We, Too, Sing America
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled We, Too, Sing America, copies of the synopsis,and the audio selections from Porgy and Bess. For the take-home activity, students will each need a letter-size foam sheet with holes punched in each corner. You will also need short strings of yarn to “sew” the quilt panels together.
English / Language Arts, Poetry, African American Culture and History, Visual Arts, Humanities
- To deepen students’ familiarity with Porgy and Bess’s themes and imagery
- To develop students’ close reading and literary analysis skills
- To help students understand Porgy and Bess within the context of early 20th-century literature and art
- To consider how an opera can be interpreted as a historical document, reflecting the social, political, and artistic movements of its day
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Interpret, analyze, and evaluate narratives, poetry, and drama artistically and ethically by making connections to: other texts, ideas, cultural perspectives, eras, personal events, and situations.
Demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.
Create a presentation, art work, or text in response to a literary work with a commentary that identifies connections and explains divergences from the original.
The painting by Aaron Douglas in this exercise includes imagery that references a hanging.
Long before Gershwin composed his opera Porgy and Bess, DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy was inspiring serious discussions in the African American press about its portrayal of African Americans. In fact, debates surrounding the relative authenticity of Porgy and Bess’s characters continue to this day. A central concern of many critics is the fact that Porgy and Bess was based on a novel by a white Southerner and lyricized and set to music by the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants—none of whom belonged to the group of people whose story is being told on stage. Yet many of the opera’s themes were also treated by African American artists of the day, and the opera engages in an open artistic dialogue with a great corpus of artists who, although they lacked the prominence of DuBose Heyward and the Gershwin brothers, recorded their experiences of America in profound and important ways.
This exercise will situate Porgy and Bess within the rich history of African American literature and art. By completing this exercise, students will develop a deeper understanding of not only Porgy and Bess but also the vital body of American art and literature that inspired the Gershwins’ work. Students will:
- Ponder the purpose of art and examine how different writers conceptualized their responsibilities as artists
- Study a selection of excerpts from Porgy and Bess, analyzing the imagery, themes, and musical representation in these scenes
- Compare these selections to works by contemporaneous African American poets and visual artists
- Respond to this study by creating a community art project
In this activity, students will compare the language, themes, and imagery of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with works by African American artists. Through their study, students will develop a deeper understanding of the opera’s time period, as well as some of the thorny issues raised by its subject matter.
Begin class with a grand but open-ended question: Why do the arts matter? Or, put another way, what do the arts do? Potential responses may cite the entertainment value the arts provide, the emotions they elicit in the observer, the escape they provide from everyday life, and the valuable stories they tell, among many other possibilities. This is a huge subject for study, but for the purposes of this lesson, limit the discussion to a few observations before letting the class know that in the early 20th century, when Gershwin was developing his opera Porgy and Bess, there was a vibrant debate among African American writers about the purpose of art. Students will now look at two of these perspectives.
Pass out the handouts for this activity and guide students’ attention toward the quotes by W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, two African American writers working around the time that Porgy and Bess was composed. Assign a student to read each quote aloud, and then have students respond to these authors’ views on the purpose of art. (It may be useful to ask a few students to describe, in their own words, each author’s main point.) Then, invite students to hypothesize what kinds of art Du Bois and Hughes would approve of. For instance:
- If all art is propaganda, as Du Bois claims, what are the political causes that he thinks art should address? How should it do so?
- What is one of the themes that Hughes mentions as a subject for African American art? Why might he mention this theme in particular?
- Which author seems to promote a more realistic approach to artistic portrayal? Can art be both propaganda and naturalistic?
- If the purpose of art is to help a group of people, what types of stories should artists tell? How should they depict the characters in these stories?
Note that Hughes often uses the word “Negro” to mean “black” or “African American” in this excerpt. Before inviting students to read the excerpt, you may wish to address the use of this word in this historical essay.
Moving on, let the class know that George Gershwin chose the topic for his opera because he understood it to be a quintessentially American theme. Concerning the story, he remarked, “First of all, it is American, and I believe that American music should be based on American material.” You may want to share with your class some of the information about the story’s literary source, presented in the section entitled “The Source” earlier in this guide.
