Teaching Literary Theory w/a Black Woman Text as Primary

I have done something difficult at least three times. I have taught literary theory at a Historically Black College or University, and I have taught it at two different levels. Look, I am not questioning the ability of our students to grasp theory, but concerning Black folk and theory, there is something more at play here. Historically, Black folk have had a contentious relationship with theory. Theory often obscures the very subject or object it seeks to explore. The obfuscate nature of the language, the condescension with which some theorists write, and the absolute disregard for the primary texts in some English departments as they struggle to “prove” their relevance to an academic environment that favors Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics complicate this relationship further.

As an upperclassmen during my undergraduate years and a graduate student, I had no qualms about the language of theory. In fact, I chuckled at it. In my eyes, many theorists were using $10 words and 20 pages to say what the old Black folk around me could say with .05-cent words and a metaphor wrapped in nature. Spivak tickled me with the word, “alterity,” and I remember making several crass jokes about it. Lacan’s theory that having a penis does not make one a man and that phallic authority does not reside in the seat of one’s pants was old news to me. My grandfather said all of my life that some men are, “Just breathe in breeches.” Other men complained about the lazy among them -those who depend on women for their economic well-being- as “weak-backed.” While I did struggle through the dense language of Lacan, who equates phallic authority as the square root of a negative one, it was my grandfather’s voice that helped me understand the concept.

Because I was what one consider an old people’s child, always somewhere sitting at the feet of old folk, listening to their convoluted stories of hardships overcome or shelling peas with them and trying to figure out the metaphors that they used for almost every phenomena of human behavior, I can certainly understand Christian when she posits, “For people of color have always theorized – but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (emphasis Christian’s). In that regard, the absurd language of theory and the way that academics use them as so much political capital, are funny to me. I am not impressed by “discourse,” “deconstruction,” “Derrida,” “Foucault’s History of Sexuality v.1 (why doesn’t anyone use Foucault’s writing on prison and the carcereal? I find that much more applicable to literature produced by those of the African Diaspora), “Freudian analysis,” (again, much of the use of Freud is based on his sexual writings. Why doesn’t anyone use Freud’s writings about the uncanny? I find that much more useful) and other buzzwords in the academy neither impress nor intimidate me. Once, I had a Black graduate school professor who became livid with me, because she kept throwing out Spivak. I did not respond to most of it, but when I did respond, I could explain the concept and show how Cesaire and Fanon wrote similar essays decades before Spivak. This Black feminist scholar became livid and even tried to get me kicked out of graduate school. It’s sad that she teamed up with the white feminist racist in the department to do so, and I, her sister, suffered psychologically from their behavior for years. But that’s another story. Her obsession with Spivak, her insistence on using as many big words as possible, and her underestimating of me as a Black Mississippian are funny now.

Back to the original essay…My classmates, Black, white, and otherwise, did not find theory as amusing as I did. Many of them hated it. And I can see why. When I was an undergraduate, we attended a university that placed emphasis on theoretical readings while the primary text seemed lost and obscure. Part of this was the university’s attempt to become “The Harvard of the South.” They paid dearly for young professors from near-Ivy or Ivy League schools to come there, teach for a few years, use the very good interlibrary loan system, write a book, obtain tenure, and leave. Many of these professors clearly thought that Southerners were dumb as rocks. Some of them REFUSED to give students an “A,” even if we earned it. They found some kind of way to justify that B+, and even that was given grudgingly. Theory was one of those classes where dumb Southerners were not supposed to excel. How could people from Mississippi, who are supposed to be barely literate, possibly understand Derrida or Foucault or Arendt? And part of the problem was this particular English Department racing for prestige on campus. On every campus, the English, History, Gender Studies and Philosophy Departments are soft targets for harsh criticism. After all, unlike the Math or even Psychology Departments, no one can “see” what it is we actually do. We live in the mind and do not produce anything tangible. We teach skills that are almost impossible to affix a dollar amount to: critical thinking, critical reading, and analytical writing. Who can put a price tag on those things? The closest anyone can come to valuating what we do is through effective office memos and emails. And though philosophy majors once served a valuable function in our society as the progenitors of the ethics in various facets (business, law, medicine), our late style of capitalism has rendered ethics null and void. This particular department championed theory at the expense of primary texts. I had one classmate who bragged that he never even read the primary texts, had memorized a few “theoretical buzzwords,” and could wow the department with his vocabulary. He ridiculed me, who was always searching for more primary texts by authors that I may have liked. He cautioned that though it seemed I’d read everything, that anyone like me would be lost in the fray. When I became a graduate student, I learned the wisdom of his words.

