Ohio State English Professor Welcomes Prestigious Award
Award-winning book traces literacy, social activism in the lives of 19th century Black women
Dr. Jacqueline Jones Royster of Ohio State University has won the Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize from the Modern Languages Association, given annually for an outstanding work of research on the teaching of English.
Royster’s award-winning book, Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women (2000), was honored along with 15 others at the MLA’s annual convention, held in December in New Orleans. The prize carries a $1,000 honorarium.
Speaking from her office at Ohio State, where she serves as an associate dean for faculty and research, Royster says she was “deeply touched” at being chosen for the highly prestigious award — and more than a little surprised.
“I don’t do things thinking that I’ll be rewarded for them, so even with the nomination, I thought only that it would be nice to win. In fact, by the time they called me (with the award notification), I had actually forgotten about it. I had to ask, ‘What award was that again?’ ” she recalls.
When the caller jogged her memory, Royster says she found it particularly rewarding to have received a prize named after someone she so greatly admired — a figure who was one of the leading lights in the field of rhetoric and composition while Royster was herself being trained. Shaughnessy, a dean at the City University of New York in the mid- to late 1970s, directed CUNY’s Basic Writing program, taught composition and literature, supervised the editorial training program at McGraw Hill publishers, and wrote one of the key texts of its era: Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of English (1977).
Royster’s Traces of a Stream explores the dynamic linkages between literacy and social activism in the lives of a group of largely unknown 19th century African American women. Royster examines their struggles with the dual burdens of race and class, describing their achievements as public speakers and essayists who wielded both tongues and pens with grace and force in battles to end lynching, establish schools, and serve communities beset by a wide array of hostile social and political forces.
Royster, a noted scholar in literacy, rhetorical studies and women’s studies, builds on previous work with the new volume — notably Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Antilynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1997), which she edited. But in other ways, the book represents a return to her roots, for Royster is both a graduate of and spent 16 years on the English faculty at Spelman College.
Indeed, she says she’s always felt “what a blessing it was to be at a place like Spelman College, a place where women of African descent were at the center of what was discussed and taught and lived on a daily basis.
“I was glad to be a part of that cause — and it did become a cause for me, not just as an alumna, but as a person who was interested in literacy and development and rhetorical studies and who came to be totally focused on those issues and the way they played out in communities of African descent,” she explains.
It was in that crusading spirit that she became one of the four co-founders of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, which became one of the first publication venues for the wave of Black female scholars that entered the academy in the mid- to late 1970s. That core group co-edited the anthology Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters and co-sponsored a SAGE writer/scholar program at Spelman.
But Royster is careful not to paint herself as a pioneer.
“This is true of my work generally — I’ve always been trying to show there have been African American women there all along, doing incredible things even though those incredible things may have been forgotten,” she explains.
“I never want to give any sense at all that I have been forming pathways that had never been traveled before,” she says, adding, “Much of what I’ve done has been done by other people. My hope is that I can bring light to places where shadows may have fallen.”
And of course, that work doesn’t stop by virtue of the — quite welcome — distraction of winning a major professional award. Royster says she’s hard at work on her next projects. On the front burner is an anthology she’s editing with a colleague from Auburn University, titled Calling Cards: Theory in Practice; Studies in Race, Gender and Culture.
On the back burner is something suggested by her work on Traces of a Stream, a project that is not yet fully articulated but that will have something to do with “the connections between memory, writing and gender” in Black women’s writing.
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