Under Her Skin
How Girls Experience Race in America
Edited by Pooja Makhijani
- After reading “Becoming” by Anita Darcel Taylor discuss the author’s childhood friendship with a girl named Jackie. Was it a positive relationship? Why did it end? Does the author have any regrets? Later, when she witnessed a feminist rally her comment to the spectator when asked if she, too, would burn her bra was, “Do you have any idea how much my mother pays for these things?” How is this comment on privilege? How did it open a door to a new friendship?
Extending the lesson: Write a brief paragraph about an incident that opened your own eyes to the wider world around you. Or, research the feminist movement with a different perspective in mind. Was it, as the author found out, a movement of privileged white women? How would it have differed had it been organized by those who needed the changes most?
- In the essay “In Which I Wade” the author declares: “There was only one story I ever heard: universal poverty, unlettered ignorance, a solemn solidarity. A black middle class, a history of rhetoric or letters? In Buffalo? Anywhere? Never heard of it.” (p.35) Do you believe this was a common experience for the time or does this attitude still persists anywhere? How did this influence her treatment of Reezy and Vesta? What has she come to understand about complicity as a result of her relationship with these women? What did she learn from her mother? What did she learn from Reezy and Vest?
Extending the lesson: Write a journal discussing your own preconceived ideas about a group of people. For example, what were taught to think about the homeless? People suffering from mental illness? Do you think all people, regardless of background, hold some prejudices about others? Why or why not?
- In the essay, “A Child’s Christmas in Revere,” the author gives a vivid portrait of a memory. How can one moment like this represent an entire childhood and the belief system about others in which she was raised? Did her father do anything right in her interaction with the stranded family? How did he offend them? Do his good intentions count? How much?
Extending the lesson: Explore your own earliest memories on race. What did you learn in the experience? What does it reveal about what you were taught (if only subconsciously?)
- In “The Last Safe Place” how does the adult world interfere with the balance and equality that the students have managed to carve out? What does the author mean when she says: “We understand each other./ We don’t trust each other./ We never have.” Give examples to justify your response.
Extending the lesson: Do you think that youth today are more accepting of diversity or not? Why? How can young people be raised to accept and discuss the differences between each other without causing more friction?
- Did any facts surprise you in the essay “Except?” What were they? Why was she expected to act better than everyone else? Do you think this survival technique works? Why or why not? What does the author mean by the last line?
Extending the lesson: Write a journal about the last line in the essay. What is the all of you that is most important? How can you help others to see all of you and not just what they expect?
- How did the boycott in fifth grade change the author’s world view in the essay “The Teach-In?” Discuss the author’s difficult relationship with her father. Why was it so tumultuous? How did she think her mother was able to love all parts of him?
Extending the lesson: Research the effects of boycott and other passive resistance movements in the United States. Which ones were most effective? Why?
- In “Beat the Buddha Day” the author learns an early strategy for handling violence: “No Words= No Reality. I’d learned to swallow trauma.” How did the parents also seem to subscribe to this formula? How did their silence make these events more difficult for its victims?
Extending the lesson: Do you think survivors of any type of violence use this formula (No Words= No Reality) to cope? Why? Do you think silence can promote violence? When?
- Discuss Karen Elias’s upbringing in “Mirror.” What did her parents try to teach her? Did they succeed? What is the significance of the title? Why does the author’s mother discuss Brown vs. the Board of Education only with African Americans? What justifications does she use for her opinions?
Extending the lesson: Research the Emmitt Till case. (And perhaps read the remarkable poetry book A Wreathe for Emmitt Till by Marilyn Nelson) Discuss how the Emmitt Till case “galvanize the country?” Had you been taught about this incident before now? Why do you think so or not?
- What factors in the essay “Homecoming” contributed to the author never feeling at home in either South Dakota or Santa Domingo? How does food “make bridges between communities?” How does her Abuela help her to finally accept who she is?
Extending the lesson: Discuss the types of food that connect your family to each other. How do your celebrations of holidays differ from others? What food most reminds you of home? Bring in a sampling of family favorites to sample!
- What lessons did the author’s parents teach her in the essay “Running Girl?” How were they able to instill such confidence in their children? Why, do you think, the girls didn’t tell their parents about the harassment they faced in the neighborhood?
Extending the lesson: How can bullying and racism be dealt with at schools? How can students feel safe enough to confide in adults when they are being harassed?
- Do you agree with the author’s assessment in “Neon Scars” that “Poetry is both ultimate fact and ultimate fiction; nothing is more brutally honest and, at the same time, more thickly coded.” (p. 138) Do you think the author is capable of rebuilding her life out of such a severe landscape? How?
