I can still see him sitting to one side of the classroom after his friends made their way out to lunch. His American Literature Anthology was still open to the last page of Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He leaned forward, looking like he was going to cry. But this junior was a tough character. He was one of about seven Black students in a class of approximately twenty-five. I walked toward his desk and he looked up at me. I said “D, what’s up? You ok?” He said “I’ve just never seen words do this before.”
A few years later, another student, I’ll call him Q, also sat in his desk as his classmates were leaving. We had just finished discussing Chapter 10 of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a particularly violent piece of reading, in which a married enslaved male from a neighboring plantation is made to have sex with an enslaved woman on William Covey’s plantation, to produce children whom Covey would not have to purchase. Covey was the “slave breaker” to whom Douglass was sent in the hope that he would become more obedient. We discussed this arrangement from the perspective of the enslaved male, his enslaved wife, who had to watch him go nightly to the neighboring plantation, and from the perspective of the enslaved female whom Covey wanted to conceive. We discussed this as the deliberate destruction of the Black family. That’s what it was. This chapter also contains one of many brutal beatings Douglass receives at the hands of Covey. It also contains the crucial and dangerous moment in which Douglass fights back. Q, one of twenty white students, was staring down at his book and then he looked up at me and said: “It was awful, wasn’t it? What we did was awful.”
This summer I’ve spent a good bit of time reflecting on what it means to teach literature, especially American Literature, at this time in our history. We are in the middle of a pandemic, proving ourselves a fractured and somewhat incompetent country. We are also in the midst of a significant reaction to America’s racial injustices. After Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, our country is experiencing a kind of reckoning. While American history is an unbroken assault on the Black body, for a broad constellation of reasons, we are facing it now in ways we haven’t for many years. All of this, the pandemic and the worldwide protests for racial justice, has me thinking about the purpose of literature, especially in our schools. What does it mean to teach American Literature now? What effect does American Literature have on my students, on me, on the country at large?
My experience, both personal and professional, tells me that literature, taught well, can create two effects in readers: it can console and it can confront. Both of these, consolation and confrontation, can have both a personal and a public effect.
How might literature console? How might it console personally? Take my student “D” in the example above. At the time, he was a 17 year-old Black student and he was reading Frederick Douglass. His overall response was that he had never seen words used the way Douglass used them. He had never seen words create the change and inspiration he felt as he read and discussed Douglass’ most famous speech. We had already read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, his first autobiography, so I assume that text was part of what D was feeling too. In D’s case, literature consoled him. It showed him Douglass, a young Black man, near his age, using words to describe his life to others, and thus, to bring about change. I might imagine it consoled him on many personal levels. He heard Douglass asking questions of America that he too wanted to ask. He heard Douglass demanding a kind of equality he, my student D, had not experienced. This consolation could result in strengthening my student, empowering him to see more potential in his own life, especially in his ability to use words.
How might literature confront? The example of Q above, shows that confrontation in the most raw way. He felt the horror of what “his country” had done. He felt ashamed at what people “like him” had one. This confrontation is one we rarely see. First, a student has to have achieved a certain level of maturity for this consolation to really take place positively. Some non-Black high school students are not able to admit any fault in their own country. Nor can they admit any critique of their parents or their parents’ political views. In my experience, until a student reaches that basic level of maturity in which he or she can find fault with America, the confrontation which literature can create just can’t happen. But once a student is mature enough to accept that America isn’t perfect, then literature can confront that student in transformative ways.
Sometimes literature consoles us by giving us energy to see needs and create change. Consider how the poetry of Langston Hughes predicts the mass marches and protests of the civil rights movement, decades before they took place. Think of his poems “Dream Boogie” and “Harlem.” Sometimes literature’s consolation is more private and personal. Consider how some of Emily Dickinson’s poems focusing on the potential beauty of death, can enable us, if we can let them in, to accept mortality in our own lives.
There are also times when literature both consoles and confronts at the same time. I’ve seen students burst into life when they read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Emerson’s searing idea that “Whosoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist” has brought very reluctant readers to life in my classes. Thoreau often has the same effect. Gwendolyn Brooks’ heartbreaking poem, “We Real Cool” shows us the consolation of some tough kids seeing themselves in a poem. Their voice is finally heard. But that poem also shows us a dramatic confrontation because those boys, the “seven at the Golden Shovel” know that in the end, if they keep up this life, “we die soon.”
For me, this thirty-second year of teaching is crucial. We are in desperate need of both the consolation and the confrontation literature can offer us. I often ask as my last question in a discussion, “Where is the beauty here? Is there any beauty in this work?” Now I have two more questions to ask at the end of our discussions. “Does this literary work console you? If so, how?” “Does this literary work confront you? Tell me how?”
Photograph at top: My classroom in Kohlmann Hall, Gonzaga College High School, Washington, D.C.
Photograph within the essay: My American Literature Anthology, open to the first chapter of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.