A Celebration of African American Oral Tradition in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Author: Deborah Samuel

School/Organization:

Lamberton High School

Year: 2006

Seminar: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond

Keywords: African American oral traditions, The Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston

School Subject(s): Literature

As a result of this teaching unit, students will:

• Be prepared to read prose in dialect and be familiar with the difficulties in writing in dialect.
• Be familiar with the definition of the blues and see how it is mirrored in Hurston’s prose
• See connections between the novel and African American oral traditions, specifically popular folk tales and playing the dozens
• Understand the motivations and controversy of then and now in using black dialect when writing.
• See connections between the text and works of art of the Harlem Renaissance
• Compare the writings in dialect of John Chandler Harris and Charles Chestnutt to that of Zora Neale Hurston

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Full Unit Text
Objectives

As a result of this teaching unit, students will:

  • Be prepared to read prose in dialect and be familiar with the difficulties in writing in dialect.
  • Be familiar with the definition of the blues and see how it is mirrored in Hurston’s prose
  • See connections between the novel and African American oral traditions, specifically popular folk tales and playing the dozens
  • Understand the motivations and controversy of then and now in using black dialect when writing.
  • See connections between the text and works of art of the Harlem Renaissance
  • Compare the writings in dialect of John Chandler Harris and Charles Chestnut to that of Zora Neale Hurston

Rationale

Teaching literature written in dialect presents special challenges. Students are mostly unfamiliar with reading non-standard spellings. Even if some have encountered this before, each writer from Mark Twain to Joel Chandler Harris to Charles Chestnutt to Zora Neale Hurston will represent what they hear in an idiosyncratic manner, depending on their individual style and the fact that dialect varies from one location to another and from one time period to another. Despite this hurdle, the reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God in a literature class offers the teacher many opportunities. Hurston has incorporated many aspects of African American oral tradition in her novel. I believe the study of her use of dialect, her similarities to the Blues, and her references to folk tales would enrich the lives of our students.

The most frequently accepted doctrine is that the Harlem Renaissance was a movement characterized by a new interest in African and African American culture. Writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and even architects inspired one another to new heights of accomplishment. Some have said that black artists declared a new independence, a desire to shrug off the shackles of bondage to the
old ways and to express themselves using the rhythms of their own people. It was a time to celebrate the sound of African-American language, music, folk tales, and people in every artistic arena. Alain Locke declares in his essay “The New Negro” (1925) that “the pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.” (1) In fact, there exist many misconceptions associated with Locke’s statement. First was the idea that suddenly African Americans were making a significant contribution to American Culture when this has been the case when the first Africans arrived on our shores in chains. The “pulse” has always beaten. Secondly, the “Renaissance” was not restricted to Harlem. Some of the artists most associated with the phrase “Harlem Renaissance” did not even reside in Harlem.

The use of vernacular, the attempt to represent the language as it was truly spoken by African-Americans was highly controversial. Many were more concerned with presenting a picture of their race that would be acceptable to whites. This was a very deliberate decision for Zora Neal Hurston, a woman educated at Barnard and very capable of writing in whatever form she chose. She was rejected by many of her contemporaries for her choice, and only has come to be appreciated in the last few decades. She deliberately chose authenticity and celebration of her ancestry through her use of dialect and writing down what she heard as it was spoken by the actual folk down home. “She called attention to herself because she insisted upon being herself at a time when blacks were being urged to assimilate in an effort to promote better relations between the races. Hurston, however, saw nothing wrong with being black” (2). But this choice could not have been a foregone conclusion for Hurston. People in the United States have always been judged by their speech. When Jimmy Carter was elected President, this was in spite of deeply entrenched prejudice which deems a southern accent as indicative of less intelligence. African Americans who do not master code switching would be hard pressed to find decent employment. Their use of vernacular in a job interview would peg them as at least uneducated if not unintelligent as well. And yet the examples of African American dialect that have entered the realm of standard English are too numerous to count, with speakers rarely cogniscent of the origins of the very words they speak. So for Hurston to consciously choose to tell her story using dialect, to appear to ignore her Barnard University education and her fluency in standard English, was a decision that was not without consequences.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960) made her reputation primarily as a folklorist and as a novelist. She is well known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God which was recently made into a television drama produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry, as well as six other novels, collections of short stories, scholarly articles, poems, plays, and an autobiography she named Dust Tracks on the Road (1942). Unlike many of the characters about which she writes, Hurston herself was very well educated. She attended Howard University and Barnard College. While at Barnard, Hurston was recruited by anthropologist Franz Boas to “collect some of this African-American lore, to record songs, customs, tales, superstitions, lies, jokes, dances, and games” (4). Thus Hurston began traveling
through the South. As she explains in Mules and Men (1935), one of her two books resulting directly from her research, she began her investigations in Eatonville, Florida where she was born and raised and where people would treat her just as Zora, the girl they all knew, and treat her most sympathetically in her endeavors. About folklore Hurston says,

Folklore is the boiled-down juice of human living…In folklore, …the world is a great, big, old serving platter, and all the local places are like eating plates. Whatever is on the plate must come out of the platter, but each plate has a flavor of its own because the people take the universal stuff and season it to suit themselves on the plate. And this local flavor is what is known as originality (5).

