Report on Teaching African American Literature and Culture

Phillis_Wheatley_frontispieceAlistair Brown reports on Teaching African American Literature and Culture, a one-day HEA-sponsored workshop organised by Jennifer Terry that reflected on pedagogical approaches, the politics of teaching, cultural canons, and the possibilities and pitfalls of the appeal of African American literature to students. A timeline of tweets from the day is below.

At the close of this one-day workshop, Alan Rice, whose scholarship helped generate the growth of African American and black diaspora studies in the UK, reflected on just how far the discipline had advanced in twenty years. The field is now well-established within literature departments, if not always fully rooted. This makes it an especially apt time to reflect upon and refine approaches to pedagogy and the politics of teaching, and to question how the canon of African American literature stands today and should be shaped within universities over the coming years.

Janine Bradbury opened by introducing the “We Are Here” project at the University of Sheffield, aimed at encouraging black and minority ethnic (BME) school pupils to consider applying to university. Bradbury noted that the African American literature classroom in Britain remains overwhelmingly white, as indeed does English Literature as a discipline. Yet as is clear from this project – and as was reiterated in various sessions throughout the day – literature (and creative writing) provides a vehicle to empower students from all backgrounds to reflect critically on their own racial positioning. Outreach projects orientated around literature can be an effective way of connecting with diverse communities, and as Bradbury showed through the variety of workshops at Sheffield, from getting school pupils to produce a video of their campus tour to their attendance at undergraduate lectures, it is important not to underestimate the enthusiasm and response that can be gleaned even from a younger group.

The next two papers continued to explore the significance of institutional structures in delivering and valuing encounters with African American writing. Leila Kamali and Tessa Roynon provoked discussion as to the importance of a syllabus and modular system that embeds African American literature early on in the student experience. If such texts are not presented as canonical within big introductory or period modules, then students are less likely to choose specialised modules later in their careers, or to cover the topic in dissertations. On the flip side, enhancing teaching can have benefits for research, as explored through the case of the Callaloo conference which travelled to Oxford in 2013. One outcome of this was to wonder about whether those who study African American literature are missing an important transnational dimension by their lack of engagement with African languages and contexts. Equally, African Americanist scholars and teachers need to be more interdisciplinary, drawing for example on modern languages and comparative literature teaching and postcolonial studies to appreciate fully entanglements with colonialism and the impact of world systems.

A different kind of institutionalisation is apparent within the anthology, which was the subject of Rachel Farebrother’s talk. The likes of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature are a teaching staple, yet the act of editing can encode, sometimes quite strongly, ideologies and prejudices which misrepresent the status of a text. Texts are framed in anthologies in ways which may or may not have been intended by their original authors, and the juxtaposition of texts in such a purportedly comprehensive edition creates and naturalises just one narrative of African American writing and culture. These published anthologies ought to encourage teachers to reflect upon their own choice of anthologies or production of course readers, as well as syllabi.

Moving from institutional frameworks and into texts themselves, Nicole King enabled participants to reflect on their own teaching practices through primary reading. Through looking at short extracts we are reminded of just how much contextual and intertextual understanding is necessary, or sometimes unnecessary, to read African American texts. The teacher, it was commented, at times needs to work as a kind of dictionary for students. The extracts, each of which included a learning scenario, also provoked thinking about the canon and syllabus. Are we more prone to choose texts which represent expected themes of hardship, trauma and racism, and ignore those texts which might more appropriately fit into wider traditions or defy categorisation? Percival Everett’s Erasure, for example, ironically suggests that a black novelist’s parody of French poststructuralism would not sit easily with publishers (and by extension with university courses) because it fails to conform to the “true, gritty real stories of black life” that readers anticipate. A review of the protagonist’s book puts the problem well:

The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.

The epithet of “the African American experience” can dangerously attach itself to works read by those from outside that culture, so that studying them becomes an exercise in ethnography, rather than the study of a literary aesthetic in its own terms. As this exercise demonstrated, close reading of literary form retains a place within subjects that aim to make political connections.

Nevertheless, the importance of such literature for inculcating ethical values should not be ignored, and innovative modes of assessment can achieve this by requiring students to relate texts to their own experiences and positioning rather than seeing them as works of another culture. Rachel van Duyvenbode described her MA teaching that uses African American literature to explore issues of whiteness. The observation that white identity is also racialised – introduced here with a clip of Eddie Murphy made up as white – can be provocative to a predominantly white classroom. It involves acknowledging some uncomfortable truths about unearned privilege which challenge conventional assumptions that students have been rewarded for effort and intellect. Van Duyvenbode emphasised the importance of making the teacher an equal participant in this tricky learning journey; the teacher must admit his or her own experiences in order to allow students to feel comfortable about venturing their own. In a different way, asking students to testify but – unusually – not permitting them to respond to or discuss others’ testimony can be a way of preventing dominant voices in the classroom from taking over and reframing the experiences of others in their terms.

Alan Rice‘s final paper offered a different way of prompting students to connect with a culture, literature and past from which they may feel distant. He outlined his site-specific work, which ranges from asking students to curate an exhibition of objects around African American history, to visiting memorials to slavery that remind about the local consequences of something that might otherwise be seen as a “foreign” literature from across the Atlantic. Interestingly here – and linking back to the possibilities for outreach at the start of the day – such workshops and visits translate easily to school pupils and other groups even if originally designed for university students.

The day concluded with a roundtable reflection on some of the implications of the workshop. Outcomes ranged from emphasising the importance of embedding discussions of teaching within research conferences, to establishing a conventional twitter hashtag (equivalent to the standard #digitalhumanities or #medhums) to build online networks of African Americanist teachers, researchers, and students. However, whilst focusing within the discipline of African American studies, the implications of the workshop apply more widely to anyone teaching and researching literature and culture off the beaten track of survey and periodic courses. From writing by black British authors, to the “queer” canon, to non-canonical postcolonial literatures, there are a range of pragmatic and institutional issues to be considered within politically complex disciplines. How can the classroom be made a comfortable place to deal with reflections on a student’s own identity? How can the ivory tower be breached to bring the classroom into the community? How should syllabi and anthologies be designed and questioned to allow students to encounter a representative range of literature?


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