Transforming the Study of Literature -- and Ourselves

Article excerpt

The pursuit of the study of what we now call African American literature is its own story. The teaching of this radical and radicalizing literature is a parallel story that shares all of the problems and challenges of African American presence in the academy and in this nation.

Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice is both timely and overdue. This collection of essays is the culmination of nine weeks of study, discussions, and collaboration achieved during two National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored summer institutes.

The institute participants set out to "complete a fairly comprehensive syllabus containing African American texts that are only rarely included in the traditional canon, few of which any teacher [attending the institute] had ever read." However, its broader goal was to encourage community building among scholars and teachers who are addressing the problems and challenges inherent in teaching a radical and radicalizing literature.

In "The Way We Do the Things We Do," Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg identifies the first challenge of the teacher of African American literature by reminding us of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's call for "education as the practice of freedom." She acknowledges, however, the seeming contradiction of bringing a non-traditional teaching pedagogy and liberation literature into the classroom in what she refers to as "the double bind" -- the difficulty of teaching basic grammar and composition skills so that students will be prepared to compete in the marketplace "while simultaneously teaching students to be critical of those institutionalized ways of thinking, speaking, learning, knowing, and to effect radical change upon narrow speaking and writing ... practices."

Goldberg asks, "Are we training our students to be capable of radical awareness and critique, or are we training them to be good capitalist soldiers?"

In "Narrating Slavery," the writer, William L. Andrews, an English professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, presents an overview of the narratives of slavery and their significance to the study of American literature. He concludes by offering suggestions on how to approach the teaching of these narratives in connection with other American texts.

In "A Female Face: or, Masking the Masculine in African American Fiction Before Richard Wright," Thadious Davis, an English professor at Vanderbilt University, "details an evolving masculinity that reaches its height with Richard Wright in the 1940s. …