Teaching African American literature can be a challenge that one is hardly prepared for and that requires much by way of patience and creativity. I was trained to teach African American literature at a large, predominantly white university in the South. Several years later, when I left the South to take a position as the only African Americanist at Northern Arizona University, I learned that training in one culture does not transfer smoothly to another.
Teaching the fiction of Richard Wright illuminated the challenges of teaching African American literature at NAU. In general, teaching Richard Wright forces any instructor to have an understanding of early twentieth-century southern culture and history. One must be willing to suspend knowledge of American English to delve into Wright's extensive use of black dialect as he heard it when a child in Mississippi. There must also be a willingness to look directly at students who were born at least forty years after Wright's Uncle Tom's Children and explain to them what inspired Wright's graphic descriptions of lynchings. Further, instructors must be prepared to field questions about Wright's attention to grueling fieldwork, violent black men, and sexualized women. And, in northern Arizona where many students have most certainly never seen a cotton field and probably have not had the pleasure of reading a work written by an African American, one better be prepared to field questions about the black experience in general.
When I joined the faculty in 2003, I was the first person hired as a specialist in African American literature, and African American Studies in general. Northern Arizona University had about 72% white students and 2-3% black students. The university is located near the Hopi and Navajo reservations, and the majority ethnic minority group is Latino. I was, for most students regardless of race, the first African American teacher they had during their academic careers and was, more likely than not for non-black students, the only black person they had had a conversation with on any subject of significance. Given these circumstances, teaching about African Americans' experiences was challenging and quite often frustrating.
But I persisted in my resolve. Since I was the only person teaching African American literature courses, I would always teach Wright as part of the African American literary tradition. Therefore, undergraduate students would meet Wright after they had dealt with slave narratives and Harlem Renaissance writers. The result is obvious; students would not be overwhelmed by the tone of Wright's work. What was overwhelming, as Wright intended, was the violence. Students, particularly those of the West, are not as familiar with lynchings as are students of the South. As a southerner, it took me a semester to believe that people could live without such knowledge. Once I realized that and knew detail was needed, I lectured on the history of lynching, shared with them the story of the most infamous lynching in the historical memory of America--that of young Emmett Till--and often showed them harsh pictures of lynchings.
Discussing the history of lynching and racially motivated violence prepared students for Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home," but not really. I can still recall teaching the story for the first time in Flagstaff after having taught it at Louisiana State University and Southern University (a predominantly black university). The short story features Big Boy and his friends, who decide to swim naked in a lake owned by a white family. Once they are discovered and seen as a threat to the nearby white woman, they are shot at, chased, and hunted down, and only Big Boy is able to escape to the North. During the class meeting before we discussed Wright, I told students to prepare themselves for a view of America that may be shocking and unfamiliar. On the day that we met to discuss the short story, I asked for their initial impressions. …