Exploring the Harlem Renaissance Through NYPL's Collections

By Maya Banks, Exhibitions Education, Center for Educators and Schools
May 9, 2024

The New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools is devoted to making all of the Library’s resources accessible and useful for educators. On our For Teachers blog channel, the Exhibitions Education team spotlights items from the Library’s exhibitions and collections and draws connections to the classroom.

Currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” includes items from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This post will draw from the Library’s archives and circulating collections to broaden the exploration of the history behind the Harlem Renaissance. 

The Harlem Renaissance (known at the time as the "New Negro Movement") was an intellectual and cultural movement during the 1920s and 1930s that centered Black creativity and intellectual pursuits, while redefining what it meant to be Black. We invite you to reflect on the nearly 100 years that have passed since this movement started.

By spotlighting items from the Library’s collections that are on view at the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, we hope to offer ways to teach with them in your classroom, as well as spotlight teaching and learning resources available from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Book a Field Trip to View Items from the Harlem Renaissance

Students looking at a display case in the Polonsky Exhibition.

The best way to experience the Harlem Renaissance through NYPL is by planning a field trip to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for a free guided trip to the Polonsky Exhibition of the Library’s Treasures! Our permanent exhibition showcases items that span over 4,000 years of history and features prominent artists and creations of the Harlem Renaissance.

Book a free field trip today!

Aaron Douglas' "Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction" (1934)

Currently on view at the Met!

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction by Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas' "Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction" (1934)

"Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction" is a part of a series that Aaron Douglas created for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, with the intention of being prominently displayed at the Library. Reconstruction refers to the life that Black Americans had to recreate for themselves after the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

On the right, we see enslaved African people and Black life in the U.S. South. As we move left in the painting, we see a document highlighted (the Emancipation Proclamation) and movement toward freedom and the beginning of new life.

When not on loan, this item decorates a wall in the Aaron Douglas Reading Room at the Schomburg Center.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ "The Brownies' Book" (1920–1921)

View the image in higher resolution on NYPL Digital Collections.

Title Page and Contents

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 58219697

The Brownies' Book was a literary publication founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. This magazine was made specifically for Black children with the intention of instilling a sense of pride in their identity. Each copy of the magazine proudly proclaims that this is "A Monthly Magazine For the Children of the Sun, DESIGNED FOR ALL CHILDREN, BUT ESPECIALLY FOR OURS."

This magazine not only served as a means for Black children to access literature and new books, it also served as a launching pad for the careers of prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes' poems were first published in The Brownies' Book soon after he graduated high school!

Find this item in the Childhood section of the Polonsky Exhibition. Plus, explore a reimagined copy of the publication in our circulating collection and a conversation hosted by the Schomburg Center on this book. 

Henri Matisse’s "Jazz" (1947)

Colorful collage style artwork

Henri Matisse’s "Jazz" (1947)

It may come as a surprise that Henri Matisse is sometimes considered to be a part of the Harlem Renaissance. This French visual artist frequented Harlem jazz clubs and theaters throughout the 1930s. The collage Jazz was created following a cancer diagnosis that left Matisse bedridden and unable to paint and sculpt as he had before. The name of this piece is an homage to the time he spent in Harlem appreciating the improvisational art form of jazz.

Find this item in the Visual World section of the Polonsky Exhibition.

Elizabeth Catlett’s "Political Prisoner" (1971)

Image of Elizabeth Catlett’s 'Political Prisoner'

Elizabeth Catlett’s "Political Prisoner" (1971)

Elizabeth Catlett was an artist and an outspoken political activist. Her activism was a theme in much of her work, which highlights the life and experiences of Black women in the 20th century. Born in Washington, D.C., she moved to Harlem in the 1940s where she encountered artists like Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, and Jacob Lawrence. 

Later, she was exiled from the U.S. due to her activism and became a resident of Mexico City, where she continued to create art. Political Prisoner was created during the Black Arts Movement (1965–1975), which aligned with the Black Power movement in the U.S. and aimed to depict the realities of Black life, while celebrating Black people's strength and beauty. 

Though this item is no longer physically on display, you can still learn more about this piece online in the Fortitude section of the Polonsky Exhibition.

Explore Additional Resources for Students & Educators

The Library has many resources that help bring the Harlem Renaissance to life outside of the gallery and inside of the classroom. Check out book sets, research guides, in-person tours, and more below.

Discover Books on the Harlem Renaissance

MyLibraryNYC offers more than 10,000 book sets from NYC public libraries in more than 20 languages and a variety of formats—delivered to your classroom for free! See below for a selection of recommended titles on the Harlem Renaissance that can be easily integrated into your classroom.

Stacks of books on a white table as well as three small figural sculptures

The Augusta Savage Teacher Set includes 10 copies of "The Shape of a Sculptor's Life" by Marilyn Nelson and 3D-printed replicas of her original artworks.

Photo: Jonathan Blanc, NYPL

Access Libguides for Guided Discovery on Databases

The New York Public Library curates Libguides, which are digital tools designed to aid researchers looking to dive deeper into conducting research on specific topics. These guides organize information, share hyperlinks to databases, digitized collections and other resources, and include historical context, tips on conducting research, and more.

Explore the Schomburg Center

Image of the entrance to the Schomburg Center.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, one of The New York Public Library’s renowned research libraries, is a world-leading cultural institution devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, the African Diaspora, and African experiences. Check out these spaces and resources from the Schomburg Center that can help you or your students learn more about key figures from the Harlem Renaissance.

  • Take a self-guided tour of The Ways of Langston Hughes: Griff Davis and Black Artists in the Making, an exhibition on view now through July 8, 2024. Explore the decades-long friendship between poet Langston Hughes and journalist Griff Davis through the items in this exhibition.
  • Visit the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division to access the Library’s collections that emphasize the Americas, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Plus, view Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery through Reconstruction” in the Aaron Douglas Reading Room when it’s not on loan.
  • Reflect on Langston Hughes at the Rivers Cosmogram, located in front of the Langston Hughes Auditorium. The Rivers Cosmogram is a public art installation and peace memorial in honor of Langston Hughes whose ashes are buried underneath. Learn more about the sculptor and creator of the Rivers Cosmogram, Houston Conwill.
  • Engage with audio and visual resources with Bloomberg ConnectsLearn about the history of Arturo A. Schomburg and his collection, the Aaron Douglas murals, Augusta Savage, the Rivers Cosmogram, and more.
NYPL's Center for Educators & Schools logo

CES is devoted to making all of the Library’s resources accessible and useful for educators. You’ll find programs and services tailored for the educator community, such as book lists, credit-bearing workshops, special access to exhibitions, tips on teaching with primary source materials from our vast research collections, and much more: nypl.org/ces


Placeholder image featuring the Schomburg Center logo

Founded in 1925 and named a National Historic Landmark in 2017, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is one of the world’s leading cultural institutions devoted to the preservation, research, interpretation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, African Diasporan, and African experiences. As a research division of NYPL, the Schomburg Center features diverse programming and collections totaling over 11 million items that illuminate the richness of global black history, arts, and culture.