Transforming the Study of Literature — and Ourselves

The pursuit of the study of what we now call African American
literature is its own story. The teaching of this radical and
radicalizing literature is a parallel story that shares all of the
problems and challenges of African American presence in the academy and
in this nation.

Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice is both
timely and overdue. This collection of essays is the culmination of
nine weeks of study, discussions, and collaboration achieved during two
National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored summer institutes.

The institute participants set out to “complete a fairly
comprehensive syllabus containing African American texts that are only
rarely included in the traditional canon, few of which any teacher
[attending the institute] had ever read.” However, its broader goal was
to encourage community building among scholars and teachers who are
addressing the problems and challenges inherent in teaching a radical
and radicalizing literature.

In “The Way We Do the Things We Do,” Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg
identifies the first challenge of the teacher of African American
literature by reminding us of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s call
for “education as the practice of freedom.” She acknowledges, however,
the seeming contradiction of bringing a non-traditional teaching
pedagogy and liberation literature into the classroom in what she
refers to as “the double bind” — the difficulty of teaching basic
grammar and composition skills so that students will be prepared to
compete in the marketplace “while simultaneously teaching students to
be critical of those institutionalized ways of thinking, speaking,
learning, knowing, and to effect radical change upon narrow speaking
and writing … practices.”

Goldberg asks, “Are we training our students to be capable of
radical awareness and critique, or are we training them to be good
capitalist soldiers?”

In “Narrating Slavery,” the writer, William L. Andrews, an English
professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, presents an
overview of the narratives of slavery and their significance to the
study of American literature. He concludes by offering suggestions on
how to approach the teaching of these narratives in connection with
other American texts.

In “A Female Face: or, Masking the Masculine in African American
Fiction Before Richard Wright,” Thadious Davis, an English professor at
Vanderbilt University, “details an evolving masculinity that reaches
its height with Richard Wright in the 1940s.” Davis’s overview is not a
course outline; rather, it offers a disruptive, feminist reading and
perspective for investigating gender issues as they reveal themselves
in the “canonical” literature of African American male authors.

Maryemma Graham sets forth the parameters of the discourse on
African American literature in her introduction, “When Teaching
Matters.” Remarking on the inevitably political nature of the study of
African American literature, she observes that educators still have not
managed to “integrate fully the study of various literary traditions.”

Trudier Harris, another English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and
the author of numerous critical works, threads this particular needle
when she quesions if diversity is what we really want. In “Lying
Through Our Teeth,” Harris takes a hand-on-her-hip approach to the
problem as she describes certain professors who include one or two
“Black” texts on the syllabi, then invite Black scholars such as
herself to visit their classrooms as lecturers. The professors, she
reports, are often “tak[ing] notes as furiously as their students.”

Katherine Driscoll Coon concurs with the need for professorial
honesty, explaining that students “want to learn about their literary
heritage from someone who has bothered to study it respectfully.” Thus,
the race of the teacher of African American literature may not be as
important in classroom effectiveness as his or her scholarly
preparation and respect for the subject.

What do we want from the teaching and reading of African American
literature? Maryemma Graham desires no less than the
“reconceptualization of literary history and the canon” as a necessary
step towards “reconstructing instruction.”

However, I think that many who take the literatures of African
Americans into the classroom hope, like Harris, for a “willing
engagement between colored and non-colored peoples.” We hope that the
literature will become the intellectual and emotional catalyst for a
real transformation of our American selves — the kind of
transformation that challenges the hypocrisy of “diversity-speak” and
encourages students to take what they have learned and apply it to
their everyday lives.

Opal J. Moore teaches creative writing and African American literature at Spelman College.

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