Hurston incorporated this “juice of human living” into her writing which was full of references to folk tales and other African American oral traditions, written in an approximation of the language as originally spoken. Her use of dialect is part of her expression of the specialness of being black. “Indeed she felt there was something so special about her blackness that others could benefit just by being around her. Her works, then, may be seen as manifestos of selfhood, as affirmations of blackness and the positive aspects of black life” (6).

There was to be none of writing to impress or please a white audience for Hurston, even despite the existence of a white patron. She would not try to prove her worth by writing strict-formed fourteen lined sonnets in iambic pentameter as would some of her contemporaries. She did not have the same “sense of mission of rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible” that Alain Locke puts forth in his essay “The New Negro” (7). Nor was she seeking what Locke called “that reevaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further betterment of race relationships” (8). She even manages a swipe at her contemporary W.E.B. DuBois who concerned himself with the “duty of black America” (3). In her novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine she remarks, “Whut did dis DuBois ever do? He writes up books and papers, hunh? Shucks! dat ain’t nothin’, anybody kin put down words on uh piece of paper. Gimme da paper sack and lemme see dat pencil uh minute. Shucks! Writing! Man Ah thought you wuz talkin’ ‘bout uh man whut had done sumpin” (148).

Hurston was certainly not the first to use dialect in literature. Interestingly, despite the controversial aspects of Hurston’s writing, she was following in the footsteps of a long-established movement in American Literature which sought greater realism in its depiction of its uniquely American characters. Mark Twain preceded her by scores of years. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Huck’s radical decision to ‘up and tell the truth’ despite the ‘resks’ epitomizes the stylistic and thematic transformations shaping American literature during the second half of the nineteenth century. A new commitment to the accurate representation of American life as it was experienced by ordinary Americans infused literature with a new ‘realist’ aesthetic”(9). Part of this realistic representation was to mimic the way people actually talked.

We see Joel Chandler Harris, born in 1848, writing his tales of Uncle Remus, Tar Baby and Br’er Rabbit. He claimed to have transcribed tales of black folks just as they were told to him, and he was praised in his day for their accuracy and authenticity even as he presented the stereotype of the contented slave. Also, like Twain, who makes the white boy Huck the main focus of his novel, placing the slave Jim, a grown man, in a secondary role, “at no point does [Harris] turn the narrative over to Remus for longer than it takes the old man to tell and embellish a tale or two” (10). Harris, in fact, was a strong proponent of white supremacy and perpetuating the myth of the idyllic Southern plantation where whites are benign and parental and slaves are loyal to their white masters and happy. There is no intention to preserve the power of the oral tradition inherent in these tales. Harris is portraying the myth of the happy plantation while lynchings are occurring on a regular basis. As Callahan explains, the

storytelling practiced by Harris’ Uncle Remus has little to do with the political perspective of Negro Americans after the Civil War. When Harris elevates culture above politics, he insulates his myth of the South…from the politics of terror and disenfranchisement and the emerging social and political rituals of lynching and race riot. He does not acknowledge or understand that African-American oral culture…was deeply committed to a politics of radical change. (11)

Nonetheless, Joel Chandler Harris is an historic figure in the move toward a realistic representation of characters through the use of dialect.

Charles Chestnutt, born in 1858, continued the pattern of writing in dialect with his publication of The Conjure Woman. Chestnutt was light skinned enough that he could have passed for white. In fact, the publishers of his first work did not bother to publicize his race. However, he later chose to champion his race, speaking often of the problems facing blacks of his day, including the fact “that one drop of black blood tainted him and to Whites regardless of what he aspired to be, he would always be a nigger” (12). Like Harris before him, Chestnutt uses the device of combining a white speaker of standard English in dialog with a black speaker of African American dialect. Unlike Harris, however, he uses his tales to overcome stereotypes rather than perpetuate them. Chestnutt strives to debunk the mythology of the Southern plantation and to display a diversity of life among African Americans. Chestnutt is doing so in a “low-key, understated, unthreatening but always savvy voice…[to] persuasively indict slavery and affirm the principle of human equality” (13).

Hurston is anything but understated. There is no intervening white character to whom her black characters must talk. There is no attempt to explain black folks to
a white audience. Her attempt to record an authentic dialect as spoken by actual African Americans, to incorporate their stories, their music, and life as it is really lived by what Langston Hughes called “the low-down folks,” seems to break with what had come before. It was not to be a continuation of the caricatures of black people and their speech seen hundreds of times in this country. Hurston lived in the era of minstrel shows and black-faced, white-lipped actors on stage and in the movies. It was the era of Al Jolson, a Jewish American immigrant, similarly made up to sing about his mammy in the first talkie “Jazz Singer.” As George Schyler says in his essay “The Negro-Art Hokum,” first published in 1926, “the mention of the word ‘Negro’ conjures up in the average white American’s mind a composite stereotype of Bert Williams, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Jack Johnson, Florian Slappery, and the various monstrosities scrawled by cartoonists” (14). In her “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Hurston explains,

“Everyone seems to think that the Negro is easily imitated when nothing is further from the truth…If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro dialect is a weird thing, full of ‘ams’ and ‘Ises.’ Fortunately, we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself”(15).

