Performance Pedagogies for African American Literature: Teaching Shange at Ole Miss

By Young-Minor, Ethel | Radical Teacher, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Performance Pedagogies for African American Literature: Teaching Shange at Ole Miss


Young-Minor, Ethel, Radical Teacher


Whether I am attending a conference or relaxing in an informal setting, people who discover that I teach at the University of Mississippi inevitably ask: "How do you feel about teaching at Ole Miss?" "It's a great place to teach," I customarily reply. Depending on the audience, I may add comments such as, "We have great research support, a diverse student body, and there is a great working relationship between the university and the town." While a few people walk away content with this answer, most stare blankly then ask in a hushed tone, "No, I mean what does it REALLY feel like to teach there?" The interjected "REALLY' and its tone of delivery usually implies that the interrogator is searching for an in-depth discussion of how it feels to be a Black woman teaching in a historically white environment. Even more specifically, how can an African-American woman teach African-American literature to a historically-white body of students: students who are known for plastering rebel-flags atop car bumpers; students whose ancestry is inextricably tied to slavery, sharecropping, and defensive stands against civil rights; students who, each time the basketball or football team scores, collectively languish in song: "I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixieland."

Because the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) fought a very public battle against integration in the 1 960s, many people expect our students to have deep racial and cultural allegiances that negatively impact their ability to receive racially-informed material. They believe that racism is so deeply rooted in this environment that it would be impossible to touch the hearts and minds of non-Black students. While these beliefs are untrue, the school's own location as a place with dual identities (one for white students and one for cultural others), encourages people to view it in relationship to this cultural positioning, rather than in connection to its educational offerings. For example, one of the most popular slogans of the school proclaims: one graduates and regretfully ends tenure at The University of Mississippi, but one never graduates from Ole Miss." The first name implies the school's role as a state institution with a curriculum to be completed for graduation, but the second name situates the schoo l in a history of white privilege and black oppression. The assertion that one never graduates from Ole Miss seems to confirm that cultural beliefs and practices established on the campus continue long after the educational curriculum is completed. Even though the current Chancellor funded a study to consider the implications of the school's symbols and led a drive to eliminate symbols that offended large groups of people, the identity of the University of Mississippi continues to rest within dualities. A more concrete example of the university's display of dual heritages is visible in the structure of the Lyceum-the first state building erected for the purposes of higher education. The Lyceum signifies the university's cornerstone position in state education and thus appears in much of our official public relations material. When the Lyceum was built, education here was for white males only, and so the building has come to represent the legacy of racially segregated education. At the same time, however, its stately white columns were permanently altered by bullets fired as James Meredith and the National Guard fought to integrate Ole Miss. Thus, the building also symbolizes the establishment and dissolution of segregated education in Mississippi. In classrooms situated in such a marked environment, it seems reasonable for people to expect hostile contests--rather than sensible dialogue--about race and identity.

I arrived on campus as a new teacher with many of the same assumptions, imagining students would have an intimate awareness of the history informing texts in the African American tradition; I assumed that they would be eager to discuss the intersections of race and gender in literature and lived reality because they were housed within historic walls. …

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