Tag Archives: American Literature

What Is the Fourth of July?

2nd July 2015

Teaching American Literature has, in some ways, shown me how deeply patriotic I can be. In years past, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why. There are moments, in teaching my class, that I have to pause because the utter beauty of our nation’s hopes and ideals is so touching. Yet my consistent, analytical look at the important writings of our country also deeply saddens me, as I watch the ways in which previous generations and my own generation use them to their/our own ends.

The reality in our country right now is that many, many people glance briefly at words that we’ve fought over since our country’s inception (see my friend Ryan’s great post at The Signal Watch for a great look) and use them to oppress others and to justify injustice.

This Independence Day, while I will of course still be floating in a pool and drinking various frozen drinks and taking breaks for all-American foods like barbecue and apple pie (I’m only human, and Texas is hot), I’m also conflicted. In recent years, after too many incidents to count, of injustice and hate against our African-American citizens, we take blatant racism and still try to turn it away. We perpetuate violence against this community and then expect them not to react or to react only in ways which we decree acceptable, when, as Anne Braden, activist, said, “The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.

On July 5, 1852, a man named Frederick Douglass stepped in front of an audience and spoke these words in his much-anthologized speech, later published in pamphlets as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”, and in doing so validated Braden’s idea nearly a century before by asking:

Fellow Citizens – Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessing, resulting from your independence to us?

and later:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessing in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.

and last:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I love this country of mine dearly. I’m proud, for so many reasons, to be an American, but I’m not inured to the racial injustices either. In a year when race-based violence has exploded, when a man can walk into a church and tell men and women he is there to kill them based on their race, when black churches receive threats and then burn to the ground, and we still deny race as an issue, we are ensuring that a vast majority of our population is still excluded from our celebration of liberty. When we value and fight tooth and nail to fly a flag that flew in our nation’s darkest hours instead of mourning for lives lost? We guarantee that we will remain segregated and fearful of one another.

I say all of this, not knowing what the answer is, not knowing how to help. But I say it because it must be acknowledged. Because to not acknowledge it is to be a silent supporter of the institutionalized racism so many of us fail or refuse to see.

Happy Independence Day. My hope is that we can come to love America and its ideals enough to tear away that thin veil and recognize our crimes, to realize that no nation is perfect, that our forefathers were conflicted, imperfect men as well, and that each generation makes a choice to fully embrace the love of freedom our country has come to signify.

As Douglass also points out, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.”


Further reading:

  • From 1995’s “America’s Long History of Black Churches Burning” – “It is worth observing that the absence of any organized conspiracy may make the phenomenon of church burning more, rather than less, disturbing. Far easier to abide the idea of a tight-knit group of racist fanatics than to accept the alternative that we live in a time when a substantial number of individuals, unconnected with one another or with organized white supremacist groups, regard burning black churches as a plausible act, worthy of emulation.”
  • From “Why Racists Target Black Churches”…during slavery, these churches provided more than just spiritual solace. They facilitated an explosion of black literacy in the South”
  • From “Why Racists Use Rape to Defend Racist Violence” – “It’s tempting to treat Dylann Storm Roof as a Southern problem, the violent collision of neo-Confederate ideology and a permissive gun culture. The truth, however, is that his fear – of black power and of black sexuality – belongs to America as much as it does the South.”
  • From “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations” – “But today, as the nation mourns the victims of Charleston and awaits details about the perpetrator of the attack, black Americans will be most awake to the reality that there are bigots who want to see them dead. What they’re owed by their fellow Americans is vocal solidarity, so that they’re as awake to the depth and breadth of the belief that black lives matter.”
  • From “The Recent, Hateful History of Attacks on Black Churches” – “Churches have long been hubs of organizing and advocacy in the black community, which was one reason they were so often attacked during the civil rights movement. But the violence didn’t end there—attacks and threats against black churches and institutions still take place at a greater frequency than you might think.”
  • From “Black Churches Are Burning Again in America” – “Churches are burning again in the United States, and the symbolism of that is powerful. Even though many instances of arson have happened at white churches, the crime is often association with racial violence: a highly visible attack on a core institution of the black community, often done at night, and often motivated by hate.”

UPDATE: As I was searching for related articles, I see Slate’s James West Davidson had similar thoughts: “The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History”

In the Classroom: American Literature

17th August 2012

I taught writing and literature until last August when I finally landed a full-time job as an ESL instructor, teaching reading and writing. Though I really enjoy my job, I have missed teaching literature. Like, a lot.

Yesterday morning, the English department called and asked if I could take on an American Literature course in the afternoon, and I literally danced down the hallway to tell my co-teacher. I may have done a leap.

American Lit is my favorite course to teach because America, as an ideal/concept, is endlessly fascinating to me. I love reading something from 1852 that is still being discussed in newspapers today. The Declaration of Independence makes me beam from ear to ear, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” brings tears to my eyes always. So yeah, the leap down the hall was understatement.

