Afro-American, Afro-British Lit, 1900-1960

I’m teaching a new grad class in the fall, Afro-American, Afro-British Lit, 1900-1960. The prospect has me excited and scared. Here is the description:
Anglophone literature of the African diaspora including canonical and less-well known of the Harlem Renaissance, the pre-civil rights era, and Britain’s Windrush generation. Authors include: Toomer, Hurston, Ellison, Selvon, Marson, Baldwin.
A new federal law means we have to order our books early, so I made a too-long list and sent it in. Some of these books I’ve never read, others I have read and taught many times. Having the list made me want to share it. Maybe you can see what is missing or what can be cut. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

I can see that, in spite of the title, the years 1900-1920 are not represented! I certainly will want to do some DuBois, maybe some Washington, too, and maybe even some Marcus Garvey but, frankly, I’d prefer to include all of that within a lecture on the first night of class and get to the Harlem Renaissance quick: that’s what I love and what I am eager to share. But maybe you can persuade me of why I need a day or so on James Weldon Johnson or fellow Wellesley alumna, Angelina Grimké…

This list of 16 books includes Andrea Levy’s historical novel from 2004 as a kind of coda. I just found The Emigrants from George Lamming today and, though I’ve never read it, I’m hopeful: I wanted Lamming, but his In the Castle of My Skin has a Caribbean setting and I’m trying to focus on England for the Afro-British section.

Una Marson, a Jamaican poet and broadcaster, worked at the BBC in London throughout the 1930s, before the first big wave of Afro-Caribbean immigration to England, so she’s a great figure to have on the syllabus. I chose to stop at 1960 so that I could stay within my modernist ambit, include some writers from the Windrush Generation [1948 and after] and sneak Another Country onto the syllabus without covering the Civil Rights Movement proper, which is a whole other context. This choice, however, means that most of the African writers to write about London arrived in the 60s, so they’re outside my time frame.

Here they are, in chronological order, with my 3 poets stuck in more or less where they seem to fit. I am not sure if I’ll teach the class chronologically: I loved a recent class I took which paired texts and took a look at an issue in the field and I’d like to do a better job developing that approach. In any case, I think the balance is decent: 8 women, 8 men; 10 writing in America, 6 in Britain.

Have a look.
  • Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)
  • Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)
  • Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)           
  • Langston Hughes, Collected Poems            
  • Jessie Redmon Fauset, Comedy: American Style (1933)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)                       
  • Una Marson, Selected Poems
  • Richard Wright, Native Son (1941)
  • Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  • Louise Bennett, Jamaica Labrish
  • George Lamming, The Emigrants (1954)
  • Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956)
  • Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  • E. R. Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love (1959)
  • James Baldwin, Another Country (1962)
  • Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004) 

Anne is as good as any man


The semester started just after Martin Luther King Day. Right around then, I got an email from a colleague whom I really like. Her son is in 6th grade. The 6th graders in his class were doing reports and, as part of their assignment, had to interview someone. Would it be o.k. for a 6th grade girl to interview me about women’s suffrage.

Sure. After all, I had just been reviewing the suffrage movement in preparation for my beginning of semester lecture (something I ended up not giving, as it happened).

But then I got her email. She was researching Seneca Falls. 1848. America.

That’s not my specialty.

I panicked, then calmed down. After all, this was for a 6th grader. Her very smart, focused email was as much about women’s lives before and after the vote as anything. I could do this.

Oh, and when would I be available to come to her school to be videotaped.

Oh, no! Part of me did not want this at all. Part of me wanted it a little too much. On the first day of teaching, I took a taxi across town to meet this young student. Was I really so narcissistic that I would travel across town to be videotaped by a middle schooler? Was I such a procrastinator that I would take time out of my day for this rather than create that calendar for program administration that I always mean to create? Half mad at myself for wasting my own time and hers, half excited, I signed in at the school.

As soon as I met her, I knew I had been right to come. We went to the library where I met the AV teacher. We talked about how she got interested in the topic (through a longstanding interest in equal rights for women). She set her flip camera up on a tripod and set the tripod on top of a stack of thin books, a series about marine invertebrates. She asked me to kind of repeat the question in my answer as she planned to edit her own voice out. She had a couple other coaching questions for me. And when I answered one question honestly, she laughed nervously and, departing from script, said, “Oh, that turns out to be a stupid question, doesn’t it? Let me ask a different one.” Once or twice, my answer pleased her and she squeezed her arms in tight to her sides, lifting up her shoulders and scrunching her eyes in delight.

I don’t know why it took me until then to see that this was the very best thing about teaching, this was really one of the coolest, most exciting things I had done in a long time. I am so glad that I let that young student interview me!

