Literature is Political: Teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, Critical Patriotism, and Media Literacy

Note: This week at PALS, we are responding to Ben Railton’s new book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism. Between PALS’s regular contributors, we have taught nearly all of the texts addressed in Railton’s book, but we will only focus on a few in posts by PALS’s co-editors Shelli Homer (part 1) and Brianne Jaquette (part 2 and part 3) .  First up is Homer with a look at Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition.

Captain America: Truth (comicbook)

Last semester in an intermediate composition course, I had students spend the semester researching and writing about American Wars. Throughout the semester, they compared posters from WWI and WWII with pamphlets from the 1960s (Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women’s Lib), reflected on narratives created from Civil War diaries and letters, assessed trends the representation of 9/11 in print media both foreign and domestic, and finally, analyzed the representation of war in a Hollywood film of their choosing.

The first day of class, I wrote the word patriotism on the board and had students do some free writing connected to the word. Students’ thoughts went in a lot of directions, but mainly they were anxious about offending others as they struggled with a desire to be critical of it and to be “good Americans” because somehow those two things do not mesh. More importantly, they all knew someone in the military and wanted to be respectful of that as well. We followed the free writing with a short article that challenged the idea of patriotism by questioning whether it was really any different from nationalism which the scholar described as dangerous. We critiqued the article and some of the writer’s choices as we moved into a discussion of the purpose of patriotism and the many ways it could be defined. Students wanted permission to think critically about their relationship with patriotism; they wanted to be critical patriots without being labeled un-American. All of them had their own defining moments that had already fundamentally challenged their blind childhood patriotism. I went to some very difficult places with students, but everyone was respectful so we came out the other side virtually unscathed with heightened critical thinking skills for encountering manifestations of patriotism.

I open with this anecdote because a statement I have heard several times from colleagues has gone something like, “Why does everyone think we have to addressister-outsiderpolitical topics in our classes? I just enjoy the literature with my students and teach them to appreciate the formal elements, like style and form.” There was a time when my response to this was in the vein of “to each their own, I guess.” But those responses have never fully worked for me. The idea that focusing on style and form will spare us a political conversation is naïve. Choices about form are political. Choices about style are political. Choices about word use are political. Can those elements be successfully taught while avoiding any sort of political discussion in the classroom? I would like to pause and point us all to Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Maybe we should just re-read all of Sister Outsider.

I completely understand the anxiety about how to manage politically charged conversations and a fear of students yelling at one another or us. While I sympathize with teaching anxieties 100%—I’m a teacher. It’s hard. I get it.—I don’t support avoiding it because it is challenging for us as well as our students. There is a lot of scholarship out there to help us figure out how to approach the literature through various cultural lenses, more and more of it involving political readings. Ben Railton’s new book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism, provides us with ways to rethink how and why literature is especially productive for helping “audiences not only better remember and understand our histories, but also genuinely connect to and empathize with them.” His book engages with political contexts and challenges the desire to forget or ignore dark parts of American history that have not been adequately or collectively addressed. These “dark parts” make for some very tough classroom conversations, but also for some amazing learning opportunities.

One of the darkest parts of American history, both past and present is race. I have also had colleagues ask the loaded questions, “Why do I have to learn and teach about African American culture and people to teach the literature? Why can’t we just appreciate Toni Morrison’s beautiful prose?” Well, because those questions are the definition of cultural appropriation, taking a piece of the culture while disregarding the lived experience of those who created it and the cultural context from which it came. We definitely don’t need to be reinforcing cultural appropriation in our classrooms. And, again, can a real appreciation of the literature be taught while pretending it was created in a vacuum? Literature challenges the dominant historical narratives that are accepted and live in citizens’ imaginations. That challenge is, also, political. The remainder of this post is about teaching critical patriotism through narratives of historical revision and historical recovery with Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition as the example.


The Course

Teaching with attention to political elements and providing historical contexts is second nature to me. A few semesters ago, I taught a Writing about Literature course titled “African American and Caribbean Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery.” We read four pieces of literature in the course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), Thylias Moss’s Slave Moth (2004), Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies (1994)—if I were to teach this course as strictly African American or Afro-Caribbean, instead of open to Caribbean texts at large, I could replace Alvarez’s novel with Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta (2002) or Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998), amongst countless others, and have a similar progression to the course. All of the texts could be places in the category of historical narratives. I also structured the course to move through the texts according to the temporal setting of the narrative, not the publication date.

By the time we got to Chesnutt, we had looked at the history and geography of the middle passage with Philip’s poetry collection and read William Wells Brown’s slave narrative with Moss’s neo-slave narrative. Despite students’ skewed and incomplete education about the institution of slavery in the Americas, they were able to ground themselves in past knowledge to engage with the first two authors. The big piece of US history that semester after semester I find students have no conceptualization of is what happened between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Most white students and some students of color have never heard the term Jim Crow. Thus, students struggle to conceptualize The Marrow of Tradition as a historical novel because the events Chesnutt depicts, from minstrelsy to the coup d’etat, don’t fit in their version of America.

The 1898 burning of the African American newspaper office in Wilmington, NC.

There are so many themes connected to both race in America and the representation and treatment of race in American literature. We touched on several of those throughout the novel, based on students’ interests and confusion. Jim Crow was one of my main focuses, in addition to the culminating event of the novel: the coup d’etat that was nearly erased from US history. To help students better understand Jim Crow, I read students some of the different Jim Crow laws and used an interactive map to show students that 1) Jim Crow laws were about much more than segregation and 2) it existed throughout the US, not just in the South.

