African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Education Materials

The Harlem Renaissance

What’s the Main Idea?

Object Description

Probing Further

Shuffle Along

What's the Main Idea?

Object Description

In literature and the visual arts, the Harlem Renaissance--insofar as it can be defined--is described principally by a series of novels, books of poetry, paintings, and sculpture. Although African Americans wrote symphonies and sonatas in the period between the world wars, it was the nightclub music that seems to capture the period. The musical show Shuffle Along, which opened on May 23, 1921, and ran for over 500 performances, was written by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle. Both Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters served in the chorus line. Paul Robeson was briefly in the cast as a member of a barbershop quartet. The libretto is open to the scene containing, "I'm Just Wild about Harry," the hit of the show.

Probing Further

  1. "Shuffle Along" was the first Broadway musical written, produced, and performed by African Americans. The show became such a success, that it was performed by three different touring companies. "I'm Just Wild about Harry" became one of the most famous songs from the musical. William Grant Still played the oboe in the orchestra for "Shuffle Along" and later, in 1931, wrote Afro-American Symphony, the first symphony to be written by a black composer and the first to be played by a major orchestra. Still "fully conceived this symphony as a nationalistic work that would use African American musical elements." Eventually, he would become the first African American conductor of a major orchestra, the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.

    Music has always been an important element in African American culture. Since the turn of the twentieth century African American music, whether it's gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz, or rap has had a powerful influence on American popular music. Bring to your classroom a variety of music played by such great classicalist William Grant Still or Marion Anderson, as well as music performed by jazz innovators Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and the beautiful recorded voices of Billie Holliday, Lena Horne or Ethel Waters. Listen to each one. Do you find anything distinctive about the music? Think about the music in terms of its melody, lyrics, rhythm, and beat. Research more on the development of jazz. How did it start? From where do the roots of jazz originate? How did American audiences react to this new form of music?

  2. Working in groups, research and select works created by participants in the Harlem Renaissance. Choose people who were involved in literature, including poets and authors of novels, as well as art and music. Discuss with the rest of the class what your group learned.

  3. Although African Americans had continually proven themselves in battle while fighting in the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, it was not until the start of the Korean conflict that troops were finally desgregated. Yet, after these wars, African Americans continued to face discrimination at home. As seen in the drawing, Return of the Soldiers, by acclaimed artist Charles White, African American soldiers returning from World War II are terrorized by a member of the law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan. Did sentiments towards black soldiers fighting in American wars change for the better immediately following President Truman's decision to issue Executive Order No. 9981 on July 31, 1948?

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