Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice.
In thinking about the academic revolution in Black Studies it is useful, and necessary, to remember that the revolution has four phases. The first phase reached its high mark in the late 1960s and early 1970s when large numbers of African American students started attending elite, and previously almost exclusively white, colleges and universities. Those students, demanding courses relevant to their lives, were instrumental in getting Black Studies programs established, and in getting older scholars such as John Hope Franklin, Saunders Redding, Charles Davis, and St. Clair Drake to teach in them. The second phase of the revolution began ten years later when these same students started getting Ph.D.s, getting jobs in these same colleges and universities in large numbers, and transforming the curricula of American higher education. As a result of this transformation, major Black Studies programs now exist at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, UCLA, Penn, Stanford, Berkeley, Duke, NYU, CUNY, and elsewhere. The thi rd phase began in 1982 with Paul Lauter's Institute on Reconstructing American Literature at Yale. The first two phases of the revolution had been highly successful; Black academics and courses existed in record numbers. However, little had changed elsewhere in the academy. White professors were still, for the most part, teaching all-white courses and leaving the non-white curriculum to their non-white colleagues. Lauter's work, culminating in the publication of The Heath Anthology of American Literature in 1990, showed white professors how to pair Black, white, American Indian, and women's literature into syllabi that would accurately reflect America's diversity. it is now common to see Black scholars on most university campuses (teaching Black and non-Black material) as well as Black subject matter being incorporated into curricula by non-Black faculty. Most importantly, this subject matter shows a non-monolithic view of Black life. Blacks are not simply victims of white racism. Not only do Blacks have posi tive, enriching lives independent of whites, but Blacks can even be critical of aspects of Black life or present aspects of Black life previously confined to the Black community, such as intraracial color and class issues. For many, if not most, especially those of us teaching at the college/university level, this signaled the end of the curricular work to be done. This, however, is far from true.
The fourth phase of the revolution, having the gains of the first three phases affect the curriculum of high schools and elementary schools, still has a long way to go. At this level, one can't even count on Black History Month being celebrated. Nowhere, perhaps, was this problem more vividly portrayed than in the November 1998 controversy in Brooklyn, NY, over the teaching of Carolivia Herron's Nappy Hair by white, first-year teacher Ruth Sherman in her third-grade class. Nappy Hair is a tale designed to promote diversity by teaching tolerance, acceptance, and appreciation for difference. Brenda has the nappiest hair in her entire family; and at a family picnic, the story is told, in call-and-response fashion, of how her naps came to be. They are "an act of God that came straight through Africa." God decided that he wanted some nappy hair in the world because "one Nap of her hair is the only perfect circle in nature." And when he finished his act of creation, he looked at Brenda's hair and said, "Well done. " Ruth Sherman used this book and others to get her students interested in reading, and their test scores improved. However, parents (nearly all Black and Latino) objected to the book, thought Sherman was racist, allegedly issued death threats, and caused her to ask to be transferred. Worst of all, the majority of parents who objected had not even read the book. While Sherman is to be praised for using Nappy Hair, it's also true that she didn't go about things the right way. Had she done her homework in African American culture, she could have predicted that some parents would get upset just from the title. And it is precisely for people in Sherman's position that Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice is designed. The volume is the result of NEH-sponsored institutes led by Maryemma Graham of Northeastern University in Boston in the summers of 1993 and 1994. These two institutes were designed to allow teachers "to be part of an ongoing intellectual community" in order to be "assisted with t he process of engaging new literatures critically and holistically." The assignment to participants "was to complete a fairly comprehensive syllabus containing African American texts that are only rarely included in the traditional canon, few of which any teacher there had ever read." To assist in this process, the members of the institute were joined by some of the luminaries of African American scholarship (William Andrews, Leslie Sanders, Thadious Davis, Bernard Bell, Jerry Ward, and Trudier Harris), and their essays constitute the core of this book.
"What's in this for me?" you might ask. After all, African American Review is geared to scholars of African American literature at the college and university level. What use could they possibly get from a text seemingly designed for high school teachers? In all honesty, I asked myself this question and started reading with a good deal of skepticism. The skepticism quickly vanished, however. The essays by the scholars are uniformly excellent. In "Narrating Slavery," William Andrews locates slave narratives in the contexts of African American literature and African American autobiography; distinguishes between pre- and post-Emancipation narratives, male and female narratives; and then discusses them as influences on "white American literature" from Stowe and Twain through the infamous William Styron. He looks at form as well as content, and he looks at the texts both as aesthetic creations and as "a powerful means of addressing and altering sociopolitical as well as cultural realities in the United States." At the end of his essay, there is a list of key terms ("manhood," "womanhood," "self," "community," and "novelization") and brief outlines on how to teach texts by Jacobs, Wright, and Angelou. In "A Female Face," Thadious Davis looks at "the masking of the masculine" in African American fiction before Wright and the masculinization of African American fiction by Wright, and concludes with a brilliant analysis of the long neglected classic The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), Langston Hughes's collaboration with Roy De Carava. This text needs to be much better known, and this essay should go a long way in bringing this text back to prominence. In "Voices of Double Consciousness," Bernard Bell argues for the need to refine Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness "to signify the biracial, bicultural identities of African Americans, and not necessarily a pathological or schizophrenic way of being-in-the world with others." Jerry Ward offers practical guidelines for teaching African American poetry in "To Shatter Inn ocence," and reminds us that however "noble, democratic, well-meaning, and genuine our beliefs, they mean little until they are transformed by the art of teaching." The concluding essay is Trudier Harris's "Lying Through Our Teeth?" in which she asserts that adding Black texts to syllabi "is merely the dress rehearsal for what cultural diversity is all about." What is really needed, she argues, is that "we have to begin to transform our perceptions of the world we live in and the people who share it with us." She suggests, using Invisible Man as an example, that because the novel begins with Louis Armstrong and jazz, a good teacher must acquire an understanding of jazz, that this might even involve taking your students to a jazz club; that because the novel is also based on the African American folk tradition, students need to understand this tradition and could benefit from listening to taped sermons or the "harangues" of Muhammad Ali, or going to an African American church service (where they need to make s ure they dress accordingly because "black folks generally dress up when they go to church"), or going to a soul food restaurant. These activities are important because diversity "cannot be limited to the mixing of texts and discussions," but must go beyond that to "social interaction."
The benefit of this text is that it discusses diversity on three levels: what texts to use and how to think about them and discuss them; the actual political/social relations inside the classroom (how to deal with issues such as "white guilt," "white privilege and racial entitlement," the development of "an authentic and connected voice," and "teaching self-awareness and awareness of the effects of institutions upon individual lives"); and, finally, the fact that true diversity is not aimed simply at transforming the classroom, but transforming the world. In addition, the book ends with a very useful eighteen-page bibliography of primary texts divided by genre, secondary texts, and teaching resources. (A minor quibble: The bibliography could have been better proofed. Alice Walker's Meridian is listed as having been written by Margaret Walker, Melvin Tolson's Rendezvous with America is listed as being written by Derek Walcott, and my name is misspelled.)
Those of us in higher education know all too well that, while much lip service is paid to the importance of teaching, scholarly publication is what really counts. That trend began to alter in 1979 with the publication of Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, the MLA volume by Dexter Fisher and Robert Stepto, and then continued with the MLA's ongoing series "Approaches to Teaching." With Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice, Maryemma Graham and her co-editors, Sharon Pineault-Burke and Marianna White Davis, have continued this work and taken it to a new level. As a result of this volume, the fourth phase of the revolution in Black Studies is well under way.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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