Harlem Connections: Teaching Walter Dean Myers's Scorpions in Conjunction with Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods
Mark I. West
I regularly teach a course titled "Literature for Adolescents" at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and I include many recent novels on my syllabus for this course. However, I feel that my students should also have some familiarity with coming-of-age stories that date before 1970, when publishers seldom used the term "young adult novel," nor did they differentiate much between their books for adolescents and their books for children. I therefore organize the readings for this course into pairs. For each contemporary young adult novel that I cover, I include an older work that deals with a similar theme. I often, for example, pair Norma Fox Mazer's Three Sisters (1986), which is a contemporary story that examines how sibling relationships change during adolescence, with Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868). Similarly, when I teach Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974), which deals with alienation, I relate it to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
I recently decided to include Walter Dean Myers's 1988 young adult novel, Scorpions, among the books that I cover in this course. This novel, which was named a Newbery Honor Book, deals with the difficulties that face some African American adolescents living in urban areas. I had not taught the book before because I did not want to play to the mistaken notion that African American literature is always set in inner cities. Rather than not teach Scorpions, however, I decided to preface the discussion of the book with a presentation about other young adult novels featuring African American characters who are not from inner-city neighborhoods, such as Virginia Hamilton's A Little Love (1984), Angela Johnson's Toning the Sweep (1993), and Mildred Taylor's The Road to Memphis (1990).
I then set out to find an earlier novel that would work well with Scorpions. After doing some research into the history of African American literature, I discovered Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1902 novel, The Sport of the Gods. Dunbar is remembered primarily as a poet, but he also wrote several works a fiction, of which The Sport of the Gods is the best known. Although The Sport of the Gods was published as a novel for adults eighty-six years before the publication Scorpions, these two works parallel in several remarkable ways. I therefore required my students to read both books, and they responded very positively to this pairing.
Both Scorpions and The Sport of the Gods are set in Harlem, and in each novel this setting is integral to the plot. Myers, who grew up in Harlem during the 1940s and early '50s, has set many of his books in this community, and in some of these books, such as Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff (1975), he has portrayed Harlem in a fairly positive light. In Scorpions, however, he provides a grittier and bleaker depiction of this place. The Harlem depicted in Scorpions is a decaying community where gang violence and drug trafficking are commonplace and where the hopes and dreams of many young people are dashed by the forces of poverty, prejudice, and lawlessness.
The Harlem in Dunbar's novel has the air of a new and bustling community, but it, too, is rife with dangers and corruptive temptations that threaten the futures of its younger residents. When Dunbar wrote The Sport of the Gods, Harlem was just emerging as one of the most popular destinations for African Americans migrating from the rural South to the urban North. As William L. Andrews points out in The African American Novel in the Age of Reaction (1992), Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods is "the first extensive portrayal in fiction of life in twentieth-century Harlem" (xvi). It should be noted, however, that Dunbar, never lived in Harlem for a long period of time. He often visited Harlem and had many friends who lived there, but he did not view it as a sort of mecca for African Americans. For Dunbar, according to Andrews, "The Sport of the Gods serves as a kind of case study of migration, and he leaves little room in his chronicle of frustration and demoralization for anything but a negative judgment of the fate of black families who try to resettle in a city like New York" (xviii).
Both novels focus on a family's often unsuccessful attempts to navigate through the various traps that lie waiting for them in the streets of Harlem. The make-up of these two families is strikingly similar. Each story features a female-headed household in which there is adolescent son, who functions as the story's central character, and a somewhat younger daughter. In each case, there is also a family member who is in prison. In Meyer's book, the imprisoned character is the oldest son in the family, while in Dunbar's book, the father is the one in jail.
The plots of these novels differ significantly, but in each book, the imprisonment of a family member triggers a chain of events that ultimately leads to a crisis for the central character. In Scorpions, the central character is Jamal Hicks, a young adolescent who dreams of becoming an artist when he grows up. However, his older brother, a gang leader and drug dealer, has other plans for Jamal's future. When the older brother is jailed for killing a man during a robbery attempt, he designates Jamal as the new leader of the gang. The mother makes an effort to steer Jamal away from gang life, but for a variety of reasons, Jamal feels he must take his brother's place, at least for a short while. As part of the deal, he is given a gun, which functions as a symbol of both power and self-destruction. Jamal eventually tries to give back the gun and extract himself from the gang but not before tragedy strikes.
