Like all literature, Black American Literature arises from the unique set of cultural, political, and social circumstances in which it is written and is understood from the unique set of cultural circumstances from which it is read. Since these circumstances have changed so radically since the last time I taught this course in 2015, I decided that I needed to rehaul my entire pedagogy for the course. As a result this course will differ significantly from all other iterations of the course I’ve taught.
While we always discuss poetry in the course, I’ve decided that each class period this term will begin with reading a poem written by a Black American author aloud together as a class. One of the most difficult things to get students to understand when teaching this course is often how deeply rooted Black American Literature is in the oral tradition. Poetry is the genre of writing that often most clearly displays these roots, especially when read aloud. I’m hoping that sharing these daily poems will help students make this connection in a more meaningful way.
Deep and surface structure of culture is also something that is always important to this course, but this term we will be focusing much more heavily on deep structures of Black American culture. We will be devoting 30-45 minutes of each class period examining and discussing a wide variety of multimedia texts that provide students with access to vital knowledge necessary in order to really grasp these deep structures and the way they manifest themselves in the body of literature we will read this term. Students will also complete an assignment that focuses specifically on these deep structures and how they enhance their understanding of the literary texts we’ve read together this term.
The primary literary texts we will engage in the course are: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Green Book by Victor H. Green Co.Excerpts from For My People by Daryl Cumber Dance Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I’m looking forward to seeing if the increased focus on poetry and deep structures will enhance the overall course and help students more clearly understand the connections between the deep structures of a culture and the literature that arises from that culture.
I’m not even sure I have the words to write about this class. It was such an incredible experience for all of us and, while my students always teach me so much during the course of a class, in this class I learned more from my students than I have even realized yet.
The re-structuring of this version of the course to put a clear, consistent emphasis on deep structures was quite effective. Students actively engaged in this part of the class each day and many of them shared materials that were woven into these discussions, further blurring the line between teacher/student in quite productive ways. As a result of spending so much time on deep structures, the level at which students were able to critically read and engage the texts we read together was quite impressive and gave all of us, including me, new ways to think about these texts individually and as part of a larger whole of Black American Literature. The deep structures section also allowed me to make space for more voices from within the culture/community to “teach” the course instead of relying so heavily on my outside voice.
The addition of a daily poem, read aloud, also had a strong impact on the course in several ways. First, it allowed students to experience poetry the way it’s meant to be experienced–aloud–which also allowed students to connect more deeply with the oral tradition that’s vital to Black American culture/literature. Second, it provided even more deep structure for students, delivered in a literary manner. Third, it allowed students to contribute more texts to the course, as about forty percent of the poems we engaged with were chosen by students. Last it helped students understand more clearly songs, music, and song lyrics as literature, which, in turn, allowed them to make connections across hundreds of years of Black American Literature from spirituals and works songs to hip hop and rap with ease and depth.
My one concern with the new iteration of the course is that we may not have had enough class time to really discuss the shared texts we were reading. I’m not really quite sure the best way to strike a better balance here, but I’m hopeful that when I get feedback from student evaluations for the course they will provide me with suggestions for how I might create a more effective balance.