As we prepare for midterms in my literature courses, I've started wondering about who my students are now that they've become a little more aware of this thing called African American literature. Some folks talk about the freshman fifteen, where first-year students put on extra pounds, but in my classrooms, what about the "freshman fifty," where folks gain the weight of 50 poems by black poets during their initial months of college? Or, what about simply the "first fifty" for my upper-level courses where students pick up 50 or so poems?
I teach two first-year courses. In one class, we focus on poems by and about black women. In the other course, we're reading poems by and about "bad" black men. By the end of the semester, we'll cover 50 poems in each course, so far we've covered 25.
I'm especially interested on what happens when college students receive "early exposure" to African American poetry. I'm wondering about the right mix of poems that might assist students in raising questions about ideas culture, literature, and history in and beyond our literature course. I'm also curious about the possibilities of making black poetry foundational to their college educations, especially since none of the 40 students have expressed interest majoring in literature.
The other day I was asking the students in both classes who they were or who they'd become as a result of the poems we had read so far. In retrospect, my question was perhaps too vague. Still, one of the young women in my course told me that in high school she mostly heard about slavery when and if she heard about black history, and so it was an expansion for her to encounter poems about topics other than enslavement. A young man in my other course said that he appreciated that the bad man poems focused on serious topics, because "real life ain't just about being happy."
• 25 poems by African American poets for a class
• 25 poems by or about black men
• Toward a Sociology of African American Readers & Their Relationships to Poetry