Okay, I have gone on a long-side tangent. Don’t blame, me. I was raised around old folk and that was their style of talking. Let me fast-forward this by a few years. When I began working as a professor, I did not think that anyone would call me to teach theory. I had even broken up my British literature collection and sold it on Amazon. I figured that I live in the South. I am from Mississippi. Who would ask a brown woman from Mississippi to teach theory or British literature? Though I had the credentials, I am in no way disillusioned about the racism and stereotypes entrenched in and hidden by the nature of academia. So, when I received the call from my chair asking to teach theory, I cringed on the inside. I remembered my undergraduate classmates were when they first encountered theory. I remember being a graduate student and almost crying real tears when I read Burke either as part of theory or part of British literature: I can’t remember. At any rate, Burke was used as a theorist and we had to read the whole text. It was traumatizing. I remember the resistance that students put up to very nature of theoretical language. https://www.amazon.com/Reflections-Revolution-France-Edmund-Burke/dp/1420958836/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Reflections+of+a+Revolution+in+France&qid=1640100445&sr=8-1

Since I was teaching at a private HBCU at the time, I decided to do something radical: use a Black woman’s text as the primary or test case for all of the theoretical paradigms that I would present to the students (barring the ancient Greek philosophers. For those writings, I chose Sappho). For this experiment, I chose a book that is probably not on anybody else’s syllabus: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. https://www.amazon.com/Maud-Martha-Gwendolyn-Brooks/dp/0883780615/ref=sr_1_1?crid=13M9NTKYZHT2H&keywords=maud+martha+gwendolyn+brooks&qid=1640100684&sprefix=Maud+Martha%2Caps%2C185&sr=8-1

Why did I choose this text?

Gwendolyn Brooks' Indispensable 'Maud Martha' : NPR
This is the version that students ordered.

First of all, this book represents a challenge to students genre-wise. It is not easy for them to fit it into a nice, neat category. Is it poetry? Is it prose? It is a long poem like Browning’s Aurora Leigh? Is it a novel? Is it a novella? Is it a loose-connection of related events? Are they vignettes that create a greater picture? These are the structural questions that challenge students immediately! As the semester progresses, students are faced with a form challenge. Is this creative nonfiction? Is this a memoir? Is it a bildungsroman? More specifically, are we reading a subgenre of the buildungsroman: a kunstlerroman? A little deeper into the semester, after students learn a few more terms, they are faced with yet another challenge. Is this book Modern or Postmodern? Is it a Naturalist text? Does it belong to the Realism category? Or, would we consider this Urban Realism?

Aside from the form and structure challenges presented in this text, I chose this one for another reason. Black women have something to say about the world in which they live – every facet of it. Racism and internecine struggles for dominance, chromatism, the economy, the environment, childhood, gender and sexism, marriage as a market, and class identity and politics are just a few of the topics found in the pages of Black women writers.

Furthermore, for any of us who teach Black women writers, we have received a stern warning from two leading practitioners in the field of Black women’s literature. In the now iconic essay, “The Race for Theory,” Christian tells us that sometimes, literary theory can become downright prescriptive. As an example, she uses the Black Arts Movement and the theory that its leaders tried to create. This theory was based on the language of the people and the language of the people was Black urban working-class. This theoretical concept left out whole segments of Black literature. As Christian points out, for example, “Writers were told that writing love poems was not being black.” So, Black folks don’t love?

Hurston, two generations earlier than Christian, wrote similar sentiments in her essay, “Art and Such.” She asked, “Can a Black writer sing of the morning.” Hurston often suffered critical attacks from Black male writers and critics who thought they had the formula for what Black literature should be and do. For Hurston, these attacks were prescriptive and narrow. Her loudest detractors, Richard Wright and Alaine Lock, metaphorically punched Hurston for not creating and presenting “social document” fiction. Because Hurston refused to write of the South as the site of Black misery, she was accused of not producing Black literature.

Third, I chose this text because it challenges students to look beyond the harsh (sometimes downright poorly written) language of theory. It forces students into something more taxing: place the literary text in context and value the experiences of the author in textual production. In the modern era, so much of literary theory and criticism is controlled by those with the prestige and wherewithal to publish. Dangerously, these theorists can set a metanarrative that encourages those seeking tenure to pull from their “Bibles,” publish what is expedient according to the publishing industry, and consistently use “buzzword” terms. The author and conditions of textual production can get lost as the philosophical language of theory is preferred to the language of the author. As theorists, our intention is to explicate the nuances and complexities of a text, and in using the language of theory, the text becomes lost or certain interpretations are rejected. Here’s an example, for years I have been teaching Petry’s The Street as a text that is more than just a companion piece to Wright’s Native Son. The Street is more complex in that sexual discrimination is prevalent and Harlem is shown almost as a colony of wealthier portions of the city and surrounding areas. I go so far as to say that Petry’s text is colonial/anticolonial. I have been laughed at for a decade. Somebody somewhere hammered Petry in as a Naturalist and that is that!

My interpretation of Petry is grounded in the historical knowledge that the anticolonial/Civil Rights Movements beginning around the World War II era were global and not relegated to the American South. The Civil Rights Movement proper started in New York City with the Silent March of 1917, and it continues today as Barbados has recently separated itself from the British empire. I agree with Deborah McDowell when she asserts, “Regardless of which theoretical framework Black feminist critics choose, they must have an informed handle on Black literature and Black culture in general. Such a grounding can give this scholarship more texture and completeness and perhaps prevent some of the problems that have had a vitiating effect on the criticism.”