After all, when I was in 6th grade, I ran for president (and lost) on a platform of unilateral disarmament and the Equal Rights Amendment. My slogan? "Anne is as good as any man." One of my favorite talking points was why I chose "as good as" in lieu of "better than." (I felt that my superiority was for me to prove.) My campaign poster—with a picture of me in my favorite batik unicorn t-shirt--is in my office to this day. 

Best Essays, a request

In earlier days of blogging, people used to publish requests for info all the time. (I am trying to avoid the ugly coinage "bleg.") Now, I guess, that's what Twitter is for. But I am going old school today to ask you to tell me your favorite essay or two these days.

I'm nominating essays for the new edition of the Norton Reader, a commonly used freshman writing textbook. (It's the one I use, too.) I'm doing my homework, rest assured, but I can't read everything and I would love to hear the essays that are thrilling you these days.

Here are some of the things I'm thinking about: Though I was a bit disappointed by Rebecca Walker's collection, I love Dan Savage's "DJ's Homeless Mommy." I liked the essays by ZZ Packer and loved Min Jin Lee's, but they speak from such a position of privilege that they really don't go in a freshman textbook, I don't think. Packer is mordantly funny about having consistently been mistaken for her son's nanny (he is--or was--much fairer than she, having a white father); but Packer is so quickly dismissive of the Midwest that I think she'd lose huge chunks of her audience on a throwaway line. Min Jin's essay is deeply moving but it's about her awkward attachment to her nanny, a woman who is, like Lee herself, an immigrant. I just think the social complexities of New York might not translate broadly.

I'm hoping to find something in Kenny Fries' book. I bought Dwayne Betts's memoir of his time in prison in the hopes that it would lend itself to excerpting; what I've read has been riveting. I have a lead on a great Solnit essay. Ander Monson has a couple great essays, so I'm having trouble choosing which to put forward.

In the end, I'll pick twelve and the editors will take, oh, one or two.

If my list doesn't jog your memory, maybe Maud's will. If you have a winner in mind, I'd love love love to hear about it!

Pleasure in Woolf’s Letters

There is something so wonderfully joyful in reading about others’ failures at teaching. Here are two good ones:

“Yesterday I did a very melancholy thing—which was to take my working women over the Abbey. Only one came!—and we solemnly went round the Chapel and the waxworks together, and saw the mummy of a 40 year old parrot—which makes history so interesting miss!” (L 1.192; 18 June 1905; to Violet)

“Do you know I lecture on English Composition at Morley? ‘Is this an Arithemetic Class Miss?’ a new Dutchman asked me last time when I had done” (L 1.212; 10 Nov. 1905; to Lady Robert Cecil)

Transatlantic Women Modernists

Since I wrote such a massive list of all the writers who might make it in my class, I’ve been feeling bad about the writers who made the cut but whose work didn’t come up to the River. Is that crazy? They’re all dead. They can’t care. But I care.

So, here is what I know, so far. There are fourteen classes, but one needs to be an introduction. We meet for two hours each week. At the moment, I know I’ll be teaching the following:
  1. Woolf (some have already requested The Waves, but I’m not sure which I’ll teach),
  2. Gertrude Stein 1
  3. Stein 2: I’m giving her two weeks because I think she’s out of favor, challenging, amazing and worth more attention
  4. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes and More
  5. another Harlem Renaissance woman--perhaps not Nella Larsen—that’s the slot that Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset are “competing” for (I mean that with heavy irony—see below)
  6. Marianne Moore
  7. Jean Rhys, not Wide Sargasso Sea, probably not Good Morning, Midnight (since my colleague often teaches it)
  8. Katherine Mansfield, a generous selection of stories
  9. Elizabeth Bowen
  10. Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper & poetry
  11. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood & more
  12. a Persephone book (perhaps Betty Miller's Farewell Leicester Square)
  13. and then, I think I need another avant garde woman.
That leaves Rebecca West off the syllabus, I see, though that could change.

When you see how little room there is in a syllabus, you see literary turf wars in a different light. You see, in the end, how very little room there is for a “new” writer to make it onto the list. I write that Fauset and Dunbar-Nelson are up against each other with a bitter irony: I know almost nothing about either; both seem worthy, important writers; both could make it onto the syllabus in the end. They are just one example of a whole range of such mini-competitions between less well-known writers as I shape the course. It’s a class on American and British women, poetry and prose; I want a balance of styles and political outlooks, urban and rural themes, gay and straight writers … and so I keep looking at the list and asking myself if it’s fair. But fair to whom?

