Estimated Time: Thirteen 50-minute class sessions with out-of-class time for research, drafting and preparing projects.
Ralph Ellison, musician-turned-writer, wrote Invisible Man like a jazz composition. The novel has many solo parts, and the events seem improvised as the unnamed main character goes from the south to the north, with many ups and downs. His life is a sad song, illuminated in the end with his self-made light bulbs that seem to cry, “Why am I so black and blue?”
In this lesson, students explore recurring themes of invisibility and jazz by reading excerpts of the novel, writing about major characters, summarizing events, connecting jazz themes with key concepts in the novel and creating new interpretations of the impact of jazz on Invisible Man. Students will use the discussions and reading and writing experiences to compose documented essays in a class book that describes the influence of jazz on Ralph Ellison as a writer.
- interpret key themes and concepts in Invisible Man that are also found in jazz compositions;
- describe the influence of jazz on the characters in Invisible Man; and,
- explain the influence of jazz on Ralph Ellison as a writer.
- Copies of the novel Invisible Man for all students
- Copies of the poem “I, Too” by Langston Hughes
- PBS JAZZ, Episodes Two (“The Gift”), Three (“Our Language”), and Four (“The True Welcome”)
- Lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue”
- Instrumental jazz selections on audio tapes or CD’s
General Supplies and Equipment
- Student journals
- Cassette recorder and blank audio tapes
- Computers with internet access and word processing software
- VCR and television
- Overhead and transparencies
- Wide markers in a variety of colors
- Loose-leaf binder for class book
- Introduce the lesson by encouraging students to view JAZZ Episode Four, “Mr. Armstrong” beginning approximately 13 minutes into the film and ending at approximately 41 minutes with the next title “Elegance.”
The first ten minutes or so covers the ways in which Armstrong broke into the more popular New York City venues which were for white audiences. Then the segment focuses on Armstrong’s major contribution to American vocal music. At approximately 26 minutes he sings a powerful song, “Black and Blue,” about what it means to be black in a white world.
Discuss the meaning of the lyrics and the implication of being “black and blue.” Have students speculate about the speaker and the feelings expressed. Guide students in their speculations by asking whether Black and blue refer to mood, skin tone, the inability to be seen in certain circumstances, physical injury, etc.
- State the objectives and relevant standards. Be certain that students understand what is expected of them.
Rubric for Evaluating Song Lyrics
3—Lyrics demonstrate complete understanding of color connotations, meaning of the song is clear, language is descriptive and interesting, presentation (reading or singing) has a “professional” tone, presentation is clearly heard and understood.
2—Lyrics demonstrate some understanding of color connotations, meaning of the song is somewhat clear, language is interesting, presentation is complete, presentation is slightly amateurish, presentation is slightly difficult to hear and understand.
1—Lyrics are few and do not show understanding of color connotations, meaning is unclear, language is repetitious and uninteresting, very amateurish, difficult to hear and understand.
3—Is insightful with fully developed ideas, has clear sentences written in a variety of patterns, has effective transitions, has specific and relevant details that reflect the purpose, is appropriately organized, has precise, vivid and expressive word choice, represents exemplary writing.
2—Is insightful with developed ideas, has clear sentences written in a variety of patterns, uses transitions, has relevant details that reflect the purpose, is appropriately organized, represents commendable writing.
1—has limited development of ideas, no evidence of purpose or theme, repetitious sentence pattern, ineffective transitions, extraneous details, represents limited understanding of assignment.
3—Well organized, original and unique approach, engaging and provocative, demonstrates understanding of the plot of the selection, easily heard and understood, evidence of rehearsal and preparation, appropriate props, participation of most group members.
2—Thoughtfully organized, instances of uniqueness, provocative, demonstrates understanding of the plot of the selection, easily heard and understood, evidence of some rehearsal and preparation, props, participation of most group members.
1—Slightly organized, predictable and bland approach, shows no understanding of or relationship to the plot of the selection, difficult to hear and understand, no evidence of advance planning and rehearsal, no props, limited participation of group members.
4—Clearly communicates understanding of key information, clear and coherent organization, participation of most group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience, goes beyond expectations.
3—Demonstrates understanding of key concepts, clear organization, content relates to the purpose, participation of most of the group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience.
2—Demonstrates misinformation of some key concepts, weak organization, somewhat relates to purpose, participation by at least half of the group members, some evidence of originality or creativity, somewhat engages the audience.
1—Demonstrates obvious misconceptions or misinformation, too many vocal fillers, lacks coherent organization, does not relate to purpose, lack of participation of most group members, little or no evidence of creativity, does not engage the audience.
3—Clear focus, appropriate and effective organization, effective transitions, clearly stated purpose, vivid sensory details, relevant details that support the theme, few or no errors in grammar, mechanics, usage and spelling, consistent, careful and precise word choice.
2—Clear focus, appropriate organization, transitions, stated purpose, vivid sensory details, relevant details that support the theme, minor errors in grammar, mechanics, usage and spelling, precise word choice.
1—Unfocused, no noticeable organization, ineffective or inappropriate transitions, unclear purpose, details that are unrelated to purpose, few sensory details, numerous errors in mechanics, grammar, usage and spelling, general and imprecise word choice.
Extensions / Adaptations
- Play the Louis Armstrong tape or CD, “Black and Blue.” Explain that Andy Razaf wrote the song. Direct students to find out more about Andy Razaf, paying close attention to why he wrote this song and what other Razaf songs may have influenced the theme of Invisible Man.
- Research references to blue and Black in jazz selections of the period during which Ellison was writing. Explain how they might have influenced character development. Examples include songs by Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters.
- Divide the class into groups and have them role play characters and/or scenes. Freeze the players and have other students give an oral commentary on the role-plays.
- Construct an examination for students who were assigned to read the prologue to Invisible Man.
- Create a newspaper front page for activities of Andy Razaf, the narrator in Invisible Man, and Louis Armstrong. Include fillers that depict other Harlem activities.
- Rewrite one or more scenes from Invisible Man into another genre, such as drama or poetry.
- Use the Lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” to write and perform a skit or narrative.
- “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” by Andy Razaf in Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Edited by Eric J. Sundquist, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, Boston 1995.
- “The Music of Invisibility” by Tony Tanner in Modern Critical Views: Ralph Ellison, Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1986.
“The Sound of Music” in Black Americans of Achievement: Ralph Ellison, by Jack Bishop, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1988.
(Texts containing the essays are widely available in school and public libraries.)
Classic Note: Invisible Man www.classicnote.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/invisibleman
Relevant National Standards
- NCTE and IRA
- Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
- Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
- Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- Conduct research on issues and interest by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems.
Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning
Understands the relationship between music and history and culture (Music).
Understands the cause of the Great Depression and how it affected American society (United States History)
About the Authors
Judith Kelly, currently director of the D.C. Area Writing Project, taught middle school for 27 years in the District of Columbia Public School System. She was recently honored by the D.C. Council of Teachers of English.
Patricia Bradford, chairperson of the English Department at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince Georges County, Maryland, was recently named Prince George’s County Teacher of the Year.
Consentine Morgan, currently academic dean at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Washington, DC, has taught English for 28 years. She is one of the three 1999-2000 ACE-Intel Teacher Summer Institute grand prize winners for her lesson plan integrating technology into history and English language arts.