Activities
America Is Hard to See

The exhibition’s title, America Is Hard to See suggests the impossibility of presenting a simplified or single narrative or history of American life. Rather, the title, America Is Hard to See is used as a metaphor to suggest that multiple narratives implied by the works on view are complicated, layered, nuanced, and fluid. 

In his neon work Rückenfigur, (2009), Glenn Ligon reconfigured the word America to reflect on a country that, in his words, is both a “shining beacon” and “dark star.” He remarked: “I was thinking about Dickens’s ‘the best of times, the worst of times,’ we can elect Barack Obama, and we’re still torturing people in prisons in Cuba. Those things are going on at the same time.”

a. With your students, discuss Ligon’s statement. In what ways is the United States both a “shining beacon” and a “dark star?” Ask students to consider this question both historically and in our present moment.

How does Ligon use the word “America” to create a metaphor for the times we live in? Ask students to think about how the content, form (reversed letters), and materials Ligon used in this work might function metaphorically or symbolically.

b. Read and discuss Robert Frost’s poem, America is Hard to See (1951) with your students:

http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Frost_America-is-Hard-to-See.pdf

What is Frost’s view of Columbus’s voyage and his “discovery” of America?

In what ways does the poem suggest that America is hard to see?

How is this poem different from other poetry, literature, or song lyrics about America that students may have read?

The film America is Hard to See (1970), a documentary about Eugene McCarthy campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination by Emile de Antonio, can be viewed on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ-8m5dbXFU

c. In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and another Democratic presidential nominee Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidential election, the Vietnam war was still raging, and the country was rocked with race riots and student protests. Ask your students to research and discuss the events of 1968 and compare them to contemporary social and political issues. What are some of the social and political challenges that Americans face today?

d. Using the words “America is. . .” ask your students to brainstorm adjectives, nouns, metaphors, and similes to complete the phrase. Make a group word wall in your classroom. 

 

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), Rückenfigur, 2009. Neon and paint, 24 × 145 1/2 × 5 in. (61 × 369.6 × 12.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 2011.3a-I © Glenn Ligon; Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles