Harlem Renaissance Rent Party With Dr. Nikki Giovanni

When students, faculty, staff, and community members enter the Student Activities Center at 6 p.m. on March 17, they’ll find themselves transported to a 1920s New York brownstone rent party at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.

Soul food and speakeasy style drinks will be served. Walls will be hung with large, cloth paintings from MBU art students rendered in the style of female era-icons like Augusta Savage and Selma Burke. Theatre students in historical garb inspired by period-correct Black fashion will portray those artists — and a cast of other prominent figures from one of the 20th century’s most important cultural movements. 

A jazz band will perform swing and blues tunes as Ella Fitzgerald and Ma Rainey take turns on the mic. Authors like Zora Neale Hurston will talk poetry and give readings. Josephine Baker will offer how-tos on popular dance moves like the Charleston. Elders from the local Black community will teach and host card games. All while internationally revered African American poet, writer, and activist Dr. Nikki Giovanni mingles as a guest of honor. 

Later, Giovanni will give a short talk about how the Harlem Renaissance shaped her own work, its powerful community of artistic women, and the cultural significance of rent parties — which were held as housing fundraisers for community members in need. 

The talk will be followed by a dialogue led by University of Washington assistant professor of educational leadership, Dr. Billie Sankofa Waters, a leading scholar of Giovanni’s work. The discussion will touch on activism, the power of personal narrative, motherhood, and more.   

“Our aim is to create a fun and interactive learning experience that brings this history to life in a manner that really resonates with students,” said history department chair and Mary Baldwin College for Women dean, Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown, who spearheaded event-planning. “We’re inviting them to immerse themselves and explore the theme of women’s empowerment through this incredible movement and community.”

The rent party with Nikki Giovanni is a key highlight of the Mary Baldwin College for Women’s inaugural Women’s Empowerment Week. 

Tillerson-Brown envisioned the events-packed celebration as a way to get students excited about the annual weekend Women’s Leadership Symposium, which was established in 2019 to bring prominent women leaders to campus to lecture and lead student workshops.

“I wanted to offer students more opportunities to explore the broad theme of empowerment in different ways,” she said. No student is the same, so representation is paramount. “If we truly care about empowerment, we have to find ways to help [each student] feel seen, comfortable with who they are, and to love themselves. That’s the first step to real success.”     

Brainstorming possible events, Tillerson-Brown thought of Giovanni, whom she’d studied under at Virginia Tech. 

“It was amazing to be in her presence; I took every class with her I could,” she said. “Nikki inspired me to want to be a scholar and a professor. She taught me that if you were going to be a teacher, you needed to do more than just stand up there and lecture — you had to engage your students. And you had to be creative, because what speaks to one learner isn’t necessarily going to speak to another.”

Giovanni became a mentor and the two developed a relationship that’s spanned about 20 years. Planning the Women’s Empowerment Week, Tillerson-Brown remembered attending a historic rent party hosted by Giovanni. 

“It was incredible,” she said. The party did more than simulate a bygone era, it made the historical titans that populated it accessible. For a young person looking to find their place in the world, it was “transformative. I could see myself in these men and women I’d idolized.”

Giovanni, 79, had recently retired from teaching. Tillerson-Brown decided to honor her legacy by bringing the rent party tradition to MBU. When she phoned her former professor to ask her to attend, Giovanni didn’t hesitate to say yes.  

“I wanted our students to be able to experience her, talk to her, to witness her brilliance,” said Tillerson-Brown. She hopes Giovanni will serve as a bridge between generations, linking the rent party tableau to the present, as she shows them the possibilities for what their futures may hold. 

“It was amazing to be in her presence, I took every class with her I could. Nikki inspired me to want to be a scholar and a professor. ”

Amy Tillerson-Brown, Dean of Mary Baldwin College For Women

Admission to the Harlem Renaissance Rent Party is $30 for the general public, $15 for faculty and staff, and $10 for students. Children 10 and under are free. Reserve or purchase tickets here.  

Women’s Empowerment Week is sponsored by the Mary Baldwin College for Women, Black Student Alliance, Office of Inclusive Excellence, Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement, Department of History, and Theatre Department.