“Literature can be our teacher as well as our object of investigation”
~ Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
To say that being the only African American woman professor at a small, liberal arts college in the rural United States is a series of racial microaggressions (and macroaggressions) waiting to happen is something of an understatement. And still, you are hopeful that the aspirational institution that sent for you will be able to support you on its campus. Initially, you may ignore being regularly mistaken by your colleagues for the other (only) Black woman on campus, or be willing to patiently explain that the institution’s expectation that you mentor every Black student is not only unreasonable, but not conducive to successful tenure and promotion. By the time you encounter the catch-22 of seeming uncongenial, in part, because you carefully consider the social spaces you inhabit and very few of your colleagues notice the confederate flags that casually drape the windows of cars parked in front of too many local watering holes, you begin to feel less hopeful.
In that American outpost, teaching became my refuge. With very little interference, I began to create courses which integrated canonical material from my subject areas of African American Literature, African Diaspora Literature and Black Studies with urban fiction, Hip Hop music and other forms of less traditional Black literary expression. These types of courses on a stodgy, rural, liberal arts campus encouraged a faithful student following, and that following felt like protection against the racist and sexist campus community outside the classroom. But it was not real protection; it couldn’t be. Through the experience of teaching Black urban literature, I soon came to realize that continued innovation cannot thrive in hostile spaces and that students’ goodwill cannot substitute for professional collegiality. For as bell hooks argues in Teaching to Transgress “‘engaged pedagogy’ … means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” (15)
The first time I taught urban literature, it was Sister Souljah’s memoir No Disrespect; it did not go well, and I was not prepared. I was teaching Introduction to Black Studies, and along with traditional texts, my approach included autobiographies, music, and narrative film. We read Richard Wright’s Black Boy, which they loved, and Rebecca Walker’s Black, White, Jewish which they met with curiosity. The films, Spike Lee’s School Daze and Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, engendered much interest and debate. The music project was so popular I have included it in every subsequent version of the course; I presented my version of Black music in the US, playing music chronologically from work songs to contemporary rap and then invited students to add music they could not believe didn’t make my list.
Midway through the semester, we began reading Souljah’s memoir and my lively and engaged students disappeared. In-class discussions became one-sided and students rarely, if ever, referred to specific passages in the text, something they had regularly done in the past. Their books sat on the tables in front them unopened. When I finally just asked the students to account for themselves, they lambasted the text. They spoke not of the subject matter which at times is deeply problematic, but on what they considered to be the poor quality of her writing, her questionable vocabulary, and the aggressiveness of her tone. In stark contrast, Wright’s memoir caused them to express an appreciation for the racism and social injustice his text revealed, but they felt no such connection to Souljah’s text. Using coded language they dismissed not the substance of her writing, but the subject position from which she wrote. In what was unfolding, the race and gender makeup became as central to our discussion as the text under review. The class consisted largely of upper-middle class students, was almost exclusively male, and of those male students, most were white. Their rejection made clear that the race, class, and gender bias that supported the institution outside the classroom was taking over inside it; I intended to restrict its creep into my classroom.
I did not urge these students to reconsider their points of view, to relish the opportunity to read a life often closed to them — the experience of a once impoverished rapper’s unlikely journey into the educated middle class. Instead I righteously lectured them on how their privilege prevented them from seeing the world. Referring specifically to their interest in Black music, I pointed out their eagerness to ignore the socio-political injustice, educational disadvantage, racism and prejudice that served as historical backdrop and subject of the music that laced through their iPods. I told them that in rejecting Souljah’s text they were participating in the continued cultural appropriation of Black culture, taking, using, and understanding nothing. When I was done, the class was cowed and I smug. Their privilege was theirs to manage, and so while they were required to finish reading the text, I made little effort to help them find a way back into it. I do not regret the lecture I gave that day, but I do regret not doing more to facilitate a re-engagement with the text on its own terms. Their resistance signaled the need for me to have made a different teaching choice. Now that I have left that college, I know that I did not make the effort to help them because I did not have anything left to give them; my teaching goals were becoming more impossible to realize. Surviving the college outside the classroom, the community outside the college, narrowed the spaces I could remain an engaged teacher.
