Assignments, discussion questions, a video for students
Coates describes what he calls "the Dream" on 116: "to grow rich and live in one of those disconnected houses out in the country, in one of those small communities, one of those cul-de-sacs with its gently curving ways, where they staged teen movies and children built treehouses, and that last lost year before college, teenagers made love in cars parked at the lake. The Dream seemed to be the end of the world for me, the height of American ambition. What more could possibly exist beyond the dispatches, beyond the suburbs?" List the pros and cons of the Dream. As an adult writer, Coates clearly no longer believes in this dream. Why?
The Freshman Year Reading/Common Reading Guide from Penguin Random House offers twenty wonderful questions by Rachael Hudak, Director, Prison Education Program at New York University. Sample: "Coates modeled the book's epistolary structure on James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which is also written as a series of letters. Why do you think Coates chose the epistolary form, rather than that of the traditional essay? Why do you think Coates wrote this book in the form of a letter to his son, specifically? How does the format affect your relationship to the text? Do you think this format might make some readers uncomfortable? How might black readers have a different experience reading this text than white readers?" And all that's just question #1. (At our campus, we're likely to expand on these questions; we will surely want to ask about the experience of readers who are neither Black nor white, for one example.)
A related essay is "The Misunderstood Ghost of James Baldwin" by Ismail Muhammad (Slate Book Review, Feb. 15, 2017), which argues that "critics have misconstrued [Baldwin's] influence on today's great black nonfiction writers" including Coates.
This four-minute video, Unequal Opportunity Race (2010), may help some students visualize elements of the "struggle" Coates describes in the book. You might also ask students to find out more about the African American Policy Forum, which produced the video. If they Google and stop with Wikipedia, ask them to find the organization's own website. What is the AAPF doing now? What else have they done?
Authors, musicians, movies, and songs in the book: opportunities for research
Epigraph: Richard Wright, "Between the World and Me." White Man, Listen!.
3 Sonia Sanchez, "Malcolm"
36 Malcolm X
37 Ice Cube
43 Saul Bellow; Tolstoy (and see also 56)
57 Wu-Tang Clan
61 Bad Boy; Biggie
73 Amiri Baraka, "Ka' Ba"
84 Mary Jane Girls
85 Frank Ski
93 Howl's Moving Castle
117 Ghostface Killah
123 Big Boi
133 James Baldwin
145 12 Years a Slave
149 Billie; Mobb Deep; Isley; Aretha; Dre
Quotes for discussion
29 "the universe was physical and its moral arc bent toward chaos and then concluded in a box." Coates here seems to be responding to a famous 19th-century quotation; find out more in this NPR story and decide what point you think he is making.
From Sharron Kollmeyer Gerfen, here are 12 questions students might use to guide successful close reading through p. 71 of the text.
Other works by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Speech: Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the book for the Zengerle Lecture at West Point. 27 April 2017. Auto-generated captions only--but they're close to adequate. His speech opens with his explanation of why he said "yes" to this speaking invitation while turning down so many others. The introduction (by a West Point faculty member) is quite good. Coates begins speaking at 6:00 minutes and ends at 30:35 or so; the rest is Q&A. At 43:00 he refers to the "guerrilla action" of Bree Newsome.
Interview: "Poetic Training: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Macbeth, Sonia Sanchez, and how poetry shaped him into the writer he is today." Ruth Graham. Poetry Foundation.
From Marvel Comics: the Black Panther series. Also, see this interview of Coates by Evan Narcisse: Ta-Nehisi Coates Explains How He's Turning Black Panther Into a Superhero Again. Gizmodo. 14 Sep. 2016.
Podcast: Ta-Nehisi Coates in Conversation with Robin D. G. Kelley. 26 Oct. 2015. ALOUD.
"We Have Been Curled Too Long." Atlantic Monthly. 10 Nov. 2010.
Works written by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.
