Undergrad Adventures: Black Literature in the U.S.

I gave a presentation on this Basquiat painting in ENG 205 yesterday, and easily could have talked for hours about it. This painting is called "Untitled (History of Black People)," and it's Basquiat's reclamation of the Egyptians as black.
I gave a presentation on this Basquiat painting in ENG 205 yesterday, and easily could have talked for hours about it. This painting is called “Untitled (History of Black People),” and it’s Basquiat’s reclamation of the Egyptians as black.

I originally signed up for ENG 205, Black Literature in the U.S., for two reasons. One: I needed some extra units. Two: It’s with my capstone professor, so I was already familiar with how rigorous the class was going to be and what was to be expected. Seven weeks into the class, I can say that I had no idea that this class was going to be so incredibly important for developing my understanding of contemporary race issues in the United States, as well as my understanding of other people’s understandings of literature.

The class dynamic is very different, to say the least.

I walked into this with very limited reading under my belt — Two of the examples I can think of right now are Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Not only am I one of the oldest students by standing in the class (shoutout to Eric for also sticking through it), but I am also one of a handful of white people, which I can honestly say is refreshing. I don’t think it would be as good of a class if it was predominantly white, which I’ll get to in a moment. The last things you need to know are that it is classified as a general education course, and the subtitle of this class is A Literary History of Ferguson, Missouri.

The range of disciplines and racial diversity that make up the student body of this class makes for a really interesting dynamic that makes for a greater takeaway. There are quite a few students who are involved with the African American Student Center, and I can’t seem to tell who is actually an English major. There have been a few moments where I’ve been really frustrated about the direction of the conversation (The ratio of discussion of social issues to text is 60-40, and it’s difficult to return to the books we’ve read once we’ve gone off in the other direction / sometimes social justice opinions cloud the discussion, and the texts are what I’m really most interested in) it has made for incredible discussion. Before taking this class, I had no real idea of just how pervasive implicit racism is. Although I will never be able to understand what that feels like, I appreciate the perspective it has given me. I am also very lucky that I go to a university that prides itself on diversity and allows for this kind of class to be a part of the curriculum. I’ve wanted to tear my hair out when people have used their 2015 lenses to look at 1898 or 1970s issues, but thinking about why they analyze it in that way is also a learning opportunity for me about how other people experience literature.

The resilience of the African American community after so many years of injustices and inequality should be the more important American narrative. 

Part of the class has involved a presentation from each student, highlighting examples of black resistance and resilience. I’ve enjoyed this part of the class too — it’s been cool to see what people have come up with. Yesterday, one student talked about how disco, a genre pioneered by Chic, resonates throughout today’s music. Other students have talked about the Tuskegee airmen, The Brownies’ Book and Maya Angelou. In a class that is steeped in the literary history of Ferguson, it’s wonderful to hear about really positive movements in light of some really shitty setbacks. I wish that more of these people and movements were recognized on a wider scale, and it sucks that the history we all learn about in high school (and even college) is so whitewashed.

The reading list has been A++++.

We started out with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which has to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Citizen brings attention to the forms of implicit racism that people of color experience every day at every moment, and I’ve never experienced a book like that before. We were also really lucky to have her come to campus to read her poetry and answer questions. She is a national treasure.

We’ve also read Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, and just finished James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. I had read Baldwin’s novel exactly a year ago for another class, but wasn’t particularly moved by it at the time. Knowing what I know now, however, has made it a more fruitful read. Up next is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which I’m also excited to delve into.

I am grateful for the further education on social issues.

I like to think that I keep on top of current events, but this class has shown me that there is a lot of injustice and inequality that just isn’t covered in big media. Granted, I tried to follow the Michael Brown and Ferguson protests as they happened, but I was truly ignorant of a bigger cultural conversation on police brutality and mass incarceration. This class has also coincided with a big historical movement, which has made me pay more attention to it and the voices coming out of it.

The first few weeks of this class centered on a more contemporary conversation about race, and I left most days feeling incredibly depleted and emotionally drained — but it has definitely been worth it. I am much more aware of the language I use to describe situations (for example, riots v. protests). And I am more aware of my white privilege than a lot of other white people (as aware as I can possibly be to still have privilege), and this class has moved me towards understanding in what ways it works.

Have you ever taken a class like this? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

One response to “Undergrad Adventures: Black Literature in the U.S.”

  1. […] but this class had a particularly good one: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (An overlap with Black Lit in the U.S. [same professor]), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Leslie Marmon Silko’s […]

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