In other words, the author matters. The socio-political and economic environment under which the text was produced matters. Other works by Black authors, read in a comparative framework, matters. Black authors are always win conversation with one another and Black writers know how to speak to themselves and the general audience. Often, this method of reading and writing about reading is neglected and what the author presents to us is misunderstood or not read at all. For example, I am still waiting on someone produce evaluative works on Naylor’s Linden Hills, for its detailed picture of class fissures within respective Black communities. Most students do not even realize that The Women of Brewster’s Place is a continuation of Hills. In my class, students learn that poorly-constructed philosophy that features particular polysyllabic words cannot substitute for actually reading more than the works already discussed by the metanarratives and a firm grip on historical conditions. Here’s an example, for as wild as theorists/critics went for Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, either to lambaste it or praise it, how many practicing academics teach or write about Walker’s Third Life of Grange Copeland or her poetry collections? Choosing Maud Martha, a text produced by a poet when Chicago was the world’s most segregated city, forces students to compare the text with Brooks’ poetry and to investigate the economic and historical conditions that inform the text, Maud Martha.

All of this takes place in the theory for upperclassmen. Last year, I taught theory at the Master’s Degree level. I focused on the development of the novel in Western society. While I think my class still needs work, the students were extremely proud of what they learned. Not only did I use Maud Martha, but excerpts from other Black women writers. Students learned that though Toni Morrison is exceptional, she is not an exception to the Black women belletristic tradition. Black women have always spoken truth to power, and they have an uncanny ability to center their own stories and not the current hegemony that they speak against. More work should be done with Black women writers. Again, I have yet to see someone really devote critical analyses to Pauline Hopkins and her contribution to story form or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as America’s first “protest poet.”

I am going to leave my course schedule for that graduate level class. As aforementioned, I feel that class was incomplete.

Course Schedule

Week 1 January 11-15 

Monday:  Class introduction

Wednesday: Syllabus/Introductory Class Post

Friday: The Novel, an introduction

Week 2:  January 18-22 The Novel

Monday:  MLK Day

Wednesday: The Novel continued

Friday: The Novel continued

Week 3:  January 25-29  Early Development of the Novel

Monday:  Mary Wollstonecraft pg. 507

Wednesday:  De Stael pg. 517

FridayMaud Martha chapters 1 & 2  

Week 4: February 1-5  Early Theoretical Concerns of the Novel

Monday: Marx and Engels, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” pg. 655, “The German Ideology,” pg. 659, and “The Communist Manifesto,” pg. 661

Wednesday: Arnold pg. 684

Friday: James pg. 721

Week 5 February 8-12 Victorian Concerns

Monday: Wilde, all selections pg. 765

Wednesday: Freud all selections pg. 789

Friday:  Maud Martha chapters 3, 4, & 5

Week 6 February 15-19 Linguistics, Language and the Novel

Monday: Saussure all selections pg. 824

Wednesday: Lukacs all selections pg. 8689

Friday: Maud Martha chapters 6 & 7

Week 7 February 22-26 Linguistics, Language, and the Novel continued

Monday: Eliot all selections pg. 885

Wednesday: Heidegger pg. 914   

Friday: Bakhtin pg. 999, Maud Martha chapters 8 & 9

Week 8 March 1-5 The Author’s Identity and the Text

Monday:  Virginia Woolf all selections pg. 857

Wednesday:  W. E. B. DuBois all selections pg. 845

 Friday: Hurston all selections pg. 936, Hughes pg. 1140

Week 9 March 8-12  The Author’s Identity and the Text Continued

Monday:  Maud Martha Chapters 10, 11, 12

Wednesday: Barthes, “Death of the Author pg. 1265 

Friday: Foucault, “What is an author?” pg. 1395

Week 10 March 15-19 Reading the Novel

Monday:  Arendt all selections, pg. 1169

Wednesday:   Brooks, all selections pg. 1183

Friday:  De Man, all selections pg. 1314, Maud Martha 13, 14, & 15

Week 11 March 22-26  The Novel as Social, Historical, Identity Record

Monday:  Fanon all selections pg. 1353

Wednesday: Foucault, pgs. 1421-1450

Friday:  Achebe pg. 1536

Week 12 March 29-April 2  The Novel as Social, Historical, Identity Record

Monday: Morrison pg. 1673

Wednesday:  Jameson pgs. 1734-1757

Friday:   Said all selections pg. 1783, Maud Martha 16, 17, 18

Week 13 April 5-9  The Novel as a Record Culture/Counter-Culture

Monday: Thiong’o, Liyoung, and Owuor-Anyumba pg. 1912, Anzaldua all selections pg. 1986

