The Best of Intentions: Talking to a Text about Culture and Colonialism

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SWBAT analyze how the central idea of a text is shaped by specific details by reading Wole Soyinka on how he came to write Death and The King’s Horseman.

Big Idea

Historical events and cultural evolution motivate Wole Soyinka to examine colonialism as more than a clash of cultures.

Let's Get Started: Reconnecting with Elements of Culture

10 minutes

The first day of a new unit can be awkward.  It is a fine balance between what the students already know and what they need to know to maximize their engagement in the unit. The anchor text for this unit is Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka.  The goal is to look at how the structure and language of the play creates tension (RL 9-10. 5) and embrace the various cultural perspectives of the play (RL 9-10. 6).

Culture in an on-going theme in my class.  So, we begin at the foundation.  I ask them to list the elements of culture on the board and give specific examples of those elements from texts we have read this year.

Two of the walls in my room have dry erase boards on them, so the students will walk around listings their elements and giving examples. These elements include:



beliefs and values

law and order







artistic expression


After everyone sits down, I will call on students to share a element of culture and the examples on the board. 

Building Knowledge: Notes on Wole Soyinka and Yourba Culture

20 minutes

I transition to notes on Wole Soyinka and Yourba culture.  I hope by reviewing the elements of culture, it will help students ask questions and/or make inferences as we go through the introduction to Death and the King’s Horseman

The first four informational slides focus on Wole Soyinka. In addition to the traditional biographical information, we talk about the time he was in prison and the time he spent in exile.  I ask them how political events, social attitudes, and defining experiences can impact a writer's choices.  I want the students to connect with the motivations for writing we developed while reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  As a contemporary of Soyinka, Achebe shares some common experiences that manifest in their writing.  As we experience, Death and the King's Horseman, I want to discuss how each writer has a distinct voice.This background information on Soyinka, the Yoruba people, the colonial climate will enhance their ability to engage the text (RL 9-10.6). 

Death and the King's Horseman takes place in the 1940s and is based on actual events. I ask the class how much time has passed since the fictional events of Things Fall Apart. It has been at least 50 years.  I ask the class to infer how the relationship between the indigenous population and the British colonial government has changed in 50 years.  I want them to say: 

1. Most Africans (Nigerians) are accustomed to seeing white people.

2. Increased recognition of indigenous culture.

3. Better understanding by Africans of the goals of the British.

4.  Increased spread of Christianity.

5. Firmly established political and social order. 

The next  slides give some information on Youba culture.  There is a link to a map of the Yoruba region of Nigeria. I give them some background on oral tradition as history.  I remind them of the griot tradition mentioned in the documentary Youssou  N'Dour I Bring What I Love. Finally, we review proverbs.  The challenge of reading this play is the highly stylized/poetic language and the infusion of the Yoruba language. Since I lived in West Africa, specifically in Nigeria and Benin, I add some personal examples to provide context to the notes. 

Applying Knowledge: Talking to the Text

40 minutes

I pass out Wole Soyinka on how he came to write Death and the King. It is an article from The Guardian newspaper. It is a summary of an interview with Wole Soyinka on writing a producing the play.  The text is not difficult, however none of my students have experienced colonialism or prison. The goal is for them to extract the central message that Soyinka wants to move beyond a "clash of cultures" and really explore how tradition/cultural identity motivates people and how people acting out of the best intentions can create conflict (RI 9-10. 2). 

I begin by modeling talking to the text. I read the first paragraph out-loud and demonstrate how to talk to the text (see my example of how I talk to the text in italics below).

Wole Soyinka is explaining what moved him, in the mid-1970s, to write his play Death and the King's Horseman. And that means, inevitably, telling a story. At the time, he was a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, he says, one of the Nobel laureate's many periods of political exile from his home in Nigeria. Every day, as he came down the college staircase, he would pass a bust of Winston Churchill, that old bulldog of British colonialism. And, every day, he caught himself thinking the same thing. "I had an overwhelming desire," he says, smiling, "to push it and watch it crash."

At the end of each paragraph, I stop and ask myself questions about what I just read. I specifically talk about the words in bold:

  • What is a Nobel laureate?
  • What is political exile?
  • Winston Churchill of WWII, why is he a bulldog of colonialism?
  • Why would Soyinka want to break a bust of Churchill?

I try to make inferences based on the text that will answer my questions (RI.9-10.1). I tell my students if they can't answer it, write it down and we will discuss it later.  I want to help them develop questions and guide them to some of the information I want them to get out of this text. 

Next, I ask for a volunteer to read the next paragraph and "talk to the text." Ideally, I will have two or three students do "text talking" examples and then everyone would work independently to finish the text.

I want to focus on the historical basis for play, concepts of colonialism, why Soyinka would be against colonialism, his time in jail and how the students would react if they were in similar situations. 

Once everyone finishes the text.  I ask, what is the main idea of the text (RL 9-10.2)?  Death and the King's Horseman is more than a clash of cultures; it is a complex examination of the colonial experience. 

Wrap Up: A Director's Perspective on Death and The King's Horseman

10 minutes

The last slide has a link to comments made by Chuck Smith on directing Death and the King's Horseman for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  

After watching the clip, students answer the question: —How does Chuck Smith’s explanation of the conflict in the play support Soyinka’s desire for the play to be seen as more than a ‘clash of cultures’?

The class ends with a whole group discussion to answer the question (SL 9-10.1).