Identity and society

I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.

Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.

But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings.  It’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.

To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.


  1. Good Morning. I asked my daughter to read this post before I commented. Her response to my response is/was ,”OH Yeah, tell him.”
    So, I shall. One human using perception chooses, with good intention, to assume that all others will share the same, or find such comparison of help in noting or correcting the percieved problem or experience. However, if that perception is skewed, and perhaps horribly, what will be passed on, learned, and shared will ONLY be the mistaken perception that the I is the same as the All.

    I submit the idea that identity must be worn or taken on like a profile is a huge part of the problem to begin with. Trying to staple folks into groups that due to this or that must behave or think in this or that way, extends racism, and for lack of better term cultural stupidity.

    In our house we tend to stick with, I like this and this, this is my experience, please share what interests you today, why, will you share it with me…and so on and so forth.

    Daughter just said, “Keep it simple Mom.” Any attempt to stereotype will be another stereotype.

    She also muttered about why must society stick with the outdated nonworking idea of identity (form of broken expectation) at all, and how do we stop doing it.

    1. Elisa, thank you. Your comment reminds me of one of my favorite writers, James Baldwin, who believes that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

  2. oh nuts i was also a ton more willing to read a thing that went along with thinking i already have, which for me can be a good thing, however it can also be from contempt prior to investigation and being closed minded.

    i’ll add the other books you suggested too, thanks for patience.

  3. The Devil Finds Work is, on its surface, an interconnected series of movie reviews. The book explores America’s relation to narrative and how our assumptions about race, gender, and identity are reflected in those narratives. It’s a remarkable piece of criticism.

  4. My library could not find this as stand alone, they sent The Library of America Collection that includes The Devil Finds Work. I cannot be sure it is the entire thing. I also just read White Racism or World Community. I want to send it to every member of Congress and to all working/residing in The White House.

    1. Elisa, I have the Library of America collection, and it has The Devil Finds Work in its entirety. I’ve read everything in that collection but the misc. essays in the back, and I hope to read them soon. So good . . .

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