Wednesday: Gates pg. 2244, Gilroy all selections pg. 2391

Friday: Warren pg. 2488, Maud Martha 19, 20, 21

Week 14 April 12-16  Modern Feminism/Queer Theory

Monday:  De Beauvoir, “The Second Sex” pg. 1214, Wittig pg. 1823

Wednesday: Rich pg. 1515, Gilbert and Gubar all selections pg. 1839

Friday: Sedgwick, “Between Men,” pg. 2279, Maud Martha 22, 23, 24, 25

Week 15 April 19-23 marxisms /Postmodern/post-structural

Monday: Gramsci pg. 929, Benjamin pg.  976,

Wednesday:  Maud Martha 26, 27, 28, 29

Friday: Lyotard pg. 1385

Week 16 April 26-30 Postmodern/post-structuralism, marxism

Monday:  Maud Martha 30, 31, 32, 33, 34

Wednesday: Derrida pgs. 1608-1609, 1613, Jameson 1731

Friday:  Eagleton pg. 2021, Hooks 2318

There will be some changes the next time that I teach this, but for now, I am proud of the work that the primary text FORCED my students to do. I am proud of what they learned and how I grew as a professor, and I am elated that many students began this class with apprehension, but left with a growing sense of confidence in their knowledge of primary texts and theoretical constructions.


Black Women Writers: The Class

The last time I posted, I asked, “What if I had a class of nothing but Black women writers?” Believe it or not, this previous semester, I had a class of nothing but Black women writers!

I’ll admit, when I first received this class assignment, I was NERVOUS. I have been previewing anthologies of Black women writers, and I was not satisfied with the anthologies that I saw. The offerings were many, but I was looking for a particular range. I wanted to start at the beginning BEGINNING with Wheatley and go all the way to the Afro-Future.

Then, I thought about my time at Rust College, a very small Historically Black College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. While there, I taught during the summer for a robotics camp that they had there. I was in charge of reading/critical thinking. I had to construct a class from scratch. In order to do this, I took a trip to the bookstore and saw a jewel of an anthology.

The perfect anthology, edited by Valerie Lee

To me, this was the PERFECT anthology. It had the range that I wanted with the different types of genre offerings that I was looking for. Unfortunately, it was out of print! “Devastated” was not the word for what I felt.

With a crestfallen heart, I began my search in earnest again. I wanted noncreative fiction, fiction, political essays, slave narratives, poetry, science fiction, novel excerpts…the full range of Black women’s creativity. In my search, I came across this diamond.

Black Women Writers anthology, edited by Margaret Busby

From this book, I created what I believe is a DYNAMITE syllabus. First, I had to begin with my course objectives. What did I want the students to do? What did I want them to learn? Ultimately, I decided that it was best to expose the students to the range of Black women. Students, and Americans in general, do not know about the range of Black women writers across the African Diaspora. From this standpoint, I crafted the class description and objective.


Books: New Daughters of Africa: An Anthology of Writing By Women of African Descent

ISBN: 978-1912408740

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

ISBN: 9780061120060

Student writing handbook of choice

Course Description

A survey course of Black women’s literature from the African Diaspora

Course Objectives:

What do Black women feel about themselves?  Their relationships?  Their families? Their communities?  Their countries?  Their world? Do Black women think about the future?  Is it important to know what Black women think and feel?  Black women writers were among the first to offer written records of their psychological interiorities, their political views, and their spiritual longings in the New World.  They did so in the face of rigid gender and racial restrictions.  This class explores the writings of Black women writers from around the world – creative and nonfiction.  In addition, this class features a groundbreaking transnational novelist, playwright, early filmmaker, and social scientist: Zora Neale Hurston.     

The Professor Will

  1. Provide the students with quality readings.
  2. Provide the students with proper historical context when necessary.
  3. Provide students with guidelines for credible research resources.

The Students Will

  1. Develop a critical reading strategy for academic authors.
  2. Read before class begins.
  3. Annotate readings.
  4. Read with an open mind.
  5. Produce a final research paper.

In addition the writers in the anthology, I decided to make the feature artist for this class, Zora Neale Hurston. For those who know me, the choice of Hurston was a complete shock, because I am a Toni Morrison disciple. I have read everything she ever wrote with the exception of her later novel, A Mercy. For this class, however, my choice of Hurston was a personal one. As a writer, Zora Neale Hurston has never been recognized for the genius that she was. As an anthropologist, she has never been credited as a progenitor of African American Studies. That distinction goes to W.E.B. DuBois. This is sexist, elitist, and unfair. Aside from DuBois, Hurston was the only formally trained social scientist of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston was the ONLY writer of the Harlem Renaissance to have grown up in or spend significant time in the rural South (there were other writers of the Harlem Renaissance who were from urban centers of the South such as Atlanta and D.C.). When scholars approach Hurston, they become engaged in her quirky personality and attempts to decode her sexuality. This is grossly unfair to Hurston, whose works are complex and in further need of analysis.

