Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore Authors and Literary Works
Langston Hughes: Biography & Works
The poet Langston Hughes was one of the most talented, versatile, and prolific creative figures of the 20th century. An African American born in 1902, he came of age just in time for the Harlem Renaissance — the exhilarating artistic, cultural, and political movement that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. “A poet is a human being,” Langston Hughes once said. “Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country.” Some have called him poet laureate of black America, and the New York Times Book Review named him “one of the essential figures in American literature. His career is much larger than the body of his poetry alone.” Indeed, his work encompassed poetry, short stories, plays (including a gospel music play), essays, autobiography, children’s books, history, news reporting, a newspaper column, play lyrics, oratorio, cantata, opera, and libretti.
Arnold Rampersad, a Hughes biographer and the editor of his collected poems, says, “Hughes wrote a fundamentally new kind of verse — one that told of the joys and sorrows, the trials and triumphs of ordinary black folk, in the language of their typical speech and composed out of a genuine love of these people.” He infused his poetry with the rhythms or the popular music forms of the time — jazz and blues — and included folk materials.
Hughes was born far away from the action, in Joplin, Missouri. His father worked for a mining company, and his mother acted in amateur theatricals and wrote some poetry. The couple separated when Langston was quite young. His father moved to Mexico, while his mother took him to Lawrence, Kansas, where they lived in poverty with her mother, Mary Langston. Hughes’s mother was away frequently looking for work; his grandmother was always a steadying influence on him. But young Langston felt neglected by his parents, and the world of books offered some solace. When his mother remarried, they moved to Illinois and later to Cleveland, where he attended a largely white high school. He began writing poetry, which was published in the school paper. After graduation, Hughes went to Mexico for a year to live with his father.
He attended Columbia University for a year, and then held a series of jobs, later traveling on a steamship along the west coast of Africa, living in Paris for a while, and also traveling to Italy. During this time, he was working on The Weary Blues, his first book of poetry, which was published in 1926 and reviewed favorably. His signature integration of the music of black Americans into his poetry was obvious. His focus on working-class blacks in this volume and in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) provoked criticism of his work in some quarters.
Hughes had defined himself stylistically; now he also took a firm stand for racial justice and artistic independence when he wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” an essay that was published in The Nation in 1926. By this time he had also enrolled at Lincoln University, the historically black college from which he would graduate in 1929.
Langston Hughes’s huge talent spilled over into all manner of genres. One of the most appealing to him was drama. His Mulatto (1935) survived on Broadway despite bad reviews, and he kept coming back to the stage. He was brought in by Elmer Rice and Kurt Weill to be the lyricist for Street Scene, which was a musical theater milestone when it opened in 1947. Hughes created a very popular character when he was writing a column for the black newspaper the Chicago Defender. Jesse B. Semple, known as “Simple,” was a black common man-philosopher who talked about everyday life and love, often through a prism of race relations. The “Simple stories” were eventually collected into five books.
Langston Hughes was active and creative until his death from cancer in New York in 1967. “Hughes always remained loyal to the principles he had laid down for the younger black writers in 1926,” concludes biographer Arnold Rampersad. “His art was firmly rooted in race pride and race feeling, even as he cherished his freedom as an artist. He was both nationalist and cosmopolitan. As a radical democrat, he believed that art should be accessible to as many people as possible… His art is generally suffused by a keen sense of the ideal and by a profound love of humanity, especially black Americans. He was perhaps the most original of African American poets and, in the breadth and variety of his work, assuredly the most representative of African American writers.”
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
This is the first collected edition of all the poems Langston Hughes published in his lifetime — 868 poems, nearly 300 of which have never before appeared in book form. It was published in 1994, over a quarter of a century after the poet’s death in 1967. The editor of this collection is Arnold Rampersad, who is also the author of the primary biography of Hughes, the two-volume Life of Langston Hughes. Rampersad is Cognizant Dean for the Humanities at Stanford University, and is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.
The book includes a thorough chronology of Hughes’s life and works. Detailed textual notes tell when and where each poem was originally published, and include extensive additional information that gives context to the poetry. The poems are arranged chronologically, which allows the reader not only to observe the development of Hughes’s poetic gifts but also to monitor the often turbulent course of his involvement in the political events of his lifetime.
