Premature Reflections on Teaching

This fall I teach the Harlem Renaissance and Caribbean Literature, the one ostensibly a nation-based class the other necessarily transnational. To maintain some semblance of sanity, I have restricted the Caribbean class to 20th C. writing and have selected a limited number of authors (Louise Bennett, Nicolas Guillén, Claude McKay, Mayotte Capecia, C.L.R. James, Samuel Selvon, Jean Rhys, M. Nourbese Philip, Nalo Hopkinson, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon). Eh, perhaps not so limited.

I have opted to go for Canadian over U.S. authors, so no Jamaica Kincaid or Edwidge Danticat—yes, I hear the howls of disapproval. And I have also chosen to sideline better-known figures: we will be reading Brathwaite’s prose rather than his poetry; Naipaul is conspicuously absent; I have a problem reading Grace Nichols, so she’s not in; Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott are not featured. These are tough decisions. And the class is skewed toward Jamaica, Trinidad, and Martinique.

Approximately the first half of the class is devoted to the pre-1950s, an era that, as Alison Donnell and Leah Rosenberg argue, has tended to get the shaft. While I would have loved to teach Jane’s Career, it is out of print—of the early fiction, it is what I know best and actually really like. And, sadly, we will not have time for Minty Alley, which I also really like. Instead, The Black Jacobins, the play, not the monograph.

We end the class on Zong!, and that, perhaps, explains one trajectory of the class: to think about innovations in language and form, from McKay and Bennett’s Jamaican to Philip’s innovative poetics. Also, to think deliberately about an embodied poetics. In a remarkable video, Miss Lou explains deriving her rhythms from work songs and children’s songs, and we have yet to figure out how McKay’s Jamaican poetry (I’m focusing on work from Constab Ballads) takes its essence from the rhythm of Jamaican urbanization, not merely in terms of content, but also at the level of form.

Innovation as well in terms of genre, so we end on Hopkinson’s speculative fiction, rather than a more conventional realist narrative. She is, of course, much more accessible than other authors working in similar traditions. Plus, she is just funky-cool!

As should be apparent, this post has the wrong title. It is more a description, perhaps a rationale, instead of a reflection, insofar as the two can be distinguished (my post training tells me to add).

Both classes, and I realize I have said very little about the HR class (Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn Bennett, Anne Spencer, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen—and I always, always end at 1930, because I follow Hughes’s chronology), have a similar structure.

In each one, we ask how the designation, be it Caribbean or Harlem Renaissance, sutures disparate work. We ask about the labor of suture-terms, what they bring together, how they bring it together, and what they accomplish in doing so. We also ask about the occlusions of suture-terms.

To preview one class, the HR: I begin by staging an implicit debate about Harlem Renaissance genealogies, on the one side literary studies (Houston Baker) on the other history (David Levering Lewis and Nathan Huggins). More broadly, this is a foundational debate rooted in the disciplinary fissures emerging from a Black Aesthetic project. (You don’t think I’m going to give away my entire class, do you?)

The debate tracks the desires we bring to the HR: what do we want from it? How do our affective investments shape how we read it? What do they help us see? What do they miss? And, for more advanced students, how have affective and ideological investments changed over the past 40 years, since, say, 1970?

Because the HR is “my thing,” well, one of them, I remain convinced that it is the great transitional period from the 19th C. to the 20th, and this in a way we have yet to recognize. It is, to adapt Gertrude Stein’s claims in “Composition as Explanation,” too contemporary for our criticism. We have yet to catch up with its inchoate demands.

I’m excited about both of these classes, about their competing and complementary demands, about how they force us to bend and stretch—we read Miss Lou in one class and Paul Laurence Dunbar in the other during the same period, for instance, and the conversation about how Jamaican and dialect function in relation to history and politics is really interesting (and the question of how one gets to be called Jamaican while the other remains dialect is its own fascinating question).

Some students have opted to take both classes with me and, if they can sustain it, will have an interesting comparative experience.

And then. Grading.