Essential Question

How does Langston Hughes’ Blues-inspired poetry exemplify the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance?

Overview

From 1910 to 1940 over 1.5 million African Americans migrated from Southern states to the North. Fleeing the terror of racism (between 1880 and 1950, an African-American was lynched more than once a week), and drawn to the employment opportunities offered in the industrialized North, African Americans arrived in thousands to cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. This Great Migration, as it has been termed by historians, reshaped the cultural landscape of Northern cities – for with Black laborers soon came Black musicians, performers, and artists, seeking new patrons and audiences for their creative work.

The flourishing of Black culture during this time is no more famously exemplified than in Harlem. Until the early 1900s, this area in Manhattan consisted mostly of farm land, far north from the bustling New York City downtown. But in 1904, the Lenox Avenue subway was completed, allowing easy access to the area. Expecting that the train line would bring more to the area, developers built hundreds of tenement houses– but they over speculated, and many houses remained empty. Seeing an opportunity, real estate entrepreneur Philip A. Payton Jr. suggested that landlords open the buildings to African American tenants, and offered his services in bringing the Black community into the area. Payton’s plan worked, and by the 1920s Harlem became known as the “Black Mecca.” Black culture and artistic accomplishments flourished, and the “Harlem Renaissance” was born.

What fueled the Harlem Renaissance in many ways was the idea of the “New Negro,” a term created by Black philosopher Alain Locke. As Locke wrote, this figure refuses to accept the notion historically propagated in the United States that African Americans are an inferior race. Rather, the New Negro demands that Black cultural achievements, past and present, be considered equal to white cultural achievements.

Perhaps no figure better exemplified the ethos of the New Negro than poet Langston Hughes. Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes moved to New York City after high school to study at Columbia University, and soon became a principal figure of the Harlem Renaissance. True to Locke’s concept of the New Negro, Hughes was a tireless champion of Black arts and culture – not only the work of his colleagues, but also the vernacular and popular traditions of the African American community in general. Hughes had a  fondness for Black popular music especially, regularly composing his own Blues verses and replicating the rhythms of jazz in his poetry. With an inarguable mastery of language, he nonetheless wrote his poems for the everyday people whose music and art always inspired him. As critic Donald B. Gibson wrote, Hughes ”addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read.”

In this lesson, students will discuss how the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance and Locke’s New Negro were exemplified by the poetry of Langston Hughes. Specifically, they will examine how Hughes incorporated the vernacular tradition of the Blues in his work, and identify the literary techniques Hughes employs to make his poetry so vivid.

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Objectives

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The defining characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance
    • Alain Locke’s notion of the “New Negro”
    • An overview of the life and work of Langston Hughes
    • Connections between Hughes’ poetry and conventions in the Blues
    • Examples of African American vernacular traditions
    • The use of various literary techniques in Blues lyrics and poetry
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to understand the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance by drawing connections between the work of Langston Hughes and Blues music.

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Place the images from the Harlem Renaissance Gallery Walk around the classroom. Tell students that they will be examining photographs taken around the 1930s in the neighborhood of Harlem, in New York City. Ask students to walk around the classroom, taking notes that summarize the subject of each image they see, and what they find interesting about it.
  2. Ask students to summarize one of the images in the gallery walk activity, based on their notes. Once the majority of the images have been introduced by students, ask the class:
    • Based on the photographs you saw, how might you describe life in Harlem around the 1930s? Did it seem more urban or rural? What are some of the activities people in Harlem pursued? Did it seem like they had a lot of opportunities to pursue different types of activities?
    • What kinds of artistic or creative practices were represented in the photographs?
    • What kind of forms of entertainment were featured in the photographs?
    • What other events did you notice occurring in Harlem at this time? Were there any political events? If so, what issues might have such protests and marches been related to?
    • At this period, Harlem was termed “the Black capital of the world.” How might have the neighborhood gained this reputation? (Encourage students to think about both the growing African American population in Harlem and the flourishing arts and cultural scene occurring in the neighborhood.)
    • What types of people might have moved to Harlem? What might have drawn them to the neighborhood?
    • Why might have the neighborhood attracted artists, writers, or other creatives specifically? How might have the culture of Harlem inspired such people?
  3. Tell students that the time period pictured in the images was known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” This was a period of cultural flourishing centered around the notion of the “New Negro,” a concept created by philosopher Alain Locke. Give students Handout 1 – Class Readings, and have them read aloud the first page, selections from Alain Locke’s “Enter the New Negro.” Ask students:
    • What is Locke advocating for in the first paragraph? What is he demanding? What does he mean by “revaluation?”
    • What is Locke saying in the second paragraph? What might he mean in saying that African Americans should “lay aside the status of a beneficiary and ward for that of a collaborator and participant in American civilization”? What might he mean when he says “American Civilization”? What is the difference between a “ward” and a “collaborator”?
    • What kind of endeavors do you think Locke is thinking of when using the phrase  “productive fields of creative expression” in the second paragraph?
    • Based on the images you saw, how might Harlem exemplify Locke’s ideal of the “New Negro”? Why might the Harlem Renaissance be considered a “spiritual Coming of Age” for Locke?

