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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Good history of the Harlem Renaissance for kids writing reports -- but I wish it grabbed me more.

Hill, Laban Carrick  (2003) Harlem Stomp:  A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.
One of the advantages/occupational hazards of being a professional nerd is that I pretty much love any book that can teach me something. I knew about the Harlem Renaissance, of course, that particular moment in history where African American culture and history went into overdrive in Harlem, New York -- when poets and playwrights, singers, dancers, actors,  jazz musicians and composers, painters and sculptors were all working in one place and able to feed off each other's genius in a way that happens only vary rarely.  Harlem Stomp got me really interested through a combination of short biographies, amazing photographs, and some really cool primary source documents -- like an annotated map of Harlem music clubs. There were a lot of historical figures in this book I had never heard of, and it was wonderful to be introduced to them.
But the book also has a flaw.  Although the focus on specific moments and events is excellent, the through-line., the narrative thread that links it all together and helps us to see history as a story, is very faint.  I suspect that Hill was being a good historian and resisting the temptation to add a level of interpretation by trying to see such a through-line.  At the same time, because the narrative doesn't feel connected, this is a remarkable easy book to drift away from.  To be fair, he does provide such a through-lien, but you have to look pretty hard to find it.  Bringing that aspect of the book more to the forefront would have made it a much more engaging read.
This would be an excellent book to have available for students writing reports about important people in US history.  Fourth-graders (and maybe even third) could make sense of it, but it seems to me that middle school and high school are the real target audience here.

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