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The Vernacular: Suggested Paper Topics

Paper Topics on the Vernacular Tradition

Questions that can serve as the starting point for an essay.

  • Compare and contrast one of the work songs in the Vernacular Tradition section with a blues, jazz, or rap lyric. What formal and rhetorical elements suggest that the work songs constitute the origin of the other forms?
  • Compare and contrast the figure of the vernacular hero in such sacred and spiritual texts as “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” with such secular vernacular heroes as John Henry and Stackolee. What conventions and tropes reveal that these different heroes emerge from the same black folk traditions? What theories of masculinity do the heroes insinuate?
  • How does the quintessential folk hero John Henry compare and contrast with other black vernacular figures such as Railroad Bill and John of “Ah’ll Beatcher Makin’ Money”? What elements of the trickster do these figures share? What primary differences separate them from one another? What different ideas of masculinity do the texts assert?
  • In “A Flying Fool,” the central figure does not let racism stop him from entering heaven because he believes that he belongs there. Consider all of his experiences, and connect the trope of flight to Richard Wright’s Lawd Today, Ralph Ellison’s “Flying Home,” and Sterling A. Brown’s “Slim in Hell.” What difference does it make that the central figure in these works is male?
  • Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon deploys black flight and the trope of the flying African, as do such black vernacular sacred songs as “Two Wings” and “If I Had Wings of a Dove.” What connections do you find between the symbolic motifs of these works? Identify other texts in the anthology that you find also connect to cultural notions of black flight. To what extent are these notions gendered?
  • Amiri Baraka has said that “the Blues could not exist if the African captives did not become the American captives.” What do you understand this idea to mean? What selections from the black vernacular blues tradition do you think support (or refute) this idea?
  • Explicate “Trouble in Mind” to determine the degree to which the lyric expresses hopefulness versus hopelessness. Now compare this attitude to the disposition of the speaker in “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Then analyze “Living for the City” for any similar conventions and tropes that produce moments of utter depression and/or a promise of transcendence. What do your explications reveal about shifts in the blues over time?
  • Explore the signifyin(g) effects of the blues selections in this section by analyzing the extent to which several texts borrow from one another, sample a line or riff from one another, and so on. What other features of intertextuality function to create a tradition among these works?
  • Support or refute the contention that sermons combine elements of spiritual and gospel terminology to form an anecdote bearing a social, political, or religious message. Draw on selections in the Vernacular Tradition section of the anthology to validate your argument.
  • Traditionally, sermons in the Black pulpit generally teach in a call and response style and assume the congregation’s full attention. Thus, sermonic elements of drama and improvisation create tension and excitement. Identify the rhetorical features in the vernacular texts by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and James Weldon Johnson that represent this vernacular tradition.
  • Review the selections of the Harlem Renaissance section of the anthology that most appeal to you. To what extent do the folktales collected and interpreted by Hurston echo the major themes of this era?
  • Read Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” (1988) as two texts that illustrate intertextuality as one type of signifyin(g). How do the two lyrics speak to each other? To determine your answer, consider the two texts’ respective use of formal elements such as theme, tone, imagery, and various sound devices (e.g., anaphora) as well as each lyric’s particular sociological, political, and cultural contexts.

Research Paper Topics on the Vernacular Tradition

Paper topics that require research.

  • What rhetorical characteristics of spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” help you to understand their influence on protest chants of the Civil Rights movement? Discuss the function of tropes of antebellum spirituals and mid-twentieth-century black protest songs in resistance movements today. To what extent do you find these songs to be current? Have any lost their rhetorical utility?
  • Research and listen to several recent musical interpretations of antebellum spirituals. Then discuss the influence of Euro-American classical arrangements on these performances.
  • How do various African American music traditions, black folklore, and folk cultural ways function as the literary and cultural precursors to the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance?
  • To what extent do you understand hip hop to have emerged from the Black Arts era? On what do you base your response?
  • Support or refute the contention that the lyrics to the anthology selection by Queen Latifah place the artist in the same tradition of black womanhood as Giovanni, Sanchez, and other poets of the Black Arts movement. On what do you base your response? Create a profile of black womanhood from key characteristics of these authors’ texts.
  • In “Living for the City” Stevie Wonder includes the line, “His sister’s black, but she is sho’ nuff pretty” (emphasis added). Review the anthology selections in the Black Arts section and analyze these lines from a Black Nationalist perspective. Does the lyric correspond to attitudes toward black female beauty as expressed by African American authors of the 1970s? How might such women writers as Lorde, Sanchez, and Alice Walker respond to that line?
  • If you had editorial control over the next edition of the NAFAM, would you include the speech on U.S. race relations, delivered in spring 2008 by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama? If so, would you add it to the Vernacular Tradition section? Why or why not?
  • During the 350 years of slavery in the New World, slaveholders persistently debated whether the psychological effects of bondage rendered enslaved peoples ultimately more benign, at one extreme, than bitter at the other extreme. Select a few selections in the Vernacular Tradition section of the anthology to use as a barometer by which to comment on the debate.
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