When it comes to short stories in my classroom, I try to make sure that all types of voices are represented. Gone are the days of only reading the words of old white males, and with these ten dynamic stories by black authors, my students get a chance to broaden their perspectives. From gender roles to inequality, and everything in between, these themed stories help us to tackle tricky, larger-than-life questions from a fictional springboard.
“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Sweat” is a story of a woman named Delia who is forced to wash clothes and work her fingers to the bone, all while her husband Sykes doesn’t even hold down a job, but instead spends his time being abusive towards her. The people in the town know he is having an affair, but everyone seems powerless to help Delia. She gets the last laugh though, when Syke’s plan to scare her with a snake backfires and he ends up dead, a victim of the snake he himself brought into the house.
This story is a good one to spark discussion about gender roles and issues of abuse that occur even today. My students also love the challenge of the southern dialect and the way the ironic suspense builds throughout the story. More than one of my more confident young women cheer when the snake goes after Sykes at the end of the story and Delia sits down to relax and does nothing to save her husband.
“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
The character Mama tells this story in first person, narrating the differences between her shy younger daughter who along with herself wants to adhere to traditional African American traditions, and her older daughter who wants to break out of the mold. Maggie, the younger daughter, learns how to make a quilt in the culture of her ancestors, while her more worldly sister Dee simply hangs her quilt upon the wall as she goes through her life, changing her name to an African name and marrying a Muslim man. The tension between the sisters is palpable throughout the story, and highlights the struggles many young blacks have in shaping their own identities.
I use this “everyday” story to talk about some not so everyday topics in my classroom, such as roles and expectations and how students might create their own identities even in the midst of an established system. For young people, this issue goes beyond black and white, but every young person struggles against the “establishment” at one time or another. This story also highlights the relationships between parents and children, something that all students can relate to.
“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara
One of Bambara’s most accessible and popular stories, this story follows a young girl Sylvia and the kids in her neighborhood who are taken on a cab ride to explore the city by their neighbor Miss Moore who is trying to teach them a lesson. Set in New York City, the children end up on Fifth Avenue, where they are mesmerized by outlandishly priced trinkets along with expensive school supplies that they have never even seen. The kids end up talking about money and who has it and who doesn’t. By the end of the story, Sylvia vows to fight for herself, despite the fact that she is not as well off as many people she has seen.
This story is an obvious springboard to talk about inequality. The young characters in the story have so much trouble understanding why the items cost so much money, and realize just how little money they themselves have. The lessons from Miss Moore resonate with Sylvia, and this is also a good way to have my students write about adults who are influential in their own lives.
“The Man Who Was Almost a Man” by Richard Wright
Dave Saunders is a 17 year old field hand who wants to be a man. One day he buys a gun, convinced that he can impress his fellow workers with it. But instead of making him into a man, he accidentally shoots the gun and kills the farm’s mule, and lies to try to cover it up. He is humiliated when his lie is found out, by both his family and the town. In a move the reader doesn’t see coming, Saunders decides to jump on a train at the very end of the story with only the gun in his pocket, in order to go find a place to be a man.
This story is an excellent starting point for talking about what makes someone a man (or woman), and the underlying race and class issues also lead students to talk about these topics in modern times. On a more basic level, the theme also encapsulates student decision-making tactics, and how one choice (whether made with forethought or in a split second) can have long-lasting ramifications.
“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
At first glance, this story is filled with suffering and is difficult to read. As the plot begins, a teacher reads about his younger brother jailed for drugs, and basically ignores the news until his own daughter dies. In the ensuing pages, he tries to make peace with his past, ending up in a nightclub listening to Sonny playing music and making peace with his suffering. With a backdrop of blues, this story tackles the big issues of family, equality, drug use, and decision-making.
Students love linking their own versions of being misunderstood to our reading of this story, and it is also a great time to show them how actions have consequences. Baldwin is a masterful storyteller, and the way he crafts his sentences makes for great discussion and a chance to emulate his style. This story can only be described as intense, but my students love the intricacies and the message.
“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison
This is the story of Twyla and Roberta, two girls who are different races and end up living in a shelter together because their mothers can’t take care of them. After a rocky start, the story follows them as they continue to encounter each other throughout their lives. These meetings range from the grocery store to the picket line to a coffee shop, and they have varying degrees of misunderstandings as the story progresses.
One element that blows my students minds is that depending on the reader, literary analysts are divided on which character is which race. Some think that Twyla is the black character and some think Twyla is the white character. This opens up a world of discussion about race relations, stereotypes, and even feminist issues in my classroom. Students also enjoy the backstory on the episodic nature of the presentation of characters, which comes from French opera!
“Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison
“Live with your head in the lion’s mouth” are the dying words of the main character’s grandfather, and the story revolves around him trying to heed these words. Set in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, the story follows the struggles in racial inequality of the “invisible man,” the unnamed main character who represents all blacks. Filled with symbolism and a strong connection to jazz, Ellison highlights the copious struggles that plague black people in order for them to survive.
Although this is an easy story to understand, it can be difficult to teach because it highlights inequalities in race that still exist today. That being said, it is an excellent basis for a frank discussion and personal insights from students. Since jazz music (and especially the jazz of Harlem,) is such an integral part of the story, we also love to study the jazz of the time, and this investigation makes for a great, uplifting side project while we read this story.
“Scapegoat” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Mr. Robinson Asbury lives in Cadger and is an African American lawyer ahead of his time, who is also extremely clever. Befriending the white judge, he is a figurehead in the town. Unfortunately, Asbury falls prey to rival African American lawyers, who use their camaraderie and political dishonesty to place the blame for some corruption in the city on Asbury. He is exiled for a year and upon his return he uses his shrewd nature to enact some revenge.
This story brings up so many talking points about loyalty, revenge, political corruption, and nepotism in my classroom. The power structure of the town in regards to race is also impactful and has been an avenue of great debate for my students. We often do a mock trial to see if Davis will convict Asbury for political corruption like he does in the story.
“Feet Live Their Own Life” Langston Hughes
Simple is a man who is wise beyond his years, and talks as though he has the weight of the world on his shoulders…I mean feet! The story is his first person account about his life story, and how it should be focused on his feet, which have walked thousands of miles, worn out hundreds of pairs of shoes, and even broken out a Harlem window in a riot. Race and inequality issues take a front seat as Simple talks about the wear and tear on his feet, and all that he has been through.
Point of view is a major element of this story, and my students enjoy discussing the plot from the point of view of Simple’s feet. This leads to some lively discussion and also the chance to write from an alternative point of view in my classroom. Students love to take on the voice of the pencil sharpener or the garbage can or a book on the bookshelf.
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid
As the shortest story on the list, “Girl” reads like a letter from a mother to her daughter. The list of do’s and don’ts is long, and covers everything from how to grow okra, to how to iron, to how to treat a man. It also highlights the ways a “young lady” should act in the society in which they live. The mother in the story comes off as overbearing and forceful, as she teaches her daughter what to do in a variety of circumstances.
My students love the freedom of reading this story, as it does not follow the traditional punctuation rules and allows us to play with punctuation ourselves in our own writing. The title is also very important, as it plays on the nature of the oppressive mother talking down to her girl. This leads to great discussions on parents and children, and how much control parents should have over their children’s lives.