In The Sport of the Gods the central character is Joe Hamilton, and eighteen-year old barber. In the beginning of the novel, he is living with his parents and younger sister in a small southern town, but when his father, who works as a butler for one of the town's most prosperous white families, is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, Joe, together with his mother and sister, move to Harlem. Joe quickly finds a job, but instead of using his income to improve his life or help his family, he spends it on the various hedonistic pleasures available in the big city. His mother realizes that her son is heading for trouble and tells him so, but he shrugs off her advice and does his best to avoid spending time with her or his younger sister. He eventually succumbs to alcoholism, becomes mired in a destructive relationship with a showgirl, and, in the end, commits a murder. By the close of the story, he is a ruined young man, reduced to "one whose soul is dead".
Student Readers' Responses to the Pair of Books
When my students began discussing these two books, they tended to focus on the various problems that Meyers and Dunbar associate with urban life. I encouraged my students, however, not to dwell entirely on the evils of the big city. Instead, I asked them to ponder the reasons why these two families seem especially susceptible to the negative influences in their environment. This led to a spirited class discussion, which carried over to an in-class writing assignment. In their written responses, my students examined some of the reasons why life in Harlem is so difficult for the two families in these stories.
Several of the students felt that the absence of a father figure resulted in problems for the young males in these stories. As one student put it, "The fathers are not really in the picture for the majority of these stories. Therefore, all of the children involved struggle with the concept of authority. The mothers have some authority, but the children still basically do as they wish." Another student commented that the absence of father figures adds to these families' financial problems. "Without the fathers there to help pay the bills," this student wrote, "the mothers are forced to spend more time away from home and can't keep track of their children."
Almost all of my students expressed admiration for the efforts that the mothers make to protect their children from the dangers of city life. Echoing the thoughts of most of the members of the class, one student wrote, "Both families have a very strong character in the mother. The Hicks mother is trying to do the best that she can at keeping her kids out of trouble and safe. The Hamilton mother wants to provide her kids with a better life and distresses over the evils of New York. Both mothers want desperately to get their kids out of New York."
My students offered a variety of reasons to explain why the mothers are not successful in their efforts to protect their children. Some argued that the mothers' jobs make it difficult for them to take enough time to help their children. Others argued that these mothers do not receive enough support from relatives or members of the community. Still others argued that these mothers are so concerned about their family members who are in prison that they are unable to focus enough attention on the other members of their families. Finally, some students suggested that there is such a wide chasm dividing the daily lives of the mothers and the daily lives of their children that these mothers are not fully aware that their children are in danger until it's too late.
Several students pointed out another factor that contributes to the problems faced by both Jamal and Joe. These two characters are torn between their biological families and the pseudo families that beckon to them from the streets of Harlem. For Jamal, his pseudo family comes in the form of the gang known as the Scorpions. For Joe, his pseudo family is made up of the regular patrons of the Banner Club, which is the name of the bar that he visits nearly every night. One student elaborated on this point in her paper. "The characters of Jamal and Joe," she wrote, "are similar in their need for a sense of belonging. Jamal is attracted to the Scorpions because it makes him feel powerful to belong to this gang. Joe is attracted to the bar scene and the people there because it makes him feel less isolated, less lonely. These groups pull Jamal and Joe away from their families."
Toward the end of the class discussion of these two books, I asked my students what changes would be necessary to help Jamal and Joe better deal with the problems in their lives. Some of the students felt that the best thing that could be done for these characters is to move them out of Harlem. A greater number of students, however, suggested that what Jamal and Joe need more than anything else is a strong adult role model, someone who could provide these adolescent males with sound advice, encouragement, and discipline. These students felt that this role model need not be the actual father of these characters but this person should perform the major functions often associated with fathers. Several students went on to argue that adolescents such as Jamal and Joe can grow up well adjusted in a place like Harlem so long as they receive loving and constant adult guidance.
I followed this discussion with great interest, for it seemed to me that my students were debating many of the central issues that come into play when we wrestle with the problems associated with growing up in urban America. As I see it, one of the great benefits that came from requiring my students to read these two books is that it helped them think through some of these issues.
Another great benefit that came from teaching these two books together is that it provided my students with a good entrance into the history of African American literature. As Joan F. Kaywell demonstrates out in her three-volume work titled Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics, young adult novels can often be used to help students gain a better understanding and appreciation of classic works of literature. This was certainly the case in my class. By reading Scorpions in conjunction with The Sport of the Gods, my students began to understand that contemporary African American authors, such as Walter Dean Myers, are part of a long, literary heritage that includes Paul Laurence Dunbar and many other important writers.
Mark I. West is a professor of English at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Reference Citation: West, Mark I. (1999). "Harlem Connections: Teaching Walter Dean Myers' Scorpions with Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.