This paper is an introduction to the multigenre inquiry project: it is a synthesis of information and ideas that prompted the inquiry, and it reflects the nature and goals of the project. It includes connections to fiction and nonfiction texts besides Their Eyes Were Watching God that address the essential question, current and historical events that highlight the importance of the question, and contemporary research articles that address the question.
GENRE 1: At least one piece that orients your readers to the information and ideas of your inquiry and provides a synthesis of this information. This piece should take the form of a (minimum) 3-4 page essay and include connections to (1) other fiction and nonfiction texts that explore your question, (2) current and historical events that highlight the importance of the question, and (3) scholarly sources - including at least two research articles - that investigate the question.
Any number of groups can be considered “outsiders” in the United States. Undocumented students are often barred from studying at higher institutions of education (Lohr, 2012). LGBT youth face an increased risk of experiencing violence from their peers (United States, 2016). Transgender students in North Carolina recently dealt with a barrage of negative attention in response to the state’s bathroom controversy (Phillips, 2016). People with both visible and “invisible” (Gingold, 2015) disabilities struggle to be understood by often unaware able-bodied individuals. Conversations following the 2016 election alerted the nation to the perspectives of working-class white voters that claim to be excluded from the national conversation (Tankersley, 2016). While everyone has felt like an “outsider” or considered themselves to be one at some point in their lives, it is clear that, depending on the time period and region, some groups have been minoritized disproportionately and certain individuals have been ostracized unfairly in comparison to others. This project aims to explore, through a variety of creative genres, the question: What does it mean to be an “outsider” in society? By exploring what it means to be an “outsider” from the perspectives of people who feel they have been othered, as well as exploring their own experiences, students will develop a stronger understanding of those who are different from them as well as a comprehension of their own place in the dominant culture.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God provides apt historical context for this discussion, telling the fictional story of Janie Crawford, a black woman navigating relationships and establishing her own identity in the early 20th century (Hurston, 1937). Janie struggles with autonomy in abusive and patriarchal relationships and is told from a young age by her grandmother, “Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see” (Hurston, 1937, p. 14). She eventually finds herself in love with another “outsider,” a man named Tea Cake that locals find strange and unfortunate. The novel allows for historical analysis of the Jim Crow Era, the weaving of civil rights through 19th and 20th century American history, and the women’s rights movement, in addition to their connections to similar contemporary parallels: this decade’s conversations about sexual assault, police brutality and implicit bias, and environmental racism.
With race, gender and identity at the forefront of both historical and contemporary American conversations, the majority of American novels commonly taught in secondary schools run parallel to Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God thematically, providing a basis for which to explore “outsiders” in literature. The commonly taught To Kill a Mockingbird features many prominent “outsiders:” young Scout, the infamous Boo Radley, and the unjustly accused Tom Robinson (Lee, 1960). Fitzgerald’s (1925) The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway, the “outsider” through which the reader enters the dazzling jazz age New York City. Invisible Man explores blackness, whiteness, and personal identity during the mid-twentieth century, with a counterpart to Janie in the narrator (Ellison, 1952). The contemporary novel Americanah is written from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant to America, documenting her struggle with identity, pressures to assimilate, and her discovery of blackness in America (Adichie, 2013).
The poetry and autobiographies of Langston Hughes are also entryways, since Hughes worked with Hurston and knew her personally, offering a biographical reading of Hurston and the male perspective of a contemporary Harlem Renaissance writer (Hughes, 1940). Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech “The Destructive Male” might add an argumentative political element to the discussion of the dynamics of Janie’s relationships and her femininity (Noel, 2015). Other historical fiction and nonfiction sources, including popular African-American music of the Jazz Age and collected oral interviews could be visual and auditory supplements, adding other creative perspectives to the conversation. Contemporary fiction and nonfiction sources might be similar for the sake of comparison: modern music from people of Color and LGBT individuals and recent political and rally speeches (Black Lives Matter and MeToo).
The importance of using culturally relevant content in the classroom and engaging all students in conversations about dominant culture and their place in it has been supported by studies privileging the voices of oppressed peoples and their own experiences with education, as well as those centered on privileged dominant group members and their study of minoritized peoples.