In his incisive introduction to the poems, Rampersad sums up Hughes’s literary intentions:
Langston Hughes never sought to be all things to all people but rather aimed to create a body of work that epitomized the beauty and variety of the African American and the American experiences, as well as the diversity of emotions, thoughts, and dreams that he saw common to all human beings. He started out as a poet with a deep regard for the written word and a strong connection to the American past.
The Collected Poems opens with “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” one of Langston Hughes’s most important poems. Its publication in 1921 launched his career. The poem appeared in The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, edited by the organization’s founder, W.E.B. DuBois. Hughes wrote the poem when he was just 18, on a train to visit his father in Mexico. Hughes had a difficult relationship with his father, who had separated from his mother when he was a young boy.
Hughes wrote in his autobiography that as the train crossed the Mississippi River, he “began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past — how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage… Then I began to think about of other rivers in our past — the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa.” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has inspired many poets, scholars, critics, and anthologists to interpret his meaning. As Adrian Oktenberg saw it, “Moving by suggestion, by naming particular rivers and particular activities performed nearby, the poem implicates the whole history of African and American slavery without ever articulating the word.” Onwuchekwa Jemie observed, “The Black man has seen the rise and fall of civilizations from the earliest times, seen the beauty and death-changes of the world over the thousands of years, and will survive even this America.”
Christopher Moore: Biography & Works
Historian, writer, and educator, Christopher Moore is the writer of the documentary film The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery, which chronicles the rediscovery of a major repository of African American and New York history that had been forgotten for centuries.
The modern part of the story began in 1991, when the African Burial Ground was uncovered during the construction of a federal building in Lower Manhattan. The film first shows the archaeologists as they painstakingly record their findings at the site in preparation for scientific analysis at a laboratory, and then documents the crucial role of Africans (20 percent of the population) in the New Amsterdam/New York colony.
Christopher Moore’s path to this film project began when he got a call from his mother asking if any of their family was buried in this ground. (He believes they were, but has not yet found any evidence.) Years before, Moore had traced the family back to an African ancestor who had arrived in the 1620s, a Dutch captain who came to New Amsterdam in the 1640s, and also to the Lenape Native Americans. “Africans had helped to build New York, which was something that was totally missing from New York history books. They were the ones who cleared the land for the town of New Amsterdam … they cleared the fields for the farms. And they didn’t do it just on Manhattan Island, they did this literally from Albany to Argentina.”
Moore says the unearthing of the burial ground gave him “a passion,” but then he had to do much more research and gather experts — historians, sociologists, archaeologists, and scientists — to develop the story for the documentary. One thing that particularly struck him from the excavation was that “of the 419 remains that were excavated, over 40 percent were children under 12… The aspect of seeing children as slaves helps … us in our generation and our contemporary society understand what slavery really was.”
Christopher Moore is curator and research historian for the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A former editor for ABC Radio News and National Black Network News, he was the writer and producer of the History Channel’s award-winning television special, The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery. He is the author of Fighting for America: Black Soldiers, The Unsung Heroes of World War II and coauthor of The Black New Yorkers: 400 Years of African American History. Moore was creator and coauthor of Santa and Pete: A Novel of Christmas Present and Past, a story about the Afro-Dutch Christmas traditions in New Amsterdam.
He is a member of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee. He sees architecture as “much more than bricks and mortar, or metal and glass. They are the vessels and monuments which contain the memory of personal experience.”
The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery
The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery, narrated by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, is a one-hour documentary film chronicling major discoveries that add crucial information to our knowledge of the long African American quest for freedom dating from colonial days. These events also are critical to our understanding of the history of New York City, and are of great importance to the fields of archaeology and anthropology. Many viewers will be surprised at the film’s revelation of the extent and duration of slavery in New York.
The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery tells the story of these findings in two different ways. The first half hour of the documentary shows the actual work of excavation, when as many as 65 archaeologists at one time were very carefully documenting the bones and artifacts in place, using tiny dental tools and making detailed drawings and taking measurements so that as much knowledge as possible would be secured from the actual site. No matter how much care was taken in the moving process, there would inevitably be a certain amount of damage to the very old, fragile items. (One of the most poignant findings was the skeleton of a woman with her infant in the crook of her arm.) All this was preliminary to the analysis of bones and artifacts at the Howard University laboratory, as well as the work of anthropologists and historians who would draw new conclusions from the scientific work.
