The literature of the South is replete with issues and questions of race, class and gender. Historically, the South has been primarily hierarchical in structure. From the aristocracy at the pinnacle to the African slave at the pit, everyone in the South was quite aware of the norms of behavior for his/her respective class in that society. When one thinks of the South it frequently consists of visions of the ruling class aristocracy and the planter class—the Southern “gentlemen” dwelling in large and stately white mansions with columns and Grecian architecture along with their “lovely ladies.” The vision, if accurate, then moves to the slave slums in squalor and wretchedness as they were made to labor relentlessly to preserve the class system. The vision cannot exclude that vague race lumped together as poor whites, often referred to as “white trash” who could not pass the gulf between them and the master classes. Harper Lee, in
To Kill a Mocking Bird,
poignantly depicts the class prejudice that was part of the very fiber of Southern life.
Apart from race and class, gender was the next most noticeable distinction in southern life. White women were expected to stick to certain specific codes of conduct. These “delicate lovely ladies” filling the role of appendage to their rich husbands, were contrasted to the Black women who were frequently used for breeding, field work, or concubines, often disguised as house slaves, to the white masters. The gender hierarchy, however, consisted of the white male at the top, the black male at the bottom and the women sandwiched between in order of color.
The old South was very divided with various accents, and religions. Even in agriculture there were wide variations in status of the large tobacco planter, the small tobacco planter, the cotton planter, the rice and indigo planter and the back country farmer. However, in spite of the divergences, the Southerners united in secession creating the Confederacy and in resisting the invasion of Union troops. There existed specific mental and social patterns consisting of established relationships and habits of thought, sentiments, prejudices and values that was common among a wide range of people in the region. Agriculture and slavery were the chief unifying forces in this effort. But slavery was the one institution that more than anything else bound the South together.
According to Thomas J. Wertenbaker in
The Old South,
even though slavery was stronger in some regions than in others, and some planters owned scores while hundreds of thousands of white families had none, “the presence of blacks influenced profoundly the life of every man, woman and child in the South, created a race aristocracy and a sense of unity of all whites.” When the North freed its slaves during or after the Revolution, slavery became a distinguishing mark of the South.
In spite of the legend of the New South (with the Old South having been destroyed by the Civil War and the three decades following it) with the increasing transition from agriculture to industrialization, the issues of race, class and gender had grown roots too deep to be destroyed by a few decades.
This curriculum unit focuses on the South using literary works such as
To Kill A Mocking Bird
by Harper Lee
Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
both by Mark Twain, and
by William Armstrong.
In order to fully understand the tensions surrounding race, class and gender in the region, students need substantial background information. Students will be given information on how the social, political and economic history has shaped the culture of the region establishing norms of behavior that have come to be recognized as almost a separate civilization from the rest of the United States. Although the unit will trace the social, political and economic history of the south that has formed a rich backdrop against which much of the great literature emerging from the South has been set, the primary focus will be on the issues of race, class and gender in the life and literature of the south. This information will provide a frame of reference which students can then use as the connection with which to interpret the literary works.
Students will have opportunities to compare issues of race, class and gender of the old South with the contemporary views of race, class and gender in the North, thereby making the information relevant to their own lives.
After reviewing the socioeconomic and political history of the region, students will respond to guided activities to help them construct meaning from the texts. With the background knowledge students will be better able to comprehend the authors’ and characters’ attitudes and attributes as well as authors’ and characters’ beliefs, knowledge, needs, goals and motives. This in turn will enable students to frame intelligent questions as they think critically/analytically to interpret texts. They will be able to go beyond the text to infer setting, plot, characters’ actions and authors’ intentions.
The unit is also aimed at helping students see how literature is created—particularly the connections between society and literature. To achieve this goal, the unit will integrate reading and writing in which students write/create short stories that reflect some aspects of their own or some one else’s culture. In so doing, students will learn that constructing the meaning of texts and creating their own texts involve many of the same processes of generating ideas, planning, reviewing and revising. They will learn literary conventions such as the fact that writers deliberately use techniques to imply meaning. By developing a sense of what’s involved in writing a story, they are likely to develop some appreciation for literature as an art.
