Assignments for Chapter 2—“African American Identity: How Does Race Shape the Arts?” Homework/Reading Comprehension Writing Assignments

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Assignments for Chapter 2—“African American Identity: How Does Race Shape the Arts?”

Homework/Reading Comprehension Writing Assignments:
What do the “Sorrow Songs” represent for Du Bois? How does he explicate their importance as both music and message?
W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington are each focused on the question of “black advancement” at the turn of the twentieth century, yet each offers a different idea about the best path to success. Using The Souls of Black Folk and “The Atlanta Exposition Address,” explain the major differences in their approaches to racial integration in America.
Glen Loury refers to “the truth that racial identity in America is inherently a social and cultural, not simply a biological construct . . .” (173). Summarize and evaluate Loury’s claim in terms of his essay’s arguments and evidence. What connections may be drawn between his argument and those of Du Bois on the biological and social meanings of race? Given that several of this unit’s authors argue in some way for rethinking depictions of race in mass media forms (literature, music, film, etc.), speculate upon what elements of racial identity come “from within” (biology) and “from without” (culture). Consider language, fashions, traditions, rituals, tastes, stereotypes, media messages in your response.

Assignment 1: Evaluation (4-6 pages)


The purpose of this assignment is to use W.E.B. Dubois’ text as a lens through which to view a specific debate or dynamic in race/class/gender relations in America.

To fulfill this assignment, you will need to

• summarize accurately one of Dubois’ substantial arguments to frame a cultural, political or artistic issue related to race, class or gender in contemporary culture

• analyze specific cultural works, critical works, analysis and commentary integral to the issues raised

• evaluate the validity and strength of this material by addressing/assessing their evidence and support

• challenge or accept the authors’ conclusions, or add insight to them, based on the results of your own analysis

Your paper will be evaluated according to how well you meet these objectives. This paper, and all of the others that you write, should also be coherent, well-organized, and written in standard academic English. All of your papers will need to include citations and lists of works cited in MLA format.

In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois describes African-American “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (132). How does Du Bois elaborate on this concept of “double-consciousness” and, most importantly, what is the role of art in producing or resolving “double-consciousness” in the present? To answer this question, you must include claims made by Du Bois in “Criteria for Negro Art” and select a contemporary film, television show, or popular black actor/comedian/celebrity, to test the validity or currency of Du Bois’ claims in contemporary culture. To get at the issues about race and representation in your selected piece, you MUST include at least two essays, articles, reviews or other academically credible sources that situate the film/show/figure in terms of its significance to race and identity today.

Joan Morgan’s “From Fly Girls to Bitches and Hos” makes a number of specific arguments about the power and influence of hip-hop music in American society, what problems and potential it contains, and what interests it currently (and may ultimately) serve. Identify this argument and relate it to at least two songs/artists in the hip hop genre which either support or contradict Morgan’s claims. You will also need to include at least two academically credible outside sources which evaluate or comment upon the role of hip hop music in the black community or national culture at present or include sources which evaluate your selected songs or their artists.

Assignment 2: Interpretation/Argument (4-6 pages)

To complete this assignment successfully, you must

  • take a position on how a film or other type of representation uses, perpetuates, changes, or otherwise engages a stereotype. You will use class readings and additional research resources to construct an argument in support of your position

  • use sources to identify a contrary position to the one you argue and then respond to that contrary position. Although both positions must be present in your paper and supported by academically credible sources, you must maintain a clear focus in support of your own position

  • include information and examples from the film you have chosen to support your argument

