Monday, March 20, 2017

The Harlem Renaissance Lecture

A few weeks ago, I delivered a lecture on the Harlem Renaissance as part of the Speakers' Series at Bucks County Community College's Zlock Performing Arts Center. The talk went well from my perspective, and most of the feedback I got was positive. Some feedback was VERY positive. I thought readers might like to know how this came about and what I was thinking during the experience. If you are not interested in that, then just skim through the text to the videos!

Before I walked on stage, I was feeling that my material was old and tired and the audience was not going to be much interested. I have taught a three-week course on the music, art, literature and dance many times (six? five?) at various retirement villages and adult schools in the area, so the material was very familiar to me. I've been interviewed about the topic and asked to guest-lecture on parts for literature courses. Even though I boiled down the six hours of course material to approximately ninety of the best minutes for the lecture, I thought it was stale. I tell my Effective Speaking students: "Remember WIIFM!" This means, always imagine that the people in your audience are asking "What's in it for me?" or "Why should I bother paying attention to you?" I've always used this tip when preparing classes or lectures and it works. I guess this is my version of performance anxiety: "My lectue just isn't fresh and exciting enough! :-("

I walked over to the new podium still thinking my material is stale, and was surprised to see that the house lights were way down and I could identify no faces! This might have freaked me out except that many years ago I had this same sensation when I walked out on stage with my high school jazz band. We played to the dark. My mother was out there, I knew, but I couldn't see her. I could hear the audience's applause for solos and after our charts were over. I quickly got used to the dark auditorium just as I did at the Harlem Renaissance lecture. It's a weird sensation, but a memorable one! I'm just talking to the dark...

 I used another Effective Speaking trick when I started the lecture: the Attention Getter. This could be an interesting "hook" sentence, a poem, a joke, or it could be an attention-getting video like this...
That's Whitey's Lindy Hoppers from a movie called Hellzapoppin' and it did get the audience's attention! I played it immediately after a quick hello, and I could hear their reactions!

After a few minutes, I stopped thinking my material was stale. The audience seemed to be enjoying it, and of course it was new to them! What was I thinking?! It wasn't stale! I talked about the art of the Harlem Renaissance and the Harmon Medal which was awarded to many of the best artists.
William H. Johnson's "Jitterbugs"--I got to see this up close at the Smithsonian American Art Museum less than a week before the lecture!
The audience coaxed me on, letting me know my lecture wasn't boring at all. It's strange how the time flies by while I'm focused on speaking. Suddenly it was time to advance the Prezi visual aid, and I knew that the video to pop up next was my favorite, the Nicholas Brothers' famous dance in the movie Stormy Weather called "Jumpin' Jive." This is a two-fer: it shows Cab Calloway, one of the two famous big band leaders at the Cotton Club (the other being Duke Eliington), and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers. It's a favorite whenever I teach this course, and I'm always excited to see the class's reactions. In this case I only heard gasps and laughter and ultimately applause:

I show another two-fer video which shows Duke Ellington and his band and the one singer Duke admired over all others, Ivy Anderson.

There's music throughout this presentation, but I move on to literature somewhere after the halfway mark. My favorite video in this segment is from the 1950s, but it shows Harlem Renaissance writer/poet Langston Hughes reading his own poem, "The Weary Blues." Even though it's more recent, I like to show it because it's the poet's own and it demonstrates so well the rhythm and syncopation so characteristic of Blues Poetry.

Did you catch it? This video also shows a white jazz band accompanying Hughes's reading. That would have never happened in 1920s Harlem, but in 1950s Canada where this was taped we've evolved some. I like pointing that out to students.

I could go on and on with these videos, but then I'd be showing you my whole lecture! I can't do that--I might have to deliver it again and I want to be sure it isn't stale. I do want to show you my ending, though. I always try to end on a happy note, and for this lecture, just like the course it came out of, I show a video of Adelaide Hall.

She was a singer during the Harlem Renaissance and got her big break when another singer died before she could take a part written for her by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields in the Broadway review Blackbirds of 1928. Adelaide Hall filled in and went on to have a great career in the Harlem Renaissance and for many years after. I found a video of her singing in a small club in 1989 and this clip just makes me feel good. She was 87 at the time of filming, and I get a kick out of her holding her microphone out (just like Bruce Springsteen does) so the audience can sing the song back to her. Here's my Big Finish, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" from Blackbirds of 1928!

So the lecture ended and I heard much applause from the darkened auditorium. I exited through the backstage area and into the green room where I untangled myself from the lavalier microphone which was hooked to my waistband and threaded through one of my buttonholes. I left the contraption on the table and headed out to the hall to greet my adoring fans. The first person I bumped into was a student from my class. Thrilled that he actually showed up, I asked him what he thought of my big Attention-Getter. He laughed and said he recognized it as such, and overall was impressed with how professional the presentation was. (Wow.)

And then a woman I'd never met came up to me and complained about the term 'Harlem Renaissance': "Renaissance of WHAT?" she asked. I repeated my explanation of the term from the lecture (it was coined much later in the 1940s by a historian to describe this boom in artistic creation...) and I didn't let her comment get me down. A very tall man asked me why I chose Ethel Waters to represent the singers. He would have chosen Bessie Smith. I explained that I like Ethel Waters and especially that video I showed because then we get to see John Bubbles! (It's another two-fer.) He didn't like my answer, but disappeared as the woman and the student had, and I was free to greet the people I know who came out to support me.

I was thinking this was another teachable moment for my Effective Speaking class: there's almost ALWAYS someone who has a gripe with your speech, lecture, presentation, or workshop, no matter how well it is received by the other 98% of the audience. Make a note of their suggestions, but move on and enjoy the accolades!

Here's Ethel Waters and John Bubbles from 1929 with "Birmingham Bertha."

1 comment:

  1. I can never get enough of watching that Nicholas Brothers clip. I imagine that they had to do that whole routine in one take. They must have been exhausted at the end, but were still doing the trickiest and most demanding parts of the routine.