These engaging and diverse works help teachers showcase and explore the Harlem Renaissance with their students.
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and intellectual movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Black Americans in Harlem celebrated self expression through music, fashion, theater, literature and more. Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay, challenged racial stereotypes with their provocative and beautiful art.
Born out of the Great Migration and the fight for civil rights, The Harlem Renaissance remains a beautiful and potent time that every classroom should learn about. Teach your class about the Harlem Renaissance during Black History Month and throughout the school year. Discover the authors who shaped the movement through CommonLit’s online digital literacy program. CommonLit has a selection of texts by and about Harlem Renaissance artists that we'll delve into here.
“The Harlem Renaissance” by Jessica McBirney (8th Grade)
This informational text discusses how the Harlem Renaissance developed, as well as its impact on America in the past and present. The author includes why this movement took place in Harlem and how the art created during this period confronted racism.
Pair this text with the selection of poetry listed below for a holistic class discussion on the Harlem Renaissance that includes history and work created by artists of the time.
“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes (7th Grade)
This poem, by Harlem Renaissance leader and famous poet Langston Hughes, depicts a mother who is addressing her son. She begins by explaining to him that her life has been difficult, but she didn’t give up. Then she challenges him to persevere through his own struggles.
Teach “Mother to Son” with this biographical video from the Related Media tab. In the video, historians explain that Hughes was “one of the early figures to show the dignity and beauty of ordinary Black life.” Watch this video with students before reading the poem and ask students how Hughes’s poetry embodies the idea of identity. In addition to this poem, the CommonLit library includes 2 short stories and 6 more poems by Hughes, as well as this informational text.
“No Images” William Waring Cuney (7th Grade)
This poem, the most famous work by Harlem Renaissance poet William Waring Cuney, follows a speaker describing a Black woman that does not see or appreciate her own beauty. The speaker knows that if the woman could only see her reflection, her mindset would change. However, the woman works washing dishes and cannot see her reflection in the dirty water.
“No Images”' conveys themes of identity and the struggle with self love that were typical motifs for the Harlem Renaissance. Use this poem to analyze the word choice and imagery that William Waring Cuney used to convey these themes.
“If We Must Die” by Claude McKay (8th Grade)
This poem by Claude McKay, another prominent poet in Harlem at the time, centers around a speaker that aims to inspire others to act with dignity. The speaker urges others to continue the fight, even if death is imminent. The poem depicts the struggle of African Americans fighting for equality and respect.
Ask students to compare “If We Must Die” with “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from the Paired Text Tab. Ask your class how both texts present the emotions of African Americans who experienced segregation and discrimination in the United States in different decades. How does King’s letter describe the dignity McKay writes about? Consider the tone of each text and to what extent each conveys strength or hope for the future.
“Storm Ending” by Jean Toomer (9th Grade)
Jean Toomer, an African American poet and novelist, and pivotal character in the modernist movement wrote the poem “Storm Ending” during the Harlem Renaissance. In this poem, the speaker describes a storm that is slowly clearing in the sky above. The poem can also be seen as an extended metaphor for the impermanence of life’s challenges.
Ask students Assessment Question 1, "How does the progression of the storm contribute to the theme of the poem?” to prompt a conversation on the metaphor of the storm.
“To One Coming North” by Claude McKay (10th Grade)
In the poem, “To One Coming North,” the speaker notes the beauty of a winter landscape. However, the harsh cold makes the speaker miss the South. Regardless of the cold, the speaker knows the weather in the North will get better.
Show your class a video on the Great Migration from the Related Media Tab. After watching the video, ask the class why Black Americans were moving north at the time. Does this video change the meaning of the poem?
Check out our Harlem Renaissance Text Set for more pieces by authors of the Harlem Renaissance as well as historical background information.
Looking for more content from Harlem Renaissance authors? We just published the 11th Grade 360 unit on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God!