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Exploring Race Through Literature

Diverse literary texts provide opportunities for making connections about race and hearing multiple voices and perspectives. In this activity, students read literature and poetry from different American writers, reflecting on the meaning and experiences of race in the United States. Due to copyright restrictions, we cannot reproduce the texts here, but the instructions below include anthologies and links to online sources where the texts can be printed out.

Objectives

  • Students will read an interpret texts in a variety of genres (poetry, novel, essay, interview, speech) by drawing on their experiences and their interactions with other readers.

  • Students will develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles. 

  • Students will examine the contributions of writers. 

Instructions

Note: For this activity, we recommend that students choose from among the following works of literature and poetry. Except where linked to an outside source, the works are all available The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. II (Houghton Mifflin, Fourth Edition, 2001). (Page numbers given are from Vol. II.)  

  • Langston Hughes, "I, Too" (p. 1605)

  • Rosario Morales and Aurora Levins Morales, "Ending Poem (Child of the Americas) (P. 3146)

  • Gish Jen, "Mona in the Promised Land" (p. 2982)

  • Paul Lawrence Dunbar, "We Wear the Mask" (p. 174)

  • James Baldwin, "My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" (Link)

  • Richard Rodriguez, "Hunger of Memory" (excerpt) (p. 2593)

  • Sherman Alexie, "Indian Education" (Link)

  • Jose Martí, "Our America" (p. 879)

Step 1: Choosing a Piece of Literature

Allow students to individually browse the literary pieces and choose ONE piece of writing on which to concentrate. After students have chosen their literature, divide students into small groups of 3-5 students. In each group, aim to have a variety of literature pieces representative, though it is okay if more than one student is reading the same work. Not all pieces of literature have to be represented in each group.

Step 2: Analyzing the Documents

Have students read their selected literary pieces and then write a brief reflection about the work. In their writing, students should focus on the following:

  • What key words stand out for you? Why?

  • What are the recurring themes?

  • What do you feel the writer is expressing in this work?

  • What literary techniques (repetition, imagery, metaphor, rhyme, subject matter, personifications, etc.) are used by the writer?

  • What observations or insights do you have about the selection? 

Step 3: Presenting the Literary Texts

Have students present their selections to the members of their groups. They should share why they chose the piece they did, and share their thoughts raised in Step 2. 

Then groups should discuss the following:

  • What similarities or differences do you notice in the selections?

  • What can we learn about race from them?

Step 4: Creating a Literary Piece about Race

Have each group create a found poem by selecting key words and phrases from the original texts and their writings that incorporates their understandings about race. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Exploring Race Through Literature,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 11, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1825.

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