Short stories, poems, and films about race, age or gender
October 30, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently designing a grade 12 English unit and I'm looking for short stories, poems, or films that deal with issues of race, gender, and/or age.

I plan on tying this all back to power inequalities in our society. This thread had some interesting ideas, however the materials I'm planning to use don't have to be inspirational; In fact I'd prefer controversial.

Some things I have in mind already are, the short story "The Stolen Party", poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, and films like "Do the Right Thing." "The Interrupters" also looks promising, although I've only seen previews.

FWIW, I have a pretty disengaged class, with a 50/50 black/white split, and slightly more boys than girls. I'm hoping this unit will somewhat pique their interest and get them a bit more involved. Also, these are not university bound kids. They are headed for the workplace or career colleges.

Any other tips for this unit would be greatly appreciated.

**Please, no novels. I'm already planning on using "Rule of the Bone" at the end of the term.
posted by trigger to Education (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I taught freshmen last year--a little different group, I suppose, but a lot of the stuff is still accessible, I think. This is from my syllabus--a mixture of plays, stories, and poetry. Page numbers are from the book: Madden, Frank. Exploring Literature, 4th Edition. Let me know if you need more information on any of the works. I might be able to dig up some of my notes on the classes, too, if you want them.

My kids really enjoyed the plays (Trifles and Raisin, though Raisin might be a little long for your purposes), the poem "This be the Verse" by Larkin, and the story "Everyday Use."

Intro to Fiction
Feb 8 Somewhat Realistic (Also, Childhood, Lost Innocence, etc.)
Readings: “The Lesson” (451); “Araby” (445); “The Stolen Party” (441).
Mar 8 Family
Readings: “Marriage is a Private Affair” (239); “Everyday Use” (977); “The Road”
(246); “Two Kinds” (253); ‘This be the Verse” (274).
Mar 10 War
Readings: “The Things they Carried” (1172); “Dulce est Decorum Est”; “War is
Kind” (75); “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” (handout).

More Dreams, This Time Deferred (Also, Race and Culture)
Mar 29 Raisin in the Sun
Readings: Raisin in the Sun
Mar 31 Other Constructions
Readings: “Battle Royal” (459); “We Wear the Mask” (985); “The Negro Speaks of
Rivers” (1115); “To Live in the Borderlands” (992); “Coca Cola and Coca Frio” (1000).
Women (Not So Much) in Love
Apr 5 The Broken Bird Syndrome
Readings: Trifles (820); “A Jury of Her Peers” (831); “The Lay of the Nightingale”
Apr 7 Scratching at the Prison Bars, etc.
Readings: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (720); ‘The Chrysanthemums” (1196); “Girl” (958); “Beauty and Sadness” (968).
posted by kittenmarlowe at 12:54 PM on October 30, 2011

How about Our America? It's a book, but it's non-fiction, broken up into small pieces, and it has a radio documentary and movie. We use it in my school, and it hits those exact kids you're describing. I've got pictures and articles that follow up with the boys who made the doc/book (they were 13, African-American, growing up in the projects of Chicago and OA is about their life). Pretty awesome.

The idea of inequality and competition is in Kurt Vonnegut's amazing short story "Harrison Bergeron" - everyone is made equal by putting a series of handicaps on them depending on how smart/beautiful/etc. they are. It's not about race, but it introduces the idea that equality isn't always equal.

It's technically a novel, but House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes that deal with race, inquality, etc. It's usually well received by our students.

Again, it's also technically a book (sorry!), but Dead Man Walking (the book, not the movie) has lots of statistics about how race factors into the death penalty. There are lots of great articles that go along with it, but I've used passages from the book to talk about race/equality in society. So again, it's a book, but it really lends itself well to being used in small pieces.

I also like to do comparisons with South Africa, as apartheid is an interesting counterpoint to civil rights. I like to show In My Country and Amandla! to show how South Africans dealt with the racial violence and inequality.

I also love Li-Young Lee's poetry, which could fit in thematically.

What are your objectives in the unit? What skills are you focusing on?
posted by guster4lovers at 12:55 PM on October 30, 2011

"Black like me" is amazing, as is Nella Larson's "Passing"... passing literature in general.... is REALLY REALLY engaging because of the the questions it brings up. What is "race" and what is "identity"...????? Passing literature tears apart so much of what people take as given. In most classes race is thought of as a color, but passing literature is fantastic in showing that its more than that, its and experience, and in the end- its an experience that is so incredibly unique... you are what you are... I know you just said no novels, but perhaps an excerpt... or film clip could "prase" your class.
posted by misspony at 12:59 PM on October 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came to recommend the play Trifles, which kittenmarlowe has already recommended. It's short and it's great for discussion. Not only for gender issues, but for how much things have changed since the play was written (1916).
posted by patheral at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2011

The Lame Shall Enter First by Flannery O'Connor is a great, complex story that deals with physical disabilities.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:11 PM on October 30, 2011

Short stories by James Baldwin are usually great. Try Sonny's Blues.

