The Harlem Renaissance is an epic subject, encompassing music, visual art, literature, and politics. To do it justice, a new course will feature four University of Wisconsin-Madison instructors, one for each of the four sessions.
Harlem Renaissance, which runs Thursdays at the UW Pyle Center from Sept. 29 to Oct. 20, will shed light on the powerful cultural and artistic movement that lasted from the end of World War I to the mid-1930s. It included influential artists and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Duke Ellington, who sought new expressions of African American identity.
Jessica Courtier, program director in music and performing arts at UW-Madison Continuing Studies, notes a crucial point about the Harlem Renaissance: the major players had diverse opinions about artistic expression and how the arts could reflect black life. Some believed in creating a distinctive voice in established idioms, like classical music, while others thought they should devise original forms based on folklore, African roots, and vernacular culture.
“The period was incredibly rich, reflecting intense debates about African American life,” Courtier says. “That’s why a course on the Harlem Renaissance will benefit from the perspectives of our four instructors.”
The intersection of art and politics
Prof. Craig Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, will introduce the class, laying out the historical context and intellectual and political questions of the Harlem Renaissance.
Prof. Emily Auerbach will delve into Harlem Renaissance literature, focusing on Hughes. To emphasize the vital connection between African American musicians and authors, she will have a jazz pianist on hand—her father, Robert Auerbach.
Instructor Anthony Black will discuss the tension between modernism and folkloric influences among the era’s visual artists, including painter Aaron Douglas.
In her session on music, Courtier will cover the period’s towering creators in blues and jazz, including Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. She will also explore lesser-known African American composers who made their mark in classical music.
Courtier says the four perspectives are bound to broaden students’ understanding of the period. Those who might know a lot about history, for example, may not know much about visual arts, and those familiar with the music can enrich their understanding by learning more about literature.
“The course will shed light on the way art and politics intersect,” she says. “It will also show how the popular arts carry political ideas, even if they don’t intend to.”
Black rights and black culture
Courtier says the Harlem Renaissance course is particularly relevant at a time when African American rights are again a subject of urgent debate.
“There have been periods in American history when discussion of black rights and black culture has come to the fore in an especially pointed way,” she says. “The fundamental questions about citizenship and respect for personhood that artists and intellectuals tackled during the Harlem Renaissance are strongly related to what’s happening now.”