College Girl Commentary: Teaching African American Literature and History
By Rachel Daniels
ENGL 215: African American Literature
The final project in ENGL 215: African American Literature was to choose a public audience –meaning an audience beyond our class and the professor– and use course content to pose an argument to that audience. Rachel took on this project by writing a series of blog posts aimed at convincing her school district back home to integrate more African American literature and history in their curriculum. Rachel integrates her sources seamlessly, always using them to illustrate and enhance her strong, original arguments. These posts are a strong example of much-needed public humanities writing.
Why am I just now joining this conversation?
Attending high school in my small town was a privilege. Our teachers challenged us and repeatedly told us they were “preparing us for college.” At the time, the late nights and piles of homework were not something I appreciated—at all. However, after attending two different universities in my first year of college, I realized how blessed I was to grow up in a school district where students are cared for, challenged, and prepared for the academic journey that lies ahead, should they choose to pursue a degree beyond a high school diploma. However, soon after the start of my second year of college at Central College, I took a class that suddenly made me question the K-12 education that I took so much pride in.
English 215 was not only a general elective that fulfilled my literature credit, but also the only class that fit in my schedule, so I enrolled without giving it much thought. However, I soon realized it offered content that was not to be taken lightly. The first day of class, my professor asked, “How many of you have ever had an African American teacher?” I thought long and hard, picturing every teacher or instructor I’d had. Surely I’ve had an African American teacher at some point. Given that I live in a very White community, it’s no surprise that I haven’t had an African American teacher. But why had it never even crossed my mind? I began the class, African American Literature, 3 months ago and the perspective I’ve gained has been eye-opening.
There is a lot of tension and polarization regarding the issue of racial inequality, White privilege, and the Black Lives Matter movement in America today. Spurred by the death of George Floyd, people have been talking about race relations and what needs to be done. I had personally never joined this conversation or felt the need to form an opinion. As long as I’m not racist, I’m doing my part. Can’t we all just get along and love each other? However, after taking this course, I’ve learned that the issue is so complex that it can’t be fixed by a shift in our attitudes. The history of African Americans is the most painful part of America’s story to hear, and as I continued to read and learn more, I started to question why I’d never been offered this information before. My history classes didn’t cover it, nor did my English classes ever have any conversations regarding race relations, systemic racism, or racial stereotypes.
In these upcoming blog posts, I plan to share what I’ve learned about African American literature and how this course has opened my eyes. I believe District 228 is doing a great job of educating students. However, I firmly believe there should be elements added that will prepare students not only for the academic setting of college, but also for the social setting more diverse than our community. Education should be offered on race relations in the past, as well as the present. It’s inevitable that our students will find themselves in conversations or situations regarding racism and social injustice; therefore, it’s absolutely necessary that they are given the information and education they need to join in this conversation with confidence.
Growing up, we were taught about the “founding fathers” of America. George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and more White-wigged men’s legacies are engraved in our minds as the wise and heroic figures that crafted the foundation of our great nation. However, an essay we read from The New York Times, titled, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True,” made me question the integrity of the men I believed were historical heroes. In this essay, Hannah-Jones, a Black woman author, discusses the hypocrisies of our nation’s founding. When discussing the Declaration of Independence, she writes,
[I]n making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves—to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad. As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
The founders’ hypocrisy was something that had never crossed my mind; I wave the American flag around on the 4th of July each year feeling warm and fuzzy about this nation we live in. However, it never occurred to me that we hoot and holler for the freedom we gained in 1776, even though we were simultaneously enslaving African Americans on plantations. Since this is something that is part of our history whether we like it or not, it should be better addressed in our education. Rather than sugar coating it, we should tell students honestly what happened. We should be purchasing texts written about the United States from an outsider’s perspective to compare the narratives that are shared.
Furthermore, something that crushed my prior beliefs was a section of Hannah-Jones’s text about Honest Abe, the man who ended slavery, fought for African Americans, and encouraged everyone to get along—so I thought. However, Hannah-Jones narrates,
He had gotten Congress to appropriate funds to ship Black people, once freed, to another country. “Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration,” Lincoln told them. “You and we are different races. … Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, and while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”
I had to take a second to process what I read here. I have always had an image of Abraham Lincoln being one of the greatest and most honorable presidents; however, he clearly didn’t feel that integration and equality was the solution. Again, what was most alarming was that I had never learned this. Why do we idealize the founders of our nation rather than taking responsibility for what they created? I’m not trying to discredit the work our founding fathers did. Clearly, they built a strong foundation for our country, but this foundation was also extremely racist and exclusive of both Black people and women—something that must be acknowledged. After reading this text, I had a great loss of trust in my past educators. What else was I not being taught the truth about? It seems as though we are taught American history from a White perspective, while the roots of African American history are taught in a way that’s separate from the rest of American history.
