Why do we read literature?; or, Questions from the Classroom

During a class discussion last week on Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” a student asked, “Why do we read literature? Why do we read Hemingway?” I provided a generic answer and tried to get the class to respond with their own ideas. This method completely failed. I told the class, “I cannot give you a definitive answer to that question.” I went on to talk about the construction of the literary canon, the difference between history and literature, and the emotional appeal of a reading literary texts. None of these answers seemed to satisfy the class, and I left rather disheartened. 

For the next period, the class had to read Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and “Down by the Riverside.” As I thought about teaching these texts, I tried to figure out the best way to explain to them about Jim Crow segregation. While looking for a possible song or film clip to help students understand the sordid history of Jim Crow in the early to mid-twentieth century, I came across Sho Baraka’s “Jim Crow” from his album The Talented Tenth. After listening to the song, I realized that it showed modern day examples of segregation and stereotypes. Along with these aspects, the song provided me with a way to help answer the students’ questions about the importance of literature.
 
I entered class prepared to show them why they should know literature. After they listened to the song, I asked them to identify the two references to literary texts in the lyrics. One student found the allusion to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately. Baraka raps, “I am the Invisible Man/Though I have no soul/I am from an invisible land.” I proceeded to tell the class a little about Ellison’s novel and its eponymous protagonist, explaining to them that Baraka references the text because he sees himself, as an African American entertainer, as being pigeonholed and his true identity being rendered invisible in the process.  The community, as well, becomes invisible, relegated to “nigga island” where everyone becomes lumped together as one. Students could get the meaning of these lines rather easily; however, the fact that Baraka drops Ellison in to the conversation adds more to the song’s overall meaning. Looking at the verse, Baraka traces IM’s journey, partly, even apparently referencing the paint factory where IM has his accident. Baraka raps, “Yeah I’m trying to leave this island/But swimming through bleach.”
 
Students tried to find the second literary reference in vain. One pointed out the mention of “Uncle Tom,” and I did recognize it as a nod to Stowe’s novel. However, here it refers to the stereotyped character that arose throughout the years. The other direct allusion comes in the second verse.  Here, Baraka intones, “Teach beauty is straight hair and the bluest of eyes.” Of course, this refers to Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye, a novel where Pecola Breedlove dreams of having blue eyes and being white. Again, listeners can get the idea of this line without knowing about Morrison’s novel; however, realizing the allusion here adds much more to our understanding of the ideas Baraka is dealing with in the song.
 
Along with these texts, Baraka brings up “double consciousness,” W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T Washington. With these, I told the class we should consider the men as literary artists. Then, I proceeded to show them that the culture they consume contains numerous references to these two men and their ideas. For one, I asked them if they watched The Boondocks. The majority of the class raised their hands and perked up. I went on to inform them that Tom DuBois’s last name comes from W.E.B. DuBois and that Huey Freeman comes from Huey P. Newton and the the surname Freeman that many took after Emancipation. As well, I pointed out a scene from one episode where two African American characters fight on a dock. During the scene, the camera shows a bucket of crabs. One crab tries to escape, and the others pull it down back into the bucket. This refers to the “bucket of crabs” analogy that Washington used.  Finally, I asked them if they listen to Childish Gambino. Again, numerous people raised their hands, and I told them that his song “Hold You Down” contains the same image.
 

Showing students that literature exists even in places that they don’t realize helps them see its importance. They view teachers and reading, sometimes, as things that have no benefit to their lives. If they begin to know where to look, they will expand their understanding and appreciation of literature and art without even realizing it. What are some activities you do in class that are similar to this? What song, paintings, film clips, etc. do you use? Let me know in the comments below. 



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