Sunday, February 15, 2015

Jean Kittrell, Barbara Schmidt & Af-Am literary studies at SIUE

The histories of African American literary studies at SIUE extend well over 30 years. That's no minor accomplishment since so many universities only began regularly offering African American literature courses in the last 20 years. I was recently looking over academic cvs of two faculty members  from the department of English here, and was fascinated to learn about their efforts in the 1970s and onward.

The professional activities of Jean Kittrell and Barbara Quinn Schmidt established an important foundation for the many African American literature courses that we offer now. Schmidt began as an instructor at SIUE in 1964, and became a faculty member in 1977. Kittrell began at SIUE in the early 1970s. Schmidt and Kittrell were actively teaching and proposing courses related to African American literature early on, and they made presentations at conferences related to the developing fields of African American literary studies and Black Studies.

 Kittrell proposed and taught a course entitled "The Black Image in Autobiography and Essay," which as she noted "provides intellectual backgrounds for new Minor in Black American Studies." She also proposed a course, "Black Drama," which surveyed "twentieth-century dramatizations of black life in America." In addition to giving presentations on black literature at conferences, Kittrell, a musician, regularly presented on the histories of jazz and the blues. (You can see her, on piano and singing, as she leads a group covering Bessie Smith's "Downhearted Blues").

As professor of American and African American literature, a performing musician, musical historian, and black studies scholar and advisor, Kittrell was involved in the production of "interdisciplinary work" long before that term became fashionable in the academy. The African American literature courses she was teaching have persisted, in new forms, over the decades.

The late Barbara Quinn Schmidt also made several contributions to what has become the contemporary versions of African American literary studies at SIUE. Schmidt taught "Afro-American Literature," and she proposed and taught "Black American Poetry," and "Black American Novel." She also proposed an "interdisciplinary course: The Cultural Background of the English Speaking Third World," a course "The Poetry of India, Africa, and the Caribbean," and in 1975, she designed and offered a Humanities Honors course "Novels of India, Africa, and the Caribbean."

Schmidt was committed to expanding her knowledge and expertise in this growing area at the time. Her record reveals that she actively sought out "professional development in teaching" opportunities. She was a participant in an Afro-American Institute on Richard Wright at the University of Iowa in 1971. She attended classes in a Black American workshop at Washington University in 1972. She participated in an African and Caribbean Institute at University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1973, and in 1976, she participated in an institute on Urban Ethnic Literature sponsored by the Modern Language Association at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.   

In 1971, at the Midwest Modern Language Association (MMLA) conference, Schmidt delivered a paper entitled "Afro-American Literature Should be Taught in the Literary Mainstream." In 1974, she chaired a session at MMLA on "The Future of Black Studies," and in 1977, she co-chaired a session on "Black Women Writers" at MMLA. She pursued these interests and efforts even though her major field of study was Victorian Literature.

Over the last few years, I have been sketching out histories of African American literary studies at SIUE. I'm fortunate to have now become aware of these pioneering efforts by Jean Kittrell and Barbara Quinn Schmidt.

10 Years of African American Literature at SIUE
African American Literature @ SIUE

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