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 three 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 required readings in the class include Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes, 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 read and discuss select theoretical essays from within Black American studies as well as 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.
As I reflect on this term, I feel like this course was more successful this term than it was when I taught it last winter. I think the selection of texts really helped students gain an understanding of breadth and variety of Black American Literature: From My People (Daryl Cumber Dance), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs), The Best of Simple (Langston Hughes), a selection of over 50 poems I chose from various anthologies that spanned 300+ years of Black American poetry, and Autobiography of My Dead Brother (Walter Dean Myers).
The theory that we read together, including “blues aesthetic” from Kalamu ya Salaam’s What is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self, the introduction Dance provided to From My People, and Molly Bang’s “10 Principles” from Picture This! helped students try on different theoretical “lenses” and gain a better sense of the depth of the Black American literary texts we read. Students also seemed to engage both the historical timeline/overview of Black American history I provided at the beginning of the course as well as the discussion of the 6 literary eras of Black American Literature we covered near the end of the the term to help them gain an even deeper understanding of these literary texts and their significance both to Black Americans and to the American Literary tradition.
I don’t feel like the more open model of Guiding Questions I tried in this class–where students did more Guiding Questions, but got to choose which dates they composed guiding questions, rather than writing fewer Guiding Questions on assigned dates–worked well. I think many students saw it as “busy work” and didn’t really engage in the process or understand why I was asking them to compose Guiding Questions, despite my many attempts at explanation It also lead to a situation where at the beginning of the course, there were almost no students with Guiding Questions to lead the discussion, while during the last few periods, when students had to complete the Guiding Questions they’d procrastinated on earlier in the term that there were so many people with Guiding Questions that many people never got to ask their Guiding Questions. In the future, I will stick to the model of having students write fewer questions on assigned dates.
I also feel, as I often do when I teach this course, like I failed to engage as many of the students as I’d have liked to. I heard some say during small group work that they “didn’t feel the course was relevant to them” and there were others who just stopped coming. It’s always so difficult to teach broad ranging introductory courses in ethnic literatures. How can I cover over 400 years (!) of Black American literature while still giving students enough depth and cultural/historical knowledge to really understand some of the things the authors are attempting to address and grapple with in these books? This is an especially difficult question to answer when the vast majority of students enter the course with little or no interest in (and sometimes aversion to) the course materials because they are taking the course to “check off” an Arts & Letters or Cultural Literacy box on their transcript. This is something I’m sure I will continue to struggle with in this course when I teach it in the future. How I wish for a magical answer.