Writing White Privilege, Race, and Citizenship: Reading Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine and Walt Whitman
Intended Audience: High School Students
Overview: This lesson pairs texts in conversation to engage students in examining white privilege and supremacy, race and racism, and citizenship.
Scope and Sequence: The lesson begins with a shared writing exercise about, and discussion of, Toni Morrison’s short essay, “Mourning for Whiteness,” which was published in the November 21, 2016 issue of The New Yorker following the election. This text provides the foundation for exploring the ways in which both the recent election cycle, and the selection of the incoming administration, provide a critical and urgent opportunity to analyze white privilege and supremacy, race and racism, and citizenship.
Following both a close and creative reading of Morrison, students will then read and write about an excerpt from Angela Davis’s 2009 speech, “Democracy, Social Change, and Civil Engagement;” an excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; and selections from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Through a series of freewrites, students will create an archive of pieces that they can then use as the material for writing a poem, prose poem, or other creative piece of writing that reflects their personal and political experience of white privilege and supremacy, race and racism, and citizenship.
The lesson objectives are to:
- Process and reflect on the recent election from both personal and political perspectives, using literature by mainly women of color and one white male author to help students understand their pre- and post- election consciousness around race, privilege, and citizenship
- Annotate and close read pieces of literature by a range of classic and contemporary authors who explore themes of white privilege and supremacy, race and racism, and citizenship in their work and how these themes cross cultural, racial, and historical contexts
- Explore personal experiences of white privilege and supremacy; race, racial identity, racism and citizenship within structures such as school, media, politics, family and friendships
- Explore notions of citizenship that go beyond technical definitions
- Write a range of pieces, from freewriting to poems and prose poems and beyond, to capture student thinking on the election in relation to their own identity, culture, and politics
- Given the recent election, how do we begin to reflect on and process through our emotions and opinions about critical themes such as white privilege and supremacy; race, racial identity, and racism; and varying notions of the idea of citizenship?
- We started the year talking about citizenship and how authors explore this idea in literature. What are our thoughts on this theme post-election as opposed to what we thought pre-election? In what ways have we remained the same, shifted, and/or deepened our ideas and definitions?
- How might Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Claudia Rankine, and Walt Whitman provide us the language we need to understand power, privilege, and oppression in a post-election world?
DAY ONE: Toni Morrison’s “Mourning for Whiteness”
Throughout the class session (45-60 minutes), students will engage in a series of focused freewrites on Morrison’s “Mourning for Whiteness,” New Yorker, November 21, 2016. The following exercise is adapted from writing practices created by the Bard Writing and Thinking Institute at Bard College.
- Read the piece silently.
- Read the piece aloud popcorn style (without raising hands, one student at a time).
- Underline at least three moments that spoke to you or that resonate with you in some way; it can be a word, a line, a phrase, a sentence; number these moments 1, 2, and 3.
- Engage in a choral-style reading of the piece: ask one student to read the opening paragraph of the essay and her selection #1; followed by other students reading their #1; followed by the first student’s #2, and other students’ #2; and so on until everyone has read all three of their selected moments.
- The first student should then close the choral reading by reading aloud the final paragraph of the essay.
- Select one of the moments that you numbered or select a new line and write about that phrase, line, or sentence with these prompts in mind:
- What does this line mean to you?
- What might this line mean to Morrison?
- How does this line help us to reflect on the election?
- The teacher should then read aloud the essay again stopping at the end of each paragraph to hear student writing on the lines they selected. All students should read what they wrote. This is a read-aloud of the freewrites and not a discussion, so there should not be any cross-talk or dialogue at this time.
- At the close of the reading, students should then reflect on the following prompts:
- What do you understand now about this reading that you did not before?
- What did you hear your peers say that deepened your understanding of the reading or that surprised you, or that you agreed or disagreed with? Explain.
- How did this exercise help us to begin reflecting on white privilege and supremacy, race and racism, and citizenship in relation to the election?
- Large group discussion of the reading and writing.
Homework: Read selections from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Teachers can select any set of pages that reflects the kind of work on white privilege and supremacy; race and racism; and citizenship that they want to do with their students.
DAY TWO: Angela Davis and Claudia Rankine on Race and Citizenship
Students will begin class by reading the following excerpt from Angela Davis’s “Democracy, Social Change, and Civil Engagement,” from her book, The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues. This essay was originally delivered as a talk at Bryn Mawr College in February 2009 (The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues).
