English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Six-- Maturation

Countee Cullen

The fifth and sixth assignments in this course concern the difficult transition from child to adult.

This sixth assignment asks you to read three works that portray the traumatic effects of racism on young people as they are growing into adults.

Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was a didactic book, designed to promote the cause of abolition by focusing on the ways in which slavery in the South debased women and broke up families. Incidents, however, was forgotten after the outbreak of the Civil War and remained out of publication until the 1980s. Like all young women, Jacobs faces the difficult decisions that accompany sexual maturation, but her situation is terribly complicated by the institution of slavery. Jacobs portrays herself as a brave and competent individual who against overwhelming odds attempts to take some control of her own fate. Julie Adams of the University of Virginia created an excellent Harriet Jacobs site that includes biographical material as well as illustrations of slave life during Jacobs' day.

Countee Cullen as a child

Countee Cullen's short poem "Incident" adopts a simple, childlike voice, to relate a small but life-altering occurence that introduced the young narrator to the reality of racism. Paul Reubens maintains a useful site on Countee Cullen.

Richard Wright's story "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," set in the rural South during the 1930s, recounts young Dave Sanders' struggle to achieve manhood. Like Robin of "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" Dave experiences unexpected setbacks that almost seem comic at times. Unlike Robin, who may be considering staying in Boston at the end of "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux," Dave defiantly asserts his manhood at the end of "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" by leaving the world in which he feels belittled.

Richard Wright

James Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man" is the most terrifying story we are looking at this week. Published in 1965, the story is told from the viewpoint of Jesse, a racist Southern deputy sheriff during the civil rights unrest of the early 1960s. It is the only fiction in which Baldwin adopts the point of view of the white oppressor. As the story opens, Jesse is unable to make love to his wife and as he lies in bed next to her, he thinks about the ways he has learned "what it meant to be a man" Vol. II (p. 1336). In a final and vividly brutal flashback Jesse remembers being taken to a lynching by his father when he was eight years old. Thoughts of this event perversely restore Jesse's potency. The story underscores Baldwin's belief that white America used blacks as scapegoats for their own fears and inadequacies. In week fifteen we will read Claude McKay's poem "Lynching."

James Baldwin

updated: June 15, 2018