Additionally, this unit focuses on the critical thinking skills associated with reading. Students will learn literal reading skills, as well as inferential and evaluative thinking skills. They will regularly use the ten critical thinking skills associated with reading: context and word meaning, sequence, remembering detail, identifying main ideas, judging adequacy of information, citing evidence, drawing conclusions, predicting outcomes, facts, probabilities and opinions and author’s purpose and point of view. A didactic approach toward reading instruction will be utilized to enable students to be active readers by maintaining a dialogue with what they read, while relating to their own experiences, opinions and backgrounds.
Students will work extensively in cooperative groups to discuss and analyze the literary works. With cooperative learning, students get the opportunity to acquire good human relation skills, solve problems, evaluate new ideas, and build bridges from what they know to new information, as well as between different subjects. This will help them to become active participants in their own learning as they acquire skills needed to function effectively in their adult lives. Cooperative learning is an extremely effective instructional strategy to use in multicultural education.
Essentially, cooperative learning places students of different abilities and backgrounds into situations where all participate equally in learning. Recommended for use with pairs of students up to groups of four to six, research has shown that cooperative learning improves achievement for all students.
The five necessary components of cooperative learning include: Positive interdependence—strategies that force the students to cooperate; face-to-face interaction; individual accountability—where students learn together but are tested individually; social skills development, where the teacher promotes the learning of skills such as trust building, leadership and communication that are necessary for effective group work; and group processing, that is, discussing how the group is working so it can improve its performance.
Cooperative learning highlights an important principle about the way we learn—We build our knowledge on the knowledge of others, we think of new ideas by listening to other people’s ideas, and we need the support of others to keep us going when we’re tempted to give up. This teaching strategy is built on the belief that people learn better when they learn together. Several decades of research has proven that productivity, academic achievement, and self-esteem improve dramatically when students work together. Students are motivated to work in groups because they can be with their peers. Cooperative learning manages their interaction by providing a solid group structure under which students work.
After wide discussion on the South, students will begin reading
To Kill A Mocking Bird
. This novel focuses on the role of African-Americans in Southern life and the problem of human dignity. Not only does it deal with prejudice by race but also by class.
Partly because of the need for cheap labor to pick and seed cotton on the large plantations, the enslavement of Africans took hold in the South during colonial days. Although the concern about labor on the cotton plantations does not seem to be a big issue, it was, because in actuality it was the question of race. The large plantation owners eventually became the aristocracy. Then there were middle-sized plantation owners, poor white farmers and sharecroppers. Hence, there were several distinct economic groups. As cotton planting increased with the invention of the cotton gin, so did slavery. After the Civil War, the sharecropping system took hold to supply the cheap labor planters needed. With the invention of the mechanical cotton picker and mass migration of blacks to the North, the advent of diversified farming and availability of jobs in industry brought on by World War II, the sharecropping system eventually died out.
Although slavery and the sharecropping system were no longer officially in existence, the legacy of prejudice necessitated continued divisions among the various classes of people. Hence segregation was born. When the Civil War ended slavery this brought on new problems for both the former masters and former slaves. The newly freed slave was no longer valued as property and was now regarded as a threat to whites in the South. Northerners had forced the South to end slavery and this left the former slave as a scapegoat as the treatment of the character Tom Robinson depicts in
To Kill A Mocking Bird
. Tom’s character also points out another important phenomenon in the South. The myth that Black men could not be trusted near White women and the resultant persecution and slaughter of Black males. Harper Lee’s novel, is set against this backdrop of Southern life in the early 1900s. The Finches are descendants of the landed aristocracy, the Cunninghams, poor whites who own some land; the Ewells are poor whites who own nothing; and the African-American, the newly freed slaves who own nothing and are generally unable to find work.
Mark Twain’s novels were written well before Harper Lee’s, however, similar techniques could be used in studying
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
In these two novels, the issues of race, class and gender in the South are also raised and could be valuable for use as a comparative study in how the two authors treat the issues in their respective works.
although the sharecropping system is the more prevalent issue, race, class and gender could also be examined as well as in Lorraine Hansberry’s
Raisin in The Sun,
which is set in Chicago.