Queries About Teaching African American Literature (To and For Whom?) Amid “Unprecedented” Times

BY: Laura Vrana

Months ago, in the early days of COVID-19 beginning to heavily influence daily American life and teachers’ pedagogy, I often found my mind wandering to what to teach “after.” Perhaps I was seeking distraction from the feelings of inadequacy generated by all-online teaching. Perhaps, too, I wanted to squeeze the situational lemons into pedagogical lemonade.

For instance, I ruminated on whether to revise my fall book order for Contemporary Black Fiction to include Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), a novel narrating the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. I figured its wryly humorous view of reconstructing American society could produce cathartic contrast with our situation. Too, the novel is always generative because it challenges preconceptions about literature by non-white authors. (No characters are described using racial markers until late in the text, though I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read yet!)

But as the intervening overwhelming months have unfolded, so too have my thoughts about pedagogy evolved in fits and spurts, mostly in the form of questions. How much reference to the global situation will feel appropriate or necessary? Will students seek literature as escape, as mode of processing, or (most likely) through some combination of these filters that will vary from individual to individual, day to day? As a scholar invested in black feminist theory, I never subscribe to pedagogy that insinuates that selection and discussion of texts should or can continue undisrupted by the “outside” world. I center students’ mental and physical concerns and “outside” lives as key. So it feels especially unethical and impossible to enact a philosophy that changes little about text selection and discussion from that which I might execute had the past six months not occurred. However, focusing courses overtly on the pandemic and racial justice seems drastic, perhaps mentally unhealthy for everyone.

Of course, as any scholar of literature is aware, it is impossible to view any text divorced from current circumstances. Even texts that depict distant pasts are always a product of societal conditions evolving when they are written. For instance, the social movements of the 1960s undeniably shaped the early neo-slave narratives. How we interpret works also shifts in light of our contexts.

So I’ve been (and still am) pondering not just what to teach, but how to teach it ethically this fall—to students of all backgrounds, but especially in my classrooms frequently populated heavily by African American students. I keep reframing Barbara Christian’s evergreen interrogation in “The Race for Theory” (“For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?” [77]) as “For whom are we doing what we are doing when we teach African American literature in fall 2020?” We hope the answer can be a wide range of student populations, but lingering over the question and resulting methods seems especially pressing. As Inside Higher Ed noted (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/07/14/their-decisions-about-fall-institutions-should-focus-specific-needs-marginalized), how to serve students this fall is related not just to general pedagogy under COVID-19, which disadvantages lower-income students (often of color) already disadvantaged within higher education. On top of this, we must also be cognizant of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on African Americans and the psychic traumas such students may have re-experienced this summer amid police brutality.

One further matter that is always central to my pedagogy has taken on new urgency: my role as a white professor of multiethnic literature. As I’d planned (and hope at some point) to talk about at the New Orleans MELUS conference, conversations about whiteness inhabit a key role in my classrooms and, however imperfectly executed, do foster an environment of trust between students that enables discussing difficult topics. But how can I attain this when much of our time inhabits all-virtual space and the in-person components mandate everyone be masked and socially distanced? My university did not shift online this spring until halfway through the semester, such that we had already established an ability to communicate that translated relatively smoothly. Without that foundation, I worry about the pedagogical costs to the safer online modes much course content will inhabit, as well as to the in-person contact I will have with students when interpreting nuanced facial cues that will be inhibited by masks.

All these queries and worries have indelibly impacted my planning, even when simply returning to texts I’d selected long ago, before COVID-19 was on my radar and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor (among tragically many others) produced fresh protests. Writers and thinkers of color have always had much to offer in helping readers navigate: (1) that which might feel unprecedented, and (2) that which disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities. How can these insights not feel especially relevant when considering black dystopian or science fiction authors like Octavia Butler now? For instance, discussing M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and scholarship on Middle Passage took on unexpected relevance in my spring graduate seminar as we considered the innate capacity of the black intellectual/radical tradition (and indigenous thinkers, though not my area of expertise) to offer insights into that which is framed in mainstream, white terms as “unprecedented.” In addition to such authors’ guidance on how to fight injustice and survive the unthinkable, their articulations and representations of joy in the face of difficulty cannot help but take on ever more vitality.

Ultimately, I have not arrived at any triumphant, definitive answers to the many queries I have raised here or to how to address that feeling of vitality usefully. All I truly have to offer is this advice that has helped me with the daunting task of fall planning: embrace moments in your own reading—for research or teaching—that ring differently given current circumstances than they might have a year ago, particularly those that inhabit joy or hope. Among such resonant moments for me this summer occurred when revisiting Stephanie Y. Evans’s Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850–1954: An Intellectual History. Perhaps this era is an opportunity to, as she puts it, remake academia in ways that emphasize that “all who wish to lend their head, hearts, and hands in earnest rigor, for the betterment of all, should have keys to the Ivory Tower” (216).

That “betterment of all” must be re-envisioned collaboratively, through forms of reading that might help overcome the distances that often separate our students from texts that we always want them to view as pressing guides to the present and to better futures. These aims, vitally, need not mandate focusing on texts and discussions that are only overtly political in affect but can (and must) mandate equal attention to literary and everyday moments of joy. I know, as a final example, that I will lean more heavily when teaching Beloved on its depictions of joy and resilience, not out of denial but out of the need to balance exploring those themes and urging everyone in the classroom to contribute to constructing a radically better world long-term.

Works Cited:
Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies 14.4 (Spring 1988): 67–79. Print.
Evans, Stephanie Y. Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850–1954: An Intellectual History. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2007. Print.

Feb 2020 new headshot

Laura Vrana is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Alabama, where she teaches courses in African American and American literature. Her research centers on contemporary black poetics and has been published or is forthcoming in many venues, including the MELUS journal.


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