Well, the unfortunate thing about Busby’s anthology is that it did not include Hurston. At all. As a professor, I am known for turning lemons into lemonade. The lack of Hurston in anthology forced me to assign Hurston’s first novel as a second primary text. I also utilized offerings on websites such as http://www.blackpast.org and http://www.poetryfoundation.org. Coupled with the anthology, this gave me the range I was looking for while keeping costs low for the students.

With that in mind, I set the course schedule:

Course Schedule

Week One Aug 16-20

Monday:  Class Introduction

Wednesday:  Introduction to the featured writer, “Zora Is My Name” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RusqNuuZrKM&t=560s

Friday: “Sweat,” “The Gilded Six Bits”

Week Two August 23-27  Hurston in Context

Monday: Phillis Wheatley: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley

Wednesday: Frances E. Watkins Harper: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/frances-ellen-watkins-harper

Friday: Georgia Douglas Johnson: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/georgia-douglas-johnson

Week Three August 30-Sept 3  Africana Womanhood and Early Women Writers

Monday: Bonner, “On Being a Young Woman – and Colored,” https://www.are.na/block/1460891

Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me” https://www.casa-arts.org/cms/lib/PA01925203/Centricity/Domain/50/Hurston%20How%20it%20Feels%20to%20Be%20Colored%20Me.pdf

Wednesday: Asma pg. 3, Redmond, both selections, Keckley pg. 9

Friday: Ray both selections, Riddley, both selections, Smith both Selections

Week Four September 6-10 The Late 1800s-Early 1900s “To Tell the Truth”

Monday: (Labor Day, No Class)

Wednesday: Maria W. Stewart: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1832-maria-w-stewart-why-sit-ye-here-and-die/

Ida B. Wells: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1900-ida-b-wells-lynch-law-america/

Friday: Hopkins, “Talma Gordon” https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/masters/modules/narrativesofamericanempire/pauline_hopkins_talma_gordon.pdf, Cumberbatch pg. 27

Week Five September 13-17 Into the 1920s

Monday:  Milican pg. 31, https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/classic-women-authors-poetry/11-poems-by-angelina-weld-grimke/

Wednesday: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA01/Grand-Jean/Hurston/Chapters/supporting/color.html

Friday: Test One

Week Six September 20-24  Into the 1930s and 1940s

Monday: Chase-Riboud pg. 39, Saadawi pg. 42, Kennedy pg. 45

Wednesday:  Andaiye pg. 49, Bedford pg. 59, Dove pg. 63

Friday: Greer pg. 69, Jefferson pg. 80, Nunez pg. 89

Week Seven September 27-October 1  The 1950s

Monday: Abbot pg. 105, Bethel pg. 133, Sapphire pg. 226

Wednesday:  Salandy-Brown pg. 221, Verene A. Shepherd pg. 235

Friday: Hurston the Social Scientist “Hoodoo in America,” and Hurston Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmKPjh5RX6c&t=201s

Week Eight  October 4-8 1960s

Monday: Agbabi pg. 269, Baderoon all selections pg. 294

Wednesday: Busia pg. 315, Cox pg. 318

Friday: Midterm

Week Nine October 11-15  The 1970s

Monday: Walker, “Looking for Zora” http://mrslivaudais.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/looking-for-zora-a_-walker.pdf

Wednesday: Danticat pg. 328, Hopkinson pg. 364

Friday: Jarrett-Macauley pg. 369

Week Ten October 18-22

Monday: Makumbi pg. 400, Malatji pg. 405

Wednesday: Okot Bitek pg. 429, Trethewey all selections pg. 479

Friday: de Waal pg. 492, Walker pg. 500

Week Eleven October 25-29

Monday: Adichie pg. 507, Adjonyoh pg. 512

Wednesday: Aribisala pg. 526, Pizarro pg. 532

Friday: Test Three

Week Twelve November 1-5

Monday: Okorafor pg. 666, Parker pg. 671, Ward pg. 721

Wednesday: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Friday: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Week Thirteen November 8-12

Monday: Their Eyes Were Watching God (movie)

Wednesday: Literary Research Projects/Annotated Bibliography

Friday: Annotated Bibliography Continued

Week Fourteen  November 15-19

Monday: Annotated Bibliography Due

Wednesday: Literary Research Body

Friday: Final Exam

Week Fifteen November 22

Final Paper Due

Now, the difficulty in putting together a syllabus, for me, is deciding what to leave out. I wanted to teach more of the authors in the anthology, but at some point, there are skills that need to be taught (such as how to do an extended annotated bibliography), this is a survey class, and the semester has to end at some point. For example, I had to leave out Nikky Finney, Zadie Smith, and Zandria Robinson. I sacrificed these authors in order to expose students to other writers of the Diaspora such as Jesmyn Ward, Natasha Trethewey, Chimamanda Adichie, and Diane Abbott.

Overall, I was satisfied with the syllabus. With a brain full of hope, I uploaded the syllabus and waited for the students’ reaction the breadth and range of Black women writers.

What If I Had a Class of Nothing But Black Women Writers?

The text selections for Black Women Writing Home came together over two decades of school and reading.

