The Harlem Semester

Organized by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the Department of Africana Studies and launched in 2016, the Harlem Semester Program is an ambitious public humanities initiative that explores the complexities of Harlem’s social, political, and intellectual histories, its leaders, its culture, its arts, and its artists.

The curriculum of the Harlem Semester critically examines Harlem not as an inert site or abstract concept, but as an intensively peopled place of complex interaction and rich history, alive today. Pairing faculty from Barnard and other colleges with Harlem-Based institutions, these place-based courses teach Harlem’s diverse cultural and political legacy through participatory, interdisciplinary, multi-directional learning modules.

Barnard faculty have collaborated with artists, thinkers, and cultural workers to design courses that integrate collaborators at partner institutions, with a minimum of three class sessions held on-site. For example, students will work with archivists at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on digital archiving; participate in a movement workshop with famed choreographer Diane McIntyre; learn about artistic and curatorial practice at the Studio Museum in Harlem; and engage in a multi-media production at the Harlem Stage.

The Harlem Semester Program offers a critical intervention in approaches to diversity, inclusion, and inequality on campus. This program takes the lead in shaping new pedagogical models that directly engage controversial issues and actively develop learning spaces where social issues can be debated openly and students’ capacity for interpersonal awareness, solidarity, and respect can change and grow.

Central to this program’s intervention is an engagement with Harlem’s cultural institutions as sites of community activism; spaces that continue to be crucial to exploring thorny questions of inequality and social justice. Students participating in the program will gain a unique perspective on the extraordinary contributions of Harlem’s residents through the institutions and community workers who have sustained it, through frank discussions of topics such as access, prejudice, recognition, and respect.

Spring 2017 Courses

AFRS BC3532 - Romare Bearden’s Harlem

Diedra Harris-Kelley, Instructor
Wednesdays, 10:10-12pm

Romare Bearden: Home is Harlem, is an exploration into one of the greatest American artists finding an inspirational home in Harlem. Romare Bearden (1911-1988) noted painter, collagist, intellectual and advocate for the arts, spent his childhood and young adult life in Harlem. The Odyssey, one of Bearden’s most well known series, was created in 1977 and inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. The course takes up the issues in The Odyssey series, and beyond, examining Harlem as home through Bearden’s eyes, from an artistic perspective, and around what inspired him most – the history, the people, and jazz music. Presented by Diedra Harris-Kelley, director of the Romare Bearden Foundation, lecturer, artist and niece of Bearden, the course will take participants through Bearden's youth in Harlem, his involvement with Harlem institutions, and lead students through close readings of significant works of art.

AFAS UN3930 002 - “Blackness” in French: From Harlem to Paris and Beyond

Kaiama L. Glover and Maboula Soumahoro, Instructors
Monday 11AM-12:50pm

Implicating in particular the real and mythologized site-ciphers that were and are Harlem, USA and Paris, France, and working with cultural institutions in Harlem, the texts and artifacts examined in this course will consider “race” as both fact and fantasy in the unique, long-historical relationship between Harlem, Paris, and the wider French empire.

AFRS BC 3552 - Black Women, Performance, and the Politics of Style  

Shirley Taylor, Instructor
Wednesdays 10:10 am – 12:00pm

Black Women, Performance, and the Politics of Style will provide an historical overview of Black women in entertainment. Beginning in the early 20th century, the course will explore various Black female archetypes presented on stage and through audio and visual media, performance as both an intentional/unintentional political stance, and consider the impact Black women have had on the entertainment industry overall.

AFRS BC 3551 - Vibrations: Harlem Jazz and Beyond 

Loren Schoenberg, Instructor
Thursdays, 2:10-4pm

This course explores some of the multiple vibrations emanating from Harlem in all of their diversity. Our jumping off point will be music that emerged in Harlem starting a century ago and the visionaries who created it: James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie.  We will follow their influence all the way through to contemporary artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Cecile McLorin-Salvant and Robert Glasper. The physical status of Harlem will also be explored with walks and tours. This course will partner with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (NJMH) and Harlem Stage and work toward an understanding of the relationship and tensions between the music and the people who created it in the context of the social/political/cultural/artistic landscapes of their time. 

ARCH UN 3202 - Architecture Design Studio: National Black Theater

Irina Verona, Studio Coordinator
Monday/Wednesday 9:00am-11:50am

Architectural Design 2 partners with the National Black Theater to examine how architecture and design can support multi-faceted cultural and social narratives. The National Black Theater (NBT), a pioneer organization now approaching its 50th anniversary, will serve as a lens into Harlem’s layered cultural, social, economic and physical histories, as well as into Harlem’s future. As an organization currently in the process of expanding its current facility, students will explore the unique symbiosis between NBT and Harlem and design a new performance center that repositions the theater as a key component of social urban interaction, activism, and community participation.

A&HH 5051- Harlem Stories: Oral History (Teacher’s College)

Ansley Erickson, Instructor
Wednesdays, 5:10-6:50pm

Part of a two-course sequence; students may take one or both. Combines a topical focus on the history of education in Harlem with practice in digital approaches to researching and sharing historical knowledge, including connections to secondary classrooms. Emphasizes conducting and archiving oral histories and creating digital historical exhibits.

AHIS BC2018 - Freestyle and Displacement in Contemporary Art Practices 

Leslie Hewitt, Instructor
Thursday 10:10am-12:00pm/12:00pm-1:00pm 

“Freestyle,” the important 2001 exhibition held at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, helped usher a generation of artists into public discourse and scrutiny by challenging the art world and questioning conventional thinking about art made by artists of color in the twenty-first century. Taking this exhibition as a point of departure, this course explores a series of questions including: How do the after-effects of displacement radically change an artist’s way of making art? What kind of impact have contemporary notions of diaspora, migration and exile have on the new art practices? What insights do these new practices and the objects and performances that result from them produce? The seminar will explore the multiple modes of expression apparent in contemporary art practice, and the complex set of aesthetic, philosophical and political motivations that these modes of expression expose.

Institutional Partners

Spring 2017

The Apollo Theater
Harlem Stage
National Black Theater
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
The Romare Bearden Foundation
Studio Museum in Harlem

Spring 2016

Harlem Stage
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The Studio Museum in Harlem
The National Black Theatre

For more information, visit the Harlem Semester website

To browse course offerings and register for classes, visit the Barnard College Course Catalog