Do The Right Thing is a wonderful idea.

The only sexism related things I remember reading in High School were set in the 1800s or early 1900s (as if those issues were over and finished with back then!). So try to find something more modern if you can. House on Mango Street had some good commentary on race, class, and gender if I recall correctly. I know they are novels but stay away from things like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird; your white students might still find them relateable (I know I did) but I can imagine that black students might find them condescending.

Stories from Alice Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades might be good for sexism, now that I think of it, especially Girls and Boys. Or "Half a Grapefruit," though I don't know what collection that's from. Sounds like a great class, good luck!
posted by chaiminda at 1:13 PM on October 30, 2011

If you choose something like "Black Like Me" to share with the class, the least you can do is also show SCTV's Black Like Vic.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:14 PM on October 30, 2011

Any of Flannery O'Connor's stories, but especially A Good Man is Hard to Find.
posted by fancyoats at 1:15 PM on October 30, 2011

What's Genocide? by Carlos Andres Gomez.
posted by naturalog at 1:18 PM on October 30, 2011

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is something I read in university but it's something I wish I had read in highschool. It deals with a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, growing up in Chicago with Chicanos and Puerto Ricans. Esperanza is determined to "say goodbye" to her impoverished Latino neighborhood. Major themes include her quest for a better life and the importance of her promise to come back for "the ones I left behind."

From Wiki:

The House on Mango Street is made up of vignettes that are not quite poems and not quite full stories. Esperanza narrates these vignettes in first-person present tense, focusing on her day-to-day activities but sometimes narrating sections that are just a series of observations. The vignettes can be as short as two or three paragraphs long and sometimes contain internal rhymes. In The Family of Little Feet for example, Esperanza says:

"Their arms were little, and their hands were little, and their height was not tall, and their feet very small[1] Each vignette can stand as an independent story. The vignettes don't follow a complete or chronological narrative, although they often mention characters introduced in earlier sections. The conflicts and problems in these short stories are never fully resolved, just as the futures of people in the neighborhood are often uncertain. The overall tone is earnest and intimate, with very little distance between the reader and the narrator. The tone varies from pessimistic to hopeful, as Esperanza herself sometimes expresses her jaded views on life:

"I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go."

posted by Fizz at 1:24 PM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since you're in Toronto, check out local spoken word poets. They often talk about the issues you're after.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:48 PM on October 30, 2011

Letter from a Birmingham Jail is what you are looking for.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:50 PM on October 30, 2011

Gloria Anzaldua covers both race and gender in different ways. I would suggest How to Tame a Wild Tongue or Entering into the Serpent (can't find a link right now).
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:27 PM on October 30, 2011

Push, the book and Precious the film.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:52 PM on October 30, 2011

How about Drew Hayden Taylor's play The Baby Blues? It's well received by the students in our high school English upgrading program, many of whom fit the profile you describe (except the racial makeup is about 50/50 First Nations/white).

The students perform it (do a dramatic reading) in class, and AFAIK, every group has had a blast--and we've got some pretty tough customers who Do Not Like Reading, no sir.

I think if you want to discuss inequality in Canada, you need to include an examination of First Nations issues; The Baby Blues provides a way to look at these issues within the context of a comedy.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:35 PM on October 30, 2011

Thanks to everyone for all of your excellent suggestions! I could easily mark each one as the best answer.
posted by trigger at 5:37 PM on October 30, 2011

Danielle Evans's short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is wonderful. Most of the protagonists are teens or young women dealing with race and class, and while all the stories touch on those themes in some way, "Virgins" or "Robert E. Lee is Dead" would probably spark the most discussion with a teen audience.
posted by Cue the Strings at 5:43 PM on October 30, 2011

I've used the introduction to Edward Said's Orientalism with good results. To do it right, though, you have to also introduce Foucault's definition of "discourse" and Antonio Gramsci's idea of "hegemony". (My kids do this a month or so after Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" and Foucault's "Panopticism," so they're somewhat familiar with this approach to power relations.)

For gender, I've gotten a great deal of traction with Camille Paglia's "Rape: A Bigger Danger than Feminists Know" and Susan Jacoby's "Common Decency". Students can write comparative analyses of the two women's ideas of masculinity. Edgy, but super interesting.

I also like Ethel Person's "Some Differences Between Men and Women" for a Freudian perspective, and of course Betty Friedan's "Crisis in Women's Identity", which is a terrific view of 50's-60's US feminist discourse and problematics.

For fun, I give kids Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto. It's out there.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:14 PM on October 30, 2011

I don't think the denseness of Said or Foucault would gel well with the target audience.
posted by chronic sublime at 11:54 PM on November 9, 2011

You might be surprised ...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:24 PM on November 10, 2011

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