The documentary follows up this modern-day scientific detective story with a second half hour about the history of the early years of New York, when slavery began and developed. From their first days as colonists of New Amsterdam, the Dutch introduced African slaves. When the British took over and established the colony as New York, the situation of African Americans worsened. Eventually, as many as one in five New Yorkers was of African descent. “The 18th century, during the British occupation, was one of extreme repression for both black people and natives or Indians in New York City,” according to historian Dr. Sherrill Wilson. The film characterizes New York’s slave laws as “more strict than any other state in the North, and comparable to the slave codes of the South.” Slaves lost rights they had had during the Dutch era, such as the ownership of land, and were even prohibited from gathering in numbers of more than three or four. There could be no more than a dozen mourners at a funeral. Black people were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, thus the need for the special burying ground. Freedom did not come officially to all African Americans in New York State until 1827, and even then society remained strictly segregated.
Talking with Christopher Moore
(as interviewed by the students in Stanlee Brimberg’s classroom)
What was it like to write the screenplay about the African Burial Ground?
It was a lot of hard work, but I actually enjoyed it because, again, it’s the family interest. I had an opportunity to tell the story about how Africans had helped to build New York, which was something that was totally missing from New York history books. The discovery of this burial ground was really proof that Africans had been here, not just a few, but — you may know the burial ground was about five to six acres in size, and they estimated about 20,000 men, women, and children were buried there. So for me to be able to help correct the history of the city of New York, it was a lot of hard work, but it was very gratifying, one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.
It was difficult for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was finding images of the Africans. I think one of the most difficult aspects of putting this documentary together was collecting the illustrations of enslaved Africans at work. But I found a wonderful artist by the name of Charles Lilley, and his illustrations are used throughout the documentary. I gave him illustrations of Europeans at work, and through those early illustrations we basically were able to indicate the manner in which Africans did their work. And that work, in New York, was clearing the land, clearing the roads. Broadway then was actually a narrow Native American trail that the Africans had to widen. Greenwich Village, in the 17th century, was made up of farms. So getting the illustrations to help people understand the lives of the workers was really the most difficult part.
Did you find any of your family inside the burial ground?
No. I tried to find documentation, and I now maintain that I have a reason to believe, and a belief beyond reason, that I had family in that African Burial Ground. But, no, I do not have documentary evidence of that.
What relationship did the Native Americans have with the African Americans?
You came to the right guy. It’s an interesting relationship that Native Americans and African Americans have, because many of the first Africans who were brought here as slaves intermarried with the Native Americans. Many of them ran away. A lot of the slave runaways went to Native American communities throughout the East Coast. That’s why today if you meet the Native Americans from Maine — the Mi’kmaq, the Narragansett, the Pequot, the Ramapough, the Shinnecock, the Powhatan — and all the way up to the northeastern seaboard, they’re usually identified as “black Indians” because they have intermarried with Africans as well as with Europeans.
My family history is the Lenape [Native Americans] who intermarried with the first Africans and some of the first Dutch. My great-great-grandfather was Samuel DeFreese — my mother’s name was DeFreese, that’s a Dutch name. Some others in the family were named de Groot and van Dunk, and, basically, they are the descendants of the Lenape who were here for thousands of years. And so when the Africans and the Dutch arrived in the 1600s, in my family they didn’t just fight, they also married. And so that’s the legacy of this particular family.
Do you feel that your research on the burial ground has left a lot of questions unanswered or a lot of information that you don’t know?
When you’re really doing research and finding answers, that always leads you to areas where you’ve got more questions. And it’s very true at the burial ground. Just by bringing the information about the burial ground to light, in this particular case, at least we have a classroom on Manhattan Island that’s thinking about the burial ground. You have your own questions. You pose questions today that I’ve never heard about the burial ground. So, hopefully, the whole track of learning and discovery is going to lead to more information.
Why, in your opinion, was the burial ground excavation such a big discovery in New York?
I think the burial ground excavation was a big discovery because of the opportunity to learn about a part of American history which really has not been explored. Most of the history books written before the discovery of the burial ground usually place the presence of African Americans on the periphery. They say, “There was slavery, but it didn’t really happen in the North.” Well, a five-acre burial ground with 20,000men, women, and children on Manhattan Island is an indication that there was a presence of Africans here.
