|Study Questions/ Suggestions for Essay Topics /Activities & Projects|
• Essay– There are several turning points in this autobiography, not just one climactic moment as one might find in a typical novel. From having his father almost strangle him, to his mother’s death, to his acceptance that he is indeed a genuine black man, Brian experiences many turning points in his life. In an expository essay, examine the major turning points, first for young Brian, and then for the adult Brian. You should plan to discuss at least three turning points for each stage of his life.
• Essay - In a literary analysis essay, describe the effects of racism on Brian’s mental health from the time he is a youngster to the present. Trace the growth of Brian’s depression from the time early in his life (Pg. 25 – “What was it about my very existence that so offended people?”) that seems to be the beginning of Brian’s depression to his finally giving in to the depression and attempting to take his own life. (Chapter 13) Be certain to use specific examples from the book to support your conclusions.
• Essay - Brian often uses humor throughout the book to illustrate and comment upon the situation and events he describes. In an expository type essay, select and examine at least 3 humorous sections, describing them thoroughly for your reader and explaining just what it is that makes these sections funny.
• Essay – Brian introduces many chapters with a quote from sources such as political statements, newspaper articles, civil rights hearings, and even jokes. Write a literary analysis type of essay in which you examine his use of these quotes and explain how the quotations comment upon, contribute to, or enhance our understanding of the content of the chapter. Use at least 3 quotes and chapters to examine in detail in the body of your essay.
• Essay - “If I lose control, they win,” is one of the most important concepts that Carolyn tries to instill in herself and in her family. In a persuasive essay, explain first what she means, then discuss whether or not you agree with her. Could there be two ways of looking at crying? Brian was crying when he was threatening Sylvester with the butcher knife. Was he weak then? On the other hand, most people do find crying or yelling hysterically to be a sign of weakness, allowing the other person to win. Give some examples from your own experience, or from the book. Show how you feel about her quote, and try to convince your reader that your point of view is correct.
• Essay – “Man can be destroyed, but not defeated!” says the main character in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. In a critical analysis essay, examine how that quote is a major theme in Not A Genuine Black Man. First, explain the meaning of the quote. Describe specific instances from the book that show Brian and his family standing up to great odds, sometimes even life threatening circumstances that could destroy them. Consider if the book itself is an example of not allowing oneself to be defeated.
• Essay – In an expository essay, explain the attitude of most of the white residents of San Leandro toward blacks living in their town when Brian and his family first moved in. Compare the condition of blacks in San Leandro then (in the 70s) to the present times. This topic could also be discussed in a research essay.
• Essay – Critically analyze the effects Sylvester had upon Brian’s character. Be certain to include how Sylvester’s negative parenting influenced Brian in all stages of his life – his childhood, his adulthood, and in his own parenting skills. Definitely discuss the meeting Brian had with his father when Brian is sixteen years old.
• Essay – Compare and contrast the effects Brian’s Mother had on his character with his Grandmother’s influences on Brian. Be sure to show the importance of Carolyn’s decision to move to San Leandro and her precept about “not crying” to Brian’s development. Also show how Carolyn’s decision to sue the landlord and her choice of attorney influenced young Brian. With Seur, be certain to include a discussion of the “hot water incident” and her phone call near the end telling him to “get his black ass up.”
• Essay – In a persuasive essay, discuss the essential question of the book – what is a genuine black man? What is your definition of a genuine black man? Be certain to include what the author of the hate mail means when he says that Brian is not a genuine black man. You might examine why it seems that the criminal element is revered and the educated black people are often “put down” by their own race. Reread the last paragraph on page 92 and the first paragraph on page 93 where Brian discusses the effects of black criminals on himself. Why do you think that the whole black race must take responsibility for all crimes any individual black person commits, when white people aren’t blamed for crimes white criminals commit? Conclude by showing how Brian finally comes to terms with this question and how your original definition of a Genuine Black Man is the most appropriate.
Note: The following types of essays could be used in any class that is reading Not A Genuine Black Man. From Black Studies, to English, Social Studies, Psychology, or Theatre classes, the instructors can choose the types of topics/essays that fit the outcome they want to achieve. These samples could also help the instructor design an essay exam for the book, choosing questions that would elicit anything from short answer essays to five paragraph compositions. Using several expository topics for short answer essays and allowing the students to choose from among Literary, Reflective, Persuasive, et cetera, for a longer essay could be one type of final exam on the book.
Expository: The function of the expository essay is to explain, or to acquaint the reader with a body of knowledge. By explaining a topic to the reader, the students are demonstrating their knowledge.
"Describe one of the incidents in the book when Brian was attacked – verbally or physically -- because of his race."
“Explain what the term “block busting” means in real estate.”
When the students are to write an essay describing an incident or characters from the book, they must decide what they plan to concentrate on, create a paragraph structure, and describe the incident or process step by step. An essay becomes more complicated when a position has to be defended, as in a persuasive essay.
Persuasive: In the persuasive essay, the students must defend their side of an argument. They are no longer simply “showing” what happened in the book, they are convincing the reader that their position is the most reasonable.
"Prejudice is still a severe problem in the communities of the S. F. Bay area the Bay Area today."
“The white residents of 1970s San Leandro are misunderstood and victims themselves of their society.”
The persuasive essay must choose a side, make a case for it, consider and refute alternative arguments, and prove to the undecided reader that the opinion it presents is the best one. The students must be aware of the other sides’ opinions, and be fair to them; dismissing them completely will weaken the student’s own argument. It is always best for the students to take a side that they believe in, preferably with the most supporting evidence. Although it can often be educational to adopt a different position from what the student might normally choose (debating requires this kind of flexibility).