Here are some other ways of thinking about the list:

Moore and Smith are poets. Stein is nearly one: that’s just 4 weeks on poetry and poetic prose (excepting Woolf)—and we’ll likely focus more on Smith’s novel than her poems.

Because my specialty is modern British, I tend to favor that side of the Atlantic, but the list so far has only 6 weeks of Brits: Woolf, Rhys, Mansfield, Bowen, Smith, and Miller. I’m pleased that the list is as cosmopolitan as the first half of the 20th century in England can be: Miller (who is Jonathan Miller’s mother) was Jewish (among many other things) and Rhys (who was probably of mixed race) and Mansfield are both colonial.

Among Americans, I’ll do Stein, Hurston, Moore, and Barnes for sure.

I watch contemporary writers bicker and battle over prizes and reputations knowing that part of what is at stake is a legacy they will never see. That there will come a day when some future professor sits staring at her bookshelves, asking herself if she’s really going to ask a dozen young people to read a mostly-forgotten novel about the career and romantic struggles of a young black woman or a selection of short stories by a New Zealander who died young or a lesbian novel full of antiquated ideas about homosexuality or something else entirely.

Flush and Mrs. Dalloway.

I’m rereading Woolf’s 1933 novel Flush for my class at the Mercantile Library on Monday night. It’s such a delight.

Lighter than Orlando, it shares with Orlando the mock-biographical form. Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved spaniel. The book is arch—perhaps too arch for some—but once it gets going it’s hilarious. Woolf writes in a confident third person, describing the smells that enchant and disgust Flush in detail. She also describes Flush’s bewilderment at Barrett’s writing: daily, she sits silent in her room on Wimpole Street, “passing her hand over a white page with a black stick.”

But what roused me from my sofa in my Victorian sitting room (equipped, it is true, with a piano but also a tv with internal DVD—Mary Poppins is currently in heavy rotation with the younger set--and a very nice radio/CD player with iPod dock) was the list of her siblings, one of whom was called Septimus!

That’s a footnote, isn’t it? That, among other things, Septimus Warren Smith’s name is an homage to one of Elizabeth Barrett’s brothers. (There were 12; there was an Octavius after Septimus.) In Mrs. Dalloway, 8 years earlier, Woolf wrote: London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish them. “

Though other scholars have written about Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when I was working on my chapter on Byron and Woolf, I got the notion that there was a deep, deep unexplored connection between the two of them. The time spent on the sofa, an imaginary (or real) invalid; the revelatory freedom into marriage and away from father; the feminism; the commitment to political freedom; the linking of feminism with other political causes; the love of dogs. I’m getting ahead of myself, but you see the point: there is a lot to say here.

In other Flush news, the early thirties were a little bit of a boom period for EBB, as I like to think of her. Not only did Flush come out in 1933, but, in 1934, Norma Shearer starred in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” The 1934 New York Times review (on my birthday!) praises the film highly, with special mention for the dog:
A report on the acting would be woefully inadequate without a tribute to Flush, the cocker spaniel of Elizabeth. His almost human and occasionally superhuman powers of expression are so remarkable as to cause some alarm for the superiority of the human race.

En mi pais…

Today was the Family Feast at kindergarten. It was the culmination of a month of studying “What Makes a House a Home.” All the mommies and daddies who could take time from work, brought in a dish representing their heritage and we had a huge buffet lunch. A feast of filled dough from around the world: empanadas, tamales, samosas, Indonesian pastel! There was also spiced rice from Puerto Rico, India, and the Dominican Republic. The potato pancakes, German-style, were fantastic. I made kringle, a very simple Danish figure-8-shaped cookie, not too sweet, with a pinch of nutmeg.

After lunch, the children treated us to a song, “Que Bonita Bandera” (What a pretty flag). Each child got up and said a sentence in Spanish about her country. After, eveyrone sang, "Que bonita bandera (x2) / es la bandera _____ [Colombiana/Dominicana/de Gales/de India]" It was so sweet to hear what they chose as the special thing about their nation. Of all the many nations we are from, my daughter picked Wales because it has the most bonita bandera, with that great dragon on it. She asked me about Wales: what makes it famous. I was cooking dinner and gave it a quick try: um, the Prince of Wales, coal mines, and dragons.

Well, the dragons aren’t real, she noted. They probably just used to have really fierce dinosaurs there. And coal mines? No romance there. Tell me about the Prince of Wales, Mama.

So, there she was, kicking off the song, with her little sentence about how in her country (!) lives the Prince of Wales who is the son of Queen Elizabeth.

