This unit is written primarily for Junior classes. Much of the lesson plan material is geared to the middle or lower groups who need the greatest structure and guidance in learning the process of writing about themselves.
The focus of adolescence is the pursuit of identity. Of course, for many this is a life long pursuit, but adolescence is the stage of conscious beginning of this process. Who am I? Where have I come from? And more importantly, Where am I going? For many inner city youths, there is more of the difficult, dark side of life and there is a deep questioning and cynicism about themselves. It is my observation that reading autobiographical works by Black authors reassures inner city students about themselves. The experiences reflected in the readings and the feelings are very often reflected in the lives of inner city youths. Furthermore, while approving the events in a book, the students give approval to themselves.
I plan to select certain autobiographical readings for close reading and class discussion. Knowing content and discussing what has happened in a book is a stage at the heart of this unit. Learning about others, means learning more about ourselves. Hopefully, the student will understand the universality of human experience. First, we will read and think, then hopefully, we will begin to connect what we have read and make observations about the characters and ourselves. All of this is aimed at structuring and strengthening a positive identity process. The goals are entirely practical and life related. Using the writing process (making lists) and the clustering process (free thought association) the student will be asked to:
write about themselves. (where born? school?);
write a resume; I will work to clarify the distinction between these two activities.
write about a favorite person or describe a memorable incident;
write about their own dreams and wishes.
introduce the notion of fiction/and or fantasy that is present in autobiography through the writings of Zora Neale Hurston.
Through these writing exercises and autobiographical readings I hope to: improve self-concept and have the students share thoughts of the future with each other.
Every human being has the urge to try to make sense out of human experience, to give ourselves dignity, hope, and to give ourselves some feeling of control in an often chaotic life experience. Young people are often full of hope and anticipation, yet also downcast and depressed—lost in trying to identify life experience and seek a life for themselves. With the introduction of autobiographical reading material of other people’s lives, the feeling of aloneness is taken away and sometimes an identification of experience gives new understanding to the self.
The process of reading about and discussing other people’s lives, and other people’s problems, is really the process of discussing ourselves. However, it’s easier to discuss others, lives and—so much the better—when we are told this is a true incident—this really happened. There is a sense of safety in discussing issues belonging to people in books. The issues might also be personal but the distance is there and the speaker is not vulnerable to personal attack—only to opinion. The choices of others, the life goals and dreams of others can be self-consciousness.
A favorite book taught on the Sophomore level and on the Junior (if missed the year before) is
A Choice of Weapons
by Cordon Parks. In this autobiography he describes how many times he felt saved from a life of crime because of the teachings of his mother. He had such a variety of careers and an intense interest in everything he tried. Another issue, so prominent in the lower levels of high school, is the prison experience and the life of street crime. So many of these students know of people who are in prison. How can they interpret this experience? They speak with each other and exchange angry thoughts and perhaps lose hope, at times. However, I anticipate reading sections of the book
Brothers and Keepers
by John Wideman, just to ease the sense of isolation about the problem of prison is related to so many issues of importance to the young: luring frustrations, anger, danger; the problem of punishment; the pain of families; dreams, hopes and disillusionment.
Finally, autobiography can be used as an exercise in a study of the language. Zora Neale Hurston’s book of fiction
Their Eyes Were Watching God
is, by her own testament in
Dust Tracks on the Road
autobiographical. Janie is Zora and Tea Cake is her lover, who later becomes her husband. Zora’s ability to reproduce the southern dialect is always surprising to the students. To study this book is to appreciate the language of the rural South, especially of South Carolina and Florida, where so many of the students have relatives. To appreciate one’s culture and tradition is to take pride and self-confidence in oneself. Zora’s faithfulness to diction, metaphor and syntax is part of what has made this novel a classic. Hurston is a woman who labors to define herself, to write her own mind. Hurston celebrates the Afro-American oral culture. Talk is powerful.
Lastly, I hope to pursue again the self-portrait in this unit. I the following pages, I describe in detail what I plan to do in the Hurston portion of the unit.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
book opens as Janie returns to the town of Eatonville, walking in her overalls, passing by all the people who know her, to go alone to her house. Her friend of 20 years Phoeby follows her home with some dinner and the two women sit together while Janie tells her the story of her life—especially her life of the last two years. (Since the time she left Eatonville.)
Janie was raised by Nanny, her grandmother, who has suffered the abuses of slavery. Freed during the Civil War, Nanny raises her only child by working for a white family and living in a small house in their yard. She treasures her only daughter and hopes to see her become a schoolteacher. Instead, her daughter is raped by a local schoolteacher and gives birth to Janie. Janie’s young mother runs away soon after she is born and Janie is left to the care of her grandmother. She is raised lovingly—but her grandmother is more determined than ever that this new child should be protected from the troubles Nanny has seen. By the time Janie is seventeen, her grandmother marries her to Logan Killicks who is old and unattractive but owns 60 acres and a house. For Nanny, financial security is enough. This is not enough for Janie and after a year with Logan, she meets and runs off with Joe Starks, a man Who has dreams of self-importance and is going to Eatonville, an all Black town in Florida.
Joe becomes the mayor, the postmaster, the store owner. He gives Janie material things—a big house and position but he is chauvinistic and soon stifles her personality. He tries to isolate her and keeps her from participating in the story telling on the front porch of his store. Truly, this is the most interesting place in town. Joe belittles her intelligence and, finally, Janie submits to his ideas of what her behavior should be. But, only on the surface: she remains wishing for something better.
When Joe dies of a kidney ailment, Janie is left with property and money. She now meets Verigible “Tea Cake” Woods, a younger man who treats her like an equal. “Tea Cake” becomes the pear blossom in springtime, the man who takes her fishing and teaches her to play checkers. Against the disapproval of everyone in town, Janie goes off and marries “Tea Cake”. He is a gambler but he loves her and he in turn is surprised that she loves him and loves the company that he keeps. They move to the Everglades, where she works in the fields with him, not as a necessity or a burden but for the pleasure of sharing the whole day with him. Work is turned into play and love. Janie, at last, is a participant in the life that others before “Tea Cake” have felt was beneath her.
The story of Tea Cake takes a final turn when a hurricane comes through the glades and causes a flood. A mad dog bites Tea Cake while Janie and he are swimming to safety. He saves Janie from the dog but is bitten himself. The tragedy is that about three weeks later Tea Cake goes mad and raises a gun to kill Janie. She shoots him and he dies. There is a court case, but Tea Cake’s death is called accidental and justifiable. Janie buries Tea Cake and now the story has come full circle back to Eatonville, where she has returned and is telling her story to Phoeby. Tea Cake, the son of the Evening Star had to die for loving Janie. Now Janie is changed, her relationship and love for Tea Cake has matured and fulfilled her. Phoeby, her friend, is no longer satisfied with her own life. She wants things to be different with her husband Sam.
In any biography or autobiography, the real story of the person is found in attitudes, thoughts and feelings towards people, issues and experiences in life. These attitudes and issues are found in the works of art produced by the author whether they are paintings, music or books. The following exercise is structured to help students develop the skill of finding thoughts and ideas in a novel and then creating a relationship between the ideas or attitudes in the novel and the attitudes of the author found in personal writings or autobiography. (This exercise focuses on Zora Hurston’s best known novel,
Their Eyes Were Watching God
, and her autobiography,
Dust Tracks on a Road
. This exercise strengthen critical thinking in the students and give practice to the important skill of taking a position and finding support for it in the literature.