Your task is to choose a film, a genre, a figure that we encounter in our readings, or to select a new film, genre, or figure to use as the object of analysis, and to construct an academic argument in response to this central question: Does your selected film, genre or figure represent racial/ethnic identity or issues in a positive or negative way? Identify the controversial issues about which informed people disagree, such as the representation of “otherness” in our society, particularly with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, and class; in this paper, you will join that controversy. You will need to find at least two outside sources—reviews or critical articles—which discuss your film and the cultural issues you have identified.
In “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois interrogates depictions of black people in 1926 mainstream culture and calls for the emergence of “true art” among African-Americans. Explain his position and the implications of his claims, and then translate his argument in terms of the present by selecting a contemporary film, television show, song or album (or some other performer or work of art) which represents African-American identity or race relations in a way that either supports or contradicts the ideas in “Criteria of Negro Art.” After watching or listening to your selected object of analysis, locate at least two outside sources that review or critically analyze it, including what issues it brings to light about race or race relations in America. Using Du Bois, your selected work, your research sources, and perhaps Walker, Carby, Loury or Morgan from the Dubois unit, write an essay which evaluates and argues the potency or importance (positive, or negative, or mixed) of the work you selected in contemporary society.
Just as Hazel Carby argues that the actor Danny Glover has been more or less “typecast” as the conciliatory mediator of white and black social relations in film, it is also arguable that many other public figures, celebrities and icons have become symbolic repositories for the social meanings of race. Select one such figure – feel free to use the appended list of prominent black actors and actresses, but do not feel confined by it, and in fact feel free to select “iconic” figures from other social groups and other fields of representation (singers, politicians, historical figures, etc.) – and develop an argument about the relative value or legitimacy of the “role” they play in contemporary cultural life. How does the figure you choose represent or reflect the society or culture that elevated him or her to a particular status? Provide detail about the person you choose, but do not simply write a biography. Instead, develop an argument about the “figure” and whether or not the specific meanings attributed to him or her are consistent or contradictory, positive or negative, or otherwise somehow problematic. Though you may turn to some outside sources to discover details about this person’s life or occupation, you must ALSO employ at least TWO sources that engage this figure “as a figure” (which is to say your analysis should be about what this person, rightly or wrongly, has come to “mean” and why it should be accepted or rejected).

Assignment 3: Synthesis (6-8 pages)


In the third essay, you will write about a topic that translates a substantial argument made by Dubois into contemporary contexts. This assignment requires you to

  • Develop a position about another cultural group whose identity is complicated by dominant and mainstream portrayals that may (or may not) produce “otherness,” “two-ness,” or a sense of “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

  • Synthesize material. You will connect the readings and the research materials that you collect by providing detailed commentary to explain the value of the comparisons and/or contrasts you make between sources and ideas. The sources and ideas should “talk” to each other, with each source contributing substantially to the discussion.

  • Refer to several different sources within one paragraph or section of the paper, integrating the documented material into your analysis thematically rather than relying on long block quotes. 

  • Organize a sustained argument.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, -- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (132). (Italics inserted for emphasis)
In this quotation, Du Bois expresses a problem at the turn of the century: that even while black people are “gifted” and offer a world of potential for American society and culture, their self-perception is often colored by the prevailing negative social definitions of the race, as many black people internalize a distorted view of “Negroes.” Thus, the “peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others . . .” (132).
Given that prevailing ideas about social, cultural, ethnic, racial or religious groups are often manufactured and sustained by media forms (art, literature, cinema, television, music, magazine, etc.), and often deeply internalized by members of that group, your job in this paper is to develop a position about the effects of popular portrayals of a social, cultural, ethnic, racial or religious group.
This is a synthesis paper, which means you could make some effort to survey a terrain of culture (say, “popular cinema” or “sitcom television” or “popular music”) while focusing on and analyzing one or two key examples from that arena to demonstrate your claims about the nature and consequences of a set of portrayals of this particular group. Or you could work across visual, textual and sonic forms to gather a set of similar portrayals of the group in question to help you formulate a claim about the effects of these representations on individuals and the group as a whole.
Consider locating, evaluating and mobilizing academic research sources on representations of your selected group in popular culture present and past.

Joan Morgan writes that “hip-hop is the mirror in which so many brothers see themselves,” and yet hip-hop provides, at best, a distorted mirror for black men (203). Reread W.E.B. Dubois’ description of “double-consciousness, this sense of looking at oneself through the eyes of others” (132) and write an essay that accounts for the double-consciousness that might occur in relation to some other identity group in America today. Depictions of other racial, ethnic, gender, religious, social or political identities may be considered. The point is to select a film, television show, song or album—or another form of popular representation—and diagnose the social impact of its explicit claims (or underlying assumptions) about the group represented. What stereotypes does it project? Does it produce a “double-consciousness” among individuals in the group? How does this process work? Is there a better or more accurate depiction of the group available for public consumption? Is there any way to change or improve the situation? This assignment again requires a minimum of two scholarly outside sources (which may include articles or commentary on the group in question, reviews or analysis of the representations selected, or arguments about the accuracy or inaccuracy of such representations, or analysis of historical and contemporary representations of the group in question).
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