Lessons, Literature, Art, Jazz,
Blues, and Black History

NEXUS Connects: The Harlem Renaissance

Black creativity, suppressed in America for centuries, percolated and the arts intermingled in the cultural melting pot of Twenties Harlem. Students explore this fusion of African American literature, art, blues, jazz and black history in The Harlem Renaissance volume of NEXUS.

WE DO THE RESEARCH FOR YOU, providing all of the backstory you’ll need in literature, art, blues, jazz and black history in this inspiring student resource that’s a teacher resource too.

We employ an Interdisciplinary Approach to teach an Interdisciplinary Period, utilizing interactive, classroom-tested teaching strategies and lessons that inspire students of all levels.

CLASSROOM NOTES PLUS, NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English)

“Each [NEXUS] volume…is a hybrid of a well-written interdisciplinary textbook and a lively, attractive magazine….’Songs of the Seventh Son’ is one of many thoughtful chapters in The Harlem Renaissance volume of NEXUS. ”


“All Nexus volumes emphasize the critical skills and analogical thinking that are crucial for success on the SAT.”

Aligned with Common Core Standards. For secondary students.

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African American Literature from Langston Hughes to Zora Neale Hurston, from Arna Bontemps to Dorothy West

  • An exciting Common Core exploration of Harlem Renaissance literature.
  • Students examine inspirational poetry influenced by W.E.B Du Bois’ theories.
Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston (Library of Congress) and rapper Coolio, courtesy of Tommy Boy Music, photo by Albert Watson

Figures of Speech: from Harlem Slang to Rap

In this lesson students learn exciting and entertaining ways to explicate figurative language as they carefully explore Zora Neale Hurston’s Glossary of Harlem Slang, an inherently figurative patois, and her hilarious “Story in Harlem Slang” (Spunk collection). Students then interpret some of the most artful lyrics of Grammy Award-winning rapper Coolio.

This chapter aligns with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL1, RL.4, RL.7, and RL9 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Anchor standards CCRA.R.1, R.4, R5, and R9.

Song of the Towers, by Aaron Douglas, from Aspects of Negro Life, Schomburg Center, New York Public Library

– Harlem Renaissance Short Stories that Explore the Great Migration

Students study short stories by Zora Neale Hurston (Spunk collection) and Dorothy West and link them to their own experiences. The two stories we compare and contrast tied for second place in an Opportunity (National Urban League) fiction contest. At the time Hurston was already an established writer of the Harlem Renaissance. West, only 17, was an unknown. Many issues of Opportunity from the Harlem Renaissance period can be accessed at Google Books.

This lesson satisfies Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.2, RL.3, and RL.4; and the Following Anchor Reading Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2, R.3, r.5, and R.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Langston Hughes, Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Yale Univerity

Langston Hughes + Poetry = Blues

Penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet (1994) Yusef Komunyakaa, this chapter explores Langston Hughes’s blues and jazz-influenced poetry and the use of tension and humor in his spare verse. Students also examine the jazz rhythms of his poems.

This lesson is aligned with the following Common Core Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 and RL.4 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 and R.8.

Langston Hughes’s Influence on Later Poets

This lesson, also written by Yusef Komunyakaa, examines Langston Hughes’ poetic legacy. It satisfies Common Core Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 and R.8.

Harlem Renaissance Poetry – Songs of the Seventh Son

Students explore social theories of W.E.B. Du Bois through poems they inspired by Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, Arna Bontemps and Claude McKay. The chapter teaches students to interpret complex poetry and connect it to black history as well as their own lives. It also enables students to compare a variety of interpretations of the same topics.

This lesson satisfies the following Common Core Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.2, RL.4 and RL.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12); and Anchor Standards for Reading: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4, R.5, R.6 and R.9.

Black Theater

Students trace the history of black theater, focusing on the pivotal role of 20s’ and 30s’ plays and musicals, from Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s era-defining hit Shuffle Along to Langston Hughes’s early comedies like Little Ham.

This lesson is aligned with Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1, R.2, R.6 and R.8.

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Black History

The Great Migration

The historical backbone of this volume, this multi-pronged lesson covers the events that paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance, from Reconstruction through W.W.I and its aftermath. Powerfully written with a narrative introduction, the chapter probes the politics of prejudice.

This chapter aligns with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, .RH.3, RH.6, RH.8, and RH.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Getting Religion, by Archibald Motley, Whitney Museum of American Art

Jazz-Age Harlem

This scintillating chapter, spliced with captivating quotes from Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Johnson, J.A. Roger, Alain Locke, and the youngest writer of the Renaissance, Dorothy West, immerses students in the exhilarating creative atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age. (For brief bios on all of these figures see the African American Book Club.)

