Givens Collection
Givens Foundation

Online Study Guide

Chapter 2: "RENAISSANCE"

The Literature & Life Web site, and this study guide, are based on the PBS documentary, Literature & Life: The Givens Collection. This documentary and study guide can be used to generate interest in literature, creative writing, history and African-American studies. Check your local listings for air dates in your area or call the programmer of your PBS station.

This study guide was created with feedback from educators. It contains examples and suggestions of ways to use "Literature & Life" in secondary school (9-12) classrooms. Educators should consider the best ways to incorporate the program to fit their classrooms.

For additional education material on African-American literature, please visit our partner sites The Givens Foundation which features curriculum and special bibliographies, and the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota which features art and images of rare black books as well as helpful library information.

A printable text-only version of this study guide is available.




The first chapter of the program focuses on the liberation that comes with literacy. From African-American slaves to adult learners of today, reading and writing change lives in profound ways. The chapter is based on Slave Narratives and includes the Federal Writers' Project's oral interviews with former slaves that were conducted in the 1930s.

This segment can be used to introduce the genre of slave narratives and/or autobiographies. It can also supplement studies in U.S. History, Civil Rights History and African-American studies. The focus on slave narratives can also be used to encourage personal essays, storytelling and journaling.

Points for students to watch for during viewing

-Role of the written word in social change

-Storytelling as an important part of culture.

-Challenges people face without education.

After Viewing

Group Discussion Questions:

-How did reading and writing change the life of a slave like Frederick Douglass?

-How and why does Harriet Jacobs use metaphors and symbolic language to describe sexual abuse slaves suffered?

-While slave narratives had a political and social impact, many were also popular literature in the north and in Europe. What elements might make this body of work a 'good read?'

-The Federal Writers Project was an effort to gather the memories of aging slaves. Why is this important to the study of American history?

-How can literacy improve our lives today?

Excerpt from featured work:

The following is a paragraph from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. As a young boy, he was sent to Baltimore to live with and work for relatives of his previous master. It was in this setting that Douglass began his quest for literacy, the tool he used to help bring about the abolition of slavery.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs.
Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the
A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in
learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just
at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out
what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld
to instruct me further, telling her, among other
things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to
teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further,
he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take
an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey
his master -- to do as he is told to do. Learning would
SPOIL the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if
you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to
read, there would be no keeping him. It would for-
ever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once be-
come unmanageable, and of no value to his master.
As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great
deal of harm. It would make him discontented and
unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart,
stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering,
and called into existence an entirely new train of
thought. It was a new and special revelation, ex-
plaining dark and mysterious things, with which my
youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled
in vain. I now understood what had been to me a
most perplexing difficulty -- to wit, the white man's
power to enslave the black man. It was a grand
achievement, and I prized it highly. From that mo-
ment, I understood the pathway from slavery to free-
dom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a
time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was sad-
dened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind
mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruc-
tion which, by the merest accident, I had gained
from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty
of learning without a teacher, I set out with high
hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trou-
ble, to learn how to read. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

*An 'ell' is an old unit of measurement.

Comprehension Questions

-Master Auld said learning would also make him discontented and unhappy. Why would the ability to read and learn about the world upset a slave?

-What specific ways do you think reading and writing could be used to escape from slavery?

Student-centered writing Exercise

-Write a paragraph about how books and reading and writing have made your life better in little and big ways.

Bibliography of featured work:
Title: The American slave : a composite autobiography / <edited by> George P. Rawick.
Published: Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Pub. Co., 1972.

Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895.
Title: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave / written by himself.
Published: Boston : Pub. at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895.
Title: My bondage and my freedom / by Frederick Douglass ; edited and with an introduction by William L. Andrews.
Published: Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1987.

Author: Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895.
Title: Life and times of Frederick Douglass
Published: Hartford, Conn., Park publishing co., 1881.

Author: Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.
Title: Incidents in the life of a slave girl / written by herself ; edited by L. Maria Child.
Published: Boston : Pub. for the author, 1861.

Author: Wheatley, Phillis, 1753-1784.
Title: Poems on various subjects religious and moral / by Phillis Wheatley.
Published: London : <s.n.>, 1773.

Author: Washington, Booker T., 1856-1915.
Title: Up from slavery / Booker T. Washington.
Published: Cutchogue, NY : Buccaneer Books, c1996.

Bibliography of additional work:

Title: The Classic slave narratives / edited and with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates.
Published: New York ; Scarborough, Ont. : New American Library, c1987.
Title: Critical essays on Frederick Douglass / edited by William L. Andrews.
Published: Boston, Mass. : G.K. Hall, 1991.

Author: Wilson, Harriet E., 1808-ca. 1870.
Title: Our Nig, or, Sketches from the life of a free Black, in a two- story white house, north : showing that slavery's shadows fall even there / by "Our Nig."
Published: New York : Random House, c1983.

Author: Still, William, 1821-1902.
Title: The underground rail road
Published: Chicago : Johnson Pub. Co., 1970.

Author: Brown, William Wells, 1815-1884.
Title: Clotel, or, The President's daughter : a narrative of slave life in the United States / with an introduction and notes by William Edward Farrison.
Published: New York : Citadel Press, c1969.


Chapter 2: "RENAISSANCE"


In his essay, The New Negro, Alain Lock declared, "The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem." In the first two decades of this century, 'the Great Migration' brought African-Americans to the cities of the North. New York's Harlem was at the center of an explosion of art, creativity and culture that was rightly called a black 'Renaissance'.

"Renaissance," the second chapter of "Literature & Life", is a basic overview of this important period. This section introduces the themes of self-expression and artistic emergence for African-Americans. It can also provoke interest in several authors and literary genres found within the Renaissance. It can also be a catalyst for a wide range of artistic and writing exercises.

Points for students to watch for during viewing

-Role of creativity and self expression in our lives

-Relationships between music and literature

-Sources of inspiration for art

-Role of the creative person in society

After Viewing

Group Discussion Questions:

-What is the meaning of the word 'renaissance' and how does it apply to this era?

-Langston Hughes' poetry was influenced by the blues. From country to rap, give examples of song lyrics you feel make for good 'poetry', and explain why?

-Why were African-Americans of the Renaissance described as the 'New Negro'?

-What are some of the artistic, cultural and political legacies of the Harlem Renaissance?

Excerpt from featured work:

Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography 'Dust Tracks on a Road' provides the reader with an insight on the inspiration, obstacles, and importance of writing and creative expression.

"I wrote Their eyes were watching God in Haiti. It was dammed up in me and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish I could write it again. In fact, I regret all of my books. It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning. Perhaps, it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would get written at all. It might be better to ask yourself "Why?" afterwards than before. Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you."

Comprehension Questions

-Why would it be better for a writer to ask themselves 'Why?' afterwards than before?

-Hurston says that a writer must 'take up the pen and write what is commanded.’ What does she mean?

-Why is it important to share our stories?

Student-centered writing Exercise:

-Lanston Hughes uses rivers as a symbol of African-American history and heritage. Write a poem about yourself using the names, images and symbolism of the rivers of the world.

Bibliography of featured work:

Author: Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967.
Title: The weary blues / by Langston Hughes ; with an introduction by Carl Van Vechten.
Published: New York : A. A. Knopf, 1926.

Author: Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963.
Title: The souls of black folk / W. E. Burghardt Du Bois ; with introductions by Nathan Hare and Alvin F. Poussaint.
Published: New York : New American Library, 1982.

Title: Crisis (New York, N.Y.) The Crisis.
Published: <New York, Crisis Pub. Co., etc.> v. 1- (no. 1- ); Nov. 1910- Monthly (except bimonthly June/July and Aug./Sept.) <, Aug./Sept. 1977->

Title: The best of the Brownies' book / edited by Dianne Johnson- Feelings ; introduction by Marian Wright Edelman.
Published: New York : Oxford University Press, c1996.

Author: McKay, Claude, 1890-1948.
Title: Harlem shadows : the poems of Claude McKay / <Claude McKay> with an introduction by Max Eastman.
Published: New York : Harcourt, Brace and company, c1922. Author: Hurston, Zora Neale.

Title: Their eyes were watching God : a novel / Zora Neale Hurston ; with a new foreword by Mary Helen Washington.
Published: New York : Perennial Library, 1990.

Author: Hurston, Zora Neale.
Title: Dust tracks on a road / Zora Neale Hurston ; with a foreword by Maya Angelou.
Published: New York, NY : HarperPerennial, 1996.

Author: Locke, Alain LeRoy, 1886-1954.
Title: The new Negro : an interpretation / edited by Alain Locke book decoration and portraits by Winold Reiss.
Published: New York : A. and C. Boni, 1925.

Author: Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967.
Title: The collected poems of Langston Hughes / Arnold Rampersad, editor, David Roessel, associate editor.
Published: New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, c1994.

Author: Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967.
Title: The big sea : an autobiography / Langston Hughes ; foreword by Amiri Baraka.
Published: New York : Thunder's Mouth Press : Distributed by Persea

Books, c1986.

Bibliography of additional work:

Title: The Portable Harlem Renaissance reader / edited and with an introduction by David Levering Lewis.
Published: New York : Viking, 1994.