I think the discovery of the burial ground is very important because it really opened the window into the past. It gave us an opportunity to see what the role of slaves was in the United States. Very often we think of slavery as being something in the Southern states — the Carolinas and Mississippi and Alabama — of blacks picking cotton. Well, you learned an important part of history in that the presence of Africans on Manhattan Island showed that they were colony builders. That when they came here with the European settlers, they were the ones who cleared the land for the town of New Amsterdam, they were the ones who cleared the roads, they cleared the fields for the farms. And they didn’t just do it on Manhattan Island, they did this literally from Albany to Argentina. All along the eastern seaboard in the Americas and the Caribbean, enslaved workers in the 16th century and 17th century were primarily helping to build the colonies.
I heard a lot of statistics in the video, like infant mortality rate or how slaves were treated. What statistic is most important to you?
If I had one statistic of slavery to share — and I’m not even sure it’s in the film — it’s the fact that from 1492 to 1776, of the 6.5 million people who came to the Americas, 5.5 million were Africans. If there’s a statistic from the burial ground, it’s the fact that of the 419 remains that were excavated, over 40 percent were children under the age of 12. Those to me are some very important facts to know.
You know all this information to write that script for the documentary about the cemetery. How did you find this out? Did you find out from interviewing people, or if you knew it previously, how did you find that out?
I was fortunate in that my family history went back to the era of the African Burial Ground and earlier. So when the burial ground was unearthed in 1991, I had that as a sort of background. That gave me a passion; it didn’t give me much information. But then I had to go study more at the various libraries, and find as many experts as I could. I found some of the finest experts, like James Shenton, who is on the burial ground video. He is a professor at Columbia University and author of some of the most popular history books in America. And T. J. Davis is another historian. I found some of the finest historians, sociologists, archaeologists, scientists who were knowledgeable on the subject, and they helped to tell the story, which is the way you put together a documentary. You get as much research as you can, and then you find the people who know more than you and you tap them. You have to learn to take advantage of the sources, the resources, because if you want to tell the story, you want to get the best information.
How did finding the skeletons in the African Burial Ground affect you personally?
I sort of marveled at the skeletons. I never had a real interest in skeletons; they were just part of the project that I signed on to do a documentary about. I frankly didn’t think it was appropriate to photograph the skeletons. I didn’t think it was appropriate to excavate the skeletons, but this was something that was being done. And, to me, if we’re going to find any value in this whole project, I felt that I had to try to do right by the skeletons. I would try actually to tell their story. They certainly weren’t capable of telling their own story. Maybe they do in some ways, just by the images. Maybe I was totally wrong about it being inappropriate to videotape them, because they themselves are now the evidence of their own lives, and they allow students and adults to see them. You can form your own conclusions and raise your own questions about their lives.
When you went on the site, did you find it very emotional to be able to see all these bodies and skeletons — like what could be your ancestors and everything?
You hit the right button. Any connection, any thought I had that this was an ancestor of mine, then it would move me. But I would try to use that passion to contact another expert, read another book. It was empowering to me. It was invigorating whenever I connected my own family to the burial ground.
Joyce Hansen: Biography & Works
In Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence, Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan have intricately constructed the story of the unearthing of Lower Manhattan’s African Burial Ground that had been closed and forgotten for over 200 years. “Drawing on a variety of scholarly resources and primary source documents, Hansen and McGowan relate what is known about the experiences of the earliest members of the black community in Manhattan,” says a review in School Library Journal. “Through black-and-white photographs of uncovered artifacts and reproductions of archival records and maps, a fascinating picture emerges.”
Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan were admirably qualified to collaborate on telling this important story.
A native New Yorker, Joyce Hansen is a writer who grew up in the Bronx and spent 22 years teaching in the New York City public schools. Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence is the fourth of her books to be named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. In the book Hansen notes that “When news of the excavation of an eighteenth-century burial ground for people of African descent in New York City spread to the general public, people realized that this was a monumental discovery that would offer us a chance to reclaim a lost history.”
“I write about what I know and what moves me deeply,” says Hansen. “My love of books and writing came from my mother, who wanted to be a journalist… From my father I learned how to tell stories. He entertained my brothers and me with stories about his boyhood in the West Indies and his experiences as a young man in the Harlem of the 1920s and ’30s.”
Hansen has written extensively for young people, both fiction and nonfiction. Women of Hope, a collection of short biographies of African American women, won an award as a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the field of Social Studies. Five of the author’s other books have also won this award. Hansen’s works have been honored as ALA Notable Books as well.