This activity will be most successful if students come to it with a firm understanding of the opera’s plot. You may wish to assign the synopsis as a homework reading assignment, to be completed before class begins. Otherwise, pass out copies of the synopsis now. Allow students time to read through the synopsis, have them take turns reading it aloud, or lead them in tableau exercises or another theatrical game that will familiarize them with the plot. Once you are confident that students are comfortable recalling elements of the story, ask them to relate Porgy and Bess to some of the issues they discussed in the previous step. Whose story is this? Who is telling it? To whom is it being told, and why? Does your answer change depending on when your imagined audience lived? Does the opera raise political issues? If so, what are they?
Now let’s move on to the words and music of Gershwin’s opera. We’ll be looking at several numbers from Porgy and Bess and studying their meaning. Have students turn to the following page of their reproducible handouts. This section presents four excerpts from the opera, each paired with an artwork (either poetic or visual) created around the same time as Porgy and Bess by an African American artist. Move through the examples one by one, first studying the operatic text and discussing it and then playing the associated musical examples found on Tracks 5 through 8. As you discuss the music, reassure students that they do not need to know any specialized musical vocabulary. Instead, they can use descriptive language like “slow,” “cheerful,” or “mournful.” As students listen, they should note how certain words in the text are magnified by the music.
After leading your class through the musical excerpt, turn to the associated poem or work of visual art. Assign a student to read the brief contextual introduction (also printed below), and then have students study the example, inviting them to identify themes that this artwork and the excerpt from Porgy and Bess have in common. After each set, lead the class in a discussion that explores how the two examples compare to one another. A teacher’s guide to the excerpts is provided below.
Track 5 | “Summertime”
Context: This famous song opens Gershwin’s opera. Clara, a young mother, sings it as a lullaby to her baby.
When the opera begins, it is indeed summer. But in this lullaby, Clara uses the season of summer as a metaphor for a hopeful future: Fish are plentiful, and work is easy (when the cotton is high, you don’t have to lean over to pick it). In the second stanza, Clara imagines a future when her child will strike out on its own. Her language, which mentions a morning when the child will “rise up” and “take the sky,” recalls a religious motif: the resurrection of the righteous on Judgment Day. Clara’s lullaby is a song of comfort and hope, but it still acknowledges that good fortune and easy living may be very far off indeed.
“On Summer,” by George Moses Horton
Context: George Moses Horton (1798–1883) was enslaved on a tobacco plantation in North Carolina. He taught himself to read, and with the assistance of a local novelist, began publishing poetry. He was the first African American to publish a book in the South. Despite his growing fame, he was not permitted to buy his own freedom, although he eventually succeeded in purchasing his “time” from his owner so that he could devote himself to poetry full-time. After the Civil War, Horton spent his last 17 years as a free man in Philadelphia. His poetry explores love, faith, and the beauty of nature (especially that of rural North Carolina), and it also serves as a protest against slavery.
Horton’s exploration of the summer season features a formal poetic structure. He uses a strict ABAB rhyme scheme in each stanza, and each stanza treats a different aspect of summer’s natural beauty (harvests, the stars, birds, etc.). But not all is idyllic: The sixth stanza warns of the dangers lurking behind the beautiful scene.
Track 6 | “My Man’s Gone Now”
Context: Serena, the widow of the man murdered by Crown, sings this lament after her husband’s untimely death.
Serena describes her sadness as Old Man Sorrow, a personification of her loneliness and loss. Old Man Sorrow follows her everywhere, whispering her darkest thoughts back to her and taking the place next to Serena that was once her husband’s. Her music proceeds slowly, and the chorus repeats and amplifies her heartfelt lament.
“The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes
Context: Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was a prolific poet of the Harlem Renaissance. His works, which also include novels, essays, and plays, portray the everyday troubles and joys of African Americans, often using the rhythms and sounds of jazz and invoking the artistic temperament of the blues.
This poem is a vivid example of Hughes’s jazz poetry. Hughes considered jazz and blues to be uniquely African American art forms. As he wrote in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” “Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.” In this poem, Hughes revels in the rhythms and sounds of the blues, even using a brief example of dialect poetry as he quotes his unnamed blues singer. The poem closes by imagining the blues as something that follows the singer everywhere he goes.
Track 7 | “It Take a Long Pull to Get There”
Context: Clara’s husband, the fisherman Jake, sings this song with his fellow fishermen as they go about their work.
Jake switches between folksy descriptions of how he will prevail over the weather and ponderous repetitions of the phrase “it take a long pull to get there,” in which he acknowledges the hard work and struggle needed to accomplish his goal. The result is a jarring juxtaposition of a lighthearted, bragging style and an acknowledgment of profound hardship.
Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South, by Aaron Douglas
Context: Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) was a painter, muralist, and graphic artist, and one of the foremost visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance. His works incorporate African subjects and styles and were admired by prominent thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, who believed that artists should promote their heritage in their artworks. Douglas’s works include several large-scale murals that portray aspects of African American life. In the mural series Aspects of Negro Life, created for the New York Public Library’s Harlem branch (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), Douglas incorporated political and social commentary in his designs.
In Douglas’s mural, the central section—which depicts African Americans singing, dancing, and playing instruments—contrasts strongly with the sections on the right and left, which paint the harsh realities of life in the Deep South. On the right, agricultural laborers toil in the field, bent over with their work. On the left, figures huddle around a rope hanging from a tree, an image of a brutal lynching.
Track 8 | “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way”
Context: The opera ends with Porgy’s resolution to follow Bess to New York.
This song draws on imagery from the Bible, connecting Porgy’s journey to the Israelites’ travel through the desert wilderness to the Holy Land. It is a long, long road, but Porgy asks God to take his hand. The music is grand and hopeful, and the opera ends on a triumphant note.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson
Context: James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, then a relatively racially tolerant community. In addition to writing poetry and novels throughout his life, he was also the first black lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar, served as the principal of a segregated school, wrote songs on Tin Pan Alley in New York, held consular posts in Latin and South America, and served as the head of the NAACP, leading civil rights campaigns and pioneering the organization’s efforts to promote black achievement. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday; it was later adopted by the NAACP as the “Black National Anthem.” With a melody composed by Johnsons’ brother, J. Rosamond.
Johnson’s poem acknowledges the long, dark path towards liberty, but he also calls for every voice to sing with joy when a “new day” of freedom finally dawns for his people. Johnson’s poem praises God, who he says stood by his people during their trials and led them to the light of this new day.
Circle back to the discussion from the beginning of class. What aspects of African American life do these works of literature and art portray? Do they have a subtext or underlying purpose? How do students feel about Gershwin’s treatment of similar themes?
Now that students have developed a familiarity with the characters, themes, and imagery of Porgy and Bess, as well as with work by a collection of contemporaneous African American artists, introduce the creative project that serves as the culmination of their study: a “community quilt,” each panel of which will be created by a different student. Students will choose the subject for their panel from the array of characters, themes, and authors studied in the preceding lesson and develop a caption that encapsulates what the panel depicts. Students should pick a topic that is personally relevant or which they find exciting or moving. Examples could include something like the following:
- For Clara, summertime is a metaphor for a happy future.
- Blues is the language of sorrow and loss.
- James Weldon Johnson wrote the “Black National Anthem.”
- The struggle was long for the inhabitants of Catfish Row.
For reference, you may want to introduce students to the work of the artist Jacob Lawrence and his 60-part Migration Series. Each of Lawrence’s panels (which include captions describing their content) portray an aspect of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern industrial cities at the beginning of the 20th century.
You should devote the remainder of the class period to helping students brainstorm their panel subject matter. A Panel Organizer sheet is provided at the end of the reproducible handouts. Students may refer back to the synopsis, the “Who’s Who in Porgy and Bess” chart, and the reproducible handouts from the lesson. After students decide on a topic, they can move on to thinking about how they will portray their topic artistically. They may compose a new poem, depict their topic visually, compose a collage, or utilize any other form of artistic depiction that occurs to them. Explain that their panel will fit on a letter-sized foam sheet, but they may use any other kind of material (including printed images and found objects) to decorate it.
As students work on collecting their thoughts, move through the room and pass out a foam sheet to each student, answering any questions that students may have. By the time class ends, students should have at least decided on a caption and made some preliminary notes on the content of their quilt panels.
As a take-home activity, students should complete the decoration of their community quilt squares, using any material they choose: construction paper, paper with their original text, printed images, found objects, etc. Their captions should appear somewhere on their panels as well.
When students return to class, you may choose to have them present their panels, explaining why they chose their subject, what it means to them, and why they chose to portray it the way they did. Afterward, collect all of the panels. Organize them into rows and columns, and using small strings of yarn, tie knots to “sew” your community quilt together. It can then be hung on a wall in your classroom or elsewhere in your school!