She was far from the only child to pick royalty and parties: Trinidad has Carnevale and India has lots of palaces. Food figured large among the 5- and 6-year olds too, with Guatemala growing lots of rice, and a couple other children mentioning crops and dishes (between their mumbles and my very rudimentary Spanish, I missed a lot).

All the children joined together at the end to announce that in their country, the United States, there are fifty states and everyone is happy.

One wants to say “isn’t it pretty to think so?” But I wonder. It was such a touching day, with parents awkwardly circling around each other and one child, it seems, in tears, at all times. We are all so different; we all anxiously watch over our beloved little ones. All these years of theorizing and thinking and talking about racism and culture and multiculturalism and here it is, in action. It’s very sweet, but is this the best way to do it? I am not skeptical—it seems like a winner event to me—but I do wonder.

Celebrating a quarter century of procrastination

It's early December. Finals are around the corner, but so is Christmas. And when I should be grading papers and finishing up loose ends, I find myself researching the pros and cons of various Christmas presents on the web and trying to figure out when it would be best to go visit Santa.

I remember this feeling so vividly from my freshman year of college--in 1984! My college had an honors code that allowed you to take exams at any time during exam period. We all pledged not to discuss exams after we'd done them. It sounds implausible, but it actually worked: there was very little cheating--I never saw any. While most of my fellow students mapped out reasonable schedules wherein they'd take a morning exam, rest in the afternoon, study for a day, and take a second exam, I planned to take my exams one on top of the other: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, until I was done. I hopped in a taxi, headed to Logan, and flew home to Seattle. I wanted to make cookies with my Mama.

I find it a little amazing--sad, funny, and strange--that now, a quarter century later, I remain just as stubbornly poor at finishing up what I've begun.

I just want to make cookies with my girls.

Too Many First Days of School

How I used to love the first day of school! I have fond memories even of those tense, excited breakfasts in elementary school when my father would tease me that my new teacher for the next grade was going to be “Mrs. Awful.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“Yes, and I hear she’s awful.”

Quivering lips and plaintive glances at my mom who’d remind me that it was only, after all, Ms. Pogue.

I remember great new outfits in red, yellow, and blue, with new knee socks, and heading off to school with a new lunchbox.

And I remember, years later, poring over Seventeen magazine in search of just the right plaid jumper for a cute new back-to-school look and having my mom help me put pennies in my new loafers.

Part of becoming a teacher, I’m sure, has to do with my fondness for this rhythm of the year, this sense of September beginnings, of autumn promise.

But this year, there are just too many first days. Instead of feeling like a fond old hand, I’m just a nervous little kid, each new day turning my stomach upside down again.

Yesterday was the first day of school at NYU, where my husband teaches. It was also my first day of the practicum for new graduate student teachers, a course that I’ll be taking over for at least part of the semester while a colleague is on personal leave.

Today is the first day of school at Fordham, where I teach. My classes don’t meet today, but I have to head out soon to hold the orientation meeting for the new adjuncts who’re just starting out.

Tomorrow is my daughter’s first day of kindergarten!

And Friday is my actual first day of teaching my own classes.

You can wipe me up from the floor on Friday afternoon.

Five-Paragraph Essays

I don’t usually blog about teaching and I have no intention of starting. Nonetheless, in honor of the end of spring term, I wanted to share this lovely little parody from the current issue of College Composition and Communication. The whole piece, five paragraphs long, is worth a look if you can get yourself to a research library database (CCC 59.3, Feb. 08, 524-5). Xerox it. Paste it on your door. Distribute it widely amongst all the young writers you know.
My Five-Paragraph-Theme Theme
Ed White
Since the beginning of time, some college teachers have mocked the five-paragraph theme. But I intend to show that they have been mistaken. There are three reasons why I always write five-paragraph themes…”

Ah! Music to my ears.

Years ago, an undergraduate humor magazine at Harvard published a parody of the compare/contrast essay by “Duffy Sasser.” Now that was choice satire. It compared Hamlet to Romeo and Juliet contending that they were similar in that they were both plays, with characters, in five acts, by Shakespeare, that ended with characters dying, and had the theme of time and death but that they were different in that one was set in Denmark the other in Italy…

Sadly, I lost my copy of that, but if any one can dig it up for me, I’ll be very grateful!

In the meantime, happy essay writing….!

Ta-Da

My department has entered the digital age at last, with individual web pages for us. I have been wanting this for a long time, but, oy!, the hassle of trying to create a webpage within a humungous and unwieldly university template. I'm grateful to my colleagues on the committee for doing it for me.

The picture is of me, streamside, after a picnic in the Adirondacks.