An eighteen-month qualitative study by Borrero of a small sample of Native Hawaiian students sought to explore the “othering” of students inside and outside of school and their perceptions of stereotypes and racism, with the ultimate goal of giving students a safe space to express themselves. Students were interviewed by the research group and those interviews were cross-examined with existing interview data from school personnel. Observations from a researcher were used to determine the extent to which school culture perpetuated the othering of students or the empowering of students (Borrero, Yeh, Cruz, & Suda, 2012). Five significant themes emerged from the data: “multiple identities, stereotypes, racism, coping strategies for racism, and cultural pride” (Borrero, Yeh, Cruz, & Suda, 2012, p. 13). Students described their complex racial and ethnic identities yet personal attachment to their Hawaiian identity, told stories about anxiety-inducing situations involving language use and being perceived as token Hawaiians, and admitted to facing racism and daily microaggressions and explained how family and cultural pride helped to rebut such behavior. The researchers concluded that it is integral for educators to be aware of student identities. They stressed that “cultural strengths” (Borrero, Yeh, Cruz & Suda, 2012, pp. 27-29) can be enhanced through the study of history and connections to other Native Hawaiian students, and studying cultural assets instead of focusing solely on negative experiences that students of Color face can help to develop positive cultural identities and give students opportunities to use their voices.
Similarly, researcher Lee (2010) conducted a study using videotaped observation sessions of international speakers from a wide variety of countries working with rural middle school students to determine how to “Re-present” (p.738) various cultures. Students were generally aware of how those cultures are portrayed in the United States media and dominant culture and asked the international presenters questions about their cultures, largely based on stereotypes that they had gleaned from American media. For example, the students asked the Chinese speaker about overpopulation and eating dogs and cats, and they asked the Egyptian speaker about mummies and sphinxes. The presenters responded by teaching the students about the diversity in their home countries, separating myth from fact, and stressing the complexity of geography and culture. Lee (2010) concluded that the presenters were mostly frustrated by the student understanding of their cultures as “singular, unitary, and fixed,” but that the re-presentation of their cultures and the focus on “incoherence,” “elusiveness,” and “spaces of ambivalence and contradictory claims” was a productive and meanwhile effort (p. 751). Lee (2010) closed out her study by reminding readers that technology for cross-cultural exchange is developing rapidly and that the resulting educational implications are only in the early stages of their evolution.
In both of the examples above, students benefit from the exploration of the notion of “outsiders,” but for different reasons. The first study found that indigenous populations, largely outside the dominant culture, benefit from inclusion in the curriculum for their own personal development and maturation of a cultural identity. In the second study, focused on students inside the dominant culture, students with misunderstandings about individuals considered “outsiders” in United States culture were able to refine their understanding of cultures unfamiliar to them and develop their global awareness.
Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Borrero, N.E., Yeh, C.J., Cruz, C.I., & Suda, J.F. (2012). School as a context for “othering” youth and promoting cultural assets. Teachers College Record, 114(2), p. 1-37.
Ellison, R. (1952). The invisible man. New York, NY: Random House.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The great Gatsby. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Gingold, Naomi. (2015, March 8). People with “invisible disabilities” fight for understanding. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2015/03/08/391517412/people-with-invisible-disabilities-fight-for-understanding
Hughes, L. (1940). The big sea. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Hurston, Z. N. (1937.) Their eyes were watching God. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Lee, M. M. (2010). ‘We are so over pharaohs and pyramids!”: Re-presenting the othered lives with young people through an international studies program. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23(6), p. 737-754.
Lohr, K. (2012, October 26). Undocumented students take education underground. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2012/10/28/163717277/undocumented-students-take-education-underground
Noel, M.N. (2015). Analyzing famous speeches as arguments. ReadWriteThink. Retrieved from http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/analyzing-famous-speeches-arguments-30526.html?tab=1#tabs
Phillips, A. (2016, May 9). The legal fight over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, in 4 questions. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/05/09/the-legal-fight-over-north-carolinas-transgender-bathroom-law-explained-in-4-questions/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a7d5cb182e4d
Tankersley, Jim. (2016, November 9). How Trump won: The revenge of working-class whites. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/09/how-trump-won-the-revenge-of-working-class-whites/?utm_term=.ea6f6e3c8547
United States: LGBT students face discrimination. (2016, December 7). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/07/united-states-lgbt-students-face-discrimination