Themes of Identity in African and African American Literature

This week’s works all have a theme of identity and culture. Our first story is called “Notes of a Native Son”, by James Baldwin. In this story, the main character wrestles with his perception of his father, and how it slowly starts to become his identity after his father’s death. The second story is “Chike’s School Days”, by Chinua Achebe. This tells the story of a child growing up in two cultures; Christian culture, and his native culture. The third story is “The Deep River” by Bessie Head, about the identity of a whole tribe and how it is portrayed and defined in the community. Finally, we have a set of poems by Leopold Sedar Senghor. Specifically, the poems “To New York,” “Night in Sine,” “Prayer to the Masks,” and “Letter to a Poet”. These all portray the author’s reflections on African and American cultures since he comes from both. 


The work that I think best shows this week’s theme of identity is “Chike’s School Days” by Chinua Achebe. In the story, a child is raised between two culture that both expect different identities. Within his Christian culture, he is expected to pray, not eat food offered to idols, and to believe he is equal to or better than others who do not live by those same rules. Within his native culture, he is expected to be subservient and humble. The story explores how those two cultures combine to create Chike’s identity, and how it influences his interactions with the world around him, from how his neighbors see him to how he acts and thinks at school.  


To teach about this theme, have students think about their own identity and culture. For example, do their mom and dad come from different cultures, or different family traditions? What is your name, and does it have an important meaning in your culture or family? Have students share what they figure out with the rest of the class, if they want to, or just turn it in as an assignment if they don’t. 

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