C.D. Wright, One Big Self

Wright, C.D. One Big Self. Copper Canyon P., 2007.

Summary of Work
C.D. Wright’s “One Big Self” explores the lives of people in three different prisons in Louisiana. Wright suggests that when we look at all the prisons in America—and the prison population, which is the largest in the world—we are looking in a mirror at America’s values and legacy. What makes up the prison population outside of the numbers and the listed crime or law broken? Invited by her colleague and friend to go to learn about the inmates while her friend is taking pictures of the prison inmates for a larger project, Wright sets out to learn about the inmates and their lives, both before prison, during their crimes and trials, and life in prison. She also contemplates what prisons do to the environments and communities they inhabit. She shows that these inmates are more than just numbers, they are people who have dealt with many difficult circumstances: poverty, difficult family situations, poor education and no job opportunities available, relationship woes, and more.

One of the main things I noticed highlighted was the difference in experience for men and women in prison. There was a large focus on women in context of their children, children they have before they go to prison, children they have while in prison, and what happens to their relationships with their children; there is even a poem describing the process of getting ready for an Easter party with the children in the main area of the prison. With the men, the focus is much more on their experiences in prison or getting to prison rather than on families. When children are mentioned, it is in context of the ages that they meet and where the children end up, usually in prison like their fathers.


Brief Note on Themes
The overarching theme of the work is incarceration; how does the American prison system function? Who are the people in the system? Since the makeup of the majority of the population is black males and black people overall, what does that say about who we incarcerate or crime? How does the prison system affect the communities in which they are built? How does it save or ruin city economies? What are the reasons people invest in such systems, especially private prison systems, and how does having prison on the stock market change the system as people view it, use it, and strive for its expansion and continuation? Wright’s work largely reflects upon what it means to look at people solely for their crimes when they are much more than that, and what that says about the American justice and incarceration system.


Brief Note on Poetic Structure
Written in a free form, the work is a mix of what would seem like prose, followed by poetry that utilizes caesura, line breaks, and plenty of white space to cue readers to changes in scene, narrator, situation, and discussion. The structure takes a minimalist attitude, where the situations are given in pieces rather than as one continuous narrative. The breaks in narrative and the mix of prisoners names, only ever briefly mentioned, give a sense of “everyman” for the prisoners, rendering both their invisibility and individuality clear to the reader. Certain phrases or poetic repetitive structures, such as the “Count the . . .” poems which are brought back within other poems, work to remind readers of the controlling situation in which the prisoners live.

Reading List: Genre, The Novel

  1. Don Quixote 1605                                                             Miguel Cervantes
  2. Robinson Crusoe 1719                                                      Daniel Defoe
  3. Pride and Prejudice 1813                                                 Jane Austen
  4. Frankenstein 1818                                                            Mary Shelley
  5. The Scarlet Letter 1850                                                    Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. Benito Cereno 1855                                                           Herman Melville
  7. Anna Karenina 1877                                                         Leo Tolstoy
  8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1884                   Mark Twain
  9. The Picture of Dorian Gray 1890                                    Oscar Wilde
  10. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man 1916                James Joyce
  11. The Great Gatsby 1925                                                     F. Scott Fitzgerald
  12. To the Lighthouse 1927                                                   Virginia Woolf
  13. The Sound and The Fury 1929                                       William Faulkner
  14. Absalom, Absalom! 1936                                                William Faulkner
  15. Their Eyes Were Watching God 1937                            Zora Neale Hurston
  16. Native Son 1940                                                                Richard Wright
  17. Invisible Man 1952                                                           Ralph Ellison
  18. The Lost Steps 1953                                                          Alejo Carpentier
  19. Go Tell It On The Mountain 1953                                    James Baldwin
  20. Things Fall Apart 1958                                                     Chinua Achebe
  21. The Man in High Castle 1962                                          Philip K. Dick
  22. One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967                             Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  23. Sula 1973                                                                            Toni Morrison
  24. Song of Solomon 1977                                                      Toni Morrison
  25. Wild Seed 1980                                                                  Octavia Butler
  26. The Terrible Twos 1982                                                    Ishmael Reed
  27. The Things They Carried 1990                                        Tim O’Brien
  28. Bailey’s Cafe 1992                                                              Gloria Naylor
  29. White Teeth 1999/2000                                                     Zadie Smith
  30. Austerlitz 2001                                                                   W.G. Sebald
  31. American Gods 2001                                                         Neil Gaiman
  32. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2007                Junot Diaz
  33. The Sympathizer 2015                                                       Viet Thanh Nguyen
  34. The Underground Railroad 2016                                     Colson Whitehead
  35. Future Home of the Living God: A Novel 2017              Louise Eldrich



