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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Search for Identity – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How do minority writers distinguish their communities’ values from “mainstream” values?
  • What can writers’ descriptions of physical spaces, including cities, workplaces, and houses, tell us about American life in the twentieth century?
  • How do Americans use public and private memorials, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the quilts in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” to define themselves?
  • What literary strategies are commonly used in postmodern texts?
  • How are the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the queer rights movement reflected in literature?
  • How has the American family changed with the advent of the women’s liberation movement? How might authors both mourn the passing of traditional ways and celebrate new developments in society?
  • How do the writers in this unit use and/or adapt strategies or stylistic devices of various oral traditions, including the Native American and Mexican American oral storytelling traditions?
  • What does it mean to be a “radical” writer?
  • How do writers incorporate specific historical events, such as wars or scientific advances, into their texts?
  • How have authors used techniques of collage in their writings, and how do these techniques echo other artistic movements?
  • How do postmodern narratives adapt earlier literary forms? How and why do they borrow from or reject these earlier forms?
  • How do authors use “storytelling” to transmit ideas to their readers?
  • How have women writers revised the myth of the “self-made man”?
  • How do writers use characters’ belongings, homes, and careers as symbols of both heritage and values?
  • How do writers educate readers about social injustice?
  • A bildungsroman tells the story of a character’s journey, often from innocence to experience (or childhood to adulthood). How do the Unit 16 writers adapt the bildungsroman to express the experiences of minority groups within American society? Is it possible to discuss ethnic subgroups as “characters” who progress through stages of development? Why or why not? What might be the benefits and pitfalls of such an approach?

Video Activities

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity? 
Video Comprehension Questions: What is integration? What is assimilation? How are they different?
Context Questions: Why is it so important for writers to be able to build on a literary tradition? For example, in the video, Sandra Cisneros says that when she was a young writer, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior “gave her permission” to write The House on Mango Street. What do you think she means by this? What do the two texts have in common?
Exploratory Questions: How, if at all, have these authors’ personal stories changed your conception of what it means to be a woman in America?

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it? 
Video Comprehension Questions: How many American women had entered the workforce by the mid-1970s? Why did women’s writing begin to be taken more seriously in the 1970s and 1980s? How did the women’s rights and women’s liberation movements affect women’s literature?
Context Questions: How does region affect individuals’ views of the country and their own identity?
Exploratory Questions: Consider the mother’s cautionary tales about female sexuality in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. How do these writers use the stories of earlier generations in their own fiction? How do the stories change in the retelling?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined through these works of literature?
Context Questions: How did Kingston, Cisneros, and Feinberg use experimental styles as well as autobiography to challenge mainstream society’s definition of womanhood?
Exploratory Questions: These authors asked complicated, contradictory questions about themselves in order to discover their identities. What questions did they ask? What did they discover?

Creative Response

  1. Journal: In Toni Cade Bambara’s “Medley,” when Sweet Pea criticizes Hector’s storytelling, she also provides her criteria for effective storytelling, including the need for names and details. What elements do you think are necessary for a good story? Create a definition or list; then use it to analyze any story that is meaningful to you (a family story, movie, novel, etc.). Does the story meet all your criteria? If not, how does the discrepancy affect your definition?
  2. Journal: In David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Roma asks a series of questions in Act 1, Scene 3, including “what is our life?” and “what is it that we’re afraid of?” Consider his statement, “All it is is THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU.” In your journal, answer his questions and offer an interpretation and opinion of his statement.
  3. Journal: Do you think Abuela, “the witch” of “The Witch’s Husband” by Judith Ortiz Cofer, spent long enough in New York (one year)? What do you think she did there? Was this enough of a taste of freedom to allow her to remain happy in Puerto Rico? Do you think it would just whet her appetite for even more freedom? How feminist is she, if at all, according to your own definition of feminism?
  4. Creative Writing: In “Polar Breath,” Diane Glancy depicts the old woman’s death using images of birds, the icehouse, frigid water, and spirits. Do these images seem appropriate for the old woman? Choose a person or character from another story in this unit, and write a story or create a visual representation of his/her death using character-appropriate imagery.
  5. Creative Writing: Write a new version of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” from Dee/Wangero’s point of view. What was it like to grow up in the house and see it burned? Why did you change your name and clothes? Describe your visit home. Why are the quilts so important to you? Why are you so frustrated with your family?
  6. Acting and Performance: As a young actor, David Mamet was influenced by the Stanislavsky method of acting, also called “method acting,” with which actors attempt to make their work as real as possible. Research the Stanislavsky method further. With a group of students, choose a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross and use method acting to rehearse and perform it for the class.
  7. Acting and Performance: Alone or with a small group of students, produce performance art of any kind to relay a message to your class. Before you begin, answer the following questions: What message are you trying to convey? Why? How can you best communicate your ideas? How can performance art afford you a new perspective or suggest new ways of thinking to your audience?
  8. Multimedia: Imagine that you are part of a performance art group that needs new members. To convince talented artists to use performance art methods, create a presentation that reports on the activities of one performance artist mentioned in this unit. Using the American Passages multimedia resources, Internet research, and your knowledge of performance artists, create a slide show of the artist’s work, a video capturing audience reactions, and/or print materials to explain the artist’s themes, ideas, and methods. Explain why performance art is the most successful means of reaching some audiences.
  9. Modified “Show and Tell”: Think about the importance of the quilts in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Choose an object that is personally meaningful to you, and prepare a multimedia presentation explaining its significance. Is the object functional? Is it “worth more” than the dollars you could get if you sold it? Design visuals and a narrative that speak to the object’s aesthetic, sentimental, cultural, and financial value.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. It is 1975 and you belong to a local feminist group that has convinced many women to join your cause and actively promote women’s rights. However, you have had less success recruiting men. Your job is to design a public relations campaign directed at young men. You need to convince them that feminism is not just a women’s issue. Design a campaign–including a slogan, logo, pamphlet, and posters–that persuades young men to join their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and friends in fighting for women’s equality.
  2. You are a member of your school’s drama club, and you want to produce David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross. However, some members of the campus community (including parents and wealthy alumni, among them the drama club’s most consistent financial contributor) oppose the play because it contains strong language and offensive slurs. Create a skit aimed at these opponents, explaining why you think the play is appropriate and asking for their support. To be persuasive, you may need to analyze Mamet’s language and content for your audience.
  3. You are an artist who wants to paint a mural representing your neighborhood on the side of a local building. The building’s owner has approved your plan and your design, except that she does not like your idea to incorporate existing graffiti into the mural. She thinks that the graffiti is vandalism and that it should be covered. Write a letter in which you convince her that the graffiti is actually art and that it is essential to your design.
  4. Imagine that you are a prominent urban planner and designer. Your city has decided to erect a memorial to the victims of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and you have been hired to determine where to place the memorial and what it should look like, including its form, size, and any text that might be included. Prepare a report of your findings that you can present at the next city meeting. Include visual representations of your ideas to support your report.