Contemporary history (a.k.a. news), starting with a video
Video: Driving While Black (PhD Student Version) by Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Education, 16 Jan. 2017. The text is brief; the video and comments are longer. Complete text: " In 2015, Evanston, Ill., police suspected -- based on a call they received -- that Lawrence Crosby, a civil engineering Ph.D. student, was breaking into a car. It was his own car, but he said officers refused to let him offer proof of that fact, and multiple officers tackled him, while his hands were up. Crosby has sued, while the Evanston police have defended what happened. Last week, the department released recordings of the incident, and that has attracted more attention to the case and increased criticism of how Crosby was treated."
The killing of Jordan Edwards shows again how black males--even children--are viewed as a threat. Kurtis Lee. Los Angeles Times, 7 May 2017. The article places the April 29 shooting death of Jordan Edwards, 15, in context with several other shootings of Black youth by police, many also mentioned in Between the World and Me.
A "Forgotten History" Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America: highlights from an interview with author Richard Rothstein about his new book, The Color of Law (W. W. Norton 2017). Interview by Terry Gross (Fresh Air) for NPR. Sample:
In 1933, faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America's housing stock. Author Richard Rothstein says the housing programs begun under the New Deal were tantamount to a "state-sponsored system of segregation."
The government's efforts were "primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families," he says. African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects.
Resources from some of the other campuses that have chosen this book
More than two dozen colleges and universities have chosen this book. Here are selected resources from a few of them.
- Reading Resources: links to many of the other texts referenced in the book, as well as a U of O discussion guide, videos, and relevant contemporary history
- Teaching Resources: discussion questions, curriculum resources, and tools for effective discussions
- Coates in the Media
Highlights from Michael Neubauer's book discussion on March 6
Michael Neubauer (Mathematics and Liberal Studies) kicked off the spring discussion series on March 6 by engaging participants in an exchange of personal experiences relevant to the book. He talked about the book as having made a big and lasting impact on him. He also called our attention to an editorial cartoon (16 Sep. 2014) by Los Angeles Times artist David Horsey depicting "The American Dream Game." Here are two particularly interesting pieces of the discussion Michael initiated: (1) One participant suggested that the book offers a model of how to speak honestly to your child, and noted also that the book encourages readers to take action to un-do the Dream (of white privilege). (2) Responding to an inquiry by another participant about ways to make sure all faculty feel they have the right to teach this book if they wish to do so, the group noted that our students all have personal experiences that will make the book resonate with them. Faculty and staff should see this book as providing an opportunity for all readers to discuss their own identity. Faculty can facilitate classroom discussions raised by the book and can encourage students to speak their own minds. Finally, still another participant reminded the group that Coates himself reads the audio version of this book, which is widely available (including through the Los Angeles Public Library system).
Highlights from Sharron Kollmeyer Gerfen's book discussion on March 28
Sharron emphasized the first-person aspect of the book, a fact which (you might say) gives every reader permission to consider its meanings, as we all have personal experience as well. She noted that key themes touch upon family, education, career, fear, anger, individualism, grief, loss, happiness, joy, love, and stereotypes, among others.
She also talked about the book as an East Coast story with Midwest turns, centering on being black in America--which means having a relationship with the police.
her many handouts included a graphic from the Los Angeles Times (2/21/16) illustrating a startling statistic: "There have been more than 2,000 police shootings in six Southern California counties since 2004. Only one officer was prosecuted." This fact reminds us that the book's canvas is in fact quite large and certainly includes us.
Sharron launched our discussion with what I've now learned to call a "pre-reading quiz." I'll be posting it when I get it, if she permits me to do so. Its theme: "A few things to consider about your relationship between the world and you." She also shared "the library card" episode from Black Boy (1944), and a powerful excerpt from Claudia Rankine's book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).
When she taught the book, Sharron had her students write a letter to themselves as if it came from their father or an uncle (whoever is in that role). At the next class meeting, she asked them to write to their own son or daughter--or to someone in that role, about whom they care deeply.
