Harlem Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
In the book Harlem, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers, an accomplished artist, combine their talents to share the remarkable sights, sounds and textures of a community and a way of life that has touched and shaped the lives of thousands of Americans for generations. Here is a guide to encourage further discussion and exploration of the continuing legacy that is Harlem.
Walter Dean Myers: I came to Harlem from West Virginia when I was three, after my mother died. My father, who was very poor, gave me up to two wonderful people, my foster parents.
Thinking back to boyhood days, I remember the bright sun on Harlem streets, the easy rhythms of black and brown bodies, the sounds of children streaming in and out of red brick tenements. I remember La Marqueta, in East Harlem, where people spoke a multitude of languages. I remember playing basketball in Morningside Park until it was too dark to see the basket and then climbing over the fence to go home.
The Harlem of my youth was big enough to include a constellation of cultural and athletic stars, and yet small enough for me to run into Joe Louis on 125th Street or to see Langston Hughes sitting on his stoop to escape the heat. The colors, the sights, the mingled sounds of jazz and gospel music formed the fabric of my life. But most of all, for me, it was home.
Christopher Myers: Harlem. Harlem was supposed to meet me when I got off the "D" train at 145th Street. I ran up the station stairs and didn't find it. I looked for it in the roti shop on the corner. So old men laughed when I asked them where Harlem had gone. A little girl on roller skates said she saw some people that looked like Harlem going into church, and that they were dressed nice. Some boys playing basketball with a sawed-off milk crate as their basket told me that the girl didn't know anything and was always giving out wrong information.
Some women sitting on a stoop, one of them braiding her boyfriend's hair, said that Harlem had left Harlem a long time ago. "Did you try Brooklyn?" she asked.
I had to look for Harlem, conduct a door-to-door search, but I think I found it. And in a lot of unexpected places. Harlem is both a place you can go to on the subway and a vibrant alive community of people. Harlem's aesthetic plays both on the places in our mind and in its own streets. Listening to what you see is one of the lessons Harlem teaches you. In doing this book I had to learn to listen to Harlem and its various manifestations. Artists and photographers that I know or whose images I have known, visionaries such as David Hammers, Roe de Carava, and Romare Bearden, were all helpful in teaching me to hear Harlem. It's a wonderful sound.
Teaching With the Book
Harlem is an intimate celebration of the universal message of life. As you read through the book, consider these historical, cultural and personal references (arranged in the order of the text) to help you understand and see, what Walter Dean Myers calls, "the colors loud enough to be heard."
Waycross, Georgia/East St. Louis
Waycross, Georgia; East St. Louis, Illinois; Holly Springs, Mississippi; Gee's Bend, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Trinidad off the Northeast coast of South America are all places from which people came to settle in Harlem.
For many of the Africans, the journey to the West began at the fortress/prison on Goree Island, off the Cape Verde peninsula, Senegal.
During the era of the slave trade, men, women and children were brought from these West African countries to North America.
The street that has come to mean the heart of Harlem.
Jack Johnson/Joe Louis/Sugar Ray
For years boxers were the most prominent black people others could look to as heroes. Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was the first African-American world heavyweight champion. White friends who lived on the edge of Harlem have told me of the eerie quiet of my community when Joe Louis (1914-1981) fought, and the erupting celebration when he won. Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989) was one of the most popular fighters from Harlem, often touring the streets and challenging the kids to impromptu, and delightful, duels.
Jive and Jehova
The "jive" artist was the equivalent of today's rapper and could often be heard talking "jive" talk on 125th Street. Jehova's Witnesses are part of the rich religious tradition of Harlem.
This main thoroughfare through the heart of Harlem is also known as Malcolm X Boulevard. It's on this street that one finds Harlem Hospital and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
A Weary Blues That Langston Knew
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was Harlem's best known poet/writer. His first book of poetry, A Weary Blues, was published in 1926.
And Countee Sung
"Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!" Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was an outstanding poet. The Countee Cullen library is located on 136th Street off Lenox Ave.
William E. B. Dubois (1868-1963) scholar, writer and editor of The Crisis magazine.
And Baldwin Preached
The popular novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) preached for three years before turning his attention to writing.
Minton's and The Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was a popular nightclub in the thirties and forties and Minton's was known as the hangout for the jazz giants.
An important church for black participation since the early 19th century. It moved to 138th Street in 1923 and was brought to even greater prominence by Adam Clayton Powell.
A theater known for its high profile acts as well as its amateur nights from which the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and others arose.
Shango and Jesus
While Christianity is important in Harlem, there are still traces of African rituals such as Shango.
Asante and Mende
Two West African peoples.
"Precious Lord, Take My Hand, Lead Me On, Let Me Stand"
A gospel song by Thomas Dorsey, often sung at funerals.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was considered the greatest jazz singer America has known.
Small's Paradise, a cabaret jazz club, one of the "big three," along with The Cotton Club and Minton's Playhouse.
Middle class housing on 139th Street which symbolized upward mobility.
Marcus to Malcolm
Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and Malcolm X (1925-1965) were fiery orators who preached self help for African-Americans. Malcolm's father was a follower of Garvey.
The New York City subway "A" line that ran to Harlem, immortalized by Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train."
A major river in West Africa.
Additional resources to help readers learn more about Harlem and the rich African-American heritage:
- Hudson, Wade, ed. 2004. Powerful Words: More Than 200 Years of Extraordinary Writing by African Americans. Scholastic Inc.
- Bearden, Romare & Harry Henderson. 1993. A History of African-American Artists. Pantheon.
- Early, Gerald, ed. 1991. My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writing of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Anchor Books.
- Haley, Alex. 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press.
- Hughes, Langston. 1959. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Press.
- Lewis, David Levering. 1981. When Harlem Was in Vogue. Alfred A. Knopf.
- Low, W. Augustus & Virgil A. Clift. 1984. Encyclopedia of Black America. Da Capo Press.
- Salley, Columbus. 1992. A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present. Citadel Press.
- Schoener, Allon, ed. 1968. Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968. Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
- Singer, Barry. 1995. Black & Blue: The Life & Lyrics of Andy Razaf. Schirmer Books.
Guide written by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers.