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empty Posted May/June 2002
Colleen Birchett
Colleen Birchett, Ph.D.
The Harlem Renaissance In Children's Books
by Colleen Birchett, Ph.D.
Chicago, IL

The 1920s was a decade that witnessed unprecedented spiritual, political and literary awakenings among descendants of Africans nationwide. However, the Mecca for all of this was Harlem, New York. Imagine yourself, going back to that time, and walking along 135th Avenue in Harlem. Perhaps you would have just left a worship service at Abyssinia Baptist Church, one of the exciting new "social gospel" churches that had moved into the area. It would have been under the leadership of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. In your pocket, you might have been carrying your subscription to The Crisis, published by the then ten-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and edited by the legendary W.E.B. DuBois.

On your afternoon calendar might have been to read, The Negro World, edited by Marcus Garvey, The Messenger, written by A. Philip Randolph, and Opportunity, edited by Charles Johnson for the National Urban League. You might have sat briefly on a park bench to read literary critic Jessie Fauset's column in The Crisis before you finalized your plans for the afternoon. Your intention might have been to purchase, for one of the children you held dear, The Brownie's Book, the first magazine designed for African American children. Each of these magazines, in their own way, were creating as much of a sensation as had those of David Walker and Frederick Douglass, almost a half of a century prior to that time.

As you walked along 135th Street, toward Lennox Avenue, you might have reminisced about how much your family enjoyed the parade of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The children were especially in awe of the huge ships of the Black Star Line. Your family might have decided to put aside some money so that each of you could purchase a share in this company that would create trade between Africans and descendants of Africans throughout the Diaspora. Passing Lennox Avenue, along 135th Street, you might have been on your way to picking up some tickets to "Out of the Dark," by Dorothy Guinns, one of the popular black children's pageants. It was popular because it attempted to correct what historian Carter G. Woodson had called, in his new book, The Miseducation of the Negro. School teachers and community playwrights were teaching children African American history through these productions, concluding them with an invitation to the children to keep the scroll rolling by writing our history.

You might have added to your list of tickets to purchase, tickets to DuBois' Krigwa Little Theater, to Langston Hughes' Suitcase Theater, or to the Apollo Theater. If they were sold out, your intent might have been to catch one of the new films by Oscar Michaux--films that were working against all the media stereotypes of African Americans. You might have had to be sure that the films were offered at a time that didn't interfere with your appointment for a family portrait, at the studio of famous photographer, James VanDerZee.

It was a time of new beginnings--what black philosopher Alain Locke called the day of the "New Negro" in his famous publication of that time. A new spirit of creativity was in the air. It was a day of unprecedented achievements in music, the arts, dance, literature and growth in African American churches. The Spirit of Kuumba was everywhere, inspiring artists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jesse Fauset, Nella Larson, Arna Bontemps and others.

Looking back to this time through 21st Century lenses, it is possible to miss the significance of what Africans throughout the world were doing, particularly when it is compared to what is available today. However it was the 1920s, just a few decades since four million African Americans left slavery with almost nothing. Throughout the decades between the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance, images of African Americans in the media were mostly contained in "darkie rhymes," "coon songs" and such racist productions as "A Trip to Coontown" and "Bandanna Land." The "New Negro" rejected all of that. Nothing on this scale of African American achievement had been able to express itself before.

It was during this time that about 200,000 black soldiers fought in World War I, and returned unwilling to accept the "Jim Crow" system that made separate but equal legal. This had set off a series of race riots in what had been the "Red Summer" of 1919. This opened a new era of struggle for human rights that would eventually escalate into the mid-20th Century phase of the Civil Rights Movement.