Types of Evidence: Evidence consists of specific examples or opinions of others which support and illustrate your thesis. Students should give several examples rather than just one, making sure that there is sufficient evidence to make a strong point; the evidence must also be relevant, reliable, and representative.
Evidence comes from either primary or secondary sources. The primary source is the book, or documents that deal directly with the topic. Secondary sources are opinions or interpretation of others on the topic (The students’ essays become a secondary source, should anyone wish to quote from them).
In literary essays especially, it is important that the students have a good grasp of the primary source and have formed their own opinions about it before they turn to secondary sources. Although secondary sources can help support their views, teachers & professors are usually most interested in what the students think about the book.
Autobiographical: The autobiographical essay describes a personal incident that has had an important effect upon the writer, and the conclusion makes a point which may have significant importance to the community or society as a whole. Almost any incident from Not A Genuine Black Man is a perfect example of this type of writing.
Sample topics: “A time I had to stand up and be “the man of the family was…..”
“I used to be a victim of bullying/racism/prejudice at school.”
The autobiographical essay begins with a vivid description of the incident and people involved. The essay should include anecdotes, and dialogue when appropriate.
The essay concludes with the student writer asking the reader to reflect on the human experience.
Informal: The informal essay is written mainly for enjoyment. It can certainly be informative or persuasive; however, it is more often a relaxed expression of opinion, observation, humor or pleasure. A good informal essay tends to be personal, has a relaxed, conversational style, yet retains a strong structure and is less rigid than a formal 5 paragraph essay.
"Brian’s grandma throwing hot water on the bigots, reminds me of a time in my life when…..."
“Brian is blessed to have a grandma like Seur.”
The informal essay tends to be personal, expressing subjective opinions. Informal essays are often journalistic in style, with short paragraphs and a clear statement of purpose. They use concrete illustrations and examples in the body of the essay and the conclusion tends to be a general statement of what may happen in the future.
Reflective: A reflective essay is written because a specific incident, experience, character, or occasion in the book being read causes the students to be reminded of an incident or event from their own life. It carefully and vividly recreates the incident from the book, then ties the incident to the student’s personal experience.
Sample topics: "The incident when Brian is stoned by the bullies, reminds me of a time when I was the bully.”
“Like Brian’s friend Jon Regan, my best friend from grammar school was also lonely at first.”
The reflective essay, though generally informal, uses concrete, sensory language, quotations, and narrative accounts that effectively use dialogue, action, and pacing. Important to a reflective essay is the analysis of the personal experience by looking at more than one angle. The conclusion should always show how the occasion and personal incident are important to society in general. Not A Genuine Black Man is an excellent example of the reflective essay.
The Review: A review may be either formal or informal, depending on the context. Its goal is to evaluate a work, which implies that the reviewer's personal opinion plays a significant role in the process. However, a certain objective standard needs to be maintained and, as in a persuasive essay, any assertions need to be proved.
Sample titles: "Growing up Black in White America: A Review of Brian Copeland’s Not A Genuine Black Man."
"’I'll never let them win,’ says young Brian Copeland, but he has a winner with Not A Genuine Black Man."
The formality of the review will be determined by how much of the essay is analysis, how much is summary, and how much is the students’ reaction to the book. A more formal review will not only discuss the work on its own merits but also place it in context. A good review will discuss both the qualities and the importance of the book. Be sure to check out reviews of Not a Genuine Black Man on Brian’s web site.
Literary Criticism: The literary essay explores the meaning and construction of a piece of literature. Usually using the classic five paragraph organization, the literary essay focuses on such elements as structure, character, theme, style, tone, and subtext. The students are taking a piece of writing and trying to discover how and why it is put together the way it is. They must adopt a viewpoint – select a thesis statement -- on the work in question and show how the details of the work support their viewpoint.
Sample topics: "It is inevitable that young black children experience depression because of the racial prejudice they experience all their lives."
“Constantly pushing down his feelings and bottling up his emotions are major reasons for Brian’s severe depression.”
A literary essay may be the students own interpretation, based only on their reading of the book, or it may be a mixture of their opinions and references to the criticism of others, much like a research paper. Again, they need to be careful not to plagiarize. If they are going to consult the critics, they should reread the book and make some notes on it before reading any criticism. That way they will avoid being influenced by the more experienced critics.
Research Essay: The research essay asks the students to delve into the writing of others on the book, and to compare their thoughts about the text with the opinions of others. Writing a research paper involves going to source material and synthesizing what is learned from it with their own ideas.
Sample topic: "Racism in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s"
“The psychological effects of Racism on Black children.”
The research essay asks the students to look into the works of others and compare the thoughts with their own. Writing a research paper involves going to source material and synthesizing what is learned from it with their own ideas. The students must find texts/videos/web sites on the subject and use them to support the topic they have chosen to explore which is prompted by Brian’s book. Because it is easy to become lost in an enormous amount of outside material, they must take particular care to keep their topic in a manageable size for the essay.
The greatest danger inherent in the research essay is plagiarism. If the paper consists of a string of quotations or paraphrases with little input of their own, the students are not synthesizing but copying, and should expect a low grade. If any of the borrowings are unacknowledged, they are plagiarizing, and the penalties are severe. Check with the MLA style sheet (or other appropriate guides) for proper methods of giving credit for quotations or borrowed ideas both as footnotes in the text of the paper and as bibliography or List of Works Cited.