Okay, I know that in a previous post, I talked about this big, chunky article that I had rejected REPEATEDLY. I was furious for a long time. Then, I became exhausted. Then, the whole thing became comical. Then, like I always do, I turned the situation over and over in my mind (cognitive looping on steroids was more like it). Then I thought, “What I were to take a class, right now, on Black women writers?”

After listing all of the contemporary Black women writers I’d encountered in graduate school and afterwards, I turned my attention to all of the women of the 1800s. Truthfully, my experience with the 1800s was scarce. Most of the women writers of the 1800s were encountered due to my own, stubborn persistence about Black women writers. Wheatley, Truth, and Jacobs jumped out easily. But others were more difficult. For example, I “discovered” Jarena Lee and Julia A. J. Foote when doing research on Black women preachers, or “Daughters of Thunder.”

I don’t know why I was searching for African American sermons of the 1700s, but I was and this book was the first to be produced in a Google search.

I have been interested in this book FOR YEARS! I am going to certainly check it out from the library.

Very few texts on Black Jeremiads featured a woman on the cover, but this one is all about prophetic women. And the writers featured here were not all preachers, but also politically active women.

I am just itching to get my hands on this.

This was another caveat that I detoured down during my research trek.

The Caribbean was easy – as I am obsessed with the region and always trying to learn more and read more. Thank God for my hardworking colleagues in Foreign Language and Comparative Literature. It has been a while (I am not giving an exact year. A lady has to care about her age, right?) since I graduated with a terminal degree. I must admit that most of the knowledge of the Caribbean has come AFTER school. As more and more translations become available, I try to devour them. I am anxiously awaiting more translations from the Dutch Caribbean as I type this, actually.

The last part was the most difficult: science fiction. As an undergraduate, I was a premedical student. My love of literature has been a lifelong affair, but as a young student from a small town, having a fulfilling career with success and glamour meant what I saw on television. And let’s face it: all of the television shows of career people feature doctors and lawyers. Since I do love biology and babies, I chose medicine. And since I also watched Cliff Huxtable and wanted that life, I chose obstetrics and gynecology and convinced myself that I would be happy in that life. Even though I did the premedical tract, the major was always English. I eventually got a second bachelor’s in psychology (but that’s a whole other story). I went to grad school in English and I teach it now.

In the past, I kicked myself for taking all of those difficult science classes that were useless to me as an English professor. That is, until a colleague of mine asked if I would teach in a STEM/Robotics camp. I asked her what on earth could I do. She looked at me, laughed, and said, “Scientists need to read and write. Don’t we?” It was during that summer camp at an HBCU that I began reading Black science fiction. What impressed me the most about teaching this was the sharpness of the students. Right away, these students discerned that Black science fiction was less about chrome and gadgets and more about the human conditions. Black science fiction is often set in the future, comments on the present, and keeps the past relevant through use of historical allusion. Though my first endeavor into Black women’s science fiction was with the only writer I knew, Octavia Butler, I soon learned about more! Before I knew it, I was reading about Okafor, Hopkinson, and Brand. As it turns out, Brand was already on my shelf and I’d read some of the writers before I’d even heard of speculative fiction or Afrofuturism. I began to keep a tab on Black women science fiction writers as I learned more through database searches.

So, the list on the Call For Papers is a culmination of experience and also a desire. A Black woman gave birth to the African American belletristic tradition. Period. What if we were to teach a full class on Black women writers? What have Black women been writing about all of this time? What if we freed Black women from the masculine-driven theoretical paradigms that they are often pigeon-holed into? Away from forced theoretical reductivism, Black women write about home. Home. Home in the mind. Home as a physical reality. Home in the past. Home in private. Home in public. Dysfunctional home. Functional home. Coming home. Leaving home.

To say that Black women write home is not – in any way – diminutive. For so many people, home is a liminal space. It is not an interregnum the Gramscian sense, but a location between what was and what will be while the characters try to grapple with what is. Home is simple, yet home can be polyvalent with layer upon layer upon layer of secrets, desires, and yearnings.

Since Black women are writing home and home is complicated, they are deserving of their own space. As I was typing the proposal (from which the CFP came), my hands were shaking. My mind was on fire and I could not stop thinking about the project. I know that there were some women writers I missed. And thankfully, the contributors have helped me fill in. But, for all of us who study Black women writers writing home, this is an ongoing, fluid project. As more women writers are “discovered,” more translations become available, and even theologians publish Black women preachers and jeremiads, the work continues.

When Pedagogy Affects Publication

Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement Okay, here it is.  What is this?  I am glad that you asked.  This encyclopedia was a project that I worked on with a former professor and colleague, who serve as the editors.

To many academic readers, this is not much.  But let me tell you from experience, “this” was a difficult feat.  It was almost Herculean.  The editors did not get as many articles as they had hoped in spite of the over 200 entries!  They were pushing for more. I contributed to the introduction and several entries.

For those of us who know these editors personally, it was like we gave birth together!  I mean Old Testament birth here: muffling pain with no epidural!

