Back to Spring 2006 English Syllabus

Essay 1 – The Problems and Promise of American Life

Lewis Hine, Textile Workers (1909)

For the first few weeks of class we will be looking at artists, photographers, and writers whose works respond to the times in which they lived. At its finest, art has the power to illuminate and even to transform. In your first essay examine how one of the following artists has illuminated an important historical issue.

Your essay should begin with an introduction that includes a clear thesis, or “road map.” In this kind of essay your reader does not expect surprises. You should outline what you intend to do in the essay and then follow through. Carefully include in-text parenthetical citations for any material you either quote directly or paraphrase. Conclude your essay with a separate Works Cited page in which you arrange your sources, including the sources for your images, alphabetically according to MLA standards.

Compose an essay which is 750 -1000 words in length, double spaced, typed in 12 point standard font, and stapled in the left-hand corner.

Effective college level essays move past “what” and concentrate on “how” or “why.” Here are some suggestions for topics. Note how the suggestions are posed in the form of questions. The answers to the questions can become thesis statements for essays.

Consider one of the following as a focus of your essay:

The Native American “Problem”:

Zitkala Sa was the first Native American woman to tell her own story in her own voice, without a translator. How does she illuminate the problems of an American Indian girl who is forced to “fit in” to the culture of “a superior race”? How does she make the reader understand and sympathize with her plight of being caught between two worlds? You might include some background information about Indian boarding schools. Several excellent websites have information, history, and photographs. Include two images in your paper.

The Woman “Problem”:

How does “The Yellow Wallpaper” illuminate attitudes toward women at the end of the nineteenth century? Look at “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper” and decide how Charlotte Perkins Gilman condemns the practice of isolating women who are “mentally unstable.” Use your best search techniques to find out more about how doctors in the nineteenth century treated women like the narrator of the story. Include two images in your paper. You can find some really interesting images illustrating treatment of mental illness at the time Gillman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

The Immigrant “Problem”:

Photographer Jacob Riis exposed the stark reality of the lives of the poor in New York City at the end of the 19th century. Look at again at How the Other Half Lives and at Riis’ haunting photographs. How does he argue for improving conditions of tenement life? Include two of Riis’ images, “read” and interpret them, and explain how they make a visual argument for reform.

The Child Labor “Problem”:

Photographer Lewis Hine used his lens as an instrument for change to alter American policy toward child labor. Investigate how he managed to record the exploitation of children in mines and factories while working for the Child Labor Bureau. Find Hine’s photographs that expose child labor practices. Include two of these images, “read” and interpret them, and explain how they make a visual argument for reform.

The “Problem” of Black Americans:

The poetry of Langston Hughes defines the experience of African Americans while both celebrating and protesting the condition of being black in America. “Let America Be America Again,” and “I, Too” speak to the shortcomings and the potential of the American experience. What conclusions can you draw about how Hughes sees America’s faults and possibilities? Or, reread “Ballad of the Landlord” and examine how the poem becomes a cry of protest. Include two images in your essay.


How does Hughes’ poetry reflect the ideas that he expresses in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”? Include two images in your essay.

The “Problem” of Poverty and Displacement:

Look at the Depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans. Choose two of Lange’s or Evans’ images and examine how they visually construct a powerful human narrative for this decade long nightmare in America.

The “Promise” of Modern America:

Photographer Lewis Hine also chronicled the rise of the modern American city in his photographs recording the building of the Empire State Building. Find his series of photographs that celebrate both the men and the towers of the new metropolis. Include two images in your essay, “read” and interpret them, and explain how they make a visual argument for the power and possibility of this achievement.

The “Promise” of the Harlem Renaissance:

In his “Great Migration” series Jacob Lawrence portrays the experience of “[t]he migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdl[ing] several generations of experience at a leap” (Locke). Lawrence conceived of this series as a single narrative, telling the story of black migration to the North. The paintings at first seem simplistic; however, he manages to create great drama. How does he do this? Could you talk about his series in the same way you would talk about a short story or a novel? Include two images in your essay.


Alain Locke, in “Enter the New Negro,” states the following: “In the intellectual realm a renewed and keen curiosity is replacing the recent apathy; the Negro is being carefully studied, not just talked about and discussed. In art and letters, instead of being wholly caricatured, he is being seriously portrayed and painted.” Look at Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Sargent Johnson, Winold Reiss (a white, German artist), the photographer James Van Der Zee, or another artist of African American life and outline how his/her work takes the subject of African American life seriously. Include two images in your essay.


Although he was born at the high point of the Harlem Renaissance, John Biggers (1924-2001), founder of the art department at Texas Southern University, was the artistic descendent of the earlier Renaissance artists by furthering “the revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective” (Locke). How does the work of Biggers draw upon African tradition and make it meaningful to the present? Include two images in your essay.

Is music your interest? Think about this:

J. A. Rogers writes in “Jazz at Home” in the March 1925 Survey Graphic that jazz has become “common property and . . . has absorbed the national spirit, that tremendous spirit of go, the nervousness, lack of conventionality and boisterous good-nature characteristic of the American, white or black, as compared with the more rigid formal natures of the Englishman or German.” Consider the prominence of music in much of the African American art we have seen. Can you draw any conclusions about why musical images appear so often in the art or how the artists make you “hear” the images? Include two images in your essay.

You can probably come up with many other possibilities or variations on the suggestions above. We’re happy to talk to you about any other inspiration you might have for an essay.

Essay due: Beginning of class, Tuesday, March 21


  • Paper typed, double spaced, in standard 12 point font, stapled in the left-hand corner
  • 750 - 1000 words in length
  • Original title that catches the reader’s interest
  • Introduction with clear thesis statement
  • Paragraphs that support your thesis
  • In-text parenthetical citations for material paraphrased or quoted directly
  • Conclusion
  • A separate Works Cited page acknowledging sources for text and images in MLA format
  • 2 images as evidence and illustration for your argument

Work Cited

Locke, Alain. “Enter the New Negro.” Survey Graphic March 1925. 3 January 2005.

Reproduction of Textile Workers:

Hine, Lewis. Textile Workers. 1909. Online image. American Studies II. St. Vincent College. <>

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