Escaping Their Cages: Performance Artists in the Twentieth Century

[6123] John Whitworth, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions

Imagine that you arrive for a concert, only to see all of the musicians do, well, nothing–no singing, no playing, no dancing. Would you feel you had been cheated out of a show, or would you feel invigorated by the concert’s daring “newness”? Many performance artists would hope for the latter. Unrestricted by the bounds of traditional materials and freed from the need for museum space to display their work, performance artists often turn to their own bodies and environments to create art that many observers find both innovative and unsettling. In many cases, artists seek to discomfit viewers, forcing them to confront not only visual images but also ideas, ideologies, and people that might otherwise remain unacknowledged or, in a very real sense, invisible in the mainstream.

Beginning with the earliest performance artists, such as experimental musician John Cage (1912-1992), one of performance art’s important goals has been to disrupt societal apathy by demanding audience participation in the performance. Cage used sounds made by machines, nature, people, found objects such as bottles, and virtually anything else he could locate, to produce experimental music that many listeners called “noise.” He wanted his listeners to participate in the composition by finding the music within the noises. At times he went even further, once conducting a piece in which none of the members of his orchestra ever lifted their instruments–it was the audience’s responsibility to fill in the silence with their own music. We can see the musicians in Thomas Pynchon’s “Entropy” working out this theory for themselves. Duke, for instance, decides to write a song with “no piano, man. No guitar. Or accordion. . . . Nothing to listen to. . . .” Meatball, horrified, realizes that “the next logical step” is, in Duke’s words, “to think everything.” When Meatball protests, Duke replies that “there are a few bugs to work out,” but that Meatball and, presumably, all other naysayers, will “catch on.” Like Duke, performance artists are not, for the most part, unaware of potential resistance from their audiences but, like all revolutionaries, they hope that their new ideas eventually will prevail.

Alongside works that exist primarily to rattle the complacency of viewers, other performance art pieces exist independent of any audience at all or with ephemeral audiences who may not even realize that they have participated in or witnessed a performance. Wittman Ah Sing, in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, reads aloud from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge on a public bus in San Francisco. Kingston’s narrative provides the excerpts that Wittman reads aloud so that readers, too, can “witness” his performance. Wittman does not ask for applause or recognition: he complacently observes that “some of those present on the Muni were looking at [him], some had closed their eyes, some looked out the window, everyone perhaps listening.” It is enough, then, that “none of the passengers was telling Wittman to cool it.” He is pleased simply because they allowed him to continue reading. Sometimes, then, tolerance can be defined simply as allowing others to exist. Ah Sing’s “performance” recalls real-life performances by other writers and poets, such as AIDS sufferer and activist Essex Hemphill in the poetry that he performs in Marlon Riggs’s poignant and controversial film Tongues Untied (1989).

Some audience-free performance art, however, argues that such passive acceptance from the audience (i.e., society), while sometimes freeing, also can indicate blindness or apathy. In 1969, New York City performance artist Vito Acconci (b. 1940) enacted a “private” performance that consisted of his following random, unaware pedestrians through the streets of New York until they entered buildings, at which point he chose new “leaders” to follow. If no one knew about his journey, what could this performance possibly accomplish? Acconci saw himself as a “marginal presence . . . tying in to ongoing situations,” and, as such, he demonstrated through his art that people and, by extension, society may be involved in revolutionary acts even without their own knowledge, much less their permission. While Acconci’s performance itself was harmless, it also reminds us that people, preoccupied by the day-to-day comings and goings of life, could also be blithely complicit in allowing reprehensible acts or ideas to continue unabated.

Perhaps most significantly, then, performance art in the United States has been used by artists from disenfranchised or minority groups, including women, ethnic and racial minorities, and sexual minorities, to combat such apathy as well as prejudice and injustice. Frustrated by their absence or misrepresentation in American history textbooks and mainstream popular culture, these artists have created works to counter the history books and to make their presence and perspectives known. In a “living diorama” titled “Two Undiscovered Amerindians” (1992-94), which they performed during national celebrations of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña (b. 1955) and Cuban American performance artist Coco Fusco (b. 1960) dressed in grass skirts, painted their faces, wore tribal headdresses, and locked themselves inside a cage. They mocked the idea that the continent had not been discovered until Columbus arrived, exposed the specific nineteenth-century practice of “caging” indigenous peoples for display, and protested “cages” such as discrimination and stereotypes that still exist. Karen Finley (b. 1956) and Laurie Anderson (b. 1947) also have provided commentaries on myriad social issues, and as two of the most influential feminist performance artists, they frequently offer scathing critiques of society’s continued marginalization of women. Their different methods highlight the flexibility of performance art: it bends to fit the talents of its various performers. Finley has created installation pieces and delivered monologues about pornography, sexual excess, and sexual repression and deprivation. Anderson, on the other hand, has combined autobiography with architecture, photography, and music. Her “Object, Objection, Objectivity” (1973) collects her photographs of men who insulted her with unwanted sexual comments.