Procedure:

  1. Tell students that they will be learning more about the Harlem Renaissance by examining the life and writing of Langston Hughes, a pivotal figure in the movement.
  2. Ask students to read the second page of Handout 1, “The South” aloud. Ask students:
    • How does Hughes personify the South in this poem? If the South were a person, what kind of person would it be? Why might he have chosen to refer to the South and the North in feminine rather than masculine terms? What does this say about his relationship with these regions?
    • What does Hughes like about the South? What doesn’t he like?
    • How does Hughes evoke the senses (sight, smell, touch, etc.) in his descriptions of the South?
    • How does Hughes use temperature to contrast the North and South? Might the terms “warm” and “cold” Hughes uses describe more than temperature?
    • Hughes was born in Missouri, which was a slave state during the Civil War. How might this poem reference Hughes’ personal history?
    • When he was around 18 years old, Hughes moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration, where millions of African Americans left the South to escape the racism and search for better opportunities in the North. Based on this poem, what might have encouraged him to move? What might he mean with the idea of escaping “the spell of the South”?
    • What might Hughes be referring to when he writes that he would like to give the South “many rare gifts”? Why would the South “turn her back” on them?
  3. Read the third page on the handout, the poem “Theme for English B” aloud as a class, and then ask students:
    • From what perspective is this poem written?
    • How would you say the character in this poem responds to the teacher’s assignment? Are they enthusiastic about writing it? Confused by it? Angry they have to complete the assignment?
    • Hughes wrote this poem later in his career, well after he was a student. But like the character in this poem, Hughes moved to New York to study at Columbia University, which is on the northern part of Harlem. In what ways might Hughes be describing his own experience in this poem?
    • Does the narrator in this poem still experience racism in New York City? How do you know? How does the character respond to such racism?
    • What does the narrator in this poem enjoy?
    • In the poem, the character expresses a love of records, referring to famous Blues singer Bessie Smith, 18th Century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and Bop, a kind of jazz music. What does such a diverse taste in music say about this student? How might this relate to the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance?
    • “English B” was written decades after “The South,” but Southern cities and universities are still featured in “English B.” What might this say about Hughes’ relationship to the South?
  4. Ask students to turn to the third page of the handout, and read aloud Hughes’ letter to Carl Van Vechten as a class. Ask students:
    • Where was Hughes when he wrote this letter? Where is Beale street? (Beale Street is in Memphis, Tennessee, and famous for its musical atmosphere.)
    • What does Hughes do with his time while in Memphis? What might this reveal about him?
    • Where else does this letter reveals Hughes’ interest in music?
    • In this letter, Hughes again refers to Bessie Smith and also “Handy.” Who might “Handy” be? (Note: Hughes is referring to W.C. Handy, a composer and songwriter known as “The Father of the Blues.”)
    • Why might have Hughes referred to a flood twice in the letter? (The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which remains the most destructive flood in American history, occurred shortly before Hughes arrive. The flood overwhelmingly affected African American neighborhoods.)
    • Why might have Hughes written this letter? Who might Carl Van Vechten be? (Van Vechten was an author, photographer, and patron for many Harlem Renaissance figures.)
    • How might have Hughes’ interest in the Blues been represented in his poetry?
  5. Tell the class they will be comparing poetry by Langston Hughes with lyrics from Mississippi Blues musician Robert Johnson, to see how the influence of Blues might have affected Hughes’ work. Ask students to turn to the fourth page in the handout, (beginning with “Po’ Boy Blues”) read the two works on the page, and take notes on similarities they see between the two pieces. Then ask students:
    • Did you notice any similarities between these two works? What were they?
    • How many lines are in each stanza of the pieces? Is that number consistent, or does it change?
    • What happens in the first line of each stanza in the two works?
    • What happens in the second line of each stanza?
    • What happens in the third line of each stanza?
    • Where do the rhyming schemes occur in each stanza?
    • What scenarios are described in each of the pieces? Are they similar in any way? How might this relate to African American experience at the time? (Encourage students to consider the theme of travel in both pieces in the context of the Great Migration.)
    • How would you describe the emotion the author is trying to convey in each of these pieces? Is it similar or different?
  6. Tell students that both pieces are set in an “AAB” format, with the first line identifying the situation, the second line restating the first line, and the third line resolving the initial statement. Tell students that the Blues form developed as an African American vernacular tradition. Ask students:
    • “Vernacular” is defined as “The language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region.” Drawing from this definition, what might “African American vernacular tradition” mean?
    • In addition to The Blues, what other genres of music might be considered part of the African American vernacular tradition? (Answers might include spirituals, gospel, jazz, rap, hip-hop, and rock.)
    • What are some other artistic practices outside of music that might be part of the African American vernacular tradition? (folktales, oral epics, sermons, and cyphers are also often considered part of the tradition.)
  7. Tell students that in addition to referring to specific art forms, African American vernacular traditions also incorporate African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect of the English language that developed among African American communities. (To better understand AAVE as a dialect, and not “broken” or “incorrect” English as it has sometimes been characterized, teachers can direct students to this youtube video that introduces the term. This clip may also feature advertising. We suggest loading the video before class.)
  8. Ask students:
    • Can you think of any words, phrases, or pronunciations that be part of the African American vernacular tradition?
    • Can you find any examples of Hughes drawing upon elements of the African American Vernacular English in “Po’ Boy Blues”? What about in the other works of his the class have examined?
  9. Give to each student Handout 2 – A Selection of Literary Techniques. Ask students to read through the list, and determine if Hughes’ “Po’ Boy Blues” and Johnson’s “Love in Vain Blues” contain any of the literary techniques present on the list.
  10. Ask students:
    • What sort of literary techniques did you find in “Po’ Boy Blues”?
    • What sort of literary techniques did you find in “Love in Vain”?
    • Did one piece seem to have more literary devices than the other? Why might that be?