The oral tradition is central to the experience of African Americans. “Its music and tales testifies to an indomitable will able to overcome the brutalizations of slavery and project possibilities of citizenship based on democratic equality” (16). The environment of slavery forced subversive means of communication, with one story for his master and another for his fellow slave. “Ironically, the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, its prohibitions against literacy, against African language and ritual, reinforced the communal values of the oral tradition” (17). Many other aspects of that oral tradition beyond merely its use of dialect find their way into Hurston’s novel. “Their Eyes is a multivoiced, multilayered story-within-a-story which follows an oral-performance model. Hurston uses traditional vehicles of oral self-expression, including blues singing, signifying, and storytelling, to mark important steps in Janie’s process of finding her own voice” (18). We see the storytellers on the porch attempting to better one another with one outrageous comment after another – namely, playing the dozens. They are telling mule stories with one character trying to outdo the other.

We also see many reflections of the form of music know as the Blues in Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is done in several ways. For example, the traditional Blues stanza has three parts: two lines repeated followed by a third that differs. Similarly, the novel has Janie’s three stanzas in the form of her three marriages. The first and the second are a reflection of one another. In each, Janie is following the wishes of her grandmother who wants more than anything to see Janie settled, safe and secure. Janie sublimates her own desires both physically and emotionally to do this. Not until Janie meets Tea Cake does Janie finally follow her heart and her lust. She ignores that he is younger, darker, and less settled than she is, but
she just loves him and that is finally enough. In these three marriages, therefore, we get an echo of the form of the blues stanza.

Furthermore, like Hurston’s novel, much of the Blues concerns loving and losing one’s love and sexual fulfillment. In W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” we see the following two stanzas:

I hate to see the ev’nin’ sun go down Hate to see the ev’nin’ sun go down, ’cause my baby, he done left this town

Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today Feel tomorrow like I feel today, I’ll pack my trunk, make my getaway

When the character Tea Cake seems to have run off with Janie’s money, she certainly could have been singing this song. When Janie first runs off with Tea Cake, wouldn’t these lyrics of “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” by Porter Grainger / Everett Robbins have suited her perfectly?

There ain’t nothing I can do, or nothing I can say That folks don’t criticize me But I’m goin’ to, do just as I want to anyway And don’t care if they all despise me

If I should take a notion To jump into the ocean ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, do, do do

If I go to church on Sunday Then just shimmy down on Monday Ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do

If my friend ain’t got no money And I say “Take all mine, honey” ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, do, do do

If I give him my last nickel And it leaves me in a pickle ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do

Well I’d rather my man would hit me, than to jump right up and quit me ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, do, do do

I swear I won’t call no copper
If I’m beat up by my papa ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do (19)

Also, like the following Blues song by Memphis Minnie, Hurston uses the bee as a symbol of her sexual fulfillment, the bee that will polinate the pear tree she looks at with longing at the very start of the novel.

The bee image, connected with Tea Cake and with Janie’s sexuality in general is an oppositional image found in many blues but most often associated with the work of Memphis Minnie, who recorded several versions of bumble bee blues. Like Zora Neale Hurston in the fields of folklore and literature, Memphis Minnie stands out in the history of the blues as a strong player and singer in a field dominated by men, in which women playing the guitar in public was especially taboo (Garon). .. In her bee blues, Minnie articulates the multiplicity–both the pain (the sting) and the pleasure (the honey)–which the bee as lover image suggests:

I got a bumble bee, don’t sting nobody but me [2x] And I tell the world he got all the stinger I need And he makes better honey, any bumble bee I ever seen [2x] And when he makes it, Lawd how he make me scream He get to flyin’ and buzzin’, stingin’ everybody he meet [2x] Lawd, I wonder why my bumble bee want to mistreat me Hmmmm, where that bumble bee gone Hmmmm, wonder where my bumble bee gone I been lookin’ for him, my bumble bee so long, so long My bumble bee got ways just like a natchal man [2x] He stingin’ somebody everywhere he lay (“New Bumble Bee”)

In the first two stanzas of “New Bumble Bee,” first the bee’s sting then its honey is associated with the singer’s sexual pleasure.[sup4] By contrast, the bee’s sting is, in verses three through five, associated with the pain of infidelity and abandonment. In verse five the connection between bee and the “mis-treatin’ ” man is made explicit. The bee image is but one of many forms in which the opposing sides the pain/pleasure–of love appear in the blues. (20)

