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The Reading Quilt: ‘Rachel’ and black joy

The play depicts an African American family, whose members are emotionally affected by racism in 1916.

Jessica Johnson plays the title role in Angelina Weld Grimké’s “Rachel” during rehearsal by the Quintessence Theatre Group in Mount Airy earlier this year. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The expression “home is where the heart is” reminds us all that home is the place where you are safe to be the real and true you. Nothing is more beautiful than unbridled joy protected by the warmth and compassion of the family hearth and home. When carefully tended by the loving arms of the momma, brother and sister, the home becomes a cocoon of comfort and source of self-care. It is the refuge from a storm.

What happens, however, when a raging storm pushes itself into the home, by way of the mind or a broken heart, threatening a person’s mental state and personal space?

The play Rachel depicts an African American family whose members are emotionally affected by racism in 1916. It is one that high school students may study. Plays are the perfect genre through which we can examine the human condition. In high schools, playwrights like William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Sophocles tend to be headliners. Our African American playwrights, such as Pulitzer prize winners Charles Fuller, a Philadelphia native, and Pittsburgh’s August Wilson, a Pittsburgh native, as well as James Ijames, Ozzie Jones, and Angelina Weld Grimké, are sometimes overlooked by curriculum writers.

Each month “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book or play that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, we offer readers information about the Quality of writing, Universal theme, and Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise.

This month’s selection is Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel.

Angelina Weld Grimké

Angelina was born in Boston in 1880 to a biracial father and European mother. Both her parents were activists. Her father, Archibald Grimké, was a lawyer, and her mother Sarah was an abolitionist. History books note the Grimke sisters as the “only White Southern women who became abolitionists.” When Angelina was very young, her parents’ marriage suffered under the weight of oppressive racism. When they split up, Angelina went to live with her mother for a spell. Not too long after, her mother relinquished custody to Archibald and cut all ties with the family. Sadly, the family would learn that Sarah later had died by way of suicide.

Quality of writing: In Rachel, a three-act play, the audience is first engulfed by the Loving family. Tight-knit, despite having little monetary means in 1916, the family members offer an abundance of love to Jimmy Mason, a neighborhood boy who needs a safe haven. Through expertly crafted dialogue and heart-rending soliloquies, the audience experiences the joys and tragedy of being black in the North.

Universal theme: In her play, Grimké spins a drama that unabashedly depicts a family enjoying each other’s love and affection. Rachel, the play’s protagonist, is a free-spirited young lady with joy overflowing, who can hardly be contained by the elders in her life. Despite her mother’s dismay, Rachel’s quest to protect the “brown and black children” in her neighborhood and perhaps the whole world propels Rachel into a downward spiral.

Imaginative plot: Grimké wrote the play, promoted by the NAACP as “race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people,” as a way to give the public a glimpse into the phenomenon referred to as “black joy” and its counterpart “black boy joy.”

Lesson plan: “Black joy,” a popular subject in black culture, is permeating mainstream society. Students can learn why this term exists.

Talking points: Loosely defined, “black joy” is a celebration of African American culture and our art of survival.

  1. What events led black people to create hashtags, videos, and TikToks about the innate joy that African Americans feel when loving their blackness?
  2. What plays, by African American playwrights, depict black joy?
  3. In what ways do you celebrate African American culture?

Dr. Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book titled “Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature ” will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2020. To contact her, email literacyuniversity@gmail.com. For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to literacyuniversity.org.

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