Highlights from Tom Spencer-Walters's book discussion on March 29
Tom provided us with a handout encapsulating key issues to provoke discussion with students. He pointed out that teaching the book can be quite challenging: each class will have a range of demographics and experiences, as well as differing reactions to the issues surrounding race. He offered suggestions for working with students, and shared his research assignments.
For faculty teaching Stretch Composition, Tom noted that Coates is an exemplary of literary progressions: he treats writing as a process.
Tom recommends that faculty encourage students to see themselves as part of the human family--not just as individuals in a certain time or place.
Tom also offered some suggestions for supplemental reading:
- Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. This book takes the form of two letters written on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Coates models his book after it.
- Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man yWho Left Newark for the Ivy League. New York: Scribner, 2015.
- Roediger, David. Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
- Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. "The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates." The Daily Intelligencer, 12 July 2015.
Highlights from Renee Moreno's book discussion on April 6
Renee began by inviting us to consider how we might justify speaking for/about a book by an African-American when our own identity differs markedly. She recommends putting people side by side in the classroom, and recommended that in Stretch Composition classes in particular, we might share "The Color of Privilege," an essay by Chet Ellis, an African-American student who won a high school essay contest on the topic of "white privilege." Here's one news story about this essay: http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/04/05/white-privilege-hs-essay-contest-in-overwhelmingly-white-town-has-a-winner-hes-not-white/
Much of Renee's presentation focused on how she taught Between the World and Me to her Stretch 113A class in fall 2016. She suggested giving students access to the audio book, which Coates himself reads. She also provided her students with links to YouTube readings by poet Sekou Sundiata, and to the work of Peggy McIntosh on white privilege, including her 1989 essay "The Invisible Knapsack."
Additional recommended readings:
- Jelani Cobb, "What I Saw in Ferguson."
- Brad Evans, "The Violence of Forgetting."
- Cornel West, Coates vs. James Baldwin.
- James Baldwin, "A Talk to Teachers."
- Teen Vogue and MarieClaire: these magazines have recently offered articles on gaslighting, fake news, sex assaults, sex abuse, and male privlege.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations" and "My President Was Black." (Both are among his many essays for The Atlantic.)
Renee's approach centers on providing a broad range of materials into the classroom to provide opportunities for comparison and contrast.
Highlights from Raquel Kennon's book discussion on April 11
Raquel (a faculty member in the Africana Studies Department) provided a wonderful handout exploring social justice themes in the book.
The handout includes the following major sections (along with a poem and two audio clips):
- A list of key terms from the book
- An overview of the book’s reception and its relation to The Fire Next Time
- An extensive discussion of the Richard Wright poem Coates uses as the book’s epigraph, along with student discussion questions
- Key passages and issues relating to “Embodied Blackness—Portrait of Life in America as a Black Person”
- “The Mecca”: A love Letter to Howard University (and a way to get students to share songs that have shaped them the way Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album shaped Coates)
- Additional resources for “introducing students to the horrific history of racial violence in the United States”
Discussion included the comment from one participant that the book contributes to ongoing conversations about the “dark-skinned” body as “powerful, precious, and possible.”
After the session ended, Raquel answered a request from another participant by sharing what she described as “an informative and humorous countdown of the most popular Black male hairstyles from the Very Smart Brothas blog. The Caesar is pictured at the top and it is also the #1 timeless style for Black men (the sharper the lines around the edges, the better).
Raquel also explained in answer to another question that “the lyrics from the Big Boi quotation (p. 123) are from OutKast's ‘West Savannah’ song which was released in 1998 on their album ‘Aquemini.’ Outkast is a hip hop duo made up of Big Boi and Andre 3000. The song is basically a tribute to the city where he grew up and how he began selling drugs to support his family before starting his music career. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=W7WGmwiZlyA"