Has Hurston succeeded in doing what W.E.B. DuBois says must be done by the “Negro novelist[?]…Such a writer, to succeed in a big sense, would have to forget that there are white readers; he would have to lose self-consciousness and forget that his work would be placed before a white jury.” (21) This will be a question for my students as we carry on with our unit of study. This instructional unit will be intended for an Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class comprised of seniors in high school. The primary text will be Their Eyes Were Watching God. Students will be unfamiliar with reading in dialect. They will be introduced to the concept of dialect and will practice reading and writing some of their own. We will take a look at three folk tales that are a part of the African American oral tradition, namely the “Signifying Monkey,”
“Stackolee,” and the “Sinking of the Titanic.” We will see how each is a response to extreme oppression and a way to speak freely with bravado, and an opportunity, in stories, at least, to triumph over those in authority as was never possible in the days of slavery nor in the days of Jim Crow. We will examine how these stories are reflected and celebrated in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Additionally, we will look at music originating with African Americans known as the Blues. We will see how the structure of a blues song is mirrored in the novel. We will examine similarities between examples of blues songs and the novel in terms of literary elements such as personification, hyperbole, simile, metaphor and symbolism as well as their various themes. We will also look at some examples of art of the Harlem Renaissance as a way to assist students in an understanding of the cultural and historical context of the novel.

Notes

(1) Locke, Alain. The New Negro. Patton and Honey. p.5.

(2) No author given. Biographical Essay. 2005. Thomson Gale, a part of The Thomson Corporation. http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/bhm/hurston_z.htm

(3) DuBois, W.E.B. Criteria of Negro Art. Patton and Honey. p. 49.

(4) No author given. Biographical Essay. 2005. Thomson Gale, a part of The Thomson Corporation. http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/bhm/hurston_z.htm

(5) Hurston, Zora Neale. Folklore and Music. Civilization. Jan/Feb95, Vol. 2 Issue 1. p.50.

(6) No author given. Biographical Essay. 2005. Thomson Gale, a part of The Thomson Corporation. http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/bhm/hurston_z.htm

(7) Locke, Alain. The New Negro. Patton and Honey. p.5.

(8) Ibid., p. 6.

(9) American Passages: A Literary Survey Unit 8. Regional Realism. Teacher’s Guide. Annenberg Media Learner.org. http://www.learner.org/amerpass/unit08/pdf/unit08ig.pdf

(10) Callahan, John F. In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana amd Chicago:Univeristy of Illinois Press. 1988. p. 34.

(11) Ibid., p. 38

(12) The Black History Gallery – Index Page IV . Charles Chestnutt. <http://www.donsmcclureconsultants.com/concept_051.htm>

(13) Callahan, op cit., p. 44.

(14) Schuyler, George S. The Negro-Art Hokum. Patton and Honey. p. 37.

(15) Hurston, Zora Neale. Characteristics of Negro Expression. Patton and Honey. p.72-73.

(16) Callahan, op cit., p. 25.

(17) _______, p. 26.

(18) Harry’s Blues Lyrics and Tabs Online. Hosted by Tripod. <http://blueslyrics.tripod.com/bluessongs1.htm>

(19) Johnson, Maria V.”The World In a Jug and the Stopper in [her] Hand”: Their Eyes as Blues Performance. African American Review, 10624783, Fall98, Vol. 32, Issue para. 5.

(20) Ibid., para. 21.

(21) Braithwaite, William Stanley. The Negro in American Literature. Patton and oney. p. 14.

Annotated Bibliography for Teachers

Adams, Cecil. “To African-Americans, what does ‘signifying’ mean?” The Straight Dope. September 28, 1984. Chicago Reader. Clear definitions http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_244c.html

American Passages: A Literary Survey Unit 8. Regional Realism. Annenberg Media Learner.org. One video of a series ton a level beyond most high school students. May be useful for teachers to view for background information. Contains a wealth of information in the teachers’ guides as well as a 3000 item archive of primary source material. Offers teacher workshops. http://www.learner.org/amerpass/index.html

Black History Gallery- Index. Contains a wealth of information on figures in Black History. http://www.donsmcclureconsultants.com/concept_006.htm

Callahan, John F. In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana amd Chicago:Univeristy of Illinois Press. 1988.

“Folklore in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Edsitement Lesson. Marco Polo. Created 7/09/02. http://edsitement.neh.fed.us/printablelessonplan.asp?id=40

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology: African American Literature. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997. Rich source of material from spirituals, gospel, jazz, the blues and folk tales through examples of stories, poems, and excerpts of novels periods of slavery, days of Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and other significant African American authors up to 1995.

Hayden, Palmer. “Midsummer Night in Harlem.” Painting. American Passages Slideshow, Archive # 2976. Annenberg CPB Project. <http://www.learner.org/amerpass/slideshow/archive_search.php>

Harry’s Blues Lyrics and Tabs Online. Hosted by Tripod. Source of lyrics to hundreds of blues songs http://blueslyrics.tripod.com/bluessongs1.htm . Hughes, Langston. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. Patton and Honey. pp. 40 – 44.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression. Patton and Honey. pp. 61 – 73.