Extending the lesson: Discuss what personal qualities help a person survive intense trauma. Why do some people crumble while others overcome?
- How did the author’s friendships in “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” make the girls feel ordinary? What does the author mean by the last paragraph? How was the author “more Indian once?” Is this source of grief for her? Why?
Extending the lesson: Write a brief journal about how you’ve changed from your family over time. Are you less like them or more like them than in the past? Why? Was this a conscious decision? Do you think it could ever swing back the other way? When? Why?
- What family history is revealed through the grandmother’s seemingly innocuous talk as she does household chores in the essay “As American as Apple Pie?” How will the author breathe life into her Grandmother’s story? What would you do with this information?
Extending the lesson: Take an oral history about race from one of your most elderly living relatives. Try to get specific details about what life was like when they were young concerning race.
- Discuss the following quote from the essay “Breathing Lessons:”
“ I feel like a displaced person from a war no one will admit to: between mother and daughter, rich and poor, immigrant and native, black and white.” (p.188) Do you think many people have this experience in America? Why? Discuss why the author was chosen as valedictorian.
Extending the lesson: Find and read the accounts of other immigrants from another time period and compare the two experiences. How does the experience of being an immigrant remain the same regardless of the time period? What things have gotten better? Have any conditions become worse? How?
- Trace the dreams of the grandmothers and mothers to their daughters in the essay “Don’t You Want to Sound Puerto Rican?” Why didn’t the author show interest in boys? What things had she endured to attend a privileged school?
Extending the lesson: Make a dreams chart for your own family tree. What were your parents and grandparents dreams and wishes? What wishes did they have for their own children? Whose came true? Whose did not? Why?
- In “An Apology to Althea Connor” the author relates a timeline of a friendship she had as a young girl where she for the first time “puts race at the center of her thinking.” In the end though, we learn that the sequence of events is remembered quite differently by the Althea herself. Whose memory do you believe? Is this fair? Do you think the author should have used Althea’s real name? Why or why not?
Extending the lesson: Discuss whether memory can be flawed. Who has the cornerstone on truth? Can they both be right? How does this inform your relationships with people in your family and friends?
- Compare the author’s suburban and urban lives in “Bionic Child.” Why do you think so many of the suburban parents seemed to believe that “Detroit was a howling post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by roving bands of armed black marauders hell-bent on defiling white children?” (p. 245) Where do these images come from? Why?
Extending the lesson: For one evening, divide the class into sections and each watch a different news show. Each student must record on a chart what stories led the hour, how long each story lasted and what the general content was. The next day, discuss the results.
- In the essay “Black Men” how does the author explore her feelings about race within her own family stories? How many lies do you think are told between the pages of family bibles? Why?
Extending the lesson: Do you think these issues are as divisive in other countries as well? Why or why not? Do you think that most countries have more racial tensions than America or less? What makes you think this?
- What does the author see when she looks in the mirror in the essay “Mangoes and Sugarcane?” How does it change how she feels about herself? Why did she want her face to disappear?
Extending the lesson: What are Americans taught about beauty? Has the image of beauty changed much over the last fifty years? How can the definition of beauty be extended to a wider group of people? Is it our own fault that we’ve bought into the media message or did we help create it?
- Why do you think both the author and her sister wear severe haircuts as adults in the essay “Blonde?” Discuss this quote: “… a kind of guilt for not being happy with what I had, for what I should have been thankful for; it’s a kind of loneliness that never made any sense, since I was surrounded by trees and grass and cats on the bed and by people who loved me.” (p. 292) Why do you think she felt this way?
Extending the lesson: What do you wish people would notice about you? What do you wish they would ignore? Would you ever take such extreme measures (as the authors) to make this so?
- Create a Venn diagram comparing the experience of two (or more) essayist. How are their experiences alike? How are they different? Add your own experiences to the diagram.
- Write your own essay on race as you experienced it in your life. What things were you taught by your family directly? What lessons were more subtle? Would you be willing to publish your essay in a book like Under Her Skin? Why or why not?
- Using magazines and other pictures from the mass media create a collage inspired by your reading of the essays. In a brief journal, explain your piece.
- Drama: As an impromptu exercise, write the titles of the essays on slips of paper (and a brief description perhaps) and then pull two out at random. Then, students can volunteer to have two “characters” from the essays meet for coffee. What might they say to each other? Do you think they would become friends? What would they have in common? These can be acted out in an impromptu fashion, or scripts could be created on paper. (A great small group activity)