In this section I want my students to research and analyze various components of the historical landscape of the forties and fifties in order for them to compare and contrast all the possible visions and perspectives they can find to those Ralph Ellison describes in the novel. We start from the author's biographical information and we include the experiences of all possible people who have lived in those years. I want to extend the analysis of life experiences to all possible social and ethnic groups because the novel does not address the African American exclusively but extends its message to those who are riveted by identity issues, prejudice or stereotyping. Our research also includes Booker T. Washington, Communism, Jim Crow, Angelo Herndon, the Scottsboro Boys, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Right Movements, and Adam Clayton Powell.
Ralph Ellison's Experience
Once all the various groups (AP and College students) have completed the first reading of the novels and have completed all the related tasks, I intend to research as many sources as possible in order to have opposing visions we can compare and/or contrast with the experience of Ralph Ellison's characters. First of all, my students have to determine who Ralph Ellison is. I also expect them to start their research with some questions otherwise they either depend on the teacher for any further steps or do not understand. Therefore, we begin with a very broad activity in which I simply ask them to determine and list what each of them would like to know about a new friend and why. After they have listed all their questions, we narrow them down to no more than three or four essential questions they can use as a guide in searching facts about this author and his time. I also want to teach them to compare the various sources for validity and reliability. Therefore, once they have the essential questions, I expect them to analyze the source:
1. electronic versus written source(s)
2. determine the differences or similarities of information
3. validity of information by comparing this source to two other sources
4. author(s), publication, and citations.
This activity culminates with the production of a written response (two pages for the AP students and one page for all the others) of their analysis; they first share in small groups and then as a class.
Ellison's childhood next to his father, his death, and the emotional cost on Ralph, the economic difficulty the family faces, the inherited book of poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, his acceptance at Tuskegee Institute, and his later transfer to New York City where he publishes his novel are all necessary to understand the novel's background. At this point, each group, according to the specific learning level, has to determine where they see any possible connections to the narrator's experience. Once they have selected the various passages, each group has to compare and contrast similarities and differences. I also want them to draw an initial conclusion of how the difference in the narrator's experience reflects a specific view of the first half of the twentieth century. The specific tasks for the various groups are listed in the lesson plans section.
After the initial understanding of the author and how his personal experiences are reflected or differ from the
's protagonist, I want to introduce the issue of "identity" and have the students reflect and respond to the following questions:
"Who am I"
"What is identity?"
"How does it affect or does not the individual decisions?"
Identity is the leading motif of the entire novel and it creates internal and external conflict for the protagonist who ultimately believes himself to be invisible to the entire world. His experience as an invisible man gives the audience a personal vision of the events and people of his time. Now my students have to research what identity means and why it is important, and when it can affect the decision an individual takes. In order for them to understand how to start their research, I will make them read two documents about the Identity Theory
. The AP students have to read the
Identity Theory of Mind
by J.J.C. Smart and
by Stephen Desrochers
in their group, interpret, and present them to the entire class. The college students read the two documents with me, so I can model how to interpret a non-fictional document; since I follow the "Think Aloud" strategy, I can teach by saying aloud what I think and how I make sense of what I have read. The special education students will only listen and take notes during the class presentation and discussion of the documents on the Identity Theory.
After these initial steps, my students have to interview two or more different people (friends, parents, or other relatives) to collect more information about the interpretation of identity. The questions for the interview are the same we have used to open our discussion. I also expect each group to find other documents they have to read, interpret, compare and contrast to the protagonist's perception of identity. We conclude the reading activity with a class discussion followed by two (college and special education students) and three to four pages reflections (AP students) in which they support their argument of what identity means and how it affects an individual's experience; their reflections have to be supported with three to four sources that can be the two documents I hand out, the novel, and/or others sources they have analyzed.
