Area Studies

THE FIRE NEXT TIME James Baldwin
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THE FIRE NEXT TIME

The Fire Next Time is a book about hate. The arc of these essays is about race, but more importantly, these essays are about hate and its destructive power. As first and second year students embark on their studies in these uncertain times, a lesson about the incendiary nature of hate will help anchor their emotions and attitudes about ideas they will encounter in their academic careers and their lives. There is always something to divide us, but here is a text that will help students understand why it is so important to aim for understanding.

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Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Thrift, ed.
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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is the story of humanity. One goal of the slave narrative was to assert the African’s humanity. Douglass’ narrative addresses the important question what it means to be human and who gets to decide that for anybody. This text is a way to get students talking not just about the history of slavery, but about the importance of education, and self-awareness.

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Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, Vintage International, New York
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Song of Solomon

Complex characters sit at the center of every Toni Morrison novel. She creates all her characters, these flawed and human people, the admirable and disreputable characters, with great empathy and love, and we as readers love them as well. She constructs the novel from a mixture of history, myth, spirituals and the supernatural that makes the writing deeply resonant. What is past is never past, as the ancestors are always present. In a Toni Morrison novel, understanding one’s ties to these ancestors and healing the traumas of the past brought into the present are integral to self-acceptance and moving forward.

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Aristophanes
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Lysistrata

This text raises very directly questions about the role of women in society, about the place of war, and about the role of sexual desire both in individual relationships and in relation to the state. Students are likely to sympathize strongly with the Lysistrata, who is far more than simply the leader of the sex strike. In her attempts to persuade the women to forgo sex (which, the play makes very clear, they enjoy as much as the men) and in her conversations with the magistrate, she reveals herself to be a talented leader and someone who has given serious thought to the proper administration of the state.

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Changes: A Love Story Ama Ata Aidoo
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Changes: A Love Story

This is a story about modern African women and their frustration at the status quo where women’s rights are concerned. At the heart of the story is Esi, an educated woman, unhappily married woman, and mother. Esi has a good job that provides the bungalow she and her husband Oko live in with their daughter. After Oko rapes Esi in a desperate attempt to remind her of her place, she divorces him and sends her child to live with his mother, essentially freeing herself from the traditional gender roles.

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Audre Lorde, Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Ed. Roxanne Gay. Norton, New York
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Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde praises, rages, turns a critical eye, desires. The poems are relentless in their observations of Black lives and loves. Lorde was a cultural observer who spoke passionately about the oppressive structures of race, gender, class and sexuality. She articulated the ways that, in the name of sameness, Black women’s experiences were devalued by white women and black men alike and how lesbian sexuality was threatening to both groups and could be used to silence her in both movements. In an interview with James Baldwin, she argued, “We need to acknowledge those power differences between us and see where they lead us. An enormous amount of energy is being taken up with either denying the power differences between Black men and women or fighting over power differences between Black men and women or killing each other off behind them.”

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Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Vintage Books, New York
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Sappho

Using Sappho is a way to bring into the classroom themes around beauty, longing, loss and subjectivity. There are a number of ways to approach this text. One way would be to situate students in the middle of the fragmentation and rupture within the poems, as described above, in order to think through the jagged and jarring structure of the text, the ways of not knowing who a speaker is, and the silences that are in many ways louder than the actual words on the page.

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Emily Dickinson selected poems
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Dickinson Selected Poems

In her imagery and in her diction, Dickinson captures the questioning nature of the human experience in her poetry. She grapples with questions of love, death, and eternity in a brutally honest way. Her poems appear to be incredibly straightforward, but there are multiple layers of meaning, and possible interpretations. The struggle and desire of a person trying to make sense of her place in the universe is palpable on the pages of Dickinson’s poetry. The poems are transformative because she captures beautifully, perfectly, and deceptively simply, the range of human emotion and wonder in her poetry.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)
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Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is an epic feminist manifesto. But it also appeals to anyone who is in search of who they are. In this era of the “authentic self” this novel is a virtual user’s manual for that very thing. Men and women will connect to Janie’s quest for authentic self and for the ability to make her own choices.

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Dubliners, Vintage Classics, New York
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Dubliners

These stories can introduce students to the Joycean epiphany, the moment at the end of the stories when a profound truth gets revealed to the characters. At the end of “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy “felt that he was alone.” The boy in “Araby” says, “I saw myself a creature driven and derided by vanity.” The boy’s realization is not so different from Jimmy Doyle’s realization of his “folly” at the end of “After the Race,” Little Chandler’s shame and remorse at the end of “A Little Cloud” as he sees the hatred in his wife’s eyes and understands his ineptitude in the domestic life he has chosen over his art, or even Gabriel Conroy’s in “The Dead” seeing himself as “a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous wellmeaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

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Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals
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Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Kant is notoriously difficult to read and, although it was intended for a more general audience than some of his other works, the Grounding is no exception. Still, the overall goal – to find one, single principle that can be a key to deciding questions of morality – is one that students find relatable. Who hasn’t struggled to find clarity, or wished for a principle about which we could all agree, when considering issues of right and wrong?