As we all know, the term “civil rights” refers to the rights of citizens, of all citizens, but because the very nature of citizenship in the United States has always been troubled by the refusal to grant citizenship to subordinate groups—indigenous people, African slaves, women of all racial and economic backgrounds—we tend to think of some people as model citizens, as archetypal citizens, those whose civil rights are never placed in question, the quintessential citizens, and others as having to wage struggles for the right to be regarded as citizens. And some—undocumented immigrants or “suspected” undocumented immigrants, along with ex-felons or “suspected” ex-felons—are beyond the reach of citizenship altogether. –Angela Davis, “Democracy, Social Change, and Civil Engagement,” Feb. 2, 2009.
- Ask a student to read aloud the passage.
- Select a phrase or sentence from this passage and write from this prompt:
- What does this line or phrase mean to you now post-election?
- How is “your” line or phrase or passage, as a whole, in conversation with yesterday’s reading of Morrison’s essay?
- How does the passage, as a whole, complicate, expand, or deepen your understanding of citizenship?
- Students should share and read aloud from these freewrites; this can be done as a whole group, pair-shares, or a combination.
- Then ask students to keep in mind these reflections as they transition to Rankine’s Citizen.
- Read aloud the selection.
- Select a phrase, sentence, or passage from the excerpt and write:
- Although we have not read the entire book, given the selected excerpt, why would Rankine have titled her work, Citizen? Write about a line or phrase in the excerpt that allows you to explore why.
- Sharing of freewrites.
- Large group discussion. How are these texts in conversation with each other?
Homework: Selections from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” sections 1, 2, 6, 16, 24 are suggested, but teachers can select any combination that suits the work they want to engage with students on notions of selfhood, democracy, diversity, and citizenship.
DAY THREE: Walt Whitman on Democracy, Diversity, and Citizenship
Students will have read sections 1, 2, 6, 16, 24 of “Song of Myself” for homework. Engage students in re-reading these sections aloud in class and with each section, conduct a close reading discussion, stopping to discuss the speaker’s voice, tone, imagery, and language. It will be important to discuss the dramatic situation of each section to highlight what the speaker explores in relation to selfhood, democracy, diversity, and citizenship.
After reading and discussing these sections, students should also connect Whitman’s poetry to the readings by Morrison, Davis, and Rankine.
- How are each of these writers complicating and deepening our notions of citizenship? Of democracy? Of power and privilege? Of systems of oppression? Of liberation and freedom?
DAYS 4-7: Song of Self Poetry Writing Project
For this project, students will create an original poem inspired by their collective reading and discussion of Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Claudia Rankine, and Walt Whitman. Given their anchoring of these discussions, in relation to white privilege and supremacy; race and racism; and citizenship, both pre- and post- election, students should use their freewrites and reflections on each of these writers as a springboard for examining their own notions of what it means to be a citizen and to shape these ideas into a poem.
For example, in his poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes about what he loves and what he hates, about his beliefs and his assumptions, about his personal experiences and the collective experiences of the nation. Most importantly, he seeks to explain and expose his true self to the reader: “Through me forbidden voices…voices veiled, and I remove the veil.” Students should be asked: What do you want to explore or “remove the veil” about yourself and your identity and your lived experience in both the pre- and post- election world? What do you hope to unveil as your truth as a “citizen” in your city and/or country? How can you do so through writing?
Teachers should use days 4-7 to help guide students in the shaping of their poem or other creative piece, either with further prompts and freewriting, or additional readings. These days should be used as individual conference days as well as time for in-class writing and shaping of their poems, prose poems, or other pieces. At the end, students will assemble and revise their writing into one cohesive piece and present their “Song of Self” to the class.
Davis, Angela. The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights, 2012.
_______. ““Democracy, Social Change, and Civil Engagement” — Angela Davis at Bryn Mawr College, February 2, 2009.” Black Independent Film – Spring 2014, Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr College, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
Morrison, Toni. “Mourning for Whiteness”or “Making America White Again.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 16, Nov. 2016. Web 07 Dec 2016.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass: Authoritative Texts, Prefaces, Whitman on His Art, Criticism (Norton Critical Edition). New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.
 Claudia Rankine, Citizen, (Graywolf, 2015).
 Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues (City Lights, 2012) and video,