By Myra Saturen
February 20, 2014
For those familiar with "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," it is amazing to learn that its author, Langston Hughes, wrote the classic poem when he was only seventeen.
The extraordinary lives, work and thought of creative artists of the Harlem Renaissance came to life with presentations by honors students who were enrolled in Northampton Community College's African-American literature class last semester. Professor of English Sharon Gavin- Levy moderated this Black History Month event created by her students.
"The Harlem Renaissance," Levy explained, "was a major movement in which political, social and economic forces came together, mostly between 1918 and the 1920s." The result was a flowering of music, literature and art by African Americans expressing racial pride and empowerment.
The students' presentations focused upon some of the movement's most prominent musicians and writers. Katie Passmore surveyed musical styles, showing videos of stride piano, cabaret, jazz, blues, and swing big bands. A 1943 clip of Duke Ellington playing "It Don't Mean a Thing" and Mamie Smith's 1935 performance of cabaret singing captured the energetic and expressive sounds of popular ballrooms and clubs in the first half of the twentieth century.
Meagan Ackerman highlighted the multifaceted career of Zora Neale Hurston. The first African American woman to graduate from Barnard College, Hurston is famous today for her novels Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah's Gourd Vine. Still, by the time of her death in 1960, all of her books were out of print and she lived in poverty. Her work, which also encompassed anthropological study and short stories, resurfaced through the efforts of contemporary writer Alice Walker, who erected a stone at the site of Hurston's unmarked grave. Raised in Eatonville, Florida, Hurston drew on folklore told by older African American men she knew during her youth.
Timothy Gerancher probed the conflicted personality of Nella Larsen, whose experience as a biracial woman of Danish and West Indian parentage informed her autobiographical novels of the late 1920s, Quicksand and Passing. Her writing, Gerancher pointed out, explored identity, female sexuality, class, and social constrictions on African Americans of her time.
Aaron Rosengarten's subject, Jean Toomer, attended both all-white and all-black schools during his childhood. Of mixed ancestry and light-complexioned, Toomer renounced the idea of race. The writer and philosopher's studies at the University of Chicago and the City College of New York, added to his own self-education among Quakers and in India. Toomer's 1923 novel, Cane, included poetry, some verses of which Rosengarten read aloud.
Quintin Lightner described how Langston Hughes conceived "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," as the teenaged poet journeyed by train along the Mississippi River with his father. In this poem and his other work, Hughes battled racial stereotypes, voiced racial pride and illustrated the resilient strength of African Americans. Lightner read "Mother to Son," in which a black mother compares her life to a splintered, torn-up stair but urges her son to keep climbing, as she has. A remarkable film showed Hughes reciting his poem "Weary Blues" to the accompaniment of live music.
"My students in this class told me that this was the hardest course they'd ever taken," said Levy. "I take this to be a great compliment." She lauded the students' talent, hard work and ingenuity. The excellence of their research and writing prompted Levy to organize the presentation.
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