A unit of study for grades 9-12. National Center for History in the Schools; Los Angeles: University of California, 1999.

National Center for History in the Schools
http://www.nchs.ucla.edu

Stewart, Catherine A. “‘Crazy for this Democracy’: Postwar Psychoanalysis, African American Blues Narratives, and the Lafargue Clinic.” American Quarterly 65, no 2, (June 2013): 371-395.
http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/american_quarterly/v065/65.2.stewart.pdf

The official website of Zora Neale Hurston
http://zoranealehurston.com

Jazz: A film by Ken Burns
http://www.pbs.org/jazz/classroom/visualize.htm

Otfinoski, Steven. African Americans in the Visual Arts, Revised Edition, A-Z. New York: Facts on File, 2011.

Wikipedia

“Great Migration (African American)”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Migration_(African_American)

“Langston Hughes”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langston_Hughes

“Augusta Savage”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusta_Savage

“Marcus Garvey”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Garvey

“Street Photography”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_photography

Key Learning Targets

Students will:

  • Examine the factors that contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Explore how the cultural production of this movement influenced artistic expression across a range of media.
  • Investigate how white Americans perceived African Americans through African Americans’ artistic representations.
  • Investigate the role that the arts (visual, literature, music) played during this time.
  • Understand, through photographs, how people of African descent in this era sought to create a new identity for themselves, as well as establish links to their past.
  • Understand how people of African descent used photography to explore and create a distinctly black identity.

Essential Questions

  • How did Harlemites define themselves through images (both illustrative and photographic), and how did those images contribute to the visual, cultural, and political identity of Harlem?
  • What contexts and factors (political, cultural, economic) give rise to historical change?
  • What contexts and factors contribute to the development of new cultural identities and affiliations?
  • How can images and photography serve the formation of cultural, social, and geographic identities?
  • How can artistic expression also function as a political statement or social critique?
  • Are the arts—and photographs in particular—effective agents for social change and social critique?

Prerequisite Knowledge

Before viewing the photos and doing the activities, students should have a background knowledge of industrialization and urbanization, and what caused populations in northern U.S. cities to increase.

Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Have students brainstorm about the following questions. They can do this individually as a writing exercise, as a group using the whiteboard, or in small groups.

  • What do you think the purpose of art is (visual, literary, music, dance, etc.)?
  • What do you think the term “renaissance” means and how it might apply to this period?
  • What comes to mind when you think of the 1920s in New York City?
  • What are “street” and “documentary” styles of photography? How are they similar? How are they different?

Street vs. Documentary Photography and the “Truth”: Documenting the Culture of Harlem
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background

Street photography is a form of photography that focuses on people in public spaces. For our purposes, the term “street” refers more to a moment in time rather than a place—a time when women were gaining greater freedom, workers were enjoying more leisure time, and when society began to spend more time outdoors in public settings.

The origins of street photography in the United States can be traced to roughly the same time as the origins of jazz, with both taking a decidedly different, more spontaneous approach to traditional art forms. During the 1930s, as cameras became lighter and more portable, spontaneous photography became possible. In this respect, street photographers could more easily “shoot from the hip,” without the need to set up a tripod or hold the camera to their eye, thus eliminating unwanted attention to the photographer.

LEARNING TARGETS

  • I can identify how details in a photograph may indicate class status.
  • I can describe how architectural details in photographs may have related to street culture.
  • I can explain how street photography can capture the political climate of a movement.
  • I can explain how documentary photography can enhance a political message.
  • I can explain how photography can support both assimilation and nationalistic viewpoints.

#7087
Photographer: Gordon Parks
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-fsa-8d28569

Street photography and documentary photography share many similarities; however, there are several important differences. In documentary-style photography, there is typically a predetermined intention to explain a particular social or economic phenomenon. In this way, documentary photography is related to journalism, and is often used to promote social change. Street photography, on the other hand, is not focused on a particular subject or social movement, allowing for more freedom to spontaneously depict scenes as they unfold in public places. In this way, street photography is inspired by the often surprising nature of street life.

The cultural heart and soul of the Harlem Renaissance was located at the intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. There, one could find numerous clubs—such as the Apollo and the Cotton Club—as well as bustling street scenes that included shops, vendors, and apartments. The very architecture—the brownstones—became synonymous with street life and street culture, and of Harlem itself. Here is where much of the street photography of Harlem took place.