________. “Folklore and Music.” Civilization, Vol. 2, Issue 1. Jan/Feb 95. p. 50.

Johnson, Maria V.”The World In a Jug and the Stopper in [her] Hand”: Their Eyes as Blues Performance. African American Review, 10624783, Fall98, Vol. 32, Issue 3.

“Lesson 2: Langston Hughes and the Blues.” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum:For Teachers. A web site containing a treasure-trove of lesson plans incorporating music from a wide variety of angles. Also has information on summer institutes for teachers. http://www.rockhall.com/programs/plans.asp

Locke, Alain. The New Negro. Patton and Honey. pp. 3 – 6.

Patton, Venetria K. and Maureen Honey, eds. Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2001.
Presents numerous essays and examples of creative pieces that debate aspects and interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance.

Reiss, Winold. “Drawing in Two Colors.” Painting. American Passages Slideshow Archive #5479. Annenberg CPB Project. http://www.learner.org/amerpass/slideshow/archive_search.php

Schuyler, George S. The Negro- Art Hokum. Patton and Honey. 36 – 39.

Trombold, John. The Minstrel Show Goes to the Great War: Zora Neale Hurston’s Mass Cultural Other. MELUS. Spring, 1999.

Wright, Richard. Blueprint for Negro Writing. Patton and Honey. 52 – 60.

“Zora Neale Hurston.” Black History. Thomas Gale. 2005. A comprehensive bibliography from a publisher of her books. http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/bhm/bio/hurston_z.htm

Reading List for Students

Black History Gallery- Index. Contains a wealth of information on figures in Black History. <http://www.donsmcclureconsultants.com/concept_006.htm>

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Perennial Classics. 1998.

_____________. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Unabridged. CAEDMON Audio. Performed by Ruby Dee.

_____________. Characteristics of Negro Expression. Patton and Honey 61 – 73.

Attachment #1 – Assorted Blues Lyrics from Harry’s Blues Lyrics and Tabs Online. Hosted by Tripod. Source of lyrics to blues songs. http://blueslyrics.tripod.com/bluessongs1.htm

Attachment #2 Definition of the Blues from “Lesson 2: Langston Hughes and the Blues.” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum:For Teachers. http://www.rockhall.com/programs/plans.asp

Attachment #3 Definition of Signifying from Adams, Cecil. To AfricanAmericans, what does ‘signifying’ mean? The Straight Dope. September 28, 1984. Chicago Reader. http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_244c.html

Hayden, Palmer. “Midsummer Night in Harlem.” Painting. American Passages Slideshow, Archive # 2976. Annenberg CPB Project. <http://www.learner.org/amerpass/slideshow/archive_search.php>

Reiss, Winold. “Drawing in Two Colors.” Painting. American Passages Slideshow Archive #5479. Annenberg CPB Project. http://www.learner.org/amerpass/slideshow/archive_search.php

“Signifying Monkey.” In The Norton Anthology: African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. pp. 42 – 44. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.

“Sinking of the Titanic.” In The Norton Anthology: African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. pp. 42 – 44. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.

“Stackolee.” In The Norton Anthology: African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. pp. 42 – 44. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.

Sample Lesson Plans

Lesson #1: Becoming Acquainted with Dialect

Purpose:

  1. to introduce the concept of writing in dialect.
  2. to increase the understanding of the difficulties in reading and writing in dialect.

Methods:

  1. Ask students to work with a partner for the following activity – Write a paragraph about something going on around the school or another story that you heard in standard English. Now narrate that story to your partner who will attempt to write the same event as you’ve said it, imitating the actual sounds of speech as closely as they can, focusing on the sounds of the words they hear rather than resorting to standard spellings.
  2. Trade passages with your partner. Each partner then will attempt to read the passage. See if they can understand what you wrote. Now read your passage to your partner. Discuss how each of you would represent the words as they sound and what could be understood and what could not.
  3. Rewrite an agreed upon version of the passage in dialect on chart paper to posted in the classroom. Ask the class to attempt to read each passage. Discuss the representation of words as they sound and what could be understood and what could not. What were some of the spellings that each of you used to represent what was heard.
  4. Select a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain that is written in dialect. Ask students to read it silently and summarize the meaning. Ask for volunteer to read their answers and compare with other classmates. Now ask for a volunteer to read the passage aloud. Ask students: Did the oral rendition assist you in understanding what was said? Discuss what were the difficulties in understanding the dialect in reading it and then in listening to it.
  5. Play an excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God from the Unabridged Caedom Audio recording narrated by Ruby Dee. Ask students to attempt to transcribe what they hear, again ignoring usual conventions of standard English, but instead attempting to write exactly what they are hearing. Next read the identical passage from the text. Ask students to compare what choices they made in transcription to those made by Hurston.
  6. Reassure students that if they are having difficulty reading the dialect portions of the novel that this is to be expected. Suggest that they read difficult portions out loud to themselves to help them decipher those passages at first, until they become accustomed to the unusual spellings and punctuation.

