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?
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.
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
Friday: Maud 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.