The Harlem Renaissance and Zora Neale Hurston Project
Judy Lightfoot, PhD



What was the Harlem Renaissance (HR) like? What artists belonged to the movement, and what great works were created? Achieve an overview of the HR, its persons, its themes.

What was Harlem like during the HR? Who lived there or visited there, and why? What was the place like? How did residents feel about it? What was the night life like?

To what extent was the HR a rebirth of African-American culture and affirmation of personal dignity on African-American terms, and to what extent a deliberate attempt to exploit Black arts for White American self-interest and pleasure?

What major lines of political and social thought influenced people central to the HR?

What were the conflicting pressures on Black artists? In what ways did thinkers and audiences during the HR affect their choices of subject and style?

What does studying all this about the HR contribute to your understanding of race in America and related issues?


1. Describe the Great Migration, its causes, and its effects.

2.Summarize the history of Harlem from its beginnings to about 1920, showing its location on a sketch or map of Manhattan Island.

3. A writer or thinker of the Harlem Renaissance (other than Hurston): Tell about the person and his or her importance. Read aloud a poem or two or some passages, and discuss them. W.E.B. DuBois gives wonderful background for the HR. There are many other writers.

4. Harlem music of the Jazz Age: Trace the origins of jazz, blues, and/or ragtime in work songs, spirituals, and African folk music. Bring in some recorded examples to play and analyze for the class.  (Possible 2-3 talks)

5. Explain how American jazz, blues, and ragtime as played during the 1920s and 1930s influenced classical composers (Gershwin, Copland, Debussy, Darius Milhaud, Bartok, Ravel). To illustrate, play some of the music for us.

6. African American painters and sculptors flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Show us prints or slides (available from Seattle-area museums) of visual arts of the times, and explain their significance. Or choose 2-3 artists to present in detail.

7. Jacob Lawrence was only a child during the Harlem Renaissance, but he was much influenced by the art that developed among African American painters of that period. Tell us about Jacob Lawrence and his art, and show us prints or slides of it.

8. Explain the debate during the HR about what kind of language African American writers "ought to" write in, and illustrate with selections from writers who wrote (1)  Standard ("white") English or (2) exaggerated, stereotypical "minstrel and mammy talk," and those who wrote in (3) Black English - realistic African-American speech idioms. What side did Hurston take in the debate? What side are you on, and why? (Go beyond "Everyone has a right to write however they wish," and "Writers who want to sell will have to offer what the public wants." As the background material suggests, the issue is not so simple.)

9. Explain the movement started by Marcus Garvey, and assess his influence.

10. Booker T. Washington, who lived before the HR, is the subject of a brief quarrel in the last part of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Summarize Washington's life and his ideas about how race problems in the U.S. could be solved.

11. Describe Zora Neale Hurston's childhood in Eatonville, Florida. Mention influential people, places, and events. Describe the special qualities of the girl Zora. Then briefly describe Hurston's life in Harlem, giving us a vivid appreciation of her character and of the impression she made on friends and acquaintances. Cite memorable incidents, images, and conversations. Show us pictures of Hurston.

12. Hurston studied anthropology with the famous Franz Boas. What did she learn about her people's folkways and arts? What did she come to value in these? Give us some background about African American folkways in the South and/or in the Caribbean.

13. Choose a story, article, or book passage by Hurston (not part of Their Eyes). Summarize dramatically and succinctly, quoting excerpts where interesting and appropriate, and respond to the selection. What special qualities of Hurston's work come through here?

14. Briefly, who is Alice Walker? What is Walker's opinion of Hurston and her work? Why is knowledge of Hurston important to writers like her? Succinctly and vividly tell the story of Walker's search for Hurston's grave. Whjy is this story important?

15. Poet June Jordan was influenced by Hurston. Briefly, who is she? Explain her views on Black English, on the poet Phyllis Wheatley, and/or on the work of Hurston in comparison with that of Richard Wright. Which ideas of hers do you agree and disagree with, based on what you know of the African American experience? Choose a poem or two of Jordan's to read aloud and comment on.

16. Read a story by Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, or another white American author who writes in colloquial speech idioms or dialect. Choose a couple of interesting passages of dialect or colloquial writing (not more than a half-page apiece), and translate the passages into standard written English. For your presentation, give some background for the author, and explain why he or she used colloquial idioms in the work your excerpt comes from. Read your dialect passage and your standard English translation aloud for comparison. Explain in detail what is gained and lost in translation. Taking into account earlier talks, summarize what the class has learned about the purposes and effects of writing in oral idioms and dialect. Perhaps relate to events at Lakeside, in the news, or in your own past years of schooling.

17. Introduce the class to the work of a contemporary African American poet, such as Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Ishmael Reed, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komyunakaa, Nikki Giovanni, or Derek Walcott (Nobel winner).

18. Based on research into the lives of one or more Asian American groups during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, speculate about the reasons behind there being no comparable "Renaissance" for artists in the community[ies] you study.

Judith Lightfoot, 1999

Two Videos About the Harlem Renaissance
Return to Teaching African American Literature
Return to Judy Lightfoot's Home Page