The geographic location in which I taught, a place sometimes derisively referred to as Up South, and the image I had of myself there — as a pioneer in the wilderness of whiteness bringing African American literature and Black Studies to those who had never seen a Black woman professor up-close — very much limited the potential outcomes for that class. The institution had very few racially diverse faculty and my partner and I would become the second and third African American faculty members as part of a long term plan to racially diversify the current faculty. My refusal to acknowledge that recruitment is not always tethered to retention and that aspirational benchmarks have little to do with actual people, led me to look for support in places where I could have been providing it. I was a popular teacher on a small campus and the students’ collective goodwill led me to ignore signs that my own supply lines were drying up.
Until this failed teaching experience students who had signed up for my clearly identified Black-centered courses, while usually uninitiated, were excited. Reading No Disrespect, however, proved to be different; the memory of that class and the coded language students used to discuss Souljah’s memoir, stays with me even now, years later. It seems that reading it required students to look at themselves in a way they had not expected in a course entitled Introduction to Black Studies. No Disrespect deviated from their literary expectations and seemed to make them ill at ease with themselves. Unlike Wright’s older text, Souljah was writing about poverty and racism in the US during the 1980s and 90s. Wright’s anger they understood as righteous indignation, a man fighting against his times. Anger about more recent social injustice however, meant that the fight for civil rights was not over and that fact, like no other, made them uncomfortably aware that even if unknowingly, they benefited from systems of privilege. In that time and space I could not perceive the specific tonalities of their resistance, could not recognize that while it was rooted in class, gender and race privilege, it was rooted there in a very particular way. Ultimately, my battle-scarred response obscured the teaching possibilities of that text with those students.
I eventually left that college because I was no longer able to be the teacher I aspired to be in that space. The classroom was operating as a place of refuge for me, but not often enough as one for students.Teaching less conventional material successfully, requires more labor: more preparation, more flexibility and as result a safe space in which to do so is not a luxury, it is a requirement. Finally recognizing that my former institution was incapable of providing that and, in the interim, leading me to undermine my own teaching goals, I made a decision that meant leaving behind likely tenure, unsolving a two-body problem and starting over again in a small office with no windows. It remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I now work at a different type of Predominantly White Institution (PWI), this time an urban university with a Catholic affiliation. It is not without its problems, but there is a real cohort of tenured and untenured faculty of color. The institution has moved beyond perpetual aspiration and has managed to integrate its diversity goals into its culture with both clear successes and failures. Now, I am, more often, asked to do something because I am qualified to do so and not just because I am a Black woman. In short, I am no longer a pioneer in every public space. With the time, flexibility, and space to consider the potential outcomes for introducing urban literature into the classroom, I developed a comprehensive strategy that did not depend solely on students’ goodwill for success. What follows is the evidence of an engaged pedagogy which was only possible to create in a place where supply lines are practical rather than performative.
In a contemporary African American women’s literature course, I designed a section of the syllabus entitled “Keeping it Real?” in which students consider literary interpretations of the prison industrial complex, sexuality and the politics of respectability, the role of education. I selected “Unique”, a novella in the Girls from Da Hood series by Nikki Turner, as the centerpiece of the section and invited students to consider the cost of keeping it real. I planned for the class to interrogate the life that underlines the text; that is, how does Nikki Turner imagine and narrate the life of a poor, single, undereducated Black woman getting by on her feminine wiles? Rather than like my first attempt at urban literature, I chose fiction designed to give students more space and tools to investigate the text. I also defined very specific lines of inquiry to frame our in-class discussions.
My previous experience teaching this material prepared me to expect resistance and, liberated from the search for protection, I knew that comments about writing style, vocabulary, tone, and perhaps even subject matter would likely reflect class, gender, and race bias. So rather than having students read this book as a standalone text, I sequenced “Unique” with more traditional forms of literature with similar themes by established authors. Students read the title story from Z.Z. Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere followed by “Speaking in Tongues” from the same book, then “Unique” and finally Suzan-Lori Park’s play In the Blood. Earlier in the semester students read sections of Hazel Carby’s critical text Reconstructing Womanhood and in preparation for non-literary questions, I consulted Angela Davis’s work on Blacks in the prison industrial complex, The Meaning of Freedom, and Beverly Tatum and Jonathan Kozol on educational inequalities in the U.S. I placed urban fiction within a literary tradition and suggested by doing this that it was as deserving of the same level of inquiry.