In addition to addressing societal inequalities, performance artists also confront specific issues and causes. Before becoming famous as Beatle John Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono (b. 1933) was already well known in performance art circles in the early 1960s for her feminist, avant-garde perspective and for the art shows that she held in her downtown New York City loft, starting in 1961. Her influence on Lennon increased the visibility of performance art in popular culture, as seen in his “Revolution 9” (from the Beatles’ 1968 White Album), which was inspired by John Cage’s music and composed entirely of preexisting sounds. Lennon’s mainstream fame allowed their 1969 weeklong honeymoon bed-in for world peace to become one of the world’s most widely seen performance art events. Over thirty years later, recordings of this anti-Vietnam War protest can be purchased on video, and Lennon’s song “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969) immortalizes their position: “The news people said / ‘Hey, what you doin’ in bed?’ / I said, ‘We’re only tryin’ to get us some peace.'” By subverting the public’s expectations and enduring widespread ridicule, Ono and Lennon successfully used performance art to bring visibility and support to a cause in which they believed.

Some observers argue that they and subsequent performance artists have been too successful and that American culture has changed so much that performance art has lost its shock value and “strangeness.” But artists continue to perform, believing that because of its flexibility and fluidity, performance art by definition can never be irrelevant; it is, by its very nature, not only innovative but also politically, socially, and culturally revolutionary.


  1. Comprehension: What is performance art? Why does it continue to be appealing as an alternative to more traditional forms of art?
  2. Comprehension: How have Karen Finley and Laurie Anderson used performance art to bring visibility to feminism? Relate their performances to the feminist posters [6182] (Woman Power poster) and [6183] (Feminism Lives! poster).
  3. Context: Compare John Cage’s theory of noise and music to the theory of noise and communication set forth by Thomas Pynchon in “Entropy” (1960). How can we differentiate music, or meaning, from surrounding “noise” and “leakage”? Also consider Duke, Meatball, and Pac’s conversation about “think[ing] everything.”
  4. Context: In Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey (1989), Wittman Ah Sing performs live readings of Rilke while riding public transportation. What do these readings accomplish? The audience is basically passive: does this indicate that they somehow accept the readings or just that they’re apathetic? If the audience would react violently, would the performance be more successful or effective?
  5. Exploration: Because so much of life is made up of various kinds of performance, how can we determine which performances are “art”? Does a categorization depend on the author’s intention? The audience’s reaction? Other factors?
  6. Exploration: What do you think Vito Acconci was trying to accomplish with his virtually invisible performance? To find out, follow in his footsteps for an afternoon or even just ten minutes. What was your experience like? Did you perceive your environment and those around you differently?
  7. Exploration: The growth of technology, including photo-imaging software, increasingly sophisticated recording equipment, and the Internet, has created new sites of experimentation for technologically savvy artists who “perform” by using computers to manipulate images, visual space, and text. Do you think performance art and computers are a good match? Why might a performance artist turn to the Internet, for example, to display his/her work? And is it really “performance” if it’s on the computer?
  8. Exploration: As performance art has become more accepted and seemingly a part of the mainstream, some might argue that it has concurrently become less shocking and, thus, less effective at delivering social messages. What happens when a fringe movement enters the mainstream? What do you think it loses and gains in the process?
  9. Exploration: Performance art tends to stir up a lot of controversy, as its artists and subjects often push the limits of “acceptable” mainstream behavior. Specific works of performance art or exhibitions often are held up as ridiculous by people who want to discontinue government funding for the arts. Why do you think performance art may be controversial? Do you think that the government should limit its funding of artists to “traditional” art forms? If so, how would you define traditional? If not, why not? How should the government decide which artists it funds?

[3043] John A. Gentry, LCpl, Vietnam . . . Private First Class Joseph Big Medicine Jr., a Cheyenne Indian, Writes a Letter to His Family in the United States (1969), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Soldier from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, on a clear, search and destroy mission near An Hoa. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam encouraged antiwar protest and distrust of the government.

[6123] John Whitworth, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions (1969), 
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 
Men and women, both Hispanic and white, set the stage for a protest with tents, furniture, and other household items near the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver. A placard reads, “Denver Witnesses for Human Dignity.”

[6182] Ivy Bottin, Woman Power (1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [POS 6-U.S., no. 548 (C size) <P&P>].
The women’s movement sought to change the dominant perception that all women could be satisfied by homemaking. Many feminists argued that liberation must begin at home, where men should share domestic chores.

[6183] Anonymous, Feminism Lives! (c. 1973), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 
Poster declaring “Feminism Lives!” in pink, above a black-and-white photograph of women fighting for suffrage. In the 1960s, a second wave of feminist activism washed over the United States, spearheaded by such figures as Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique created solidarity among the many women who were dissatisfied with the role society had mapped out for them.

[6525] Wayne Alaniz Healy and David Rivas Botello, “La Familia” Mural (1977), 
courtesy of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). 
This mural shows a Chicano family standing in the center of a starburst, surrounded by images of life in Mexico and in the United States. Many Chicanos and Chicanas have struggled to understand their hybrid identity within the dominant white culture. Sandra Cisneros writes primarily about the experiences of Chicanas growing up in the United States.

[7234] Anonymous, The Evil System of Colonialism and Imperialism . . . (c. 1970), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-995]. 
This poster shows the power of action and demonstration for dispossessed, marginalized, and persecuted peoples. Its quotation from Mao reads, “The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the Black people.” Questions of action, audience, apathy, politics, and affect permeate performance art.

[8619] Various, Don’t Mourn, Organize: SDS Guide to Community Organizing (1968), 
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Students for a Democratic Society’s Guide to Community Organizing. Some of the articles in this guide address organization and resistance to the war beyond draft dodging, the original focus of SDS actions. One discusses responses of poor whites to black rebellion and violence during the ghetto uprisings in the summer of 1967.

Memorials: The Art of Memory

[9161] Historic American Buildings Survey, View of the Memorial from the Southwest End–Vietnam Veterans Memorial ([1982] 1996), courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, DC, WASH, 643-10].

Houses can be robbed, physical bodies assaulted, and rights taken away, but memory, we like to think, is inviolable. We are formed and defined by what and how we remember, and when our memories are called into question, so too are our identities as individuals. For example, consider how in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” Twyla is never more distressed than when she realizes that for years she may have been misremembering important events in her life. To guard against such potentially disturbing lapses in memory, the speaker in Chinese American poet Li-Young Lee’s “This Room and Everything in It” (1990) attempts to perfect his father’s “art of memory.” The speaker uses this method both to pay tribute to his father and to mentally file his memories so that he can prepare for “certain hard days ahead, / when I’ll need what I know so clearly this moment.” His very personal, emotionally invested process reflects how many people think memory works: it is individual and private, and it allows us to keep our senses of self intact even in difficult times.

