Unit 1 Reflection Paper, Topics:

Select one of the following essay topics as your subject, and write a reflection paper of approximately 500 words.

Submit your paper to the Unit 1 Reflection Paper drop box by 11:59 p.m. Sunday, September 22.


Topic 1:  Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man

Ellison begins his novel:  “I am an invisible man” (p. 3).  Charles Johnson articulates the profound significance of this statement:

“And, as if this were not enough, Ellison gave our age a new metaphor for social alienation.  His definition of ‘invisibility’ is so common now, so much a part of the culture and language—like a coin handled by billions—that it is automatically invoked when we talk about the situation of American blacks, and for any social group we willingly refuse to see” (p. vii – viii).

Reflect on Ellison’s Prologue, and address one or more of the following questions:

How does this concept of human “invisibility” resonate for you in your own life experience?  Have you been on one side or the other of this sort of experience?  Have you been on both sides?  Does Ellison’s narrator provide a new insight for you personally?  Does the recording by Louis Armstrong amplify or reinforce the tenor of Ellison’s narrator?  Do the song’s words establish further connections?

Does the matter of the narrator’s “invisibility” raise additional questions, such as:  What about gender?  What about women?  What about black women?  Are there possibly “layers” of “invisibility,” based on prevailing categories of social dismissal?

How does the issue of social justice relate to the phenomenon of human “invisibility”?


Topic 2:  Michelle Alexander and The New Jim Crow

Consider the following elements of the argument Michelle Alexander presents in the book’s introduction:

“Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal.  As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.  We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (p. 2).

“Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, [people who have been incarcerated] are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy.  They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits–much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era” (p. 4).

“These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime.  Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates” (p. 7).

“Michael Tonry explains in Thinking about Crime: ‘Governments decide how much punishment they want, and these decisions are in no simple way related to crime rates.’  This fact, he points out, can be seen most clearly by putting crime and punishment in comparative perspective.  Although crime rates in the United States have not been markedly higher than those of other Western countries, the rate of incarceration has soared in the United States while it has remained stable or declined in other countries” (p. 7).

“The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.  And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race” (p. 8).

Consider one or more of the following questions, and elaborate:

Is Alexander’s argument new to you?  Do you feel that you need to know more about the subject?  At the outset, are you inclined to see the possible validity of her argument?  Are you skeptical?  Do her assertions cause you concern about our society? 


Topic 3:  David Walker and Walker’s Appeal

Consider one or more of the following passages:

“I saw a paragraph, a few years since, in a South Carolina paper, which, speaking of the barbarity of the Turks, it said: “The Turks are the most barbarous people in the world–they treat the Greeks more like brutes than human beings.” And in the same paper was an advertisement, which said: “Eight well built Virginia and Maryland Negro fellows and four wenches will positively be sold this day, to the highest bidder!” And what astonished me still more was, to see in this same humane paper! ! the cuts of three men, with clubs and budgets on their backs, and an advertisement offering a considerable sum of money for their apprehension and delivery. I declare, it is really so amusing to hear the Southerners and Westerners of this country talk about barbarity, that it is positively, enough to make a man smile” (p. 15).

“But we will leave the whites or Europeans as heathens, and take a view of them as Christians, in which capacity we see them as cruel, if not more so than ever. In fact, take them as a body, they are ten times more cruel, avaricious and unmerciful than ever they were; for while they were heathens, they were bad enough it is true, but it is positively a fact that they were not quite so audacious as to go and take vessel loads of men, women and children, and in cold blood, and through devilishness, throw them into the sea, and murder them in all kind of ways. While they were heathens, they were too ignorant for such barbarity. But being Christians, enlightened and sensible, they are completely prepared for such hellish cruelties” (pp. 20 – 21).