Author: Toomer, Jean, 1894-1967.
Title: Cane. Introd. by Arna Bontemps.
Published: New York : Harper & Row, <1969, c1923>

Author: Kirschke, Amy Helene.
Title: Aaron Douglas : art, race, and the Harlem Renaissance / Amy Helene Kirschke.
Published: Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, c1995.

Author: Hurston, Zora Neale.
Title: The complete stories / Zora Neale Hurston ; introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke.
Published: New York : HarperCollins, c1995.

Author: Brown, Sterling Allen, 1901- ed.
Title: The Negro caravan, edited by Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee.
Published: New York, Arno Press, 1969 <c1941>




The final chapter of the program introduces Gordon Parks, whose work represents a great range of creative expression as well as its potential to affect readers and audiences.

The title of Parks first autobiography, "A Choice of Weapons", serves as a banner for his life and his work. His books, photography, music, and film demonstrate how art allowed Parks to overcome adversity and uplift others.

Things for students to watch for during viewing:

-Art as an otion for young people

-Accountability that comes with being an artist

-Importance of exploring a range of interests and abilities

Group Discussion Questions:

-How did Parks overcome the many disadvantages he faced as a youth?

-How does his life prove that art is an option?

-What is an artists responsibility to her/his subjects and audience?

-What kind of art has the greatest impact on society? Why?

-How has photography become a tool for change?

Excerpt from featured work:

Gordon Parks' was greatly influenced by his mother, who imparted traditional values on the young man that would guide his life and his work. He was in his teens when she died so he was sent to Minnesota to live with family. But Parks fell on hard times and found himself homeless, as seen in his passage from his autobiography, "A Choice of Weapons".

It was my birthday, and we were back in St. Paul. The trolley operator had already gone for coffee to a cafe across the street. The conductor poked me awake, saying that we were at the end of the line. He stood there, just above me, with a bundle of green bills wadded together with a rubber band. At the sight of them, my hand tightened about a switchblade in my pocket. I rose slowly, looking through the windows to see who was about. We were alone. His back was toward me as we walked to the rear of the car. Perspiration rolled from my armpits, and the anxiety of evil-doing must have shown on my face. I pressed the button, and the long blade popped out.


"Yes." He turned and looked calmly at the blade. I looked at him, trembling now, with all my mother's teachings coming hot at me.

"Conductor," I said, "would you give me a dollar for this knife? I'm hungry and I don't have any place to stay."

He watched me for a second. "You can keep the knife," he said. "Come on over to the cafe, and I'll buy you a meal."

I stood shaking for a moment, not knowing what to do, then I closed the blade. "I'm sorry," I said.

Comprehension Questions

-How does Parks' writing recreate the mood of the moment?

-What might his 'mother's lessons' have been? Why did he decide not to rob the conductor?

-How might his life have been different had he acted carried out these kinds of 'evil doings?'

Student-centered writing Exercise:

-Write about your 'choice of weapons'.

Bibliography of featured work:

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: The learning tree / Gordon Parks.
Published: New York : Harper & Row, c1963.

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: A choice of weapons / by Gordon Parks.
Published: New York : Harper & Row, c1966.

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: A choice of weapons <sound recording> : readings by Gordon Parks from his book.

Published: <New York?> : Scholastic Records, c1970.

Author: Tidyman, Ernest.
Title: Shaft / by Ernest Tidyman.
Published: New York, N.Y. : Macmillan, c1970.

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: Gordon Parks: a poet and his camera; preface <by> Stephen

Spender, introduction <by> Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr.
Published: London, Deutsch, 1969 <i.e. 1968>

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: To smile in autumn : a memoir / Gordon Parks.
Published: New York : Norton, c1979.

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: Voices in the mirror : an autobiography / Gordon Parks.
Published: New York : Doubleday, 1990.

Author: Northrup, Solomon, b. 1808.
Title: Twelve years a slave. Narrative of Solomon Northrup
Published: Auburn, Derby and Miller; Buffalo, Derby, Orton and Mulligan; 1853.

Title: Half slave, half free <video recording> / A presentation of American Playhouse.
Published: <S.l.> : Xenon Home Video, c1991.

Bibliography of additional work:

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: Glimpses toward infinity / Gordon Parks.
Published: Boston : Little, Brown, c1996.

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: Born Black / by Gordon Parks ; with photographs by the author.
Published: Philadelphia : Lippincott, c1971.

Author: Parks, Gordon, 1912-
Title: Shannon / Gordon Parks.
Published: Boston : Little, Brown, c1981.
Title: Life magazine
Notes: Includes special issues called "Collector's edition."
Supersedes: Life (Chicago, Ill. : 1936), ISSN 0024-3019, published 1936-72.

Author: Bush, Martin H.
Title: The photographs of Gordon Parks / by Martin H. Bush.
Published: Wichita, Kan. : Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, c1983.