Photographers, however, were not the only people to document the daily life of African Americans during this time. Zora Neale Hurston was an African American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. Hurston wrote more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays. She also wrote four novels; her most well-known being Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston rejected the racial uplift efforts to present African Americans in a way that would appeal to the cultural standards of the white majority. Yet she also asserted her work as distinct from the work of fellow Harlem Renaissance writers she described as the “sobbing school of Negrohood” who portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, downtrodden, and deprived. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern African American communities as she remembered them from her own childhood “reality” in rural Florida. For example, in the first chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character does not realize that she is African American until she sees a photograph of herself.

Hurston had her critics, however. Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston’s novels. Several of her literary contemporaries accused her of creating caricatures of African American culture rooted in an overtly racist tradition. Hurston’s work also did not engage in political issues, unlike the work of other writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Refusing to identify herself solely by her race or gender caused many to question her intentions, especially given that a white patron supported her financially. Some critics questioned whether she was writing to serve her patron or writing to genuinely celebrate her African American culture.

Hurston was not the only person to receive criticism of her views on what “Negrohood” should entail. The Harlem Renaissance was born out of a tumultuous period in American history. As the Great Northern Migration was occurring, and African American WWI veterans were returning home to hostile white crowds, the residents of Harlem saw this as a time to redefine themselves in light of the current political and social context. There was, however, disagreement on just what that definition should look like.

W. E. B. Du Bois, a scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, argued for full civil rights for blacks and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African American intellectual and artistic elite. He referred to this group as “the Talented Tenth,” and believed that, through their art, whites would see blacks more as equals. The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP and edited by Du Bois, published the work of many young African American writers, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

Du Bois used the term “the Talented Tenth” to describe the likelihood of one in ten black Americans becoming leaders of their race in the world, mainly through education and the arts. Du Bois believed that blacks needed to achieve a classical education to be able to reach their full potential, as opposed to the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington and some white philanthropists.

#7075
Photographer: unknown
Source: AP Photo

Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born political leader, publisher, and journalist, was also a proponent of civil rights for blacks. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. As opposed to Du Bois’ concept of assimilation, the UNIA identified itself as an organization that encouraged the celebration of African culture. Many of the hopes of economic, social, and political progress that African Americans had held during World War I had been dashed by racially motivated violence in 1919. In the wake of lynching and race riots all over the country, many African Americans gravitated toward Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, which encouraged those of African descent to return to the African homelands of their ancestors. “The Negro World” was the journal of the UNIA, and was published weekly as a way to express the ideas of the organization.

In 1924, the UNIA hosted an opening parade for their annual convention. It began outside the UNIA headquarters on West 135th Street, and went uptown as far as 145th and downtown as far as 125th Street, taking it beyond the boundaries of black residence into white areas. Government officials from Liberia and contingents from throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Nigeria carried banners and marched alongside bands. These parades attracted large numbers of spectators, as well as photographers.

Begin the Activity

Part 1
Hand out copies of the images (7032, 7043, 7046, 7051, 7067, 7068, 7087, 7088, 7089, 7090, 7091, 7092) or project them, and ask students to describe what they see. Working independently or in small groups, have students take notes on what they notice. Have students identify the types of objects/clothing or other context clues present in both photos. What do those photos tell the viewer about social class?

Questions to Consider

  • What does the clothing worn by people in the photographs suggest about social class and/or social aspirations?
  • What do architectural details in the photos suggest about street life in Harlem? Think of the role that large front “stoops” might play in the socialization of the residents.
  • Why would a street photographer want to depict the mundane act of day-to-day living? Is it really “mundane”?
  • Do you think the aim of street photography is to advance a certain cultural agenda?
  • What are the pros and cons of assimilation into another culture? How do these photographs depict assimilation?
  • What are the pros and cons of maintaining a strong nationalist stance? How do these photographs depict nationalism?

Part 2

Hand out copies of the images (7001, 7025, 7075, 7082, 7083) or project them. Ask students to describe what they see. Ask students to compare these more documentary-style photographs to the photographs in Part 1. How do they differ? How are they similar? Ask students to draw a Venn diagram showing overlap and distinctions.

Extension Activities

Literature Connection

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, was often criticized for appearing to “idealize” African American life—for not writing about racial protest and anger. In partnership with the language arts teacher, have students read Hurston’s novel (or excerpts), and consider if African American life was, in fact, idealized, or portrayed honestly. Have students consider the author’s point of view. Why might Hurston have wanted to write in this particular style? Who might her audience have been?

