This week is Juneteenth (June 19) when America celebrates the day the news of slavery’s abolition was finally announced to African Americans. It is also a week when we in the English department remain in mourning over the deaths of our fellow American citizens George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Auhmad Arbery, Sean Reed, David McAtee, Rayshard Brooks, and others killed by police in recent months. The English department reaffirms its commitment to teaching black writers in order to amplify their voices so that we, along with our students and colleagues, may reflect on our place in the quest for a more just and equitable world.
Faculty at Wagner were asked to put together a reading list for students, alumni, and others interested in furthering their education. On the one hand, we feel that any single list would only remind us of the thousands of amazing books and films that were not on it. We instead encourage our students at Wagner to get involved with their local public libraries and local bookstores that may foster dialogue on these issues by inviting writers, screening films, and hosting spaces for community events. On the other hand, we recognize that everyone is looking for some good things to read. We provide links to two wonderful reading lists here: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem, and the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.
In addition, a few of the faculty Dr. Alison Arant, Dr. Lindsay Sabatino, and Dr. Steven W. Thomas, who regularly teach courses in African-American literature, black culture, and the politics surrounding racism, have chosen a few books that they have been thinking about recently and offered some reflections about their own teaching.
- The Light of Truth by Ida B. Wells
- Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
- Native Son by Richard Wright
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
As a professor, I’m motivated by a desire to teach texts that invite us to examine our assumptions in addition to entertaining us. Because it’s possible to believe something without realizing it, I like to pick texts with very different approaches to the same subject. For example, in my course called The Contested South, I include a unit that focuses on black domestic workers during the civil rights era. We watch Tate Taylor’s 2011 hit film The Help and we read Alice Childress’ 1956 novel Like One of the Family. Where The Help centers the black domestic worker’s love for her white charge as the source of the film’s emotional weight, Like One of the Family critiques the notion that the domestic worker is more family member than employee.
Childress reminds readers that while emotional bonds may naturally form between domestic workers and their charges, the domestic worker’s job depends on her ability to perform care-taking work in a loving way. Once these dynamics are visible, I ask students to make an argument that accounts for the popularity of The Help in contrast to the relative obscurity of Like One of the Family. This conversation lets us reconsider the situations of black domestic workers and ask why some versions of this story are embraced while others are ignored.
- A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
- Voices of the Self by Keith Gilyard
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools by Jonathan Kozol
As someone who teaches and studies writing, I believe it's important for everyone to understand the power of language, specifically how rhetorical choices impact the narratives we tell and how language shapes our perceptions of the world. My commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion is most evident through my teaching, my role as Director of the Writing Center, and in preparing Writing Intensive Tutors (WITs). All potential WITs participate in discussions where they dissect the roots of racism and power associated with the insistence of “Standard English,” gain an understanding of language diversity, reflect on any of their own personal biases, and learn strategies for how to address language choices that perpetuate oppression.
As a professor responding to student writing, or the WITs providing feedback during a writing session, the focus is on language choices, the negotiation of meaning, and the writer’s goals when composing. When we assist writers, our main goal is to ensure the writer maintains their voice and agency. Having students gain an understanding of language diversity and how to address language of oppression will allow them to facilitate change on Wagner's campus. By preparing the WITs with the tools to understand the complexities of racial literacies, multilingualism, and the impacts of language, my hope is that they can help create a place of inclusion and celebrate diversity.
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis
- The Interesting Narrative in the Life of Olaudah Equiano
- Playing in Dark by Toni Morrison
- Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan
As someone who teaches both African American literature and world cinema, there are two questions I have been thinking about recently. One is how we center black voices in the film industry. For example, in my teaching and scholarly work on movies about slavery, I ask my students and my readers to compare and contrast the films that most people know about that were produced by large corporations in Hollywood with other films that are more rooted in an international community of black and black-allied filmmakers, such as Sankofa by Haile Gerima, Ceddo by Ousmane Sembene, Black Goddess by Ola Balogun, Belle by Amma Asante, The Last Supper by Tomas Guitierez Alea, and Quilombo by Carlos Diegues. Some of these films are exhibited and discussed at events such as the New York African Film Festival.
The second question is what does my teaching of African Cinema classes and my work in Ethiopia have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement here in the USA. This is sometimes harder to explain. But, as we all know, one of the many subconscious things that enables a kind of global racism is that most people in the United States don't know much about Africa. In contrast, they know all kinds of things about France, Italy, etc., and will talk endlessly about the origins of Democracy in ancient Greece and all the contributions of European culture to this and that, but Africa is a blank to them, so they don't think of African Americans as coming from somewhere that has a culture. They may know the story of Homer’s famous epic poem The Odyssey but not know about the Bambara epic poetry that was adapted into a classic of world cinema, Yeelen by Malian director Souleymane Cissé. Sometimes even Africans themselves, when they want to study the philosophy of democracy, have internalized some of this global racism so they will import ideas from Europe and from the U.S. instead of just talking to their neighbors in Africa. One of the things I so appreciate about the world-famous Eritrean anthropologist Asmarom Legesse is that he noticed that there was an indigenous form of democracy practiced by a neighboring ethnic group, the Oromo Gada System, that is more ancient than the ancient Greeks and is a system that is still continuing to this day, unbroken. So, instead of fetishizing the European philosophy, Dr. Asmarom simply spent some time with his Borana Oromo neighbors. Today my Oromo colleagues and former students in Ethiopia are making movies about the ideals of their democracy, which is a treasure for the world (recently in 2016 recognized by UNESCO as such.)