Criticism and Theory


  1. The Rise of the Novel 1957                                                                   Ian Watt
  2. “An Image of Africa” 1977                                                                   Chinua Achebe
  3. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition 1987                            Bernard W. Bell
  4. Playing in the Dark 1992                                                                      Toni Morrison
  5. The Black Atlantic 1995                                                                       Paul Gilroy
  6. History and Memory in the Two Souths 1999                                  Deborah N. Cohn
  7. The World Republic of Letters 2004                                                   Pascale Casanova
  8. Selections from The Novel: An Alternative History 2013              Steven Moore
    Chapter 4: The English Novel
    Chapter 5: The American Novel
  9. Quixote: The Novel and the World 2015                                             Ilan Stavans

Reading List: Dissertation Topic—Performance in 20th Century AfAm Literature and Culture


  1. Jazz                                                             Toni Morrison
  2. Love                                                            Toni Morrison
  3. Damballah                                                 John Edgar Wideman
  4. Sent for You Yesterday                             John Edgar Wideman
  5. Hiding Place                                              John Edgar Wideman
  6. Praisesong for the Widow                      Paule Marshall
  7. Mama Day                                                 Gloria Naylor
  8. Corregidora                                               Gayl Jones


Repeated from 20th Century American Literature List:

The Color Purple                                                 Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God                        Zora Neale Hurston

Invisible Man                                                       Ralph Ellison

Go Tell It On The Mountain                                James Baldwin

Sula                                                                         Toni Morrison





  1. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes  Maya Angelou

Repeated from 20th Century American Literature List:

The Big Sea                                                               Langston Hughes

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings                        Maya Angelou

The Souls of Black Folk                                           W.E.B. Du Bois

Between the World and Me                                    Ta-Nehisi Coates






  1. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone                     August Wilson
  2. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom                         August Wilson
  3. The Piano Lesson                                         August Wilson
  4. Blues for Mister Charlie                              James Baldwin


Repeated from 20th Century American Literature List:

A Raisin In The Sun                                               Lorraine Hansbury



1. Jazz Poems                                                             Ed. Kevin Young
(Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series)

2. Blues Poems                                                            Ed. Kevin Young
(Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series)



Critical Works

  1. Jazz Dance                                                          Jean and Marshall Stearns
  2. Steppin’ On The Blues                                       Jacqui Malone
  3. Modern Dance, Negro Dance                          Susan Manning
  4. Reading Dancing                                               Susan Leigh Foster


  1. Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890-1920

Linda J. Tomko


  1. Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement

Andrew Hewitt


  1. Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play             Jennifer DeVere Brody


  1. Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance

Stephanie Leigh Batiste


  1. “A Race for Theory”                         Barbara Christian


  1. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture                            

    Katrina Hazzard-Gordon


  1. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today                           Lynne Fauley Emery
  2. The Black Dancing Body From Coon to Cool         Brenda Dixon Gottschild


  1. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910

     Daphne Brooks


  1. Black Dance in America: A History Through its People       James Haskins
  2. Blues People: Negro Music in White America                        LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
  3. Black Looks: Race and Representation                                    bell hooks
  4. Black Skin, White Masks                                                            Frantz Fanon


  1. Selections from Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Studies in Dance History) Thomas F. Defrantz

Chs 2 – 7


  1. Listening for Africa: Freedom, Modernity, and the Logic of Black Music’s African Origins

David F. Garcia


  1. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”                                         Langston Hughes
  2. Stomping the Blues                                                                                      Albert Murray
  3. Hot Music, Ragmentation, and the Bluing of American Literature     Steven Tracy
  4. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature                                      Houston Baker
  5. Shadow and Act                                                                                            Ralph Ellison
  6. Black Resonance:Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature Emily Lordi
  7. Black Performance Theory                         ed. Thomas F. DeFrantz & Anita Gonzalez