To combat this, I believe District 228 should adopt a curriculum similar to that of The 1619 Project, which promotes a shift in the viewing of American history. On the Pulitzer Center Lesson Builder Resources website, it states that their goal is to “challenge readers to reframe their understanding of U.S. history by considering 1619 as the start of this nation’s story” (1619 was when the first Africans arrived on U.S. soil on slave ships in Jamestown, Virginia). This would not only be more effective in teaching an accurate representation of American history, but it would also be effective in showing all students that African American history is American history, and that their contributions were just as significant as those White-wigged men drafting the Constitution.
I’ve learned that African Americans are responsible for the incredible growth and prosperity of our nation. They worked long hours in grueling conditions, tending to the crops and other industries that allowed America to succeed without being paid a dime for labor. I believe District 228 is doing our students a disservice by not sharing the perspective of our history from an African American standpoint; we don’t provide the whole story, nor do our classes represent the full truth.
A New Perspective
Another thing that caused a major shift in my perspective during my African American Literature class was hearing the voices and perspectives of African Americans. Yes, history is important, and we must study it in order to understand the context and motivation of African American authors, but it’s equally important to read modern texts reflecting on the past. This allows us to understand how Black people today are still hindered by the lingering effects of slavery. Yet again I questioned why I had never been exposed to these perspectives before, or considered the lack of diversity in the literature I was reading. Yes, I read argumentative texts in high school, but few of them were by African American authors, and none of them were conversations specifically about race. My favorite course text of this semester was titled, So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo. The purpose of her book is to fearlessly address complicated conversations and racial issues, such as White privilege, police brutality, microaggressions, intersectionality, and the use of the n-word. (Sounds like a lot to take on, right?) She opened my eyes to Black Americans’ feelings regarding race in America, as well as White Americans’ contributions to those feelings.
After reading a chapter of Oluo’s book and other similar pieces, I was able to understand how racism, stereotypes, and microaggressions impact African Americans on a regular basis. In the introduction to her book, she shares:
Race, my race, has been one of the most defining forces in my life. But it is not something I always talked about, certainly not the way I do now. Like most people, most of my days were spent just trying to get by. Life is busy and hard. There are work and kids and chores and friends. We spend a lot of time bouncing from one mini-crisis to the next. Yes, my days were just as full of microaggressions, of the pain and oppression of racism, as they are now—but I just had to keep going on as normal. It is very hard to survive as a woman of color in this world, and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of racism I encountered, I would start screaming and I would never ever stop (2-3).
People can attempt to make the argument that racism isn’t a problem in America, or that systemic racism and White privilege aren’t serious issues; however, they can not argue with peoples’ feelings. Every human being is entitled to their emotions and we can’t deny that Black people in America are hurting. This quote illustrates that Oluo is a mom, wife, and worker, but she also is a Black woman, which adds another aspect of stress–simply because of the color of her skin. This was alarming because I had never considered how infrequently race crosses my mind or affects my life as a White American, compared to an African American. It had never crossed my mind because I’d never been exposed to a text like Oluo’s.
I believe we need to expose students to texts like this in high school, if not earlier. Although this may be an awkward and touchy subject, that is why it is so urgent to discuss. Students should be having conversations and writing papers about the perspectives of Black Americans. It seems ridiculous to hope that a society would function cohesively without understanding and respecting each other. It’s extremely important that as a White community, we are educating students on the facts, as well as the feelings, involved in the past and present situation of African Americans. Once we understand the history and the effects of that history, we will be able to move forward and make change.
Show me the literature
Given that my African American Literature class is what caused the major shift in my perspective, I believe our English department at GHS needs to step up its game when it comes to incorporating African American literature into the curriculum. A novel we read and discussed in English 215 was Beloved, by Toni Morrison. The book is about an African American woman who escaped slavery; however, she was unable to escape the memories and trauma that she acquired during her time at “Sweet Home,” the plantation she was on. Beloved is an especially interesting story because the memories of slavery come back to haunt her—literally—when her deceased infant enters the story as a ghost.
