My Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance

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In preparation for the upcoming (February) Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit, I’ve been reading a lot of introductory material to prepare for the introductory information we need to write for the sign up post. As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t feel like an expert in anything, so I love having The Classics Circuit to get me motivated to research a subject in detail and feel a bit more coherent in one area.

That said, even reading three very different books about the Renaissance, I don’t feel I know it very well. I want to read half a dozen books written in the Renaissance decade. I want to read biographies and autobiographies of the characters influential to the movement. I want to immerse myself in the movement even further! I love this focused reading: it feel so satisfying.

The first book I picked up with a new Juvenile nonfiction book that was on a library display: The Harlem Renaissance: An Explosion of African-American Culture by Richard Worth. Worth’s The Harlem Renaissance has lots of information, photographs, and illustrations to effectively teach the history of the movement to a juvenile reader, or (in my case) an ignorant adult reader. Specific authors and artists are featured in one-page biographies interspersed with the main narrative. In the end, my only complaint is that there are not many excerpts from the actual writing from the Renaissance.  The main focus of this book is the history, and although the literary and artistic figures are appropriately highlighted, the actual creative output is not.

This book helped me gain a historical context for the Renaissance and I’m very glad I picked it up. Because it was written for younger person, it was easy to access and a great start.

The second book I picked up was so wonderful great I suggest anyone interested in the Harlem Renaissance go out and find it! Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance by Laban Carrick Hill was just what I needed. I seriously wish I owned this Young Adult coffee table book because it is that wonderful. It is one I could browse through at leisure every now and then and find something new and interesting.

To begin with, Harlem Stomp! has brightly colored pages. Call me superficial, but this really makes it interesting to pick up. The era’s art, the contemporary photographs, the newspaper and magazine clippings, and photos of key figures are all designed to capture attention. While Worth’s book also had illustrations, art work, and photographs, Harlem Stomp! is designed with a reader in mind: it’s designed to be a coffee table book about a cultural explosion rather than a history book. I love that.

Further, going along with the great design is the easy-to-access details of the movement. There are sidebars, photo captions, chapter headings, and great chapter organization. Although it begins following a historic time line, there are separate chapters for music and dance, theater, and visual artists, something I felt was lacking in the first book (which focused on the history). Further, the historical situations and the overviews are interspersed with numerous excerpts from novels, poems, and essays, not to mention the beautiful visual arts of the era.

I only wished this book could play music for me. Everything else is there. If you are looking for a great overview of the Harlem Renaissance, this book is for you.

The last book I finished (and actually the first book I began) was a volume of criticism called The Harlem Renaissance, Bloom’s Period Studies. I actually am immensely glad I read this volume too, but I’m not sure I can recommend it unless you know what you are picking up:  about 20 essays about the literature, art, and music of the Harlem Renaissance. These are academic and full of “spoilers.” I personally like reading criticism, and I feel that reading through this volume also helped me to gain a better idea of which authors and artists are most important to the movement. I loved reading excerpts and storylines for so many poets and novels, and I almost feel I don’t need to read everything now. That said, I did begin this book before the other two, but due to the serious nature of the essays, I had to essentially plow through the essays a little at a time. This was not a page-turner, and I finished it after the other two books.

I enjoyed my brief overview of the key figures, historical events, and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and I look forward to introducing you to the subject through the upcoming Classics Circuit tour! As I’ve been writing the introductory post for the Circuit (to appear, with sign up, next week), I keep deciding what I’ll read: as I research Zora Neale Hurston, I want to read her books (all of them). When I read about Jessie Redmon Fauset, I want to read her novels, etc.

As with everything that’s worth reading, there are so many books, and so little time!

Reviewed on December 11, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Speaking of music, you’re singing my tune. A little focus, a little structure, but not so much as to turn it into work, is extremely satisfying.

    I’m really looking forward to what people do with this round of the circuit.

  • It sounds like Harlem Stomp is the way to go for a history of the Harlem Renaissance. I found a lot in Lorraine Hansberry’s biography too. It seems like it would have been so fun to be a part of all that!

  • I am really looking forward to the classics circuit on this! I can’t wait to see what everyone reads. Another book I’ve heard is really good on the topic is “The Power of Pride”, which has the added advnatage of having a picture of Josephine Baker on the front :). Can’t wait!

  • I’ve been kind of so-so on this part of the Classics Circuit simply because I don’t know anything about the Harlem Renaissance. This was a nice mini introduction. I’m looking forward to your post next week on the Classics Circuit site.

  • Rebecca, I have SO MANY IDEAS for the Harlem Renaissance segment of Classics Circuit! I’d love to write about Jean Toomer’s Cane, or Chris Albertson’s biography of Bessie Smith. Anyway, I’ll come back next week and sign up properly; just wanted to say that I’m really looking forward to it!

  • I had Harlem Stomp! on my TBR list from my Black History month reading list, so I’m glad to find out how much you loved it. 🙂 And the playing music thing would be so awesome! Can’t wait for the sign-up. 😀

  • Amateur Reader, have I tempted you to join in yet?

    I do like the little bit of structure. But not too much 🙂

    rhapsody in books, I think Hansberry was born after the Renaissance ended, so you comment is interesting! I have really enjoyed learning about the movement, and I’m ready to keep reading more!

    Jason, I just looked it up on Amazon and it does look like a great overview! Thanks for the rec.

    Margot, I hope the introductory posts help you get really excited about it! I just keep getting more and more interested!

    Emily, YEAY! I too can’t decide which thing to focus on…

    Eva, I did enjoy the book — a good intro!

    Vasilly, I’m working on getting the sign up ready! I know everyone is very eager!!

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