Once the baby was out, I mean once it had gone to galley and the publishing house was amazed at the diversity and timeliness of such a project, we forgot all about the pain.  Like proud parents, all of us were simply stunned into silence once we saw a preview.  Once we got the book delivered in our hands, our faces beamed with pride and joy.  Just like I checked my children’s fingers and toes and nestled their newborn faces close to my tired one, I turned this book over and over again.  I checked the introduction, the index, and the contributors’ biographies.  I was so happy with the new baby/book.

Like most new parents who go through the trauma and joy of birth together, one of the editors, Verner Mitchell, talked with me for a while about the book and the difficulty in bringing it to fruition.   Here’s the one thing that I feel made this labor and birthing process extremely difficult: the pedagogy surrounding the Black Arts Movement.

It has been more than 50 years since the first African American Literature anthology was widely adopted in America.  Now, there have been anthologies of African American literature since the late 1940s, but the college curriculum was largely resistant to the notion that African Americans have contributed anything of value to American culture.  That Black people had an actual belletristic tradition beyond Langston Hughes was unimaginable until the fervent protest of the Black Arts Movement.  That Black American culture was anything more than mere mimicry of white middle class or its diametrical opposite was a foreign idea in academia (let’s just see that this was a resistant clinging to scientific racism by people who were too learned not to know better).  The Civil Rights, Student for Democratic Society, Black Power and Black Arts Movements are directly responsible for democratizing college curricula, though we are far from reaching the educational ideals of the 1960s and early 1970s.  So, why does it seem the Black Power and its spiritual sister, the Black Arts Movements are left in a corner somewhere pedagogically?

Since the late 1960s, we have had scores of students of African American Literature and African American Studies who have had the Black Arts Movement introduced to them as “less than” the Harlem Renaissance.  It is not even comparable to the literature produced during the World War II era, and it is often glossed over in an effort to get to the feminist productions of the 1980s.  In some anthologies, the BAM is treated with disdain and labeled as a short, noneffective blip on the African American literary radar.  Seeing as how RAP music was born during this era and Hip Hop is now a multi-billion dollar, global industry, I would not say that this era should be taken so lightly.

However, it is.  And this condescension, disdain, and disregard most certainly affected the scholarship (as far as the Encyclopedia is concerned).  The pedagogy is driving the research in this case.  In most cases, it is great that pedagogy is driving scholarship and vice versa, but it is awful when eras are reduced and flattened due to comfortable meta-narratives encountered in anthologies and classrooms.  As undergraduates, we are often blind to the politics of canonization.  We do not understand that anthologies are often put together based upon the tastes and prejudices of an editor.  In many cases, editors choose authors and texts that fit a long-held meta-narrative.  Here’s an example: many writers of the American West are simply left out of most anthologies.  They do not fit the North/South dichotomy of the African American cultural story.  You know the story: oppression in the South led to a mass exodus to the North where Black people encountered oppression of another kind and wrote about it in a respectable manner that drops rural Black English.  The outrage of hatred in Chicago, the confrontation with the urban landscape of criminalized and alienating New York, and the nonexistence of Detroit (though there are some writers there) are all encoded in most of the popular African American literature anthologies.  For those students who are being introduced to African American literature and its complexity for the first time, the anthologies provide them with a historical context and representative texts of the era.  But what about those texts that are not considered “representative”?  Are those writers any less worthy of study?

Furthermore, as struggling young academics, we here that mantra in the backs of our minds: “publish or perish.”  We all struggle for tenure and job security. Those of us who are writing things that go against the common meta-narratives in African American literature find that our articles are being rejected without even being read.  I had an article on a Black woman writer rejected and it was very clear that the readers had never even read the article or the particular text that I was writing about.   I was so disappointed with the fact that I had to place my article in a pop culture journal.  I am not casting aspersion on the pop culture journal.  It was peer reviewed and they appreciated the entry, because this book was turned into a movie in France.  However, I would have appreciated the article being published in an African American literature journal.  But this book was a contemporary piece, the writer is not yet anthologized, and most of the reviewers do not read anything contemporary past the novels of Toni Morrison or The Color Purple.

My comments to Dr. Mitchell were that I do not think people bailed on this project intentionally or with malicious intent.  Some people were simply intimidated by the era.  In our classes, we are taught that this era was short and did not contribute much.  We are not encouraged to research on it, but to produce ever-more articles on the Harlem Renaissance or some “trending” author.  To do something different would mean certain rejection, a missed line on the CV, and not securing the almighty golden nugget: tenure.

It is also my opinion that this baby we produced will grow like any child. The birth of this encyclopedia on the national/international stage signals a breaking free of the chains of an accepted metanarrative.  Now, don’t get me wrong: the meta-narrative got us thus far.  It is in the heated cauldron of the Civil Rights/Black Power Era that this literature was created.  It was created by man and woman on fire and passionate about change.  In fact, one of the first widely-accepted anthologies we have is called, Black Fire: An Anthology (1968) edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, two practitioners of the Black Arts Movement.