The book is especially useful for an English class because it is not only a beautifully crafted piece of literature, but it also covers the history of slavery and the gripping trauma that accompanies it. Students already learn to analyze novels, so it only makes sense to add the dimension of race into the conversation as well. In the story, Morrison writes:
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, Anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children (295-96).
This passage exemplifies how complex Beloved is. Not only is there a complex relationship between the characters and their relationship with their memories, there is also a complicated situation regarding the characters’ views of themselves. Throughout the whole book they deal with internal conflict and struggle to fight off the memories of slavery from their past. However, another interesting concept alluded to in this quote is the passing on of the main character’s trauma to her children, which brings up an interesting conversation. In other words, the brutality of slavery ends up influencing the younger generations through their parents. These are just a few discussion topics that could be drawn from this quote, and this is only one tiny section of the book.
I’m not naïve enough to think that high school students are suddenly going to be thrilled about reading a novel about the effects of slavery; however, the book is only a little over 300 pages and it has a good mix of action, romance, narrative, and drama. Although students may not be ecstatic about being forced to read this book (or any book), it is a very manageable read that will engage students while exposing them to important content about slavery and African American experiences.
Furthermore, I believe our English classes could benefit from reading poetry written by African American authors regarding social injustice. For example, we read Testify by Simone John, and I found the collection extremely compelling. I’ve never read any poetry like this—contemporary, easily understood, and related to current events in America. Plus, it didn’t leave me completely clueless as to what the author meant! In the poem, “Morning Rites (Or: How We Bury Your Son),” John writes:
Gather his sneakers from each corner of the house. / Bury them at the basketball court. Cut the net / from the rim and place it in your purse. / When the sound of Jays on concrete / makes a sob crawl up your throat / finger the nylon like prayer beads (24).
I know I’ve never read a poem that talks about Jays or a basketball rim in my previous English classes, but it makes it much more relatable—not to mention more interesting. It allows a young reader to picture a sweet pair of sneakers on their favorite basketball court in town. We can visualize a mother then burying those shoes and cutting down the net. It does a great job of simulating the feelings of African Americans regarding police brutality because the reader is encouraged to feel the pain of premature loss of life, something no one wants to feel. The love of a mother is universal, and to know that pain was caused by police brutality causes anger and sadness in the reader. The collection repeatedly references well-known names of people that were victims of police brutality, such as Trayvon Martin. The author later lists 21 more names in one single poem, and the stark reality of those names make the argument of the poetry even more powerful. Mothers everywhere are having to bury their children as a result of racial stereotypes and an ugly history.
John’s description of racial inequality and police brutality was another rude awakening. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and wondered why I’d never been exposed to this type of literature before. I believe that incorporating African American literature into the District 228 curriculum, not necessarily as a specific unit, but as regular course texts, will open students’ minds to the perspective of Black mothers, fathers, and children all over America. Both Beloved and Testify are great options to utilize in the classroom for this purpose. Hopefully, this exposure and the discussion that accompanies it will spur a desire within students to continue learning more about race outside of the classroom. (Spoiler: Stay tuned for next post).
What are YOU gonna do about it?
I’ve spent a lot of time discussing measures that the school district urgently needs to take in order to better educate its students. While this is an important step in getting students exposed to the topics and conversations regarding race, I also believe there is an individual responsibility that accompanies this exposure. Do I think every student needs to wear BLM shirts and start protesting? No, not exactly. Although both of those things are fine, I simply believe the first step is to take the initiative to invest time in learning about the feelings of our fellow citizens.
The final text my class was assigned was Americanah, a novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When I began the book, I was simply expecting to analyze the text as I went and gather points to discuss in class; however, I was sucked into the book and I couldn’t put it down. The time I spent reading felt more like a break than it did like homework. There’s a quote on the front of the book from the San Francisco Chronicle that remarks, “Dazzling. . . . Funny and defiant, and simultaneously so wise. . . . Brilliant.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Adichie ties together cultural diversity, race relations, American politics, romance, and social activism seamlessly. Although there are many complex arguments being made in the novel, both obvious and hidden, I was never overwhelmed or bored. It was extremely educational without coming across as an academic text.
The main character, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian woman who attends college in America. She offers an incredibly honest and objective point of view of race in America. She has a blog, which serves as a way for the author to speak directly to the reader about the race problems happening within the context of the story. I was personally drawn to the book because it was set in 2008, during Obama’s election, a time I lived through. Not to mention, there was also a riveting love story that kept my attention as well. The perspective offered by Ifemelu was extremely interesting because she provided an interpretation of America with fresh eyes and blatant honesty. At one point she remarks,
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will way we’re overreacting or we’re being too sensitive (359).