Joyce Hansen believes that those who write for young people have “a special responsibility because the word is so strong. We must use our words to help our children acquired a richness of soul and spirit, so that perhaps one fine day we will learn to live with ourselves and one another in peace and harmony.”
Gary McGowan was the head conservator of the team that studied the African Burial Ground. President and Principal Conservator at Cultural Preservation and Restoration, he has extensive experience in the field, including prehistoric and historic sites in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
McGowan developed, equipped, and directed the conservation of the cultural materials recovered from the 18th-century African Burial Ground and 19th-century Five Points sites. He has conserved earthen sculpted faces from a Syracuse church that was a documented stop on the Underground Railroad. The faces are believed to have been created by slaves fleeing to Canada.
Among the most important finds from the African Burial Ground were a woman with filed teeth buried with a girdle of beads and a mother with her infant nestled in the crook of her arm. The team that McGowan headed worked with great care to ensure that the remains and artifacts were preserved in the best possible condition. This enabled the anthropologists and historians to glean a great deal of important information from this very rich site.
Gary McGowan is President of the New York Regional Association of Conservation. He has received the distinction of Professional Associate within the American Institute for Conversation of Historic and Artistic Works.
Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground
This invaluable account of the excavation of what 18th-century maps of New York termed the “Negroes’ Burying Ground” combines archaeology, anthropology, and history to tell the engrossing story of African slaves in colonial America. Young adult readers will receive a contemporary lesson about the conservation process while they gain new perspective on race relations in earlier times.
In September 1991, an archaeological team hired by the federal government was on hand to analyze a site in lower Manhattan where ground had been broken to build a federal office building. They were expecting to find perhaps 50 burials and various bone fragments and artifacts that had been covered up for over 200 years. What emerged instead from beneath their tools was a monumental archaeological find: the remains of more than 400 graves of African Americans of all ages. This discovery began an extensive reconstruction process that contributed substantially to knowledge about African Americans in early New York. In 1993, the African Burial Ground was made a National Historic Landmark. It is America’s oldest and largest known cemetery for people of African descent.
Joyce Hansen, a former New York City schoolteacher and author of several Coretta King Honor Books, collaborated with Gary McGowan, who was the head conservator of the team studying the burial ground. The book details the painstaking process involved in uncovering and conserving the remains. The archaeological team had to contend with many obstacles, including a high water table, fluctuating temperatures, and extremely fragile remains. An early surprise was Burial #6, adult male, the first completely intact skeleton to be found. The ongoing process yielded a treasure of artifacts: beads, brass buttons from British Navy uniforms, a child’s ear bob, and pottery fragments. The archaeological group teamed up with anthropologists at Howard University to re-create the forgotten African American community.
Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence moves on to give context to these important discoveries by recounting the history of slavery in New York. Slavery is so commonly associated with the South that it is surprising to realize how widespread it was in New York — and from the earliest days. In 1626, 11 African men arrived in the harbor of New Amsterdam on a Dutch West India Company ship. Other Africans followed. Eighteen years later, a small group of black men petitioned the company for their freedom and got it. But in a bitter irony, their children remained slaves, so this was only the beginning of an arduous struggle for freedom for African Americans.
As the British succeeded the Dutch as rulers of the colony, the numbers of free blacks shrank, and the slaves’ lives became more constrained. After the slave revolt in 1712, conditions worsened. Thousands of slaves came to New York in the 1700s from the Caribbean and South Carolina. Eventually, laws were passed restricting the freeing of slaves. By 1741, 2,000 New York residents were of African descent (out of a population of 11,000) and most of them were slaves. A typical advertisement offered: “Parcel of likely Negro Boys and Girls, from 9 to 12 Years of Age.” “The lives of enslaved men, women, and children were … severe. Analysis of the skeletal remains in the burial ground reveals just how difficult their lives were.” There may have been as many as 20,000 buried in the African Burial Ground before it closed in 1796. It wasn’t until 1827 that New York State finally ended slavery.
Many honors have been bestowed on Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence. It was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, and was included on the following lists: Books for the Teen Age (by the New York Public Library), the IRA-CBC Children’s Choices (International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council), and the NCSS-CBC Notable Trade Books for Young People (National Council for the Social Studies-Children’s Book Council). Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence was also recommended by Booklist (American Library Association), the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly, and was given a starred review by School Library Journal.