Instead of beginning with a text like Black Boy and continuing with No Disrespect, which was alienating to privileged majority students in my previous experience teaching this material, I began this section with “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”, a story about a young Black woman negotiating her unease as a first-year student at Yale University, mirroring the privilege these students sometimes express. Students come to this story with strong beliefs about affirmative action as an unfair panacea for poor Black students. The story quickly reveals however, that while race and gender are salient to the protagonist, they are not the primary basis for her alienation. We read “Speaking in Tongues” next in order to interrogate the potentially devastating effects of the politics of respectability and examine how help can come from unexpected places. In this text, we focus on how the absence of sexual knowledge because of an insistence on sexual purity, puts its protagonist directly in the hands of a predator. Students respond well to these two stories in part because it is what they expect to find in a literature course. They have been selected because they do and because they raise similar critical questions they will encounter in “Unique”. I do not just expect the students to follow me, I prepare them to do so.
Putting urban fiction to work in the classroom involves an active pedagogy that insists on anticipatory practices. There is a push-pull as we read “Unique” because students have been trained to have narrow expectations of literature courses; as this text fails to conform to those expectations, I am prepared to meet that resistance. This kind of flexibility is not possible when you are harnessed by environmental constraints that inhibit mindfulness in the immediacy of the classroom. “Unique” begins with a collect call from prison and drawing from Angela Davis’s work, I ask students to consider what the existence of prisons say about non-prisoners. I do this to immediately trouble preconceived notions about incarceration. I use this same strategy for the same reasons when they learn that Unique drops out of school. Knowing that many students at the University participate in service learning opportunities at racially diverse and underserved schools, and drawing on Tatum, and Kozol, I attempt to re-orient them from easy assumptions about education as a panacea. I ask them to consider why the experience of attending a school in an underserved and underprivileged environment may make school seem disconnected from success. As sexual prowess is the trait Unique values most, we spend a lot of time discussing how she chooses to express her sexuality. Students react most strongly to this. They want to count up her sexual partners and sit in judgment; Instead I ask them to consider the agency involved in transactional sex. As we read each section of the novella, there is pushback for every decision Unique makes and I rely heavily on the next text, Park’s “In the Blood,” to reaffirm some of the claims I encourage them to make about “Unique.” While it is important to push students to reconsider their uninformed opinions, they must find their own compelling reasons to do so. In this place, I can read the room with a wider lens and each moment of dissent becomes an opportunity and a challenge I am better able to meet.
By the time we get to “In the Blood,” students are not yet convinced that Unique is anything other than her own worst enemy. But this retelling of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, as a homeless mother of five so mishandled and abused by the safety nets most Americans imagine to be firmly in place, that she snaps as a result of sheer abjection and murders her son, leads to quiet questions of indignation. In those moments, I think I have found the success I failed to find the first time I tried to teach urban literature. Students express muffled outrage at the utter exploitation Hester experiences by those designated to help her and it is then that I ask them to reconsider Unique’s attempts to control her life. Only then are they more able to consider Unique’s pursuit of agency and perhaps, her ingenuity.
Successfully teaching Black literature in innovative ways demands an engaged pedagogy and an engaged pedagogy requires time, space and freedom. Unfortunately, this means that many students will never read beyond the canonical texts in a Norton Anthology because teachers like me: Black, feminist, women, who will speak truth to power in ways that do not always conform to the expectations of majority cultures, come to realize that we can only do this kind of work from places where the performance and practice of diversity meet. Those kinds of places are often more difficult to locate than they seem. Once I was in a place that better facilitated that union, I could do more than observe and name the seeming failures of my students, I was able to help them work past them. By becoming the kind of teacher who structures pedagogy to penetrate through gender, race and class privilege, I created avenues through which students could find a way to read difficult material and learn from it.
People of difference often find themselves at the outposts of America clinging hopefully to jobs at aspirational institutions. Like pioneers and early settlers, we are unsure if those who sent for us will continue to provide the provisions we need to survive, or those who came with us will be able to continue to weather the isolation. In those places, we must pay careful attention to any sign that supply lines are collapsing or that railway tracks are being diverted from our town, and if those things happen, we must be willing to leave. No institution’s aspirations should supplant our own. Teaching urban literature has taught me that safety is not a luxury and that pioneering can only continue to function in its presence.