“For my own part, I am glad Mr. Jefferson has advanced his positions for your sake; for you will either have to contradict or confirm him by your own actions, and not by what our friends have said or done for us; for those things are other men’s labours, and do not satisfy the Americans, who are waiting for us to prove to them ourselves, that we are MEN, before they will be willing to admit the fact; for I pledge you my sacred word of honour, that Mr. Jefferson’s remarks respecting us, have sunk deep into the hearts of millions of the whites, and never will be removed this side of eternity.–For how can they, when we are confirming him every day, by our groveling submissions and treachery? I aver, that when I look over these United States of America, and the world, and see the ignorant deceptions and consequent wretchedness of my brethren, I am brought oftimes solemnly to a stand, and in the midst of my reflections I exclaim to my God, “Lord didst thou make us to be slaves to our brethren, the whites?” But when I reflect that God is just, and that millions of my wretched brethren would meet death with glory–yea, more, would plunge into the very mouths of cannons and be torn into particles as minute as the atoms which compose the elements of the earth, in preference to a mean submission to the lash of tyrants, I am with streaming eyes, compelled to shrink back into nothingness before my Maker, and exclaim again, thy will be done, O Lord God Almighty” (pp. 32 – 33).

“Do any of you say that you and your family are free and happy, and what have you to do with the wretched slaves and other people? So can I say, for I enjoy as much freedom as any of you, if I am not quite as well off as the best of you. Look into our freedom and happiness, and see of what kind they are composed!! They are of the very lowest kind–they are the very dregs!–they are the most servile and abject kind, that ever a people was in possession of! If any of you wish to know how FREE you are, let one of you start and go through the southern and western States of this country, and unless you travel as a slave to a white man (a servant is a slave to the man whom he serves) or have your free papers, (which if you are not careful they will get from you) if they do not take you up and put you in jail, and if you cannot give good evidence of your freedom, sell you into eternal slavery, I am not a living man: or any man of colour, immaterial who he is, or where he came from, if he is not the fourth from the negro race!! (as we are called) the white Christians of America will serve him the same they will sink him into wretchedness and degradation for ever while he lives. And yet some of you have the hardihood to say that you are free and happy! May God have mercy on your freedom and happiness!!” (pp. 33 – 34).

Consider one or more of the following questions, and elaborate:

David Walker was writing nearly 200 years ago.  How do you respond personally to his Appeal?  Do you think he balances passion and reason?  Does his Christian faith inform your response to him?  Do his questions about the nature of “freedom” among African Americans 200 years ago still resonate in ways today?


Topic 4:  Frederick Douglass and Narrative of the Life

Consider the following passage:

“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them” (Narrative of the Life, p. 14).

Consider one or more of the following questions, and elaborate:

How does Douglass’ description of slave songs compare to your reaction to the prison work song, “Berta, Berta”?  How do some of the early rural blues songs we’ve heard relate to Douglass’ description of slave songs, or to the sound of “Berta, Berta”?  What similarities or differences do you hear between them?


Topic 5:  Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects and Miscellaneous Writings

Consider one or more of the following passages:

“Let sorrow breathe in every tone,
In every strain ye raise;
Insult not God’s majestic throne
With th’ mockery of praise.
A ‘reverend’ man, whose light should be
The guide of age and youth,
Brings to the shrine of Slavery
The sacrifice of truth!”  (Bible Defence of Slavery)

“Having been placed by a dominant race in circumstances over which we have had no control, we have been the butt of ridicule and the mark of oppression.  Identified with a people over whom weary ages of degradation have passed, whatever concerns them, as a race, concerns me” (“The Colored People in America”).

“Well, I have gazed for the first time upon Free Land! And would you believe it, tears sprang to my eyes, and I wept. Oh! it was a glorious sight to gaze for the first time on a land where a poor slave, flying from our glorious land of liberty (!), would in a moment find his fetters broken, his shackles loosed, and whatever he was in the land of Washington, beneath the shadow of Bunker Hill Monument, or even Plymouth Rock, here he becomes ‘a man and a brother.’
“I had gazed on Harper’s Ferry, or rather the Rock at the Ferry, towering up in simple grandeur with the gentle Potomac gliding peacefully by its feet, and felt that that was God’s Masonry; and my soul had expanded in gazing on its sublimity. I had seen the Ocean, singing its wild chorus of sounding waves, and ecstacy had thrilled upon the living chords of my heart. I have since then seen the rainbow-crowned Niagara, girdled with grandeur, and robed with glory, chanting the choral hymn of Omnipotence, but none of the sights have melted me as the first sight of Free Land” (“Breathing the Air of Freedom”).

Consider one or more of the following questions, and elaborate:

In Harper’s poem (Bible Defence of Slavery), do you sense more than sorrow?  What other emotions are evident?  How do you interpret the content of her words?

Do you find even Harper’s prose to be poetic?  What themes do you glean from her writing?  How do her words affect you?


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