Writing Connection

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, many of her characters speak in dialect. Either independently or in pairs, ask students to write a poem or short story in which they focus on their own use of informal dialect. Have students consider who their audience for such writing could be and why.

Photography Connection

Have students document the daily life of the neighborhood surrounding their school. Ask them how they would photograph the neighborhood differently for either street or documentary photography purposes. Students could even create a “sensory web” where they brainstorm the tastes, scents, textures, sounds, and sights of their neighborhood. Contact a local business in the neighborhood as a potential venue to display student work, or host a “gallery night” at your school where student work is displayed.

The Power and Purpose of Poetry and Visual Art
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background

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.

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.

#7073
Photographer: unknown
Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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”
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/soulive-susan/DrmhPKX6V1U

“The NAACP Buries The N-Word”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/09/AR2007070900609.html

“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”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHyRbN6-4wE&feature=related&safe=active

The Power of Jazz
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background

Literature and visual art were not the only art forms that influenced the Harlem Renaissance: music, specifically jazz and blues, was also an important part of African American’s cultural identity. Created from the songs and spirituals of African music, jazz and blues became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, both in the United States and abroad.

LEARNING TARGETS

  • I can use photographs to identify clues about cultural and political identity.
  • I can identify racial stereotypes in photographs.
  • I can identify cultural themes by listening to a piece of music.

#7085
Photographer: © Cornell Capa
Source: © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

Nightclubs were the typical venues for such musical acts, and no nightclub was as famous as Harlem’s Cotton Club. In 1923, Owney Madden, a white gangster, opened the club. The club was originally only opened to white patrons, but featured many African American musical acts. Eventually, Duke Ellington was able to persuade the club owner to allow African Americans to be admitted. The Cotton Club opened during the years of prohibition, so guests illegally smuggled alcohol inside. The Cotton Club was home to many of the finest musicians of the time, including Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and more.

The blues form, popular in jazz and rock and roll, originated in African American communities, primarily in the Deep South, at the turn of the twentieth century. This genre grew from spirituals, work songs, and chants that slaves sung in the fields to help pass the time and communicate with one another. The term “blues” is thought to have derived from mysticism involving blue indigo, which was used by many West African cultures in death and mourning ceremonies—all the mourners’ garments were dyed blue to indicate suffering. The mystical association with the indigo plant, grown in many southern U.S. slave-holding plantations, combined with the West African slaves who sang of their suffering as they worked on the cotton that the indigo dyed, eventually resulted in these songs being known as “the blues.”

#7059
Photographer: unknown
Source: AP Photo

Because the Harlem Renaissance is seen mainly as a literary movement, the music of the time often receives less attention. The reason could be that while spirituals had wide respect as a traditional folk genre, blues and jazz were scorned by African American leaders (as well as much of their upper and middle classes) as representing a stereotyped African American culture. Some even claimed that the tribal roots and supposed “primitivism” in blues and jazz were precisely what attracted wealthy whites to the music. African American leaders such as Du Bois wanted to prove that African Americans could also create music that fit the European mold.

The blues reflected and expressed African American lifestyles—the struggles and fulfillments of living in a country that was both hostile and promising, binding and free. However, the elements that defined the music of African Americans communicated the very stereotypes that Renaissance leaders wanted to avoid.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. If available, have students listen to recordings of Bessie Smith’s Downhearted Blues and Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blue. Students should be handed copies of the song lyrics, and number each line for easier reference.

Links to Song Lyrics
Downhearted Blues
http://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10315/27081/JAC005343.pdf?sequence=3

(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue
http://www.perfessorbill.com/lyrics/lyblckbl.htm

(Also see American Passages: A Literary Survey, Unit 14, “Becoming Visible” video)

Questions to Consider

  • How do photographs of the jazz scene (or street photographs) reflect the major themes found in the art and literature?
  • What do the lyrics of the songs say about issues that the musicians were dealing with?
  • What impact did the music of the Harlem Renaissance have on the music of today?
  • How do the photos of the Cotton Club represent the identity of “The New Negro”?
  • How are racial stereotypes or attitudes portrayed in photos from the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom?
  • What is the mood expressed in the portraits of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong?

Extension Activity

Have students compose song lyrics of their own, using the lyrics of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as model texts. Ask students what themes they would include in their lyrics. Invite students to create an artistic element to go along with their lyrics, or to compose music to accompany their lyrics. Consider making this a multidisciplinary project involving the art or music department.

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. © 2015
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6

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