KOKOMO, Ind. —The Harlem Renaissance came back to life for one afternoon in downtown Kokomo, with jazz music, hot coffee, and poetry readings evoking the atmosphere of the early 20th century.
Indiana University Kokomo students in Karla Stouse’s Topics in African-American Literature class shared poetry and research as part of a “rent party” at the Bind Café.
While the event commemorated the prolific African American art originating from Harlem between World War I and the mid 1930s, some of the issues people faced in that time period still exist.
“There have been recent activities targeting ethnic groups, and we decided our response would be positive, useful, and significant, to educate everyone by celebrating the culture in an inclusive manner,” said Stouse, senior lecturer in English.
“The students have heard old and more contemporary stories about how discrimination refuses to go away, despite the obvious capabilities of those bearing the burden of that discrimination, and found themselves personally invested in an era they knew little about to start. I hope it moves the students to ongoing appreciation, celebration, and action.”
In addition to reading poetry and prose written during the Harlem Renaissance, students researched its connections to Indiana and completed projects highlighting African American contributions to the state’s culture.
Kokomo resident Whitney Hicks thought it was an impossible project at first, but then learned about The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, which has archives dating back to the 1880s.
“I had no idea it existed, and it is still published today,” said Hicks. “I had heard about the Harlem Renaissance in high school, but only for a brief time as a historical event. We gained a more in-depth look at that time period.”
Reading works created by people from other cultures makes you more open-minded, she said.
“It helps build empathy, and that’s an important quality to have in life,” she said. “Being able to step outside your own shoes and see the world from another viewpoint is a skill that is important, and much needed.”
Matt Fuller thought it was interesting to connect the events of the Harlem Renaissance with Indiana, including Howard County’s Bassett Settlement, and how the time period laid the foundation for the Civil Rights movement. His project connected African American sports figures in Indiana to that time, and the struggle the athletes faced to be included.
“That time has a huge influence on the arts today,” the Peru resident said. “The athletes faced similar pressures and political climates as artists, and weren’t given the freedoms they have today.”
Amber Moore found the class to be an immersive experience in the time period they studied.
“We learned how issues from the Harlem Renaissance, like racism and discrimination, are still pertinent today,” she said. “It’s a big part of history people don’t know about. You need to learn about history, so it doesn’t repeat itself.”
Stouse’s goal is for students to stay passionate about the topic, and to know they can make a difference.
“What they learned above all is that real people whose lives are important, no matter what their level of fame, were involved, and they created significance in spite of circumstances.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana