Blog: Teaching the Harlem Renaissance with Music

Whenever possible, I try to incorporate primary sources into my history classes, and nowhere is that more true than in teaching the Harlem Renaissance, where I draw heavily on primary sources from the visual and performing arts. I use Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series paintings to illustrate the reasons behind and experience of the Great Migration, as well as the excellent interactive website Drop Me Off in Harlem to incorporate maps, photos, and multimedia content.

Gottlieb, William P. Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. July
. United States, 1946. , Monographic. Photograph.

A few years ago, I created an hour-and-a-half long playlist of music from the era that I update every year. I have used in a variety of ways in my classrooms:

  • Assigning students to listen to specific tracks and then reflect on them in journal writing or small group discussion.
  • Inviting students to listen to 3 or 4 tracks, or tracks by two or more artists, and compare and contrast them.
  • Setting the playlist on shuffle as students are entering the in-person or online classroom to set the mood.
  • Inviting students to think about which song(s) they think best exemplify the themes of there era, and why.
  • Sending out the playlist to students in advance of class an inviting them to listen at home, in the car, or whenever they want to immerse themselves in the sounds and artistic expression of another era.

Teaching with the arts not only engages students who love music, theater, or creating art of their own, it also provides a window for visual or auditory learners to access historical themes that might be less accessible to them in print. Unlike readings, viewing a painting or listening to a song doesn’t depend on a student having “done the homework,” so these activities also engage sometimes hard-to-reach students who may come to class unprepared from time to time — they can still participate and have something to say. And there are no “right answers” with interpreting art and music. Students who are sometimes shy about contributing because they fear being “wrong” can get comfortable with historical discussion in a. lower stakes way, and that often spills over into them building trust in the community and being more willing to share and participate with other kinds of materials later in class. I’ve found that discussions of the arts prove to be some of the most energetic and engaged conversations in my classroom.

Take a listen to the sounds of 1920s and 1930s Harlem yourself, and imagine yourself in another place and time!