Harlem, Moscow and the Digital International: Spotlight on Student Work

Jennifer Wilson is a writer and critic. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and elsewhere. 

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a course on the Harlem Renaissance in Moscow. The class, “The Harlem Renaissance: From New York to Tashkent,” followed the travels of prominent black artists and intellectuals of the 1920s and 30s (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Dorothy West) throughout the Soviet Union. For those interested in learning more about that course, I blogged about the experience for this website in a four-part series titled “Teaching Race in Russia.”

I was thrilled when the opportunity came up this past Spring to teach the same class at Barnard College in New York City. It was a chance to bring the material home so to speak, from Moscow back to Harlem. The class was part of the college’s Harlem Semester program, an ambitious, interdisciplinary public humanities that encourages students to interact with the history and cultural riches of Harlem and black New York. As a lucky coincidence, the Met Breuer had an exhibition going on concurrently (curated by the Slavs and Tatars artists collective) on ties between the black diaspora and the Soviet Union. Payam Sharif of Slavs and Tatars Skyped in from Berlin to talk about the project, prompting a spirited discussion of art, geopolitics, and the what it means to study these kinds of connections within the disciplinary confines of the academy.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Harlem Semester is its encouragement of creative and experimental work as part of the classroom experience. In particular, I gave students the option to submit a final digital project in lieu of a traditional research paper. The results exceeded my expectations. From a podcast that took on issues like colorism in the context of internationalism, to a digital mapping project that spanned three continents, to a new take on Soviet anti-racist poster design, these student projects were outstanding examples of how to use digital tools to expand the conversations we have in our classrooms.

Over the course of this week, All the Russias will be sharing examples of these student projects. The first, included here, are posters designed by Gabriela Levy, which explore the presence of Black intellectuals like Langston Hughes and Angela Davis in Soviet Central Asia, using remixed imagery from Soviet posters, newsreels, and archival photographs.

Artist: Gabriela Levy. Tags: Tashkent, Langston Hughes
Artist: Gabriela Levy. Tags: Tamara Khanum, Audre Lorde

The other featured projects, including a mapping of key Russian and American sites by Christina Hill and a podcast focusing on Russian literature and American pop culture by Es-pranza Humphrey, will be released tomorrow and the following day.