There is perhaps no better time to explore in literature the plight and struggles of Black Americans than the present. The literature of the black experience, as expressed by black writers, is rich in details in describing the dramas of everyday living. These writers who sought to bring to life the melodrama and the pathos, the joy and the exhilaration, the fears and the angers, of the black experience could not have imagined that so much would change and yet so very little.
The Harlem Renaissance writers began the task of introducing America to itself—that part of itself that had been denied access into the cultural and economical mainstream. For so long Black Americans had been denied and misunderstood. For so long they had been kept apart from society as a whole, seeking identity, to be legitimized instead of ostracized. These writers perhaps did not realize what an awesome task they had undertaken. Perhaps, because of that, the lack of fear to accept the challenge, their works are a testimony not only to the people they chose to write about, but also of themselves, for what they attempted to do. Equipped only with paper, pen and words, they dared to dispel the false ideas and misconceptions of the black experience that had existed for so long.
From the signing of the Declaration of Independence up to the recent re-celebration of the Statue of Liberty, many writers have expounded in great detail on various styles and experiences of American Culture, past and present. The most poignant portraits, as depicted by prominent black writers, seek to challenge the conscience and values of those living in this country through prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Many contemporary issues are explored. This in itself is amazing because many of these writers wrote of things in the early part of the 20th century that today, 1987, are just as contemporary, just as relevant. Langston Hughes poem “Harlem” is just as dismal and painful today as it was when it was first penned. Sadly enough the pain still exists. Lorraine Hansberry writing many years later, broke geographical barriers with her play
A Raisin In The Sun
. This play could have just as easily been written about New York’s Harlem or New Haven’s projects, as it was about Chicago’s South Side.
It is for this reason, that I chose in this unit to introduce students to black writers who have written of their experiences both in fiction and non-fiction. The writers include novelists, playwrights and poets. For this unit students will be looking at the works of Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Nella Larson and Gwendolyn Brooks. I feel that these writers are representative of the finest that black literature has to offer.
The majority of students I work with are black and in addition to being culturally as well as economically deprived, they are also Learning Disabled with some social and emotional problems. They are indeed doubly handicapped. In teaching them, I find that bonding or “bridging” is extremely important. It is not enough for these students to read this literature just for enjoyment’s sake, though that is important too. Hopefully they will see that the stories they are reading are “their stories,” “their struggles,” and that the search for identity never ceases. This unit conceived with my students in mind is not limited in use to minority or disadvantaged students. I feel that the writers I have selected offer an abundance of knowledge and creativity. I believe any student would benefit with the wealth of information these writers have to offer. Hopefully through their readings students will be more empathetic to the differences and difficulties of others.
This unit will examine the following specific works:
A Raisin In the Sun—
by Lorraine Hansberry, excerpts from Maya Angelou’s
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
, Richard Wright’s
and Nella Larson’s
, and assorted poetry by Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou.
I have four objectives in teaching this unit. The first objective is to introduce my students to the seven writers I have selected. I feel it is important for them to have a brief biographical sketch of each writer as well as an understanding of the times in which the writers lived and wrote. This will hopefully give insight into the works that are being discussed and the impact the works had in our cultural mainstream.
The second objective will be to examine specific works which look at the black struggle to survive in our American culture. What were the obstacles? The students will be able to see that struggle is nothing new and indeed, has even strengthened many blacks living in our society.
The third objective will be to examine the search for self-identity. Reading the experiences of other people in similar situations may help the students to understand and deal with their own lives.
Finally, the students will be given the opportunity to examine various forms of writing, specifically play, narration and poetry.
This unit will begin in the spring and run for approximately eight to ten weeks. The rationale for this is that the first part of the school year will be spent laying down the ground work in basic English instruction (grammar, syntax, punctuation, etc.) This unit will be taught to eighth graders in a self-contained Special Education Program.
This unit will involve students in three forms of activities—
. The first step will be in reading the material. For many of my students, this will be the first time they have been exposed to reading a play or poetry. It will be necessary to provide in-depth discussion on the components of a play, before the reading of one begins. The same will be necessary when working with poetry.
The next step is interpretation. This can be done in a variety of ways. Based upon their interpretations, students will be free to engage in various activities. Using the literature and information about the writer, students will be able to role play, perform excerpts from a play, stage imaginary dialogue between writers and do personal interviews. Visual aids will be incorporated wherever necessary to enhance the study of the literature.
The last step will be the writing process. Here, the students will be asked to defend and/or argue the positions of the writers and their material. They will write their own prose and poetry using illustrative art where appropriate. They will also write about themselves. In all three steps,
, the works of the black writers will be the focal point. Approaches to be used with specific works, questions and issues raised in the works, as well as tasks to be assigned to students will be discussed under
The writings of this unit reflect the times of the culture. The writers’ works to a great extent embody the essence of the black experience. To know the writers, the times in which they lived, is to understand the justification of their works. Langston Hughes is noted in literature as a Harlem Renaissance writer. Many of his works, prose and poetry alike, reflect the black American as the outcast, the down trodden of American culture. His work, particularly his poetry, captures a special image of the black American. His poetry of the 20s and 30s dealing heavily with the city of Harlem portrays “his people” with indomitable spirit, beauty and strength.