Lesson #2

Purpose:

  • to continue to practice reading in dialect.
  • to become acquainted with both stylistic and historical changes in dialect.
  • to have a greater historical perspective on the use of dialect through our history
  • to see the use of dialect as part of a national literary movement toward greater realism and and American form of writing.

Methods:

  1. Assist students with the dialect representation in these stories. Present some examples of spellings that were used, such as the following: “de” for “the,” “gwyne” for “going,” and “sezee” for “he says.”
  2. Ask students to read “UNCLE REMUS INITIATES THE LITTLE BOY” by Joel Chandler Harris (Attachment #8) and “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles Chestnutt (Attachment #9).
  3. Stories of this type are known as trickster tales. Ask students to describe what aspects of the stories might cause them to be labeled as such. How are the stories alike? How do they differ?
  4. All of the questions in this section(#4) come from the Teacher’s Guide to Unit 8: Regional Realism in the American Passages Series:Comprehension: Which animals are weak and which are strong in the Uncle Remus stories? How does Brer Rabbit succeed in reversing traditional power relations in his encounters with supposedly stronger animals? What qualities enable Brer Rabbit’s success?

    Comprehension: Examine the frame narratives surrounding the animal fables (in a story that describes the conditions of its own telling, the portion that sets up the “story within the story” is called the frame narrative). How is Uncle Remus portrayed? What is his relationship to the boy and the boy’s family? How does Uncle Remus assert control over the stories and authority over the boy on occasion?

    Comprehension: Why does Uncle Julius tell the white narrator the story of the “goophered” vineyard? What effect does the story have on the narrator? What do we learn about Julius’s relationship to the land and its produce over the course of the tale?

    Context: Compare Harris’s representation of Uncle Remus and his trickster stories to Charles Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius in “The Goophered Grapevine.” How are these portraits of African American storytellers different from one another? How do the trickster tales narrated by each of the “Uncles” compare? How do Chesnutt’s accounts of Uncle Julius’s history and motives complicate our understanding of “The Goophered Grapevine”?

    Context: Compare Charles Chestnutt’s Uncle Julius to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus. What kinds of relationships do they have with their white audience? What seems to motivate their storytelling sessions? Because his Uncle Julius stories contain a frame narrative from the point of view of a rather condescending white man, many of Chesnutt’s early readers probably assumed the writer was white. In 1899, when he began to write full time, Chesnutt made his own racial identity more public. Ask students to think about the role of the white narrator in the Uncle Julius stories. Why might Chesnutt have adopted this narrative voice? Why might he have eventually felt compelled to publicize his own racial background as the stories became more popular?

    Harris always insisted that he did not invent the Uncle Remus tales but instead simply recorded the legends and stories he collected from African Americans. Although he obviously filtered and edited the tales, he would not publish any story that he could not authenticate as part of traditional black folklore. He even claimed that the central character of Uncle Remus “was not an invention of my own, but a human syndicate, three or four old darkies I had known. I just walloped them together into one person and called him Uncle Remus.” After providing students with this background information, ask them to consider the implications of Harris’s claims. How does his status as a recorder of folklore change our understanding of him as a writer? Should we read the Remus tales as faithful transcriptions of the stories as their black authors orally constructed them? To what extent might Harris have changed the stories in the act of recording them? Should we understand Uncle Remus as an “authentic” portrait of the African Americans Harris knew? Why might Harris have been invested in claiming this kind of accuracy and authenticity for his work?

    You might ask students to rewrite the frame narrative of Chesnutt’s work so that it is clearly not a white narrator. What would need to be changed? What would get left as is? How does this change the nature of the story?
    Exploration: Stories about Brer Rabbit and his fellow animals have continued to entertain American readers—adults and children alike—through the twentieth century. Books featuring Uncle Remus have continued to sell well, and in 1946 Disney produced Song of the South, an animated feature film about the characters that populate the Uncle Remus stories (despite criticisms of the film’s racial insensitivity, Disney re-released Song of the South as recently as 1986). Why do you think these stories and images have remained so popular? How might their significance to white and black audiences have changed over time?

    Compare a page of Harris’s dialect to a page of Mark Twain’s. When Twain writes in dialect, portraying the speech of Jim, what are the differences in strategy? Which works better for a modern reader? After students have become more comfortable reading Harris’s and Twain’s representation of African American speech, ask them to think about why these renditions of southern black dialect might have been so popular with white northern audiences in the late nineteenth century. 5. Ask students to form groups of three to four. The task of each group is to compare a portion of these stories to the passages previously read from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston with a focus on the specific choices made in spelling particular words. Compare spellings for commonly used words as similar to the ones I have already placed in the chart. Prepare a chart to be displayed to the class of ten to twelve words.

Lesson #3

Purpose:

  1. to establish a purpose for reading
  2. to increase an understanding of the literary elements in the novel
  3. to compile a list of excerpts to be later used in comparison to the Blues as well as a resource for citing examples from the text for future essays.