Black Fire An Anthology

But, the womb has now become restrictive and this baby was too big to keep holding it inside!  We all labored and labored until this baby came out!

Though I am proud of what we produced together, no child can remain a cute, cuddly baby forever.  Actually, that cuddly stage only lasts about a year.  As the big sister of two very rambunctious little brothers and now the mother of two, I can tell you that there is the Terrible One, the Terrible Twos, and the Awful Threes.  Once children begin to walk and put things in their mouths…But I digress.  This encyclopedia, like a child, will crawl out of our laps and walk on its own.  I keep telling both editors, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Davis, that this is just a first edition.  Already, I have found about 10 more things that I want to add personally!  And if this encyclopedia contributes to the pedagogy, there will be more scholars who “discover” this era and want to add as well.  Growth from one stage to another is fluid.  So is this encyclopedia.  Though no mothers actually looks forward to adolescence in their children, I am anxiously anticipating it for this one.

Black Women Writing Home

In 1970, Toni Cade did something that was wonderfully revolutionary: she released a new anthology of Black women’s creative writing and cultural criticism.  On the cover was a dark brown woman with natural hair.  The anthology was simply called, The Black Woman: An Anthology. It was a new book of Black women’s voices that demanded to be heard.  The original poetry, prose, and criticism were woman-centered works that did not shy from difficult topics – even the so-called racial castration of Black men and birth control pills. 

The Black Woman

Contemporary Black Women Writers is a project has lived inside me for the past 15 years!  Dear reader,  in 2004 when all of this began in me, I was a rather loud and country graduate student at the University of Memphis who absolutely REFUSED to code switch (Today, I am a loud and country adjunct professor who still refuses to code switch, thank you much!  I’m from the Piney Woods of Mississippi and honey, that is good!  It is the home of Richard Wright, Anne Moody, and Leontyne Price.  Put that in your respectability pipes and smoke it…LOL!).  That summer, I found myself sitting in class of one of the most prolific and quiet scholars I had ever seen in my life. It was African American Women’s Literature, the professor’s name was Dr. Verner Mitchell from South Georgia, and he had the patience of Job.  He introduced us to a new author whose work he’d recovered, Anita Scott Coleman.  From the moment I began reading the work on typing paper (he had not published this material, yet), I was in love!  At some point during the time I spent getting my Master’s, Dr. Mitchell sent me to the library to find short stories written by this author at the turn of the century, Pauline Hopkins.  It was in a publication, Colored American Magazine.  Again, I fell in love.  I’d seen Hopkins anthologized before, but I never knew how much her work advanced the form of the short story in Black letters.  That distinction always belonged to Chestnut.

After the summer of 2004, I thought, what other complex Black women writers have I been missing?  Have we been reading Black women in pedagogical and theoretical methodologies that circumscribe the artistry of Black women and the messages that they encode within the ages?  Are we imprisoning Black women by writing about them critically as female complements to male writers?  Are we interrogating the meta-narratives that we have constructed around Black women writers since the publication of The Black Woman?  What if Wheatley were more than a woman who simply wanted her freedom?  Since class in 2004, I have found several poems of her that are a reflection of her political astuteness on both sides of the Atlantic.  Why aren’t we discussing her as a capable political commentator?  Are we refusing to critically treat contemporary women writers due to a respectability politics that currently pervades Black academia? Wanda Coleman is entitled to her anger, but she is left out of some of the most popular anthologies of African American literature.  Her anger is inappropriate while Black masculine anger is righteous?  Do anthologies privilege certain Black female writers to the exclusion of others?  The aim with my project here is not to bash Black males, but to show the complexity of Black women’s literature.  It can stand on its own without the insult of being forced into an uneven binary as a lesser complement to the supremacy of Black male literary productions.    

When we look at the body of work that Black women set forth, we realize that they do more than write about confrontation in the master’s house. To write of these confrontations exclusively would be to center the master and marginalize their own subjectivities. Black women writers take journeys. They take journeys sometimes physically, always emotionally, and definitely spiritually. The journeys that they take force us to travel beyond the realm of familiarity, away from the discourses that we have accepted as immutable, inviolate, right, and true. The journeys that Black women write about force us out of the margin and into a central place of discomfort, confrontation with our own selves, and into our own humanities. The place that they carry us to, and land us in -albeit a rough landing – is home.

Take a journey with me.  Re-read Black women’s writing.  Let us create the kind of scholarship that we all searched for in graduate school but did not find. In this project, let us complete the kind of pedagogical advice that we all wished we had when we first started teaching African American literature.  Let us give contemporary Black women the critical attention that they deserve.  In the coming weeks, I will post more blogs on how I lived with this project for 15 years, how it grew inside me, kicked to let me know it was there, and with fully-developed lungs, is waiting to get out!  This project is divided into the Past, the Present, the Gift of the Caribbean, and the Afrofuture.  Each of these divisions deserves its own post and development.