Hughes’ poetry deals a great deal with identity and the struggle to survive. Some of his poems, “Bad Morning” or “125th Street,” for example, are humorous in presentation. This humor, however, is merely a facade for a more somber portrait of the black experience. The common thread in Hughes’ poetry was the desire that white Americans would see, “how beautiful I am/and be ashamed—I, too, am American.”
The writings of Richard Wright were influenced by his early life. He was mostly self-educated. He grew up with poverty, hunger, fear and hatred. His writings are an indictment of the injustices he suffered. His written accounts are poignant and unabashedly honest. His writings announce that a change was needed in approaching the education of white America. That education results in a graphic and at times brutal description of his own survival.
examines Wright’s early life. With eloquence and fury he describes what it was like to grow up as a black boy in the south where Jim Crow was rampant. In reading
one can only marvel at his determination to survive at all costs.
I believe it would be a fair statement to say that the Harlem Renaissance writers of the 20s were greatly responsible for a newer renaissance of black writers that emerged in the late 50s and early 60s. “They passed from their ancestors—the folk—to their heirs—today’s Black poets—an image of Black people’s beauty, their strength, their indomitable spirit.”
Lorraine Hansberry recognized this. Her award-winning play,
Raisin In The Sun
begins with the poem “Harlem,” written by Langston Hughes. Again we see the theme, the struggle to survive, in an acclaimed piece of work. It is a theme that is repeated time and time again throughout black literature, but especially in this piece of work.
In examining the issues of identity and struggle one will find that blacks struggled with their conscience when trying to make their way in American life. Their choices may not have been many, but never the less the choices remained. One of the choices some blacks chose to explore was that of passing. Though not necessarily considered an important issue today, it was an extremely critical issue in the early part of the 20th century for many blacks.
Nella Larson examines this issue in her work
. Written in 1929 this story deals with the “what if I could” aspects of a black passing for white. No examination of black identity in literature would be complete without at least acknowledging the fact that passing for white was considered by some blacks as a choice for survival. Students reading this or other works today may feel that the issue is hardly worth discussing. Others may feel anger or even a sense of betrayal. However, perhaps in reading the literature they will come to understand why it happened and why it was considered a choice.
When it comes to Black Revolution as expressed in literary terms Nikki Giovanni’s name is a common sight. Though not suggesting a bloody revolution, her works, however, state the time has come and the time is now. Looking at her poetry students will be struck not only with the intenseness and vitality to her work, but with her writing style as well. Her poems swell with verses of protest and love, militancy and pride. And oh, what candor! In her poem “Nikki Rosa” she expresses her fear of being misunderstood. She says “I really hope no white person has cause to write about me because they never understood Black Love is black wealth.”
Being misunderstood is not uncommon. It is very hard to put feelings, desires and 200 years of struggle in a dozen or so words and expect it to be fully understood. Giovanni’s work may have been considered radical at the time in which she wrote (60s and 70s), today however, her work is considered to have aptly described the times.
The works of Gwendolyn Brooks suggest a mastery of form, language and theme. In today’s modern literature her poetry is without self-consciousness. She demonstrates a flair for lyrical and narrative descriptions. To Brooks, the racial element is inherent in a black writer’s work regardless of whether the subject matter is racial or not. Her poems celebrate the truth of life and blackness. They reflect the truth of man. Her poems touch the sights and sounds of living in a black community. Students reading poems such as “Children of The Poor” or “The Bean Eaters” know that this is a person who can identify with their sounds, those of pain and laughter, broken bottles and yesterday’s garbage. There is a bond between Brooks and the reader, one with deep roots. Her poems have made her an admired poet and spokeswoman for her race.
James Baldwin writes of Maya Angelou, “This testimony from a Black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women.”
The literature to which he refers is Maya Angelou’s
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
. Though she has written several books of poetry, it is probably this story, her autobiography that has drawn the most critical acclaim. In this book Maya confronts her life in an honest yet heart-warming manner. She does so with quiet dignity but yet with strength and perseverance. In facing her life, she accepts that life isn’t always fair. Her story pays tribute to herself as well as to others with similar stories.
The sequence of literature for the unit will be as follows:
I. Week one, two, three—Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin In The Sun
II. Week four, five—Richard Wright
III. Week six—Maya Angelou
I know Why The Caged Bird Sings
IV. Week seven—Nella Larson
V. Week eight—Langston Hughes
“Harlem,” “Minstrel Man,” “Dream Variation,” “Mother To Son”
“Still Here,” “My People,” “Bad Morning”
VI. Week nine—Gwendolyn Brooks
“The Ballad of Rudolph Reed”
“Bean Eaters,” “The Children of The Poor”
VII Week nine—Nikki Giovanni
“Nikki-Rosa,” “Hands: For Mother’s Day,” “Harvest”
VIII. Week ten—Maya Angelou
“Passing Time,” “Alone,” “Song For The Old One”
“Now Sheba Sings”
As an introduction to the specific works students will be given a brief narrative of each writer and his life. This will be done in lecture form.