This afternoon I pulled out The Norton Anthology of American Literature, shorter seventh edition, which I refer to in my syllabus as ironic, since it’s three inches thick and weighs about five pounds…

I thought I’d share with you our reading list and the overarching course question we discuss at the start of each semester:

American literature and its history are directly linked to how we think of America as a nation and ourselves as Americans – even if the two don’t always agree. Its literature is a constant conversation, evolving as time goes by while still asking the same questions of each generation. This course is designed to examine “America” as ideal while seeking links and corollaries in the literature between time periods and across gender, race, ethnic, culture, and class lines.

Because America is a composite of these components and so many more, one can argue that there is no American literature; however, these texts are all defined by a quickening, urgent sense of identity: What is an American? Countless authors still subtly and not-so-subtly explore the complex answers to this question, making the study of this literature interesting and necessary while calling for readers/students to be open minded to and critical of the ideologies put forth. So…what is America?

Background and Introduction to American Literature (Discussion of Orature/Journals):

  • Handouts on oral storytelling traditions and Native American oral literature; Native American Creation stories: American Indian Trickster Tales/American Indian Myths and Legends
  • Letters of Christopher Columbus
  • Thomas Harriot, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
  • John Smith, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles

Conversation on Puritans/Captive Literature:

  • John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
  • William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
  • Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration
  • Cotton Mather, “The Trial of Martha Carrier”
  • Jonathon Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” [Using Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shimates to emphasize importance]
  • Anne Bradstreet, various poetry

Toward Nationalism: Discussion of Age of Reason and Revolution:

  • St. John de Crevecoueur, “What is an American?” [I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the topic. Students will also examine current essays/articles responding to the same question.]
  • Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”
  • Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
  • Phyllis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” “Language”

National Conversation on Equality Including Civil War:

  • Sojourner Truth, “Speech to the Women’s Rights”
  • Margaret Fuller, “The Great Lawsuit” [Fantastic piece on equality between sexes; students will examine current similar articles]
  • Fanny Fern, “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” [I talked about this piece here and will use various articles to discuss]
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Slave’s Dream”
  • Abraham Lincoln, “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg”
  • Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” [Masterful speech]

Emerging American Literature: The Romantics:

  • Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
  • Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil”

Discuss American Realism & Naturalism: Why the Change?

  • Emily Dickinson, various poems
  • Kate Chopin, “The Storm”
  • Walt Whitman, excerpts from Leaves of Grass
  • Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”
  • Mark Twain, Adventure of Huckleberry Finn [Students will work in groups on discussion questions & discuss in class]

What Is an American? Have we decided yet? How and why is “frontier” so important to America?

  • Frederick Jackson Turner, from “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”
  • Theodore Roosevelt, from “The Strenuous Life”

Discuss American Conscience and Inequality, A Reprisal:

  • Booker T. Washington, excerpt from “Up From Slavery”
  • W.E.B. DuBois, excerpts from Souls of Black Folk
  • Music as poetry: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker

Post-World War I America: How do we continue?

  • Amy Lowell, “September, 1918”
  • Robert Frost, “After Apple-Picking”
  • Carl Sandburg, “Chicago” “Grass”
  • William Carlos Williams, “The Young Housewife” “Queen Anne’s Lace”
  • Ezra Pound, “To Whistler, American” “A Pact”
  • Claude McKay, “America”
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I Think I Should Have Loved You Presently” “I Forgot for a Moment”
  • ee. cummings, “next to of course go america i”
  • Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” “The Weary Blues” “Democracy”

The Modern Era:

  • Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire[show the film]
  • William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
  • Ernest Hemingway, “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”
  • Raymond Carver, “A Small, Good Thing” “Careful”
  • Andre Dubus, “Killings”

Discussion of Voice: Why is it important? Who is silenced?

  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Louise Erdrich, “Dear John Wayne”
  • Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
  • Julia Alvarez, “The Mother”
  • Martin Luther King, “I Have A Dream”
  • Sandra Cisneros, “Woman Hollering Creek”
  • Sherman Alexie, “Do Not Go Gentle”
  • Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” “Pawn Shop”
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, “No Name Woman”

Whew! I know that’s a lot, but we generally discuss most of it, particularly as I have different activities for different sections, and in some places, students will be teaching selected pieces, so they will not all be reading all the works. In the past, we have had some really insightful conversations. One thing I will be doing again is first day/last day material. I pass out post-it notes to students and ask them to write the first few words that come to mind when I say the word “America.” That opens up our discussion. I ask them to keep in mind the words they wrote down as we continue the semester, and on the last day before finals, I ask the same question. Seeing the thoughtfulness and intensity students put into their second post-it is so rewarding (for me, at least).

So, what do you think? I think I better get to re-reading… 🙂