Methods:

  1. Ask students to read the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God with a focus on finding examples of personification, symbols, hyperbole, direct address, changes in point of view from first person to third person and back again, and others. Students are to notate their novels by placing post-its when they encounter their examples.
  2. From time to time while reading the novel, we will post examples on chart paper around the classroom for discussion and referral.

Lesson #4 Signifying

Purpose:

  1. Application of an understanding of literary elements contained in the poem, specifically hyperbole, personification, and simile.
  2. Examine the meter and rhyme and discuss its purpose.

Method:

  1. Ask students to define the terms Signifying and playing the dozens to check background knowledge. Read attachment #3 – The definition of signifying and playing the dozens in traditional African American Culture.
  2. Place students into groups of four or five. Ask students for examples of signifying that they have heard or even said themselves. For example, what insults against “yo’ mama” have they heard? Ask each group to place these on chart paper to display and read to the class.
  3. Give students their own copies of the “Signifying Monkey.” Questions for discussion on the “Signifying Monkey.” Factual questions:
    1. What lie does the Monkey tell the Lion?
    2. What happens to the Lion as a result?
    3. What was the Lion’s first response to the Monkey when they met again?
    4. What insults did the Monkey reign down on the Lion in any case?
    5. What accident occurs that puts the Monkey in mortal danger?
    6. How did the Monkey himself cause this to happen?
    7. How does the Monkey escape?
    8. Evaluation questions:
      1. What specific examples of signifying do you find in the poem? Highlight or underline those passages on your handout.
      2. What adjectives would you use to describe the Monkey’s personality? the Lion’s personality?
      3. How does the Monkey’s hubris almost cost him his life?
      4. Who might the Monkey and the Lion represent, especially if the story originated in an era of slavery?
      5. What might have been the emotional satisfaction of telling this story among oppressed African Americans
  4.  Review the definitions of hyperbole, personification and simile. Find examples of each in the poem.Count the syllables in each line of the poem and notice which syllables are stressed. Is there a regularity to the rhythm? Do a check as well at the rhyming
    pattern. Is that more or less regular than the rhythm? What is the purpose of having regular rhythm and rhyme? How does it assist the teller? Given that this poem is from an oral tradition where changes are made on a regular basis, why is this regularity important? 6. Read pages 63 to 69 in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Review rules for punctuating dialogue, reminding students that a new paragraph indicates a new person speaking, this removing the necessity to constantly have to say “he said, she said” after every line. Ask students to read the passage silently, identifying which lines are spoken by which of the following characters. Then assign students to take parts and read these pages orally as if reading a play. Students would be assigned the following parts: Narrator – to read all parts not in quotation marks Lige Sam Walter Thomas Charlie Jones Daisy David Jim When finished, review the definitions of signifying and playing the dozens. How do these remarks match the definition of signifying? Do we see any connections between the Signifying Monkey and the characters portrayed on these pages of the novel?

    7. Ask students to compare the tone of the pages above and the passages to follow. Be sure students notice that the exchange in the pages above were in fun, while the passages to follow are more serious and hurtful in nature.

    Reread Jody’s comments to Janie on page 78. How do these comments match the definition of signifying? What is the content of the insults he aims at Janie? What effect do these insults have on her? Why are these comments particularly hurtful to her? Reread Janie’s retort on page 79. How do these comments match the definition of signifying? What is the content of the insults she aims at Jody? What effect do these insults have on him? Why are these comments particularly hurtful to him? What does he imagine will be the effects on his reputation amongst to people of the town?

    8. How is the relationship between Janie and Jody different as a result of this signifying?

    Lesson #5 Other African American Toasts

    1. Read Attachment #5 – definition of African American Toasts.
    2. Read Attachment #6 – “Stackolee,” and answer the following questions: a) What aspect of African American History is referenced when the poem says in line three, “I thought I heard some old dog bark”? b) Why does Stackolee kill Billy? c) What is the overall tone of the poem? d) What tone in particular does Stackolee take with Sister Lou? e) Reread pages 139 – 143 and the description of Mrs. Turner. In what ways is Mrs. Turner and her attitude similar to that of Sister Lou in “Stackolee?” What do you think of Mrs. Turner, who “didn’t forgive [Janie] for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake”(140) or who says, “Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em mahself.” (141) f) Reread pages 147 – 153 in Their Eyes Were Watching God when Tea Cake and his friends decide to teach Mrs. Turner and her “altar to the unattainable – Caucasian characteristics”- a lesson. What exactly do they do? How is this event reminiscent of Stackolee and his interaction with Sister Lou? g) What else about Stakolee reminds you of Tea Cake? h) How does Stackolee talk to the Devil and put him in his place? i) Who does the Devil symbolize? j) What treatment does the devil receive at the hands of Stackolee? k) What psychological satisfaction would there be for stories like this during times of slavery and other severe oppression? l) What examples of Signifying do you find in “Stackolee”?

    3. Read Attachment #7: “Sinking of the Titanic” and answer the following questions: a) How does Shine show that he knows more than his Captain? b) How does Shine get his revenge? c) What is the overall tone of the poem? d) What psychological satisfaction would there be for stories like this during times of slavery and other severe oppression?

