Lesson Plan - Get It!
What do you think is occurring in the picture below? How do you think the white participants feel? How do you think the black participants feel? Why do think no women are included in the picture?
Image available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 541441, via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code
- Did you guess that the picture above was of a union meeting in the first half of the twentieth century?
Unions have had a long and complex history both in the United States and around the world. Unions were formed by workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in reaction to the inhumane conditions in which they were often forced to work. For example, before unions fought for workers' rights and protections, children as young as five and six years old could work in factories and mines. There were few safety precautions in plants, mines, and mills before unions, which often resulted in horrible injuries and many deaths among workers. Unions helped establish many of the safety rules and safer working conditions found in manufacturing and industry today.
In Chapter 10, the narrator will encounter a union at his new job in the paint plant. Despite their push for economic equality, unions were not always supportive or welcoming to members from other races and ethnicities. To learn more about the history of unions' reception of black Americans, read Labor Unions and the Negro: The Record of Discrimination, by Herbert Hill (Commentary, Inc.). It was published in 1959, only a few years after Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man, and it describes the complex relationship between unions and black Americans in the early twentieth century, including the period when the narrator encounters the union organization at his new job. It is important to remember that in the 1950s, Southern blacks were still living under Jim Crow laws that barred blacks from doing many things that whites could do, such as sit at lunch counters in stores and drink from the same water fountain. Even in the North, blacks still experienced a lot of prejudice. The article also uses the term "negro" to refer to black Americans, which was a commonly accepted term at the time. As you read, answer the following questions in the notebook or journal that you are keeping for this series:
When you have finished recording your answers on your own, check them in the interactive below:
- Would you have wanted to join a union in the first half of the twentieth century if you were a black worker in one of the industries mentioned in the article?
- What benefits would you have gained by joining a union?
- What disadvantages might you experience by joining a union?
Reflect on these questions briefly in your notes and then read Chapters Ten through Twelve in Invisible Man. Use the copy of the novel that you have been using for previous lessons in this series. As you read, take notes in your notebook or journal on the narrator's experience with the union, as well as how his identity or sense of self is affected by his experiences at the paint plant, his hospitalization, and his time at Mary Rambo's apartment.
When you have finished reading and taking notes, move on to the Got It? section to explore the details of these three chapters more closely.