Black Literature Matters

Session #223 at the 2018 MLA Annual Convention

Presided by Jesse Alemán, University of New Mexico

Selected as a Presidential Theme panel, CLPC session #223 on Black Literature Matters brought together three presenters (the fourth was stranded by the blizzard) and about 25 audience members to discuss the theme of Black Literature Matters. Obviously inspired by the Black Lives movement, the Black Literature Matters session took a direction of its own: instead of panelists making arguments for the importance of recognizing black literature (i.e., that it “mattered” in literary studies), the presenters and attendees focused more on the matters of black literature: the pedagogical issues that black literature raises in and out of the classroom; the lessons it teaches us about language, power, and resistance; and the critical interventions that black literature makes in students’ lives, institutional structures, and our teaching practices.

Though the original CFP did not necessarily focus on critical pedagogy, the papers presented largely revolved around teaching, so the final panel organization seemed almost organically to center on how pedagogy, power, and language are critical matters of black literature.

In “Teaching Citizen in Predominately White Classrooms,” Laura Vrana relied on her classroom experience and on African-American scholarship to explore the interventions and challenges Rankin’s book poses for teaching at institutions where whiteness is the overwhelming norm. Doubling down on the setting of teaching in a predominately white space, Trivius Caldwell’s “Teaching Race within a Military Sphere” discussed the challenges of teaching race in general and black literature in particular at the US Military Academy, where the cultural of military training emphasizes the erasure of racial difference. In “You Are Not Wrong,” Reid Gómez uses June Jordan’s work to launch a discussion on the power of language to harm and heal, most notably in the classroom proper, where we, as instructors, must recognize the power already embedded in language, curricular arrangement, and notions of standardized writing. Finally, Adeleke Adeeko’s “Black Lives and Just Endings” makes a pedagogical turn to show us what we can learn today about justice, black lives, and necropolitics from the endings of Hurston’s, Wright’s, and Petry’s novels.

The discussion proved just as informative as the presentations, for many audience members were compelled to share, give testimony, and explain their own personal and professional experiences with the way black literature matters to them, their students, and their institutions. There were very few questions from the audience, in fact. Rather, attendees were compelled to share their stories about the teaching black literature, especially during our current political times. Some attendees shared their strategies for using black literature to make critical interventions in the classroom, while others expressed their struggle to navigate their classroom or administrative power structures. In all, the session proved to be a fitting conversation about the significance of black literature not just in the classroom but for the changes it can make outside of it.

The CLPC plans to continue the conversation at the 2019 MLA with another session specifically devoted to Critical Pedagogy. Titled “Critical Pedagogies Now: Literature, Race, and Political Consciousness,” the session invites papers on classroom strategies, experiences, and risks of teaching literature to challenge racism, raise social-historical awareness or critique political climates.

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