Summary Activity:

  1. Display Image 1, Writing Prompt. Ask students to follow the instructions in the image. At completion, students can either share their observations in class, or hand in the essay.

Extension Activities:

  1. Using the AAB Blues form, write your own 3-stanza Blues poem, and perform it for the class. Try to make the lyrics relate to your own personal struggles or frustrations. If possible, incorporate some of the literary techniques in Handout 2
  2. Bring to the class lyrics to a song you feel addresses a current social issue. Present to the class the values and themes represented in the and point out any examples of figurative language used.
  3. Write a short response to the following prompt: “How can rap be considered part of the African American vernacular tradition?

Explore Further:

Teachers should feel free to supplement the class discussion with a number of different poems and Blues pieces. Suggestions below:

Poets:

Langston Hughes (especially “I Too,” “The Negro Sings Of Rivers,” “Homesick Blues,” and “Harlem”)

Sterling Plumpp (especially “Worst Than The Blues My Daddy Had” and “I Hear The Shuffle Of The People’s Feet”)

Tyehimba Jess (especially “Blind Lemon Taught Me”)

Sterling Brown

Countee Cullen

Jayne Cortez

Nikki Giovanni

Gwendolyn Brooks

Claude McKay

Blues Musician:

Bessie Smith (especially “Downhearted Blues” and “Backwater Blues”)

Charley Patton (especially “Bo Weavil Blues”)

Shemekia Copeland (especially “In The Blood of the Blues,” “Beat Up Guitar,” and “Ghetto Child.”)

Keb’ Mo’ (especially “Henry” and “City Boy”)

Chris Thomas King (especially “Da Thrill is Gone from Da Hood.”)

Skip James (especially “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”)

Gary Clark Jr. (especially “When My Train Pulls In”)

Beth Hart (especially “Leave the Light On”)

Eric Bibb (especially “Drinkin’ Gourd” and “Flood Water.”)

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Craft and Structure 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge 8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge  9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 8: Science, Technology, and Society

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.