English 151 is an introductory course in Black American Literature. My primary focus in the course this term is ensuring that students gain a significant understanding of the deep structures of Black American culture–such as beliefs, values, morals, norms–in order to better grasp how these deep structures are manifest in the surface structures of this culture, which include art, food, music, and of course Literature. This course fulfills a Diversity requirement for many students and Lane, and I want to be sure that my students leave this course really understanding the cultural development, history, and forces that drive the production, distribution, and importance of Black American Literature.
In order to provide students with ample access to the deep structures of Black American culture, I will provide them with an overview of Black American Historical events, ideas, and people that are relevant to understanding both the specific texts we’ll examine in this course as well as the deep structures out of which they grew. I’ve created a Black American History timeline, which will be supplemented with a detailed in-class conversation. Students will also spend the first two weeks of class reading and discussing Black American folklore from Daryl Cumber Dance’s From My People. Black American folklore provides the foundation for the types of stories, characters, themes, and deep structures that will be seen throughout Black American Literature. Therefore having students begin by focusing on Black American folklore will help them solidify their understanding of the deep structures at work in this culture, as well as the oral tradition at the heart of Black American culture, before we move on to reading and discussing texts in other genres.
Other foundational readings in the course will include excerpts from Toni Morrison’s playing in the dark and John and Russell Rickford’s Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. The primary required literature readings in the class will be Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, 12 Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers, and selections of poetry and picture books written by Black American authors. The class will also be exposed to information about the development of Black American English and other aspects of Black American culture in mini-lectures dispersed throughout the term.
Students will be asked to complete a range of different Assignments in the course which will allow them to build, reinforce, and demonstrate their knowledge of Black American Literature. These assignments will include composing Guiding Questions to lead in-class discussions of assigned readings. Asking students to take ownership of the direction of in-class discussions gives students more control over the focus of each class period and allows them to spend their time discussing what they see as the most important and relevant sections of the texts we’ll read.
It’s my hope that the combination of these things will allow students to dig deep beneath the surface of the words and images on the pages of the books we read to gain a deeper understanding of Black American culture and history.
This was by far the most successful iteration of this course I’ve taught at Lane. In large part that was due to the fact that I had a room full of engaged, motivated students who for the most part cared deeply about Black American Literature and were excited to learn all they could. They were also open to having their thoughts and ideas challenged and complicated in respectful, thoughtful, and meaningful ways.
I had been worried when I planned the course about the combination of texts I’d chosen to teach, as I was concerned that the texts were so heavy with strong female characters that this might silence both the male characters in the texts as well as the male students in the course. But, in retrospect, I think the texts worked brilliantly together and that this particular group of students were interested, engaged, and astute enough to be able to really pull in the experiences of the less prominent characters in the book, such as their engagement with August in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. This enabled the class to critically examine the ways in which gender and race intersect, often with other factors as well, to create a complex, dynamic plot.
I had also totally revised the theoretical texts I use in this course. I attempted to choose theoretical texts that were more contemporary and more accessible than students found some of the theory that I’d used in earlier iterations of the course, and it seems I was successful in doing so. Early in the class we read excerpts from Rickford and Rickford’s Spoken Soul and Toni Morrison’s playing in the dark. Students seem to really engage with these texts. They later found playing in the dark especially helpful in helping them to understand Black American Literature in the larger context of American Literature, which is one of the course goals. And Spoken Soul proved invaluable to helping students understand Hurston’s heavy use of dialect in Their Eyes were Watching God and be far more willing to deeply engage with it and re-read areas they found difficult to understand.
I also included two video talks as part of the theoretical framework for the course: Mellody Hobson’s “Color Blind or Color Brave” and Michelle Alexander’s George E. Kent Lecture at the University of Chicago on her book The New Jim Crow. I was surprised at how much students really seemed to enjoy and connect with these two pieces and not at all surprised that at the end of the term when they completed the in-class theory assignment nearly everyone used one of these two pieces as their choice for a theoretical text to apply to the literary texts we’d read this term.
One other new thing I tried this term, that was likely the most successful innovation of all in this class, was inviting students to share with the class media or art sources that were relevant to the larger discussions we were having in the class about Black American Literature. Students really enjoyed this opportunity and more than half sent me a link at least once during the term. I would post these links to the course Moodle page, then show them to the class in the next class period and have the student who selected them share with the class why they chose the specific piece and how they found it relevant to our conversations in the course. This addition really diversified and enriched the class as a whole. Some of my personal favorites shared during the term were: Beyonce’s “Flawless” with quotes from Adichie, Ernestine Johnson’s “A Black Girl Was Asked Why She ‘Talks White,'” and an excerpt from Malcolm X’s “Democracy or Hypocrisy.”
Even in a class that goes well, there are still always things I’d change to improve the course. In this case I think that I need to reduce the overall reading load. I’m not still quite sure how to do this, but since most students who take this course are relatively new to literary study and many of the texts we read in this class are written in language systems unfamiliar to many students, I feel the need to cut back on the amount of reading so that students can engage more deeply with what they read.
I also feel that there needs to be more in-class discussion of the theoretical texts both when we initially read them as well as throughout the course. Students this term did a great job of sustaining these conversations with their guiding questions, but I need to be more intentional about ensuring that I’ve woven these texts more thoroughly into my instruction as well.