During Black History Month, we pause and reflect on the contributions of great African Americans. This year the theme is “Black Women in American Culture and History.” In this space, we provide resources to help you teach about women who have made significant contributions to African-American literature. American Passages features several writers who have contributed to and commented on American culture and history.
Read the remarkable stories of educated enslaved woman such as Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs. Phillis Wheatley became a published poet writing about Christianity and liberty. Unit 4, “Spirit of Nationalism,” tells how Wheatley’s mistress recognized her intelligence and oversaw her education. Harriet Jacobs, another enslaved woman who was taught to read, escaped from the plantation and eventually fled to the North. She wrote about her own experiences of exploitation and escape in order to bring awareness to the mistreatment of enslaved women. Read about her in unit 7, “Slavery and Freedom.”
Provide your students with different perspectives of the black experience in America by introducing them to writer Zora Neale Hurston. Much to the dismay of her peers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who wrote about the oppression and degradation of black people, Hurston wrote to promote a vision of “racial health – a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” See unit 13, “Southern Renaissance.”
Develop your students’ critical thinking skills using the Author Questions for Gwendolyn Brooks. You can find questions such as “What do Brooks’s poems suggest about the special challenges of being an African-American poet in a time when many other genres and media compete for attention?” and additional activities for this author in American Passages, unit 14, “Becoming Visible.”
Alice Walker meaningfully uses images of quilts in several of her works, including “The Color Purple” and “Everyday Use.” After examining the literary purposes of this household object in Walker’s work, guide students in their own search for identity using activities that discuss family heirlooms. For information on Walker, read American Passages, unit 16, “Search for Identity.” Click on Author Activities to find activities for teaching about Walker and her story “Everyday Use.”
Hear a reading and discussion of her poem “Revolutionary Petunias” in Conversations in Literature, workshop 6, “Objectifying the Text” (35:08 minutes in).
In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize. Read about Morrison’s work in American Passages, unit 16, “Search for Identity.” Use activities and discussion questions provided to teach her short story, Recitatif, which challenges the human urge to categorize people.
The program In Search of the Novel, “Ten Novelists,” provides links to biographical information about Morrison.