But what about collective memory? Some American sites, such as Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, and Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Tennessee, serve purposes that are as diverse as the people who visit them. As centers of learning, recreation, and nostalgia, these sites are more than just houses previously occupied by the famous: they are memorial grounds for national and cultural icons. When a nation or group of people formally recognizes an event, person, or idea, the memorialized subject–be it a person, a house, or a monument–becomes part of the nation’s “official memory.” America is crowded with these memorials, including the Lincoln Memorial, tombs of unknown soldiers, Mount Rushmore, John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, and still-preserved Revolutionary War and Civil War battlegrounds. In general, these memorials were built not only to celebrate the dead but also to celebrate the supposedly righteous causes for which they died and to honor the nation.

But in more recent years, memorials have been built that honor the dead without necessarily honoring the cause of death. One of the most often-visited, haunting, and cherished national monuments is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Maya Lin, the architect and sculptor who designed the memorial, knew that she needed to recognize the deep mourning and unhealed wounds of surviving loved ones, Vietnam veterans, and a nation divided by an unpopular war. Unlike World War II memorials, for example, which celebrated America’s victory and righteous involvement in the battle as well as its fallen soldiers, Lin had to honor the sacrifices of the dead without celebrating the war itself. Her design solved this dilemma by emphasizing the names of the more than 56,000 Americans who died during the war. Since its dedication in 1982, the memorial’s somber black granite surface has been perpetually marked by splashes of color–the flowers, photographs, letters, and tokens left behind by the war’s survivors, other veterans, loved ones of the dead, and tourists including schoolchildren, families, and international visitors. This monument serves as a public and private mourning wall, a site of convergence for the shared regret and deeply private grief of a nation and its citizens.

Sometimes, artists and communities create memorials as historical correctives, to celebrate, as mural artist Judith Baca put it in a New York Times interview, “people who were excluded from history.” These memorials hope to remind the public that while the country has moved toward greater diversity and equality for all of its people, there is still work to be done. To pay tribute to the efforts of Chicano rights activists César Chavez and Corky Gonzalez, Baca incorporated their images into “La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra,” a mural located in Denver’s International Airport [6710]. The nation has not officially memorialized Chavez and Gonzalez, who practiced civil disobedience to fight for Chicano and farmworker rights in the 1960s, but since its installation in 1999, Baca’s painting has increased public awareness of the still-ongoing fight for Chicano rights in America.

The AIDS quilt, first unveiled in 1987, is another memorial that educates while it recalls the past. The quilt is, in many ways, the quintessential postmodern memorial: its location is not fixed, its content and dimensions are constantly shifting, and its myriad panels break down stereotypes about AIDS by displaying its victims–through photographs, letters, and personal items–as individuals with families, dreams, and distinct identities. The AIDS quilt is also inherently democratic; it is continually added to and changed “by the people” when each victim’s loved ones contribute their 12-foot-square panels, many of which use collage techniques to tell stories about the victims’ lives. Though the quilt has a permanent home in Atlanta, Georgia, sections of panels can be displayed simultaneously at different locations throughout the country. In fact, at nearly 50 square miles and 50 tons, it is the world’s largest work of community folk art, and it would be nearly impossible for any one venue to display the entire piece. Its form, then, serves its function: like AIDS itself, the quilt is almost too large to fathom, and it grows along with the number of people lost to the disease. As a highly personal, portable, and emotionally affective memorial, the quilt is, in its founder Cleve Jones’s words, “a silent, stunning display that helps heal, educate, and inspire.”

It is important to remember that memorials need not be monuments or tangible objects: literature, music, and dance, for instance, can also be used to memorialize cultural stories, traditions, and values. In Woman Hollering Creek and “Mericans,” Sandra Cisneros memorializes the Chicano practice of praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe for healing. Alice Walker memorializes the traditional African American rural home in “Everyday Use” by carefully describing its features: the yard, the butter churn, and the quilts. In a sense, every reader of the story “visits” this memorial. In the absence of official memorials, writers such as Cisneros and Walker, along with lobbyists, activists, and other citizens, remind us daily of past heroes and horrors and call our attention to important social issues. People who wear red ribbons for AIDS victims or pink ribbons for breast cancer victims; Chicano families that build altars to Catholic saints in their homes; bereaved survivors who preserve rooms as shrines to lost loved ones: these people all practice memorializing in their everyday lives.



  1. Comprehension: Why did Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial have to be different from memorials to previous wars?
  2. Comprehension: How is the AIDS quilt a postmodern memorial?
  3. Comprehension: How can memorials be both public and private?
  4. Context: Read the “Collage” context in this unit and analyze the AIDS quilt as a collaborative collage. Consider its form as well as its function. Relate the quilt’s message to the messages of Romare Bearden’s collages and to urban graffiti collages.
  5. Context: Some writers compose elegies, or mournful poems, to remember the dead. The stories themselves, as well as their subjects, can also be “memorials” to previous generations. Analyze the writing styles and themes in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Witch’s Husband,” Diane Glancy’s “Jack Wilson” and “Polar Breath,” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” How do the writers’ styles serve as memorials to the traditions of the authors’ cultures (including oral tradition)?
  6. Context: Consider the quilts in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” as memorials to the family’s ancestors. Do you think it is more appropriate to pay tribute to the grandmother’s way of life by using the quilt, as Maggie would do, or by preserving and displaying it, as Dee/Wangero would do? Consider Dee/Wangero’s comments about heritage.
  7. Exploration: The AIDS quilt is a testimony to both the personal diversity of individual victims, as well as to the unfathomable reach and effect of the virus on modern humanity. The quilt is often displayed in parts at different locations around the world. The AIDS Memorial Quilt organization, which manages these appearances, has also made a vast Web site ( that includes a database of the individual panels. How is this site a part of the memorial? What are some of the positive and negative features of the site? How does the Internet affect the way we think about the possibilities of time and space as it relates to memory, testimony, and memorial?
  8. Exploration: Research another national memorial, such as John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, the National Holocaust Museum, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, or the St. Louis Arch. What does the memorial encourage us to remember? What is its most important message? Also consider researching the debates about constructing a memorial to the African Americans who were legally enslaved for decades in the United States. What political issues are at stake? What would such a memorial signify? Could the absence of such a memorial demonstrate a lack of national healing–could this void itself be an abstract memorial to the struggles perpetuated by the legacy of slavery?
  9. Exploration: In Toni Morrison’s Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), the character Sethe imagines that some places and events are so powerful that they never really go away. She says, “Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. . . . If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my memory, but out there, in the world. . . . If you go there–you who never was there–if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.” What do you think Sethe means? Do you agree that some events “memorialize” themselves by lingering in the air, like smoke after a fire? Have you ever experienced anything like what Sethe is describing here?
  10. Exploration: Some cultural scholars have argued that memorials serve to replace the dead with an object and thereby help the living move past their melancholia. Do you think memorials are more “about” remembering the dead or comforting the living? If they are about the living, do you think that memorials do, indeed, help us to “move past” melancholia, or do they simply prolong it by providing concrete (sometimes literally concrete) reminders?
  11. Exploration: While more memorials are built across the nation every year, some people believe that Americans have a tendency to over-memorialize. For example, it took a surprising amount of effort to build a World War II memorial on the Washington Mall in Washington, D.C., and late-night comedians regularly joke about the proliferation of commemorative “days.” Do you think that Americans tend to memorialize too much, too soon? If so, why? What sort of response (if any) would you find more appropriate, and why?

[2161] Eero Saarinen, Saarinen’s Conceptual Drawing of the Gateway Arch (1948), 
courtesy of the National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. 
The Gateway Arch was built to commemorate the westward expansion of the United States and to inspire like-minded ambition. Just below the arch sits the courthouse where the Dredd Scott decision declared that slaves were not human, a stark reminder of the costs of America’s growth.

[6710] Judith F. Baca, La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra (2000), 
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, © Judith F. Baca, La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra: Colorado, 2000. 
Judith Baca is an acclaimed muralist who believes that art can be a forum for social dialogue, as well as a tool for social change. In this sense, she shares much with Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, and Helena Maria Viramontes and builds on the work of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

[7163] Esther Bubley, Inside the Lincoln Memorial (1943), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USW3-040346-D]. 
After Lincoln’s assassination, his image became iconic in the North and among African Americans, appearing in ceremonies; popular songs and prints; statuary, including his templelike memorial; and poetry such as Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

[7974] Janjapp Dekker, Sandra Cisneros with Virgen de Guadalupe Boots (n.d.), 
courtesy of El Andar magazine. 
Sandra Cisneros spent her childhood moving with her parents and six brothers between Chicago and Mexico City. Here we see her wearing boots bearing images of La Virgen de Guadalupe, a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century. Cisneros writes about La Virgen in “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess” and “Little Miracles, Kept Promises.” Cisneros currently resides in San Antonio, Texas.

[9161] Historic American Buildings Survey, View of the Memorial from the Southwest End–Vietnam Veterans Memorial ([1982] 1996), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, DC,WASH,643-10]. 
The design specifications for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial said that the work must “make no political statement regarding the war and its conduct” and that it must include the name of each of the 57,661 Americans who died in the conflict. Maya Lin’s winning design was controversial, but the then-twenty-one-year-old Yale architectural student persevered in seeing it through to completion. Viewed within the tradition of land art, the memorial makes a sharp cut into the sloping land, with a gravestone-like surface of polished granite that literally reflects viewers back into the open wound through which they walk.

[9164] Historic American Buildings Survey, Panels 37E and 38E–Vietnam Veterans Memorial ([1982] 1996), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, DC,WASH,643-70]. 
Thousands of veterans, the families and friends of those who died in the Vietnam War, and visitors to Washington, D.C., come to the memorial each year to pay tribute. Over 56,000 Americans died in the war, and they are all named on the panels of the monument.

Collage: Putting the Pieces Together

[6714] Romare Bearden, The Family (1976), courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

When young children cut pictures out of magazines and glue them haphazardly to poster board, they probably do not realize that their projects grow out of an artistic movement invested in an aesthetic of social change. Like performance art, assembly and collage have allowed artists to explore the ways in which individuals and communities negotiate radical societal changes. To create assembly pieces, which are usually three-dimensional, artists combine preexisting elements (e.g., furniture, garbage, food) to form new pieces. In the final “assemblies,” the individual elements are usually recognizable, yet have been recontextualized to communicate new meaning. Collage uses similar techniques but in two dimensions. The artist’s primary role is to “see” differently: he or she must recognize how unexpected combinations might work to reveal new perspectives on important issues. Collage, then, is a distinctly postmodern art form in that it allows its artists to transcend conventions and represent reality as shifting rather than stable.

One collage master, African American artist Romare Bearden (1914-1988), was a cubist early in his career but had no formal artistic training. He brilliantly nuanced the collage form to represent the lives of African Americans in the twentieth century, confronting stereotypes during the civil rights movement by representing the complexities of the African American experience. While referencing the works of artists such as Picasso, he mixed genres (primarily painting and photography) and staked out a completely new African American artistic tradition by combining the imagery of two traditional African American imaginary homes: the rural South and the urban North (particularly Harlem). His works profoundly affected their viewers, many of whom found that his collages represented African American life even more accurately than representational photographs.

In the years Bearden was painting, depictions of African Americans in the mainstream media frequently focused on the hardships of their daily lives, including poor education, violence at home and on the streets, and meager living conditions. Even those with the best intentions often saw African Americans as lacking basic necessities and skills. While Bearden did not ignore such difficulties in his art, he often chose to celebrate the unique, vibrant contributions of African Americans to broader currents of U.S. culture and society. His technique perhaps can best be understood in relation to another image of African American life in the mid-twentieth century. The photograph “Two Negro Houses” (1958) [7030] shows two Washington, D.C., houses in which African American families lived during the 1950s. The houses look old, broken down, and even premodern (the girl stands in front of an old-fashioned water well), emphasizing what these families lacked: proper housing, water, sanitation, and modern amenities. Bearden’s paintings, however, consist of multiple overlapping images and focus on what black Americans had. For example, in “The Family” (1976) [6714] and “Playtime–Inner City” (1976) [6717], Bearden uses vibrant colors, and his images evoke the joys of music, family attachments, and play within African American communities. Significantly, his characters confront the viewer by staring directly out from the canvas: these are faces that show pride and vitality, not hopelessness.

Like Bearden, writers use collage techniques to enhance readers’ perceptions of American life. In “Recitatif,” Toni Morrison’s narration jumps back and forth in time as her main characters’ lives intersect over many years. Just as Bearden leaves it to the viewer to decipher many details in his crowded paintings, Morrison never identifies the races of her main characters except to clarify that one is white and one is black. This information gap forces readers into the uncomfortable position of confronting their own stereotypes as they attempt to determine the race of each character. By overlapping different characters’ versions of shared history, Morrison shows what can happen when two people’s diverging memories of the same event bump up against each other. When Roberta and Twyla discover that they have startlingly different memories of an important event in their childhood, Twyla asks, “I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. Would I?” Her uncertainty points to the story’s theme–the insecurity and instability of memory–that is also conveyed formally via narrative collage.

Similarly, Thomas Pynchon’s style in “Entropy” also may cause discomfort for some readers, as the author zigzags between two narratives that occur simultaneously in the upstairs and downstairs apartments of the same house. It may seem that he has randomly cut and pasted two stories together, but close reading reveals that his placement of the textual elements is just as deliberate as Bearden’s placement of images in his works. The effect is the same in literature as in visual art: the audience is forced to consider two seemingly unrelated images simultaneously. Thus, comments made by downstairs characters can help the reader to better understand upstairs characters, and vice versa.

Mainstream culture also offers numerous examples of collage in action. One of the most familiar forms of pop-culture collage is usually illegal: for years, urban graffiti artists have used spray paint to decorate buildings, benches, buses and trains, and other public areas. Often, artists paint new images adjacent to or even on top of previous images, sometimes obliterating previous pictures, thus creating “collaborative” collages that change as the communities change. Sometimes called “train-bombing” by its New York City subway practitioners, this art form allows artists, working quickly to avoid detection by authorities, to use relatively inexpensive materials on the seemingly limitless canvas of urban objects.

While graffiti artists have been active for decades, in recent years perhaps the most visible–or, rather, audible–form of popular collage has been the “sampling” practiced by hip-hop musicians. By inserting samples, or short “quotes,” from other musicians’ songs into their own compositions, musicians pay tribute to earlier musical styles while updating them for a new generation of listeners. Sampling produces effects in music similar to those of collage in visual art and literature: it unites ostensibly different (both racially and sonically) musical forms. For example, Puff Daddy (now P. Diddy) fused 1990s rap with 1970s hard rock when he sampled Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in his 1998 song “Come With Me,” which he performed on TV’s Saturday Night Live with Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page on guitar. Like artists such as Romare Bearden and writers who use collage-type layering in their narratives, hip-hop artists use “collage” in their music to build bridges between themselves and past masters, to show off their skills, and to express the diversity and energy of their communities.


  1. Comprehension: What is collage? How is this art form different from assembly?
  2. Comprehension: What does it mean to discuss reality as “shifting” rather than “stable”?
  3. Comprehension: How have authors adapted collage techniques to their literature?
  4. Context: In his paintings, Romaré Bearden attempted to portray African American communities from the “inside.” Compare his representations to those in Toni Cade Bambara’s “Medley,” in which she also provides an insider’s view of a predominantly black community. Consider her descriptions of her home, the nightclub, and the gambler’s home.
  5. Context: In Diane Glancy’s “Polar Breath,” the old woman’s death scene could be read as a collage: she sees “her husband in his icehouse fishing in winter” while “inside her head, birds flew from the wall” and “up the road, the church steeple hung like a telephone pole pulled crooked by its wires after an ice storm.” How does collage help Glancy to portray her character’s death? Do you think the technique is effective?
  6. Exploration: Some critics claim that musicians who use sampling are actually plagiarizing other artists’ work. How do we distinguish between artistic sampling and criminal plagiarizing? Is a work of art that incorporates sampling any less original than works of art that draw their inspiration from less obvious sources?
  7. Exploration: Why do you think graffiti is more appealing to some urban artists than other art forms, such as traditional painting or sculpture?
  8. Exploration: Many Americans frequently use collage techniques, from schoolchildren completing class art projects to adults creating scrapbooks that contain collages of photographs, letters, souvenirs, and other personally meaningful items. Scrapbooking in particular has become a national phenomenon of sorts, with entire companies and stores devoted to providing tips and selling materials. Why do you think people have so readily adopted collage techniques to memorialize their personal histories? Are collages such as family scrapbooks “art”?

[6513] Pablo Picasso, A 1912 List, Written by Pablo Picasso, of European Artists to be Included in the Armory Show of 1913 (1912), 
courtesy of Walt Kuhn Family Papers and Armory Show Records 1882-1966, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 
Handwritten list of artists to be included in the Armory Show. Modernist writers and visual artists, including Dos Passos, Picasso, and Braque, used combinations of disparate pieces to create a whole image and message.

[6714] Romare Bearden, The Family (1976), 
courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. 
Romare Bearden gained international recognition for the powerful visual metaphors and probing analysis of African American heritage in his many collages, photomontages, watercolors, and prints. He was a member of the Harlem Artists Guild and had his first solo exhibition in 1940 at the age of twenty-nine. He had many equally distinguished friends, such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray.

[6715] Romare Bearden, The Return of Ulysses (1976), 
courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. 
Romare Bearden’s painting and collages distinguished him within the twentieth-century African American aesthetic tradition. Derek Walcott’s poem Omeros is a Caribbean retelling of the Odysseus (Ulysses) myth. Bearden often drew on his past in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, for his powerful images.

[7030] Anonymous, These Two Houses Were Among the Structures in Washington, D.C. . . . (1958), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124134]. 
These two Washington, D.C., houses were classed as “good enough” for occupancy by African Americans until they were demolished so that a housing project could be built in their place. In the foreground a young girl stands near an old wooden well.

Gay and Lesbian Identities in Contemporary American Writing

[8171] Anonymous, Gays Kissing (n.d.), courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

In the cultures of the West, the literary arts have been energized by a gay presence for as long as there have been arts at all. Over the course of American cultural history, however, that presence and its importance have not always been recognized and understood. In the American Renaissance, Walt Whitman stands out as a powerful representative of a gay identity and poetic voice, but in the reconstruction of American literary history he is presented, for most of his long career, as an isolated figure, working courageously and almost alone. From the earlier years of the twentieth century, Willa Cather is remembered in much the same way–as an artist whose life and work were complicated and intensified by a condition of isolation, an imperative to keep her own sexuality in the background of her art and her public life. Before the end of the 1960s, in Britain and America, there were brief periods in which gay and lesbian literary communities found or created a context in which to express themselves together and in the open, and to affirm every dimension of who they were as Americans and artists. London in the early 1890s was such a place; the “Bohemian” neighborhoods of lower Manhattan before World War I were another. More often than not, however, a gay or lesbian author who wanted to be “out” as an individual and an artist had to seek safety away from the public gaze, away from local police and repressive laws. Many of the expatriate artists of the 1920s and after (including Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Bishop) spent much of their time in Paris, in South America, and in other far-off places where they could live and work with a measure of freedom unavailable in much of the United States, where old Puritan values hung on strongly.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the so-called “Stonewall Riots” of July 1969, a confrontation with the New York City police in and around a gay bar in Greenwich Village, have been remembered by some social historians as “the Boston Tea Party of the gay and lesbian rights movement.” What they came to signify was the full arrival of civil-rights militancy for gay communities in major American cities. The “sexual revolution” of the later 1960s had been strongly heterosexual; now it took on a new cast, especially in cities where the arts flourished–San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and New York. In these and other venues, there was a renaissance of literary life in which gay and lesbian sexuality and identity were foregrounded. In poetry, in drama, in film, and in dance, there was unprecedented experimentation with these new possibilities and values in mind.

By the early 1980s, however, the celebratory mood had shifted towards the tragic. Slowly, awareness spread that the HIV virus was a lethal danger, and that AIDS was already a death sentence to thousands of gay Americans. There were no effective treatments for HIV exposure and infection for the first decade of the epidemic, and as the disease devastated gay populations that had flourished so recently before, mainstream America began to recognize the price that was being paid not only in human lives, but also in its collective imaginative and cultural life. At the same time, along with social and legislative activism, changes have begun and continue with regard to the reading and criticism of literature by gay and lesbian authors and about gay experience. This new field of study is often referred to as “Queer Theory.” One primary objective is to find a language appropriate to discussing this art, as well as to locate aesthetic values and assumptions which are not unduly inflected by centuries of cultural habit, a long tradition of commentary which either ignored the importance of sexual preference in artistic expression, or which repressed that importance. For instance, Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers have participated in the national dialogue about gay identity with varying levels of intensity, sometimes as adversaries, sometimes not. The 1980s and 1990s brought a return of the transvestite as a subject in such mainstream films as The Crying Game (1992), as well as in popular films from much smaller production companies, including Paris Is Burning(1990), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Marjorie Garber describes this popularity as signaling a “category crisis” not only with respect to sexual identity, but also elsewhere in society: in her view, transvestites represent a permeable border between the male and the female and the possibility that other binary oppositions–upper and lower classes, black and white races, Jews and Christians, masters and slaves, gays and straights–may also be much less sure than we have been led to believe.

Also writing about transvestite and contemporary gay life, Judith Butler has described gender, in contemporary culture, as a role that is performed rather than a transcendent identity. In her view, gender is or has become such a performance, such that people can choose to cause “gender trouble” by dressing, acting, and behaving in ways that resist traditional expectations–for example, by “voguing.” If sexuality is not who we are but what we do, and if sexual activities or desires do not equal sexual identities, there is no need for rigid categories such as “heterosexual” or “homosexual.”

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) reveals another snapshot of the diversity of gay life in America, and the special predicament of gay African Americans. The film features the work of poet Essex Hemphill and confronts the challenges of interracial love, self-hatred, and persecution within African American social contexts. With the popularity of TV shows such as Will and Grace and Queer as Folk, which both focus primarily on gay characters, and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Felicity, which both include gay characters among their ensemble casts, gay culture has found entrance into the mainstream.


  1. Comprehension: What happened at the Stonewall Inn in 1969?
  2. Comprehension: Describe the various meanings and contexts in which the word “queer” can be used. How is its current meaning different from “gay” or “lesbian”?
  3. Context: Consider the relationship between the young narrator and Lucy in Sandra Cisneros’s story “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn.” What is the nature of their relationship?
  4. Context: In Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg’s character Jess writes about her perspective on Stonewall, 1970s activism, and the difficulties experienced by transgendered people within the gay rights movement. In what ways do you see her “performing” gender? At what point do you think she is most “true” to herself? Is it possible to identify a specific point or do you think this exercise goes against the very idea of identity as a process?
  5. Context: Another Unit 16 core context, “Memorials,” describes the AIDS quilt. How do you think that the AIDS quilt may contribute to struggles for gay and lesbian rights? You might also consider AIDS elegies, or poetic memorials to the dead, such as those by Mark Doty.
  6. Exploration: Explore the gay rights posters and other images in the archive. What do the images tell you about the struggles of the gay and lesbian movement? Choose one or two posters and analyze their text and imagery to identify their messages. Whom do the posters target?
  7. Exploration: Using online resources, compare the organization, style, and intention of gay arts communities over a longer historical period: London in the 1890s, New York’s “Bohemian Period” (c.1900-17), Bloomsbury in the 1920s and 1930s, San Francisco in the 1980s and after. What similarities and differences do you observe? What could latter-day communities learn from their historical forebears?

[6229] Anonymous, Together: A Gay Game for Everybody (1973), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Poster depicting two interlocking “woman” symbols, which form a board game. Beginning in the 1960s, a number of “homophile” organizations began to form, inspired by militant black civil rights groups. Such activists as Franklinn Kameny and Barbara Gittings protested discriminatory employment practices, and by 1970 several thousand people had joined the more than fifty homophile organizations that had been established.