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Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Thrift Edition
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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

“Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl” addresses the particular issues of being a woman and a slave. Few slave narratives focus on these specific details. Jacobs is writing early Black feminism and bringing the question of Black female empowerment into the feminist conversation that won’t really accept it for quite some time.

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Mama Day Gloria Naylor
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Mama Day

Mama Day explores the concept of home in multiple ways, and in ways that the reader may not be expecting. This novel unlocks the way we think about home, and then forces us to transcend those beliefs. It is also a novel about faith and the life-altering effects faith of any kind can have on our lives. This novel makes readers question the very definition of faith and what true faith can accomplish.

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“Sonny’s Blues” is also included in Baldwin’s story collection Going to Meet the Man, Vintage International, New York
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Sonny’s Blues

The emotional lives of these characters is the story’s most immediate concern and the text takes seriously the question of how we endure loss. As well, it is impossible to understand these characters fully without understanding the racial context of their lives. They grew up in Harlem, and they, as the narrator observes of his high school students, “were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (328). The suffering that the narrator and Sonny endure is individual as well as generational.

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Fences August Wilson
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Fences

Fences is a book about inevitability of change and adaptability. It’s about the choices we make when faced with the inevitable. But Troy is also a man in progress. His failings are human failings. It is a play about the enduring promise of family.

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Packer, ZZ. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Riverhead Books. 2003
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Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

It is impossible to come away from these stories not realizing the trauma of growing up black and female in Packer’s world. The stories resonate with the complexities of race, gender, and class and the way Packer’s characters must maneuver each one with stealth and grace and sometimes violence. Packer provides an unflinching perspective on the many ways there are to be a black woman, from girlhood to adulthood.

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Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
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Pride and Prejudice

There are many timeless questions addressed in this text. Part of the human experience is learning how to read the world around you, and to make decisions about relationships. Who is truthful, who is deceitful? Who is good, who is dangerous? Who is supportive, who is threatening? These decisions, in modern society, are also key when making decisions about love and marriage. In our lives, we all must confront our pride and our prejudice at some point and learn to see people for who they are.

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Salvage the Bones Jesmyn Ward
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Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is one of those texts that force the reader to see the world on the other side of their comfort zone. Esch is unflinching in her observations, forcing the reader to go along with whatever she shows them, and daring the reader to pass judgment. It is impossible to come away from this story not understanding that the world is a complex environment.

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Lincoln-Douglas Debate 7
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Lincoln Douglas Debate 7

Lincoln-Douglas Debate 7 highlights the problems that confronted American society on the eve of the Civil War. By 1858, issues over slavery, both the immorality of the institution as well as its possible expansion, had polarized the United States. The debates highlighted a major problem with American democracy. How can a society consider itself a democracy when a portion of it cannot be treated like human beings?

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Things Fall Apart_Achebe, Chinua
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Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a man among men. Raised by a “weak” father, he is determined to undo the legacy of laziness his father left behind. Okonkwo works hard, has the best farm in the land, many wives and multiple children. He is, according to his village, a successful man. He is also one of the most feared men. His prowess on the battlefield is no less impressive. When he accidentally kills the son of a village elder, he is banished to the land of his mother for seven years. When he returns to his village, everything has changed. The colonialists have arrived and everything he knows about manhood and what it means to be a leader has changed. On one hand, he is angered and embarrassed by his village’s refusal to fight the colonial forces; on the other he is subject to the indignities of their rule on a daily basis. Ultimately he takes his own life.

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gloria anzaldúa borderlands
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Borderlands / La Frontera

This can be an intimidating text, especially for the non-Spanish speaker. Ask students to observe how they respond to the shift between Spanish and English throughout the text. Anzaldúa’s flow between languages is more than code switching. It is an enactment of mestiza consciousness. The same is true for the flow between genres in the text. Some students will feel empowered by Anzaldúa’s flow between languages and genres. Other students will feel they are missing something by not being able to interpret the Spanish sections. Other students may have a response to Anzaldúa’s counter narrative to U.S. narratives of exceptionalism, heroism, freedom, opportunity, and individualism.

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Frankenstein- Or the Modern Prometheus Mary Shelley
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Frankenstein

Few students will not encounter Frankenstein without some preconceptions, as the character of the creature (if not the story itself) is ubiquitous. But popular culture versions of the story often exaggerate the monstrosity of the creature and minimize or even ignore Victor’s abandonment and renouncement of the creature and his responsibilities toward his own creation.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
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Letter From a Birmingham Jail

In addition to its transformative impact on the civil rights movement, King’s speech also grapples with a timeless human question: is it just to disobey an unjust law? How do you overcome and end oppression? What in fact is the difference between a just and an unjust law? Is it wrong to fight for what is right if you know it will lead to violence?

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mary wollstonecraft a vindication of the rights of woman
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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In A Vindication, Wollstonecraft asks questions that are part of the human experience. How does who I am affect how I am viewed in the world in which I live? What has shaped others’ understanding of who I am? What are the assumptions, biases, misconceptions that impact how the world sees me? Wollstonecraft’s text examines the repeating social patterns that have led to the belief that women do not possess reason and that their singular purpose and potential is to be attractive and beautiful.

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