Two 50-minute class periods

Identity and Individuality: Exploring Art & Literature

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Build a vocabulary for students to use when focusing on the dilemma of decision-making
  • Analyze how their environment informs the ways in which they interact with the world
  • Analyze examples of art and literature which depict the struggle between individual identity and the larger society.


This lesson outline explores the work of Glenn Ligon and Zora Neale Hurston in order to examine complicated questions about their own identity and how they are perceived by others. Readings and resources from Choosing to Participate are used to help students make the connection between issues of identity and decision making.


While this lesson requires little historical context, it is necessary to place its core ideas within the context of American history. The work of Glenn Ligon and Zora Neale Hurston relate directly to the "white and colored only" signs that marked segregation. Ligon's work also echoes the block print posters that papered cities like Boston and New York after the fugitive slaw law of 1850 was passed. Jesus Colon's essay Little Things are Big is set in the New York City of the 1950's. During this period, the white ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn were changing as African Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Latino immigrants were moving in. This process created the turbulent society in which Colon's story occurs.



It may be helpful to print these images out, or make overhead transparencies for classroom use.



  • Untitled: Four Etchings is related to the black and white, text-based paintings which established Ligon's reputation. This 1992 set consists of four images filled with repetitive sequences of stenciled quotations. These are layered, smudged, and distorted to challenge received notions about, in Ligon's words, "race as a social category." Two prints in black ink on white paper incorporate sentences from the Harlem writer Zora Neale Hurston's 1928 essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me." Ligon has stated that these "play with the notion of becoming 'colored,' and how that 'becoming' obscures meaning (obscures the text) and also creates this beautiful abstract thing." Two images printed in black on black paper quote the first lines of Ralph Ellison's 1952 book Invisible Man. Ligon cites Ellison's metaphor of invisibility, describing the position of the African American "as ghost, present and real but, because of the blindness of racism, remaining unseen."


  1. Start a discussion with several key questions:

    • What is identity? How much of who you are is determined at your birth?
    • How much of it is something you decide?
    • How much of it something that is determined by your experiences with others?

    These questions can be used as a warm up exercise; as a way to stretch students thinking before beginning the main part of the activity. You may choose to return to them after using the resources to ground the students thinking.

  2. Introduce Glenn Ligon and his work but don't reveal more than basic biographical info: Glenn Ligon is an artist whose work deals with many of the issues related to race and identity. He was born in Brooklyn in 1960 and still lives there.
  3. Display or pass out Untitled: Four Etchings [A] The process below can be used, if necessary, to structure students analysis of these images:

    • Describe the image, but stick only to the description. Because of the apparent simplicity push students to be clear and to pay attention to even the smallest nuance. Keep the list on the board or chart paper to use as a reference.
    • Analyze the image; use the list created above to decode specific parts of the image. Focus on key details (e.g. why are the letters uniform? Why are there more smudges at the bottom (notice how the letters remain distinct)? Why use the word "colored" in a 1991 print?
    • Interpret the image. What do you think Ligon is saying about identity? Have students write their interpretations (5 minutes)
  4. Have students use Think-Pair-Share to discuss their interpretations.

    With the whole class reconvened, present students with several extension questions:

    • Is Ligon just creating images about identity for African Americans, or are there universal messages to his piece? What might they be?
    • If you replaced the word "colored" with other ethnic labels i.e. Irish, Jewish, Colombian, Korean, would the meaning of the piece change?

    At this point, it will be very important for students to consider the range of ideas drawn from the whole class about these images. Additional time for students to reflect on these questions could come as a journal assignment for homework, or in smaller groups during class.

  5. Transition from Ligon to Jesus Colon. Ligon's images are about the struggle between how somebody sees themselves and the way they are perceived by the outside world. Another example of this struggle is found in the story "Little Things are Big". Introduce Jesus Colon's essay Little Things are Big. Start with a brief historical context, and emphasize some of the similarities or difference between New York of the 1950s and New York today. Explain that the goal of reading this is to examine what happens when the choice facing an individual confronts the standards of the larger society.
  6. Read the piece aloud to students up to the line that ends with the "divide and rule policy of present-day society." Stop reading and have students articulate Jesus' dilemma. Invite them to use the information they have to predict what Jesus will do and why. This may be done individually or in small groups.
  7. After allowing small groups or individuals some time to develop predictions, reconvene the larger class for a short discussion/activity:

    • As a class create an identity chart for Jesus, including only descriptions that come from the text of story, and that everybody can agree on.
    • Create a separate chart comparing what Jesus Colon's is risking, with what he might gain.
    • Create a list of how students or small groups think the story will end, and why.

    After sharing these endings, have students discuss who they relate to most in the story and why. Assess which proposed ending seem most likely, and why. Which seem least likely, and why?

  8. Distribute individual copies of the end of the story and read as a group. Have students underline key phrases. Discuss how people felt about the ending. What words and phrases stood out.
  9. After having analyzed Ligon's work and Colon's story, students can meet in small groups to draw comparisons between the two artists. Within their groups, or as a journal assignment, students should address concluding questions:


    • What can we learn from Ligon and Colon about the relationship between individual identity and the larger society?
    • What might Ligon and Colon say to each other if they were to meet? What questions would you want to ask them?


Both follow up activities offer opportunities for assessment. At this point of the scope and sequence, the focus is upon larger ideas rather than specific dates. An assessment goal, therefore, is to evaluate the degree to which students understand these ideas and how they are might be able to apply them to their own lives. Both of these pieces emphasize the tension between how individuals see themselves and how that vision is altered by the society around them. If the classroom is a safe place for students you could use this theme for students to explore in an artistic or literary form. Teachers have also had students create "identity boxes" or two-sided "masks." On the outside of the box, or one side of the mask, students can use collage to reflect on they way they believe they are seen by others; the inside of the box or the other side of the mask is for how the student sees themselves. To do the identity box project, you will need magazines or newspapers, glue, and boxes. If you choose the masks, you can use something as simple as a paper plate or as sophisticated as paper mache.


  1. Have the students re-write Little Things are Big from the woman's point of view. How do they construct an understanding of her character and perspective?
  2. Have the students read Zora Neale Hurston's essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me. Discuss how the essay pushes our thinking about identity and "race"? When does "race" matter? How does it manifest itself?
  3. View Untitled: Four Etchings (Image B), Ligon's untitled series from 1991. What do they add to his original piece? How does their spirit compare with the Zora Neale Hurston essay?

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