I believe this is exactly what we need to hear, especially as White Americans. The novel shows that even though we don’t want racism to exist, pretending it doesn’t only fuels the frustration of those it affects. She addresses that in close relationships, race fades away; however, in the “real world,” it’s clear as day. Because we can’t stay hidden in the safety of close relationships, we must bring racism and racial inequality to light and start working on solutions. This unfiltered description of American race relations from an unbiased perspective offers an honest interpretation of the ways in which we function in our society. The good, the bad, and the ugly—Ifemelu covers it all.
Personally, I enjoy reading novels and non-fiction texts to learn about race; however, I know this isn’t for everyone. Luckily, there are many other ways to access this type of media if you aren’t a book-lover. Listen to a Podcast (Codeswitch, Still Processing, The Daily, 1619, Pod Save the People). Watch a movie (13th). Find a TED Talk (The Danger Of A Single Story: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). Search for blogs, or travel to a live speaker. There is no good excuse for not educating yourself outside of the classroom. Even one educational source per month is better than nothing. If we expect change to happen, we each need to do our part. By starting small, we can eventually see big changes in our knowledge, our perspective, and our actions.
In conclusion, the only way to gain insight into the problem of racism is to seek that perspective out, but it’s not going to simply fall into our laps—especially not in our small town. In the book So You Want to Talk About Race? Oluo says it best. She states, “We have to commit to the process if we want to address race, racism, and social oppression in our society” (6). Oluo doesn’t say it’s going to be easy or that once you start investing in the fight against injustice you will immediately understand all things about race. She says it takes commitment. If each student and each member of our community makes that commitment and sacrifices just a few hours each month to educate themselves on race in America, our small steps toward improvement will begin to compound.
That’s a wrap
To wrap these posts up, I’d like to do a short recap:
Overall, I believe District 228 does an excellent job educating its students. However, it seems that the issue of race has been tip-toed around because of its controversial nature. While I understand this, I also believe it’s a dangerous way to live. Simply avoiding these topics causes students to be blindsided when they’re faced with them after high school. Whether inside or outside of the classroom, it will come up.
Some may respond to these posts by claiming that we don’t have an equality problem and that discussing racial inequality in schools will only cause unnecessary debate. These same people often make it clear that they are not racist, and add that they actually have Black friends. However, if this is true, it does not change the fact that we tell the story of American history from a predominantly White perspective. If someone truly believes we have equality in this nation and claims not to be racist, it only makes sense that they would also be in support of learning about their fellow citizens’ histories and honoring the feelings that history has caused generation after generation.
I understand this still may be seen as an extreme claim. Some would consider it overcompensation, or something like “reverse-racism,” because African American history would be getting more attention than that of White Americans. However, isn’t that exactly how African Americans have felt their entire lives? If this “reverse-racism” is such an injustice, then why are we currently tolerating the racism that exists now? African Americans learn the story of their nation’s history from a viewpoint that is not their own, year after year. Isn’t it time we honor theirs? If we truly don’t have an equality problem, then we should have no hesitation taking time to invest in the people in our nation who look a little different than us.
Although incorporating curriculum on racism and social injustice in America into District 228 is a daunting task, I believe we can take small and relatively simple steps to give students the basic education and awareness they need. First, I believe we need to tell an unbiased story of America’s founding and emphasize the contributions of Black people to our nation’s growth and development. This can be done using The 1619 Project curriculum, or something similar to it. Secondly, our students need to hear the voices of African Americans to learn the difference in their perspectives regarding race. There are many ways to find these opinions, and students should be encouraged to spend time with sources like these outside the classroom as well. Lastly, African American literature should be incorporated into our English departments. In case you haven’t yet noticed, even one class and a few thought-provoking questions can change the way a student thinks (and maybe even cause them to write a series of blog posts in response to that change). Something Oluo says in the introduction of So You Want To Talk About Race? offers support for an urgent response from the school district regarding my proposal. She explains:
Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running (5).
African Americans need more than friends—they need allies. Our students can’t become those allies unless they’re adequately equipped to do so. Will District 228 step up to the plate?
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Anchor, 2014.
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One.” The New York Times Company, 14 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.
John, Simone. Testify. Octopus Books, 2017.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2004.
Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race? Seal Press, 2019.
“The 1619 Project Curriculum.” Pulitzer Center, pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/1619-project-curriculum.