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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Art as response to racial injustice

July 1, 2022

 

NEW YORK – DECEMBER 1957: Singer Billie Holiday records her penultimate album ‘Lady in Satin at the Columbia Records studio in December 1957 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how journalists and artists responded to the practice of lynching and racial injustice in the U.S., including learning about the journalism of Ida B. Wells and artistic expression such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Students will then create their own artistic project — either poetry or a “quilt” collage of related images that depict contemporary incidents of racial injustice.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the history and “viral spread” to lynching and how it has been depicted in media in the U.S. since 1865.
  • Students will determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary sources on lynching and racial injustice. 
  • Students will choose to express thoughts about the history of lynching through a medium of artistic expression such as poetry or collage.

Subjects

English language arts, fine arts, U.S. history, U.S. government & civics, criminal justice, legal studies.

Estimated Time

One or two 50-minute class periods

Full Lesson

View

For a Google version of this lesson plan, click here. (Note: you will need to make a copy of the document to edit it).

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.

— Ida B. Wells

Warm-up activity

In this activity, students will read about Ida B. Wells on the NewsHour Classroom site Journalism in Action: Civic Engagement and Primary Sources Through Key Moments in History, answer discussion questions and write down key terms that they notice in the articles about Wells. 

  1. Visit this page on Journalism in Action’s muckraker case study on Ida B. Wells, legendary journalist and activist. Have students read through the articles on the page, answer the questions and highlight or write down any key terms (including “lynching”) they run across in the news excerpts.
  2. As a class, begin a conversation about annotated words. Consider generating student-sourced definitions of any key words volunteered by participants. For instance, what does Wells mean by “lynching” based on this page?

Main activity

Part one

A. Give students time to read this PBS NewsHour article on Billie Holiday and her song “Strange Fruit”

B. As a class, discuss the following questions:

  • What are the invisible allowances that gave lynching a platform in post Civil War American society?
  • Why did artists such as Billie Holiday and journalists like Ida B. Wells risk their careers to shine the light on the injustice of lynching?
  • Why do Black Americans not trust government authorities after freedom/emancipation then and now
  • How did oppressors “revamp” racism post Civil War (i.e. Jim Crow, voting rights removed for Black Americans)? 
  • How did local/state law “overrule” federal government rights as guaranteed by the 13th Amendment?

Part two

  1. As a class, watch this NewsHour video.
  1. As students watch, have them annotate what aspects or stories of life in America are captured in the quilts featured in the piece.
  2. When the video ends, discuss: How does quilting or collage (images linked together in one piece) help tell a complex story?

Part three

  1. Choose a media of artistic expression that’s right for your classroom: quilting/collage or poetry/song lyrics. If you like, you may allow students to choose which form of expression is right for them.
  2. Have students generate a list of contemporary moments of racial injustice they may have heard about in the news. Each item in the list can become an image in the quilt/collage or inspiration for poetry. 
    • If students are building a quilt/collage, they may choose to cut images from magazines/news sources or draw from news images online for inspiration.
    • If students are choosing poetry/song lyrics, they can draw inspiration from “Strange Fruit” or a contemporary poem inspired by the lyrics of “Strange Fruit.” They may also include an artistic statement explaining their inspiration for the poem, as in this example by the author of the lesson. 

Teacher’s note: Teachers should consider encouraging students to choose imagery that is sensitive to the feelings of fellow classmates. While violent scenes may be necessary for expression, be aware that some depictions of racial violence may upset other participants. Teachers should consider ground rules that are right for their classrooms. 

3. Students can share their work, or “quilt” their work by combining images and/or poems into one ridded or “quilted” group work. 

Extension activity

Have students analyze the following Bryan Stevenson quote using the 5-step analysis strategy described in this post from the Rutgers Writing Center.

“The racial terrorism of lynchings in many ways created the modern death penalty. America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while ensuring white southerners that black men would still pay the ultimate price.”

― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption


Jean Darnell is a Black American, a 20-year veteran public school librarian and an educator with Texas State Certification for English and ESL (6-12) and school librarianship (Pre-K-12). Jean has a B.S.E from Baylor University and a Master of Information Science from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

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