Reading List: 20th Century American Literature


  1. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man 1912            James Weldon Johnson
  2. Winesburg Ohio 1919                                                 Sherwood Anderson
  3. The Great Gatsby 1925                                                Scott Fitzgerald
  4. The Sound and the Fury 1929                                    William Faulkner
  5. Passing 1929                                                                 Nella Larsen
  6. Mules and Men 1935                                                    Zora Neale Hurston
  7. Absalom, Absalom! 1936                                            William Faulkner
  8. Their Eyes Were Watching God 1937                        Zora Neale Hurston
  9. Of Mice and Men 1937                                                 John Steinbeck
  10. The 42nd Parallel 1938                                                John Dos Passos
  11. Native Son 1940                                                            Richard Wright
  12. Invisible Man 1952                                                       Ralph Ellison
  13. Fahrenheit 451 1953                                                     Ray Bradbury
  14. Go Tell It On The Mountain 1953                                James Baldwin
  15. The Lost Steps 1953                                                       Alejo Carpentier                       
  16. The Man in High Castle 1962                                       Phillip K. Dick
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967                          Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  18. Sula 1973                                                                         Toni Morrison
  19. Song of Solomon 1977                                                   Toni Morrison
  20. Wild Seed 1980                                                               Octavia Butler
  21. The Color Purple 1982                                                   Alice Walker
  22. Deadeye Dick 1982                                                         Kurt Vonnegut
  23. The Terrible Twos 1982                                                 Ishmael Reed
  24. The Things They Carried 1990                                     Tim O’Brien
  25. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2007             Junot Diaz
  26. The Sympathizer 2015                                                   Viet Thanh Nguyen
  27. The Underground Railroad 2016                                 Colson Whitehead
  28. Future Home of the Living God: A Novel 2017          Louise Eldrich




  1. Collected Poetry                                                             Maya Angelou
  2. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes                Langston Hughes
    (Vintage Classics)
  3. One Big Self                                                                     D. Wright
  4. “The Book of the Dead”                                                 Muriel Rukeyser
  5. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”                         S. Eliot
  6. Cane                                                                                   Jean Toomer
  7. Selections from “A”: 1, 2, 3,                                             Louis Zukofsky
    6, 7, 8, 11, 12
  8. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”              Amiri Baraka
  9. Thrall                                                                                  Natasha Tretheway
  10. Citizen                                                                                Claudia Rankine




  1. The Big Sea                                                            Langston Hughes
  2. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings                    Maya Angelou
  3. The Souls of Black Folk                                       W.E.B. Du Bois
  4. Notes of a Native Son                                           James Baldwin
  5. Silent Spring                                                         Rachel Carson
  6. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test                          Tom Wolfe
  7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X                      Malcolm X
  8. Between the World and Me                                 Ta-Nehisi Coates



  1. Fences                                                                     August Wilson
  2. The Death of a Salesman                                     Arthur Miller
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire                                   Tennessee Williams
  4. Angels in America                                                 Tony Kushner
  5. A Raisin In The Sun                                               Lorraine Hansbury
  6. Topdog/Underdog                                                  Suzan-Lori Parks


Short Stories 

  1. “Hills Like White Elephants”                               Ernest Hemingway
  2. “The Lottery”                                                          Shirley Jackson
  3. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”                            Flannery O’Connor
  4. “Judgement Day”                                                   Flannery O’Connor
  5. “Sonny’s Blues”                                                      James Baldwin
  6. “Everyday Use”                                                      Alice Walker
  7. “A&P”                                                                        John Updike
  8. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates
  9. “Two Kinds”                                                            Amy Tan
  10. “Eyes of Zapata”                                                     Sandra Cisneros
  11. “Barn Burning”                                                      William Faulkner
  12. “Girl”                                                                         Jamaica Kincaid
  13. “How To Tame a Wild Tongue”                          Gloria Anzaldúa


Criticism and Theory

  1. Poetry and the Age                                                 Randall Jarrell
  2. The American Novel and Its Tradition               Richard Chase
  3. Selections from A New Literary                          Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors
    History of America
    “The problem of the color line”
    “The invention of the blues”
    “‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’”
    “A modernist moment”
    “Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’”
    “Jean Toomer”
    “T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence”
    The Great Gatsby”
    “John Dos Passos”
    “Arthur Miller”
    Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!
    “Jelly Roll Morton speaks”
    “Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’”
    “Up from invisibility”
    “Tennessee Williams”
    “‘The Birth of the Cool’”
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X
    “Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker”
    “Toni Morrison”

4. The American Short Story 1900-1945: A Critical History                        Philip Stevick

5. The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story (Cambridge Introductions to Literature)

6. Selections from Columbia Literary History of the United States           Emory Elliott
Part 4: 1910 – 1945
Part 5: 1945 to the Present