Then, as early as the second year of World War I, the number of immigrants from Europe suddenly dropped dramatically, and this opened Northern industrial jobs to blacks that had been closed to them before. Northern industrialists recruited in newspapers such as The Chicago Daily Defender and as many as two million people fled the South for these jobs in less than four years. They fled the Ku Klux Klan, "Jim Crow," lynching and the sharecropping system in the South that had reduced them to near slavery. They came to find jobs in the North where they could earn as much in one day as they had been able to earn before in one month. It was a time when James Weldon Johnson had already written "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and it contained images of our ancestors praying for this beautiful resurrection that was taking place.

While the Great Depression marked the decline of what has been labeled the Harlem Renaissance, the ideas and Spirit of Kuumba did not die. It was only to be resurrected again in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.

Books for Children, Ages 9-12
Langston Hughes: Young Black PoetKeisha Discovers Harlem, by Zoe Lewis, is about a little girl who has to do a report on American history. She goes into her Aunt Ellie's attic and tries on a shimmering lavender dress like the ones in the pictures she saw in her family's photo album. She is magically transported back to Harlem in the 1920s, with her cousin Norma, who becomes a reporter and goes to "cover" a Louis Armstrong performance.  Langston Hughes: Young Black Poet is a biography by Montrew Dunham, about the childhood of the great poet. Then there is Young Jim by Ellen Terry, about the childhood of James Weldon Johnson.

In James Van DerZee: The Picture Takin' Man, James Haskins presents the life of this famous photographer, and Haskins presents the story of Bill Robinson in Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson. A general overview of the period is offered by Kelly King Howes, in The Harlem Renaissance.

Books for Young Adults (Teens)
Nikki Giovani: Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Truly sparkling poetic snapshots of the era are in Nikki Giovanni's Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking at the Harlem Renaissance Through Poems. It is an anthology of poetry of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Countee Cullen and others.

Kerry Candaele, Spencer Crew and Clayborne Carson: Bound for Glory 1910-1930: From the Great Migration to the Harlem RenaissanceBound for Glory 1910-1930: From the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance by Kerry Candaele, Spencer Crew and Clayborne Carson contains 40 photographs of the period and gives teenagers an overview of the social context in which the Renaissance took place.

Two good overviews of the period for teenagers are The Harlem Renaissance by James Haskins and Free Within Ourselves: The Harlem Renaissance by Geoffrey Jacques. They provide an overview of poetry, music, novels, theater and visual arts of the period. Major Black American Writers Through the Harlem Renaissance by Harold Bloom focuses on the writers of that period. A good reference book to have in your library is Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance by P. Stephen Hardy and Sheila Jackson Hardy. It features 44 individuals from the period, with portrait photographs and as many as two pages each of information about each person. In Langston Hughes: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Christine Hill presents a detailed biography of the poet, emphasizing the achievements of his later life.

Books For Adults 
Dr. B. J. Bolden: Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem RenaissanceThe Women of the Harlem Renaissance by Joyce Pettis analyzes, in depth, the contributions and lives of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston. In Zora Neale Hurston: The Breath of Her Voice, Dr. Ayana Karanja, reads between the lines of Hurston's works to give a fresh look at this artist. Dr. B. J. Bolden gives a similar portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks in Rage in BronzevilleRhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance by Richard Powell, examines the Renaissance as it occurred among descendants of Africans throughout the Diaspora. It contains 150 color plates and 100 black and white illustrations, along with essays on the period.

Encourage your local public library and your church and school libraries to add these books to their permanent collections. Order you copies through

Colleen Birchett is a native of Detroit, Michigan. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master of Science in Journalism and a Ph.D. in instructional design. As a staff writer for Urban Ministries, Inc., Dr. Birchett wrote and edited two church school publications, Inteen and Young Adult Today. In addition, she served as curriculum coordinator for the National Christian Education Conference sponsored annually by Urban Ministries. In 1995, she wrote the Bible study applications for the book, Africans Who Shaped Our Faith, by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

This article originally appeared in the Trinity Trumpet Magazine, January 2002 and is used by permission.
©Trinity trumpet, All Rights Reserved.

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