With Barack Obama becoming U.S. president in barely a week, some college English professors worry it may actually become tougher to engage students in race-based literature.
“Many of my students claim to live in a post-racial society,” says Dr. Joy Myree-Mainor, an assistant professor of English at historically Black Morgan State University in Baltimore. “They don’t want to identify with African-American characters.”
For instance, many of her students deny parallels exist between themselves and the characters in Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of Richard Wright stories exploring oppression in the South in the 1930s. “Students don’t want to see themselves as victims,” Myree-Mainor says.
Dr. Coretta Pittman, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, agrees with that assessment.
The prospect makes harder a task she and other professors already struggle with day to day because many of their students believe race doesn’t matter anymore, Pittman says.
For example, every fall semester Pittman teaches advanced expository writing to students in a variety of academic majors. She assigns them to read several acclaimed 20th-century writers and examine what inspired them artistically at that particular time. By doing this, she hopes they will consider how to effectively engage readers in their own writing. Assigned reading includes Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Garden, in which essay topics range from the civil rights movement to Walker’s partial blindness from an accidental BB gunshot to one eye.
“Many students are resistant, and discussions make them uncomfortable,” Pittman says. “They’re distant. Their attitude is, here we go again, talking about race.”
Obama’s victory may have given students a false sense that racism is dead, Myree-Mainor and Pittman told participants at an annual Modern Language Association conference held last month. Both professors shared their thoughts at a session called “Confronting Issues of Race in the Academy.”
Obama’s affinity for reading is well publicized. He is touted as a role model who could motivate more minorities to go to college, work hard and graduate.
But, ironically, his visibility might also make some educators and students less likely to pursue race-based topics in reading and writing, which implies the election somehow negates any need to examine race.
Recently, a Baylor colleague mentioned to Pittman having assigned his class to read Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, earlier in the year. “He said if he’d known the election outcome, he would have chosen something else,” she says. “In my mind, I screamed.”
Myree-Mainor worries that because students aren’t moved by racism experienced by literary characters, their apathy shadows them through life encounters. One African-American student casually mentioned to her that his White coach told him to “run like the police are chasing you.”
Because the student took the comment in stride, “he accepted as a value that Black men are criminals,” Myree-Mainor says.
Pittman says since November’s election, she has tried impressing upon students that many Blacks don’t have the same opportunities Obama has had. “We don’t all get to go to Harvard and Columbia [universities].”
Their response so far?
“One did rethink his position, but not the rest,” she says. “They just want the pain of racism to go away.”
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