    4. Count the syllables in each line of the poems and notice which syllables are stressed. Is there a regularity to the rhythm? Do a check as well at the rhyming pattern. Is that more or less regular than the rhythm? Do the same principles apply to these poems as to “Signifying Monkey?”

    Follow-up Assignments:

    1. Compare the characteristics of Shine, Stackolee and the Signifying Monkey. What do they all have in common? What are their differences? Write an essay in which you discuss this using quotes from the text to support your position.

    2. In what ways does Zora Neale Hurston celebrate African American Toasting and other oral traditions in her novel? Write an essay in which you discuss this using quotes from the text to support your position. 3. Write your own version of a poem starring Shine.

    Lesson #6 Art and the Novel

    Purpose: a)Students will see the vitality and liveliness in Hurston’s tone by noting the same in a Visual Artifact. b) Students will become acquainted with the cultural and historical context of Their Eyes Were Watching God by examining paintings of the era. c) Students will learn the process of close reading a work of art. Methods: 1. Download “Midsummer Night in Harlem” by Palmer Hayden and make copies for your students. It is available on the Annenberg CPB Project web site at <http://www.learner.org/amerpass/slideshow/archive_search.php> and is in the American Passages Slideshow, Archive # 2976. Then model a close reading of this piece. Discuss the elements of the work. Note how the subjects are dressed(generally very well) and why they might be outside in such numbers on a midsummer’s night (to cool off?). Note the church in the background because it is an important element in the lives of African Americans. Note the joyful tone of the painting, and how it shows a vibrant life and a level of racial pride as we will also see in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Discuss the painter and his goals as an artist. Discuss the time period in which the work was painted, and what brought black artists to Harlem from all around the world at this time. Do all of this in front of the students as an example of what you expect them to do with other paintings.

    2. Download “Drawing in Two Colors” by Winold Reiss (also called “Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I”) and make copies for your students. It is available on the Annenberg CPB Project web site at <http://www.learner.org/amerpass/slideshow/archive_search.php> and is in the American Passages Slideshow, Archive # 5479. Ask students to examine the work and to do a close reading in the same manner as you modeled. They may also answer the following questions:

    a) How were African Americans depicted Minstrel shows of the 1920’s and earlier? (students could be assigned this as a research project.) How does this work seem to comment on those shows? b) What seems to be the focal point of the work? How does the painting draw our attention to particular points on the canvas?
    c) What objects do you see depicted? What do they symbolize? How could the inclusion of some of these items be a cause for controversy in the African American community? d) How many people do you see and what are they doing? How can you tell? e) What dances were popular at this time? (students could be assigned this as a research project.) What dance might they be doing? f) What do you imagine is the intended audience of the piece? Why do you think so? g) What image of African Americans does this work convey? h) How does the work communicate movement? i) How would you characterize the tone and style of this work?

    Lesson #7 Their Eyes and The Blues

    Purpose: Compare the point of view, plot structure, themes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God and examples of the Blues.

    Methods: 1. Examine a definition of the Blues. Read Attachment #1 and #2. Play examples of the songs.

    Point of View: 1. Examine who is being addressed in “Downhearted Blues” by Bessie Smith

    Plot Structure: 1. Read definition off the blues (Attachment #1)

    2. Trace the plot structure in Their Eyes. Make note of the 3 marriages in Janie’s life surrounded by her conversation with Janie’s best friend, Pheoby, providing unity to the novel. 3. Compare this structure to that of a Blues song. As explained in Norton’s Anthology of African American Literature, W.C. Handy, referred to as “the father of the blues,” wrote “most often twelve-bar forms: three lines of four beats each, the first line repeated twice and followed by a third end-rhymed line.” For example, we see this in his composition entitled, “St. Louis Blues” or in Down Hearted Blues by Bessie Smith (see attachment #2)

    4. Trace plot structure of Memphis Minnie’s “New Bumble Bee” for three part narrative. Identify the three parts.

5. Read other blues songs lyrics. Find other examples of three part structures.

Themes 1. In small groups, identify common themes you find in the blues songs in attachment #2.

2. Write the themes you identified on chart paper and have a group member share your findings with the whole class.

3. Again in small groups, look for passages from Their Eyes that reflect similar themes to those on the chart paper.
Personification 1. Study “Jailhouse Blues” by Bessie Smith for examples of personification. (the blues itself is personified)

2. Examine these passages from Their Eyes for examples of personification.

3. find other examples from the lyrics as well as the novel

Hyperbole 1. Define hyperbole

2. Examine the passage by the “mule-talkers” for examples of hyperbole

3. Examine lyrics of the Blues songs for examples of hyperbole.
Symbolism 1. Many of the symbols of both the novel and lyrics of the Blues are of a sexual nature, so consider the maturity of your students before delving into the symbolism contained in each. Some examples of these symbols to examine might include the bee, honey, pollen, blossoms, and the pear tree.