Oral History: Experiences of Metropolitan Life
Ellison's protagonist describes his experiences at his high school graduation, in college, and in the big city. These descriptions are just his vision of the first years of the twentieth century. Many other African Americans and non-African Americans, who have lived in a city, have attended a high school, and/ or have experienced the city life, have seen these years in a complete different way. Therefore, I want my students to analyze how people belonging to different social classes and ethnic groups have lived their time by interviewing relatives, friends, or any other persons they may find, and by researching the city news reported in
The New York Times
as well as in our local paper,
The New Haven Register
. I also expect them to collect photographs of the same time period and lyrics as well as the music by Louis Armstrong since the novel reflects various jazz motifs.
Once my students understand what they have to research as "Metropolitan Life" I create the various groups and each of them has to focus on one specific topic. In determining what each group has to do and how to group the students, I consider the difficulty of the task and the student's abilities. The group who conducts the interviews has to gather information on how the interviewee lived the fifties or sixties. The students prepare five to ten open questions in reference to home, school, and city experiences. When the students have completed their study, we first thoroughly discuss in class and then I expect them to determine the connections with Ellison's novel. In completing this assignment, they have to compare and contrast the various experiences and begin to respond to the essential questions of the unit (How does Ralph Ellison view his society? How much is his main character affected by Ellison's own experience? How is the structure of the novel affected by its historical background?).
The AP students follow the same instructions but I want them to read and analyze the argument Daniel B. Weber writes in this regard so they can have a more scholarly insight of "Ellison's portrayal of the American political demagoguery for several decades".
They can also use Weber's analysis and juxtapose the results of their interview and other documents they find.
In this final part of our research, I expect my students to learn what Communism means and to determine the differences between Marx's ideology and the political philosophy adopted by the American Communist Party. I also expect them to detect eventual differences between the experiences of the white class to communism in contrast to the African American. Once they have understood the ideology, they can reread the passages related to the "Brotherhood" and "The Liberty Paint Plant" in Ellison's novel and analyze them for similarities and/or differences. To help in their reflections, I suggest the following questions:
· How does the protagonist of
live these two experiences and why?
· Why does he reject the Brotherhood?
· How does this decision affect his identity?
· What differs between the perspectives of Ellison's protagonist and those of other people who had an active part in the Communist Party?
The students are free to use the visions of any authors or other people/documents they find to support their interpretations.
It is also interesting to juxtapose the experiences of Angelo Herndon, who was arrested for attending a Labor Day meeting, and Ellison's protagonist both in college and when he arrives in New York. The AP students are required to read the argument Professor Griffiths has published on the interconnections between the
's narrator and Angelo Herndon
. This group has to identify the various passages in the novel that seem to be influenced by Herndon and analyze the eventual difference(s). Identically, the AP students have to find information about Adam Clayton Powell and his active role in demanding reforms at Harlem Hospital in 1930, as well as in the charismatic leadership role he occupied in the Civil Rights Movement during the Great Depression. His vision of racial equality can help my students understand the narrator's experience in those years and his conclusion that he is invisible. This information together with the AP students' argument in response to the unit essential questions is presented to all the other college students. In this way I have the opportunity to use the students' peers (AP students) modeling how to analyze and synthesize different experiences.
Other important historical figures whose experiences can be detected in Ellison's novel are Booker T. Washington, who resembles the Founder of the college attended by narrator. At the same time, the students have to research the Scottsboro Trial and Jim Crow's vision, and their view of racism, stereotyping, or prejudice. When they have enough information, the students can determine similarities or differences to Ellison's protagonist, and they can write their analysis always keeping in mind the essential questions of the unit (How does Ralph Ellison view his society? How much is his main character affected by Ellison's own experience? How is the structure of the novel affected by its historical background?).
When the various components of the research section are completed and the students have analyzed the experiences of these historical figures in juxtaposition to the narrator's ones, I expect them to write a paper in which they have to select one of the novel themes (race, prejudice, and/or stereotyping) and respond to the essential questions of the unit:
· How does Ralph Ellison view his society?
In their essay, they can use any of the sources we have researched and studied as well as the reflections they have written while analyzing the various sources.