Tougaloo College, Richard Wright, and Me: Teaching Wright to the Millennial Student

Article excerpt

Tougaloo College is a small, private, historically black liberal arts college in Mississippi. Regarded as the cradle of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Tougaloo College's historic Woodworth Chapel has seen prominent figures of the Movement from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Stokley Carmichael to Robert Kennedy speak from its pulpit. As a private institution, Tougaloo was perhaps the most racially conscious (not to be confused with racist) and progressive institution of higher learning in Mississippi. Thus, it is no surprise that Tougaloo's resident scholar, Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr., designed a course dedicated solely to the work of Richard Wright, a fellow Mississippian whose work defied the limits the oppressive South set for him as well as brazenly exposed American racism on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The results of Ward's efforts became English 319: Richard Wright, and on Tougaloo's campus, the two became synonymous.

Memories of the course still evoke shudders from Dr. Ward's former students as well as those who did not enroll in the course but heard enough lamentations and screams from their classmates to have vicariously experienced some of the course requirements. I was one of those who escaped the course during my matriculation; I escaped neither Dr. Ward nor Wright, however, as I completed two independent research projects on the author under Dr. Ward's tutelage. When Dr. Ward left Tougaloo after 32 years for a position at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, the fate of Eng 319 was thrust into limbo. In his stead as the Department's African American literary specialist, I decided to teach the course. I understood that I was embarking upon the monumental task of conveying the fullness of Richard Wright's work, its overwhelming pains, fleeting joys, anger, sadness, triumphs, failures, and most of all, its hunger. (But I was also stepping in very high cotton in following Jerry Ward so soon after my arrival to the department.) At any rate, I could only hope to convey Wright's passion to a new generation of students who seemed to know less about African American literature and nearly nothing about Wright. Not only was I to introduce Wright to my students, but I was also charged with imparting the continued relevance of his work in relation to the racial and social politics of the twenty-first century.

One of the first obstacles to teaching Wright is the students' lack of exposure to the African American literary tradition. Partly to blame are literature courses of their secondary education curricula that center primarily on the work of DWM (Dead White Men). Students have been given a steady diet of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, or F. Scott Fitzgerald peppered (pun intended) with curriculum mainstays Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. While students are familiar with contemporary African American writers of the post-Terry McMillan era, many have no frame of reference for the radicalism of Wright and his contemporaries, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Ergo, students' responses to Wright run the gamut of newly avid enthusiast to the indifferent and oblivious. Yet, this disconnect is not a conscious effort and stems from the fact that some students simply cannot fathom the level of oppression Wright recounts.

Some days, however, students can be completely attuned to Wright's literary and political agendas. Wright's work presents them, as African American Southerners, with a sobering reality; the level of racism Wright delineates forces them to recognize just how far America has not come in terms of race relations. When the readings revolved around Wright's female characters, however, I walked into a proverbial minefield. My class was predominantly female, and these women had visceral reactions to the readings, demanding that I defend and explain what they perceived as Wright's disdain for black women. (The lone male in the course caught several direct glares and a few muttered curses when "defending" Wright segued into a diatribe about the problem of the African American female. …