Lesson Plan: Baldwin and Ellison

Lesson Plan: Baldwin and Ellison

By Liz Shulman

 In Ralph Ellison’s 1944 short story, “King of the Bingo Game,” a Black man plays bingo, trying to win the jackpot so that his sick wife, Laura, can see a doctor. Ellison’s protagonist is part of the Great Migration, having arrived from the south without a job or birth certificate. He has no name--a deliberate move by Ellison to show the alienation he feels as a Black man in America. “It was a sad, lost feeling to lose your name, and a crazy thing to do,” Ellison’s narrator says. “That name had been given him by the white man who had owned his grandfather a long time ago down South.” The man plummets into isolation as he feverishly spins the bingo wheel. The story’s central racial conflict echoes Ellison’s 1952 book, Invisible Man, which focuses on another unnamed Black man trying to navigate a white supremacist culture determined to silence him and rob him of his agency.

I teach Ellison’s story in my Senior English class at Evanston Township High School not only because it’s a great piece of literature, but also because it gets to issues of systemic racism that need to be discussed in public education classrooms, especially now.

When we first read Ellison’s story, students relate to having felt invisible and lonely at some point in their lives. Connecting to a character's experience is a way of increasing one’s empathy and compassion--that moment when something outside of you resonates with something inside of you. But relating to Ellison's story on a universal level is not enough. If I teach Ellison’s story without talking about the long history of structural racism in this country that contributes to the Black protagonist having no birth certificate or job, I’d be doing a dangerous disservice to my students and to Ellison’s work. Ultimately, I’d be universalizing Ellison’s story and upholding whiteness rather than talking about the character’s experience as a Black man in America.

As an educator, it’s my responsibility to teach about systemic racism when I teach critical thinking in my classroom. It means providing opportunities for students to analyze texts, form judgements, synthesize and evaluate information, to make personal connections to larger structures, to help students develop an awareness of how systems work--historically and currently--to perpetuate racism.

It is unfortunate that in our current political moment, some educators who talk about systemic and structural racism with their students have been accused of “having a political agenda,” or “teaching one side.” Of course, the truth is that politics has always permeated public schools, as it has everywhere. The pressure for educators to teach a “both sides equal” curriculum ignores the dominant standard that has long existed in education. Teaching about the pilgrims and the Mayflower, for instance, without talking about the experiences of the indigenous people who were already here might not seem political, because in the eyes of the dominant culture it is essentially a creation myth, seemingly wholly outside of politics. But learning about the lived experiences of the Native Americans who were stripped of their culture and livelihood is labeled political and one-sided. This kind of thinking just reinforces myths and falsehoods.

Rather than investigate the historical causes and effects of racist policies in the U.S., those who oppose such discussions about structural racism want educators to teach the myth of America’s creation, to uphold the “series of myths” James Baldwin wrote about in his 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers.” “What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors,” Baldwin asserted. If curricula in schools were changed “so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture,” he writes, “you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history.”

I teach Baldwin’s essay alongside Ellison’s short story. Students wince at Baldwin’s first sentence–which remains, sadly, both timely and timeless–though they are not surprised. “Let’s begin,” Baldwin wrote almost 60 years ago, “by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.”

Liz Shulman teaches English at Evanston Township High School and in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. 

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

 

 

 

 

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