A white English professor finds African-American literature fascinating, beautiful and important.
By Anne Carroll, assistant professor of English
I went to the doctor’s office not too long ago. We made some small talk before we got down to business, and when I told him I taught in the English department at Wichita State University, he asked what my field was.
I hesitated and then told him my primary specialty is in African-American literature.
“Oh,” he said, eyebrows raised, “what got you interested in that?”
To understand his question, you have to know that I am white. I have been asked this question again, and again, and again. Perhaps because I’ve done it so often, I can explain my interest in African-American literature relatively easily: I find it fascinating and beautiful and important.
African-American writers deal with issues that I, as a white person, haven’t had to think much about, and those issues are ones that too few of us talk about, particularly in situations where both black and white people are present. Teaching African-American literature, then, is a way to bring these issues to our attention and to start conversations that might not happen otherwise.
But the question has undertones that I find disturbing. To me, the question reveals our assumption that the person who teaches African-American literature would be African American. In other words, the question belies our assumption that normally, we’re most interested in material that’s about us.
That saddens me, because it implies that we aren’t willing to address other people’s experiences. It also implies that what we notice are the differences between us, rather than the things we have in common. Put together, those two tendencies push us away from people who aren’t like us; they narrow our world and push us toward smaller and more insular communities.
My doctor’s question also raises the issue of whether the person who teaches African-American literature should be African American. My easy answer to that question is that my qualifications as a teacher have to do with the quality of my teaching, my knowledge of the material, and my ability to introduce my students to the material and to build their enthusiasm and interest in it. None of that, I think, has much to do with the color of my skin.
But that answer seems too easy. My identity as a white person is important when I teach African-American literature. One of my students wrote on her class evaluation that she didn’t think I should be teaching African-American literature because, as a white person, I couldn’t understand the struggle of black people to deal with racism. She’s right, on some level.
Having never experienced racism, I cannot understand the texts that I teach in the visceral, immediate way some of my African-American students do. And I am not qualified to offer them insights on the right ways black people — or any people of color — should deal with racism. But I never have seen my role as a teacher as being to hand out right answers; instead, I want to show my students the answers that African-American writers have offered to questions like that over the past 250 years. Then, each of them can decide which answer works for them.
Ironically, my student’s response helps me understand a little better the experience of racism. After all, she’s making assumptions about me based on the color of my skin. Knowing how frustrating that is for me helps me imagine what it would feel like to be faced with racism on a daily basis.
That experience also forces me to be aware of my own identity as shaped by the fact that I’m white. Scholars who write about racial identity in the United States argue that most white people rarely think about themselves as white; in other words, most white people would say that their whiteness has little to do with who they are. Most people of color, in contrast, would say that their racial identity is a huge part of who they are. This fits with my experience.
Outside of the classroom, there are very few situations in which my identity as white is an issue; it’s not usually something I have to pay attention to. When I teach African-American literature, though, my racial identity becomes an issue. It makes people question me and my qualifications. Although I do find this frustrating, I also think it is helpful: I don’t want to be defined by my race, and yet I am. To one tiny degree, that helps me understand the experience of people of color in this country.
But, of course, my experience of being defined by my race is a choice on my part. If I want to avoid having to explain myself as a white person who teaches African-American literature, I can.
When someone asks me what I teach, I can just tell them American literature. And that’s why I hesitated before I answered my doctor’s question: it’s easier, sometimes, to not have to deal with my racial identity.
In an ideal world, we would all have that privilege.