[8171] Anonymous, Gays Kissing (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. 
A gay couple kisses in the background of this photograph; in the foreground are two lesbian women. In the second half of the twentieth century, homosexuals began to demand equal protection under U.S. law.

[8172] Anonymous, Gay Parade (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. 
The gay rights movement really came to life when, in 1969, New York City police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn. The patrons of the Stonewall fought back, and three nights of rioting ensued, bringing unprecedented support for the homosexual liberation movement. By 1973 there were more than 800 homosexual groups in the United States; today there are more than 5,000 organizations fighting for gay rights.

[8179] Anonymous, Lesbians Kissing (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. 
Photograph of a lesbian couple kissing. Although progress has been made in securing rights for homosexuals, a reactionary movement has consistently tried to slow that progress down. For example, in 1977 a gay rights ordinance was repealed in Florida due to the efforts of singer Anita Bryant. Political and religious figures including Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell have fought to revoke rights for homosexuals and prevent them from securing protection under the law.

Locking the Gates: The City within the City

[6164] Arnold Genthe, Street of the Gamblers (by day) (1898), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-3890].

The “city within the city” has long been understood to mean urban enclaves with names like Little Italy, Chinatown, the Barrio, or Boystown. The literature included in this unit contains richly descriptive accounts of such communities, including Maxine Hong Kingston’s Chinatown, Sandra Cisneros’s Chicano neighborhoods, and Leslie Feinberg’s queer district. These authors’ characters, like their real-life counterparts, have found acceptance, cultural touchstones, and inspiration in these communities.

In recent years, however, while many of these ethnic, racial, or identity-based communities have continued to thrive, another definition of the “city within the city” has begun to take hold, inspired by another striking urban division: the economic imbalance between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Disparities in income have delineated new cities within the city with boundaries defined not by identity markers so much as by widely varying living conditions and opportunities. Like Disney World, a self-enclosed, sanitized, comfortable space that provides everything its visitors need–food, shelter, entertainment, and, perhaps most importantly, security–new urban designs promoted by the wealthy and sometimes billed as “urban renewal” seemingly offer many benefits: meeting places, museums, restaurants, arts, and diversions. But these ostensible improvements mask the growing economic disparity between the rich and the poor and often physically displace the poor from their homes.

In many cities, including Los Angeles and New York, physical barriers literally separate the classes, creating fortresses that insulate the “safe” areas from “dangerous” ones. As urban theorist Mike Davis sees it, the “pleasure domes” of new malls, apartment complexes, office buildings, and art centers depend upon the “social imprisonment of the third-world service [workers] who live in increasingly repressive ghettoes and barrios.” While ambition and creativity are still evident in these economically depressed neighborhoods, as seen in the more than 3000 murals (primarily painted by Hispanic Americans) that decorate Los Angeles’s walls, these previously vibrant urban communities have been devastated by widespread drug use, crime, and poverty. In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that “the problem of the Twentieth Century [would be] the problem of the color line.” Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, urban theorists warn that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of these abject cities within the city.



  1. Comprehension: What are some potential negative effects of creating urban “pleasure domes”?
  2. Context: Explore the photos of early-twentieth-century Chinatown [6164, 6166, 6167]. Compare the clothing worn by people pictured in these images to Wittman Ah Sing’s descriptions of Chinese Americans in Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: “Immigrants. Fresh Off the Boats out in public. Didn’t know how to walk together. . . . So uncool. You wouldn’t mislike them on sight if their pants weren’t so highwater, gym socks white and noticeable. F.O.B. fashions–highwaters or puddlecuffs. Can’t get it right. Uncool. Uncool.” Why is fashion so important to Wittman? What did the traditional Chinese clothes worn at the turn of the twentieth century signify, and what does Wittman think the “F.O.B.” clothes say about their wearers?
  3. Exploration: Compare Wittman Ah Sing’s descriptions of “F.O.B.” Chinese Americans to Anzia Yezierska and Abraham Cahan’s discussions of clothing and “greenhorns” in Unit 9.
  4. Exploration: Research the construction, condemnation, and reconstruction of Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project. What does this project’s history tell us about changes in theories of urban planning and development? Why do you think the architectural style of Cabrini Green and similar housing developments has fallen out of favor with city planners and residents? Use online resources including <> as well as sites created by former and current residents.

[6164] Arnold Genthe, Street of the Gamblers (by day) (1898), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-3890]. 
Photograph of pedestrians in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) tried to combat stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as “heathen,” “unclean,” and “untrustworthy.” She provided insight into the unique culture of America’s Chinatowns.

[6166] Anonymous, Police and Detectives Guarding Chinatown, July 6, 1909 (1909), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-69697]. 
Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) made efforts to combat stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as “heathen,” “unclean,” and “untrustworthy.” She provided insight into the unique culture of America’s Chinatowns.

[6171] Arnold Genthe, Children Were the Pride, Joy, Beauty, and Chief Delight of the Quarter, Chinatown, San Francisco (c. 1896 -1906), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-5265]. 
Four children in traditional Chinese clothing on a sidewalk in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Writing about the time this photograph was taken, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) sought to make the lives of Chinese immigrants understandable to white audiences.

[6527] Judith F. Baca, Pickers from Guadalupe Mural (1990), 
courtesy of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). © Judith F. Baca, Farmworkers of Guadalupe, 1989. 
Since 1976, muralist Judith Baca has worked as the founder and artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Los Angeles. She has headed a number of large-scale projects dealing with interracial relations, such as the construction of The Great Wall, of which this image is a part.

[7746] Danny Lyon, Young Men of the Second Ward, El Paso’s Classic Barrio Near the Mexican Border (1972), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
This photograph was taken by Danny Lyon for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project. Lyon, hailed as one of the most creative documentary photographers of the late twentieth century, photographed the Rio Grande Valley and the Chicano barrio of South El Paso, Texas. Tejanos, or Chicanos from Tejas (Texas), have developed a rich tradition of arts and literature that develops out of their lives in this border again.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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