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Critical Essay #1
This page includes the assignment sheet for the first critical essay. My goal is to make this page as useful to you as possible, so let me know if it can be improved. If anything is badly worded, unclear, or missing, please contact me with constructive criticisms and suggestions. Thanks.
Due: no later than 5 pm on Monday, September 29, 2003, either in my mailbox in the English department main office (Fenton 277), or in the envelope on the bulletin board outside my office door (Fenton 240).
Format: 4-6 pages, double spaced, with reasonable fonts, font sizes, and margins (be warned that barely getting on to the fourth sheet of paper does not a four-page paper make!); title that indicates main argument of paper; heading that includes your name, the course name or number, and the date; format, bibliography, and citations in MLA style (see the links page for explanations and examples of MLA style; the basic template is Author. "Title of Poem, or Essay, or Story." Title of Book from which It Comes. Editor of Book (if any), ed. Place of Publication: Publisher, Date of Publication. Page Numbers.); proper quotation format in body of paper: "..." (Franklin 12). for quotations within a paragraph; blockquote format for quotations five lines or longer.
Options: Here are your options for the first critical essay. In each of these options, your job is to come up with an argument that you are trying to support by using textual evidence to persuade your readers of your interpretation's validity. You will not have the option of choosing your own topic/question for this essay, as you will for future essays; instead, you must choose one of the following topics and use at least one of the works we've read thus far in the semester in developing your response to it.
- Consider the works we've read that involve the production of personae--the creation of an "I" that is representative in some way or form of a larger group--from the dramatic monologues among the poetry we read to the autobiographical works of Douglass and Wright. Compare and contrast how and to what ends two different authors construct different personae. Your job for this option is to craft an argument about what's at stake in the creation of representative "I"s, drawing on evidence from your readings of the two works.
- Consider the representations of rural life in Douglass's slave narrative and Wright's autobiography. Note similarities and differences in their perspectives on the influence oppressive structures (slavery, segregation) have on them and on those they know. Your job for this option is to generate an argument that analyzes what's at stake in similarities and differences in Douglass's and Wright's conceptions of the impact of rural life on African American people and culture.
- Consider the relations between the 1899-1903 and the 1922-1937 uses of the vernacular in the fiction and poetry we have read thus far in the semester--between poems and stories written before Johnson's famous preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry and those written after it. Choose two writers--one from each period--and analyze their uses of dialect in light of Johnson's arguments. How is the later writer using dialect differently from the earlier writer, and to what ends? You may instead choose to contrast a specific use of dialect with a poem or story that does not draw explicitly on the vernacular, so long as your main argument about the significance or stakes of the contrasts you observe is truly argue-able (non-obvious, non-trivial, yet not impossible to support, either).
- Consider the anti-slavery literature we have read thus far in the semester--Douglass's slave narrative, and Wheatley's and Harper's poetry, among other works available in the Norton anthology. Your job if you choose this option is to craft an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences you note between any two works. You might choose to focus your argument on (a) the authors' intentions and goals, (b) the likely effect on the audience at the time of the works' publication, or (c) the effectiveness of the literary devices or narrative strategies for helping the authors achieve their goals.
- Choose at least one of the various anti-lynching poems we read in the course and analyze its structure, its imagery, its sound, the way it addresses the reader, the kind of reading experience(s) it offers, and so on. Then craft an argument that uses evidence from your close reading to support a claim about either (a) the author's intentions and goals, (b) the likely effect on the audience at the time of the poem's publication, or (c) the effectiveness of the poetic devices for helping the author achieve his or her goals. If you choose more than one poem, then your job is to craft an argument about the significance of the formal/structural similarities and differences you note between the poems that draws on one of the above three modes of analysis. You may instead choose to contrast a lynching poem with a work in another genre, such as Wright's autobiography or Wells's journalism. If you choose this option, then your job is to focus on the significance/stakes of genre instead of form.
- Consider the various motivations for migration presented in the literature we have read thus far in the course--Douglass's slave narrative, Brown's migration-themed poems, the anti-lynching poems, Wright's autobiography, and others. Your job for this option is to choose any two works and craft an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences you note between them in terms of the understanding they each provide of the reasons for migration. What is at stake in different explanations for migration?
- Consider the central ambivalence toward the country in African American literature: on the one hand, it is often represented as the key repository of tradition, culture, and community, while on the other hand it is often represented as a site of intense violence, exploitation, and oppression (or as stagnant, primitive, and isolated). What are we to make of this ambivalence toward the country in African American literature and culture? View one of the following films (available either through the Black Student Union or through Blockbuster): Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1992, 113 min.); Black Is...Black Ain't (Marlon Riggs, 1995, 87 min.); Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998, 178 min.); Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, 1998, 111 min.). As you watch the film, compare its representation of the country or of rural life with one of the literary works we've read in the "country" unit, compare how the film and the literary work comment on, subvert, or transform stereotypical images of or narratives about country life, and compare how the film and the literary work reflect upon the relation of the country to the city, the nation, or the world. In sum, your job when brainstorming for this option is to compare and contrast how the film and the literary work negotiate the ambivalence toward the country in African American culture.
Your task for the paper itself is to generate an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences you note between the film and the literary work's ways of dealing with this ambivalence. For instance, you might argue that a given film is trying to correct an overly negative view of country life provided by an earlier literary work, or that a particular literary work presents a useful corrective to an overly romanticized view of the country in a recent African American film, or that taken together a work and a film do valuable work in bringing out complexities that simplified, stereotypical narratives flatten out (Down in the Delta vs. Black Boy are likely candidates for analysis on this topic). The possibilities are endless, so long as your main argument is truly argue-able (non-obvious, non-trivial, yet not impossible to support, either).
M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
ENGL 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Fall 2003
Created: 9/18/03 1:50 pm
Last modified: 9/18/03 1:50 pm