In Meg Brooks’ Artistic Revolution & the Harlem Renaissance course, students explore the ties between the experimentation of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance and its effects on culture and art today. As the course description describes, “The aptly-named Harlem Renaissance was a period of prolific production and exponential experimentation in the realms of art and culture. The dynamic community of African American writers, musicians, and visual artists who flourished in Manhattan’s upper west side neighborhood immediately following the Great Migration of the 1920s and ‘30s created a collective body of work that fundamentally changed the face of American art, and the nation itself.”
This is the third year Ms. Brooks has brought her class to Harlem, New York to explore the elements of the artistic revolution and Harlem Renaissance period. We asked Meg and her students to share their reflections on the expedition, and how the trip influenced the class work that followed their trip.
Meg Brooks’ Reflections
At Mount Vernon, we know that being impact-ready means cultivating connections between people, ideas, and sectors beyond the walls of the classroom. Meaningful relationships are the foundation of lifelong learning, and fostering connection and empathy should extend far beyond our school community. To cultivate globally competitive and engaged citizen leaders, we must offer all students opportunities for authentic exploration and collaboration with a diverse network of communities and individual experts.
The Harlem Renaissance trip fulfills our imperative to place students in the role of seekers and explorers in a very real sense. Over the course of a single weekend, my students:
- explored the cultural impact of jazz music with an expert at the National Jazz Museum
- tapped their feet to two live jazz performances in historic Harlem venues
- were immersed in the sights, sounds, and landmarks of the neighborhood on a two-hour walking tour with a lifelong Harlem resident and historian
- gained a deeper understanding of academic research institutions
- viewed original signed editions of course texts at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
- participated in site-specific readings, reflected at Riverside Church
- walked 12+ miles, and learned to navigate the NY subway to boot!
My ultimate hope is that students walk away from this class with not only a depth of knowledge and appreciation for the artists and scholars who helped shape Black history and culture – which is, of course, crucial to and inseparable from American history and culture – but also that they see the legacy of the period that we call the Harlem Renaissance in the creators, scholars, and activists of today. That’s why their final project for the course asks them to learn about an artist of color currently working in the Atlanta area and identify the ways in which they see the ideas and issues of Harlem in a modern work.
“The Harlem trip was meaningful for me because it allowed me to connect what we learned in the classroom to real people and experiences. Being able to hear from people like Mr. Apollo [Billy Mitchell] and Mr. Harlem [Neal Shoemaker] gave the group a lens into a fraction of what Harlem used to be, but also how the culture has stayed alive by morphing and transforming into new things. It helped to contextualize how we ended up in our current cultural position.”
Lyndsey Franklin, Class of 2023
“I absolutely loved the trip and how action-packed it was. We had been learning about Harlem and the massive amount of talent that came out of it. It was so surreal to almost be in the presence of all of the famous artists and the historical city. In class, we were just using our imagination to create a picture of Harlem and the amazing artists so it was fascinating to see the real Harlem. Throughout the trip I had been making connections to what we had already covered in class such as the Aaron Douglas paintings, Fire Magazine, and the works of Alain Locke. Not to mention we also learned things that we haven’t yet covered in class such as music. I think that one of my favorite parts of the trip was the Apollo Theater because every single famous artist has performed there. From the stars of the Harlem Renaissance like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to Taylor Swift and New Kids on the Block. It was just amazing to see how impactful the Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance influenced and impacted the music industry today. It was just so surreal and amazing to be in a place with years of history where all of the greats have performed. I will never forget this trip and will cherish what I have learned and the memories made.”
Olivia Shumway, Class of 2023
“This was such a unique, and immersive experience, I think this trip just made what we are learning about so much more real. The Harlem trip really deepened my understanding of all the things we have read and discussed during this class. All the activities we did were engaging and fun, learning about every aspect of Harlem like the music, the art, the environment, and the writers/literature is something that I liked most about this trip. I also like that I got the opportunity to connect more with my peers.”
Giselle Singh, Class of 2023
“It was really wonderful to see the creators we studied and their art come to life. It was really great to further connect and relate with artists like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and being in Harlem made it easy to understand where a lot of their inspiration came from. It was absolutely incredible going to the historic speakeasy where Billie Holiday was discovered and I already want to go back and visit! In all, I really loved the Harlem Trip. The class, as well as the visit to Harlem, helped me better connect with an often overlooked period of American history, along with my ancestors. This was easily one of my favorite experiences at Mount Vernon and I honestly wish I could do it again!”
Autumn Kelley, Class of 2023