Barbara Chase-Riboud: Biography & Works
Barbara Chase-Riboud is a sculptor, author, and poet of international acclaim. Her commemoration of the African Burial Ground in New York City is expressed in all three genres: poetry, sculpture, and historical novel. “Africa Rising” is the name she has given to the poem and to the on-site sculpture honoring the burial ground that was recently excavated, yielding the remains of more than 400 African Americans. The remains and artifacts from the site are an invaluable resource that enriches people’s understanding of the African American story.
Chase-Riboud won the Black Caucus ALA Award for Fiction for Hottentot Venus, her novel that is related to the Africa Rising sculpture. Both are based on the true story of Sarah Baartman, a South African herdswoman who was shockingly exhibited as a “scientific curiosity” in the capitals of Europe in the 19th century. “There has been a lot of academic writing about this woman,” observes Chase-Riboud. “But she always has been presented as an object, never as a subject.”
Chase-Riboud wrote several earlier novels based on historical characters, including the very controversial and internationally best-selling Sally Hemings, which presents a fictionalized version of a relationship between slave Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson, who was alleged to be the father of her seven children. Echo of Lions is based on the mutiny of Africans coming to America aboard the slave ship Amistad.
The poem “Africa Rising” encompasses the experience of the throngs of Africans forced by slavery from their homeland to America’s shores:
We came into the Hell of deathly white
Zeila & Somaliland, Galla & Abyssinia, Tigre & Shoa
Niger & Nile, Orange & Congo, Cubango & Kasai
Strung out in caravans, we came, a stunned string of
Black pearls like a hundred year centipede: one thousand
One thousand thousand. one million. three. six. nine. thirty million.
Born in Philadelphia, Barbara Chase-Riboud studied art at Temple University. After graduation she won a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, and then went on to the Yale University School of Art. She began showing her work in Paris in 1966. Some of the institutions that have exhibited her sculptures are the Centre Pompidou and Ministere de la Culture in Paris; the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the University Museum in Berkeley, California; the New Orleans Museum of Art; and the Philadelphia Art Alliance.
Chase-Riboud began writing poetry in the early 1970s. At Random House she worked with then-editor Toni Morrison. Her first collection, From Memphis to Peking, was published in 1974. She has been awarded the Carl Sandburg Prize for Best American Poet. The French government knighted her in the Order of Arts and Letters.
African Burial Ground
In 1991, the largest known African burial ground in North America was uncovered in Lower Manhattan during the construction of a federal building, and in 1993 this site was designated as a National Historical Landmark. Since its discovery, the African Burial Ground has been excavated, researched, and commemorated, but it has also been a source of debate and tensions between the federal General Services Administration (GSA), scholars, and members of the community who felt that the cemetery held their ancestors and should not be disturbed. However, cooperation among concerned members of the community, scholars, and local politicians forced the GSA to halt its building project and fund research on the cemetery, which it has done, though often amid more debate. The research at the site and on the skeletons of the interred has revealed a great deal of information that offers a glimpse into the everyday realities of slavery as it existed in the Northern American colonies.
The Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities at the beginning of the 20th century transformed Harlem into the cultural capital of black America. However, due to high rents and financial difficulties, Harlem also faced economic and social problems. These challenges, along with the emerging idea of the “New Negro,” led many African Americans to create a new self-identity and group consciousness that would help them get out of their difficult circumstances. The leaders of this new movement were political activists as well as artists, writers, and musicians. Influential activists such as Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois advocated pan-African ideas and strove to improve black people’s situation in the United States and elsewhere in the colonized world. Other important leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Paul Robeson, sought to re-create and raise awareness of the social, political, and economic hardships faced by many blacks through their writings, performances, and art. Their travels gave them a global perspective and audience, and helped them spread the mood of the Harlem Renaissance far beyond New York. In addition to the social and political significance of their works, these artists also created new forms of expression that became an influential and important part of American culture.
Workshop 6 Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Stanlee Brimberg and his students in New York City study the important contributions of African Americans to the United States and the recent discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan through factual texts, video, art, photography, and poetry. The students interview writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker Christopher Moore to learn more about the everyday experiences of African slaves in early New York. They examine the works of Langston Hughes, and then — drawing on all of the texts — they write their own poetry and engage in peer review. As a culminating activity, the students take a field trip to the African Burial Ground Memorial, and then design their own postage stamps to commemorate the site.