Tuesday, July 8, 2014

From Richard Wright to African American literary studies

In the past, I've mentioned taking a course on Richard Wright with Jerry W. Ward, Jr., during my second year of college at Tougaloo College. But I somehow neglected to highlight a notable point in my previous narratives. The Wright class was the first African American literature course that I ever took, though in that Tougaloo context, it was only a "literature" course.

These days, the typical approach, I assume, is for students to take a survey course on African American literature and then later take a "major author" course. At SIUE, we offer a 400-level major course on Toni Morrison, which I was inspired to create for my department based on my experiences in Professor Ward's Wright course all those years ago. By the time SIUE students arrive at the Morrison course, many of them have already taken general 200-level and 300-level literature courses. 

The situation I'm describing is not unique to African American literature. English majors at SIUE usually take survey and general literature courses prior to a major author course on Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton. The usual route into a literature major, it seems, is from the general to specific.

Thus, my entry into black literature through a single writer was unusual. Well, maybe not. Professors Ward, Maryemma Graham, Trudier Harris, and countless others began their own studies and careers on select black writers prior to the formation of "African American literature" as a distinct field and certainly before survey courses in the field were the norm.

I'll begin devoting more attention in conversations with colleagues and students to the issues of  major authors before survey courses and to surveys before major authors. 

Richard Wright

African American Literature @ SIUE

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