A“n exuberant three-page overview whose atmospheric approach does not fail to acknowledge that during that period, as Langston Hughes put it, “the Negro was in vogue.” While recognizing that the “marketability” of African American culture was driven by white tourists, the introduction still gives a good accounting of the achievements made possible by the “vogue” and includes recollections of Harlem life from Hughes, Dorothy West, and others.” – THE COLLEGE BOARD

Harlem Renaissance arts interpreted black history and the contemporary black experience for a broad national audience for the first time in American history.

This lesson meets Common Core Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, and RH.3 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

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Black Music

  • Harlem Renaissance music and black music from the Delta to the Chicago Blues.
  • Students to learn to recognize and distinguish the various musical voices of the period.
Classic Blues singer with jazz combo, Hatch-Billips Collection

The Roots of the Blues

This chapter and the accompanying “Blues Supplement” and Harlem Renaissance lesson plans teach students the history and contemporary relevance of the blues. They also explore the structure of the blues and its offspring rock and roll and learn to write their own blues compositions and lyrics, modeled on the blues poetry of Langston Hughes. (For a list and descriptions of the various types of blues see “A Brief History of the Blues” at the All About Jazz website.)

This lesson satisfies Common Core Anchor Reading Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1, R.2, R.6 and R.8. For more on the blues see Race Records and Selling Black Music below.

Photograph of Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton & Jazz

As “rap was borne at the block parties of the Bronx in the late seventies and early eighties, jazz was nurtured and perfected at rent parties in the twenties – not only in Harlem, but in Chicago and St. Louis.” (“When Harlem Was Heaven,” The Harlem Renaissance, NEXUS.)

This lesson examines the music of Jelly Roll Morton and teaches students to identify New Orleans Polyphony and to write their own jazz improvisations using jazz counterpoint. For more on counterpoint and theme and variation see “Renaissance Music and Pattern Recognition – A Romeo and Juliet Activity,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance and “Repetition in Music and Literature,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream supplement.

This chapter is aligned with Common Core Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 and R.2. as well as National Music Anchor Standards 1,2,3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

NEXUS illustration of jazzman by Brad Marks

Race Records and Selling Black Music

This chapter chronicles the evolution of the blues from its birth in the Mississippi Delta through the Classic Blues in Harlem to the Chicago Blues as well as the challenges and prejudice black musicians faced in the recording industry.

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African American Art

Harlem Renaissance Visions—The Art of Aaron Douglas

Students learn to “read” the visual metaphors and contrasts of the leading painter of the Harlem Renaissance Aaron Douglas and to interpret his visual narratives of black history.  Students should compare the image to the left, The Creation, with The Judgment Day at the National Gallery of Art and Let My People Go at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They may also want to explore and emulate the interdisciplinary collaborations between Douglas and poet Langston Hughes (see Harlem Renaissance Lesson Plans.)  For more on reading visual metaphors see “Poetry in Botticelli’s Primavera,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance and “Greek Art, Visual Storytelling,” Antigone and the Greek World.

This exciting chapter and lesson satisfies CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL7 (for 9-10 and 11-12; and National Core Art Standards, Program 8, Anchor Standards 1, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

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Harlem Renaissance Lesson Plans and Interdisciplinary Guidelines

NEXUS SUPPLEMENTS can be accessed under the SUPPLEMENTS menu. NOTE: NEXUS supplements and booklets are protected by U.S. Copyright and cannot be photocopied, photographed, or downloaded.

High school students in a discussion with their teacher

Harlem Renaissance Writing Projects

How to Write a Blues Poem in the Manner of Langston Hughes Using Contrast and Irony
Students learn irony not merely as a remote concept but as a feeling by translating ironies in their own lives into blues lyrics in the manner of Langston Hughes. This creative writing supplement, besides teaching basic skills for composing verse, is aligned with Common Core Writing Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.1.C, 1.E, 2.A, 2.C and WHST.5 (for 9-10 and 11-12).
Structure of the Blues and Composing Your Own Blues
Students also learn to compose their own blues songs using the blues scale and a simple blues chord progression. This supplement meets National Music Anchor Standards 1,2,3, 5, and 6.
  • Harlem Renaissance activities
  • Harlem Renaissance project ideas

  • Additional Blues Resources for Students

  • Abridged Glossary of Harlem Slang, by Zora Neale Hurston

GUIDELINES: The NEXUS guidelines suggest interdisciplinary activities and student-friendly ancillary readings. 

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