The Newspaper Assignment

Since the main focus of the course was historical gaps and misrepresentations, with this novel, as with the other texts of the course, I had students explore the history behind Chesnutt’s historical setting. As Melissa Range has previously discussed, the use of newspaper databases can be a quite fruitful approach to the teaching of literature and historical contexts, among other things. The assignment was fairly simple. A week into the novel, I asked students to choose an early newspaper database or online resource for 19th century news articles and find an article about the events depicted in The Marrow of Tradition. Students had to use terms like, race riot, and search the specific year I gave them, but they found short articles across the United States about the event. Once the students found an article they wanted to work with, they had to analyze it both visually—this takes into consideration the layout of the page, as many of them got to see their chosen article scanned in on its full newspaper page—and for the rhetoric used in recounting the events. This was a short one page write up.

Sharing and Newspapers/Media Literacy

Students brought both their one page write up and a print out of their newspaper article to class. I had them get into small group of 3 or 4 and share/compare their findings. They then reported back to the class the observations they made as a group. Some students discovered one news article had been reprinted in several newspapers. Other students were interested in the slight shifts in word choice between newspapers. One of the big observations was that most all of the newspaper articles were very short with hardly any information. Students were a bit suspicious of how vague the articles were. This lead into a discussion of the currently popular concept of media literacy. Since I gave them a very specific assignment and we were already in the reconstructing history mode, they were in a more critical mindset. They were frustrated that there wasn’t more information. They were trying to understand a historical event without a historical account. We had not yet made it to the end of the novel, so they also did not have Chesnutt’s account. They did have much of Chesnutt’s fictionalized plotting leading up to the ultimate coup d’etat and massacre of African Americans in Wilmington, NC.

After completing the novel, we returned to this assignment to compare the newspapers’ accounts with Chesnutt’s. We picked through history a bit more, keeping in mind some of the arguments put forth by the white supremacists characters in The Marrow of Tradition. A student eventually stumbled upon a revised news article that, like Chesnutt’s novel, was in opposition to those article published at the time of the event. When I initially taught this course, there were only one or two articles online that corrected the initial racist “race riot” narrative of the events of 1898 in Wilmington, NC, and those articles were all from the 2000s, over a century later. There have been a few more articles that have come out since I taught the course, but they are all roughly of the same revised account.

Showing students that it took over 100 years for the events to be acknowledged by mainstream media as a coup d’etat and massacre of African Americans, not a race riot where white Americans were the victims had the biggest impact on students the entire semester. It made them much more critical and aware of the manipulation of information. It also gave them a different appreciation of literature and one of its uses.

Note: My students and I discussed everything Railton addresses in his The Marrow of Tradition chapter in History and Hope in American Literature. If you are nervous to confront the political in your classroom, start there for some specific breakdowns of the text.

Pairing 19th c. and 21st c. African American writers; or, it seemed like a great idea at the time . . .

This past term, I taught a new course on nineteenth century African American writers. In an attempt to show students how nineteenth century African American life is incredibly relevant to twenty-first century African American life, I created an assignment I called “19-to-21.” This assignment required students to pair up a twenty-first century African American writer with one of the nineteenth-century writers on our syllabus, then give the class a presentation comparing the two writers stylistically and thematically. It sure did seem like a good idea! Yet very often, the presentations fell flat. Inspired by the wonderful recent “teaching fails” post, I thought I’d recount how I conceived of this assignment, what I hoped for it, ways it succeeded, and ways it failed. I think the idea has potential, and I’m hopeful that some of you could take what was very often a “meh” assignment and turn it into something more yay-worthy.

(Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead)

Pairing up the writers

I’m not going to lie, selecting contemporary writers for this assignment took a lot of time and thought, and I was glad I had the whole summer to think about it. There are many wonderful contemporary African American writers who directly engage with the nineteenth century in their work, so the big problem for me was choosing. (My class was small, with only nine students enrolled, so I could only choose nine works.) Although the list was poetry heavy (occupational hazard), I included fiction and plays, too. Students drew the names of works out of a hat at the end of the first week of the term, so selection was random, and they had the works far in advance of their presentation dates, which were sprinkled throughout the term. Once they had their twenty-first century works, they were on their own to choose authors for comparison. Here are the contemporary works I chose (and I’d love it if you would offer suggestions for others in the comments section!):

And here are the nineteenth century writers and works we studied:

Finally, here are the pairings students came up with:

  • David Walker and Kyle Baker
  • Frederick Douglass and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Marilyn Nelson
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Vievee Francis
  • William Wells Brown and Tyehimba Jess
  • William Wells Brown and Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Harriet Jacobs and Thylias Moss
  • Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead
  • Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, David Walker, William Wells Brown, and Natasha Trethewey (clearly, this didn’t work out so well)

(William Wells Brown and Suzan-Lori Parks)

How it worked and how it didn’t: insights and pitfalls

Here are the particular things I asked students to do in the presentations, which were intended to be 15-20 minutes in length:

  1. First, give a very brief (just a couple of minutes) summary and evaluation of the 21st century work.
  2. Then, draw some connections between the 21st century work and a 19th century work or works of your choice. For example, you might consider these questions (but don’t feel limited by them):
  • What overlapping themes do you see in the 19th century work and the 21st century work?
  • What textual or visual similarities do you see between the two works?
  • If applicable, how does the 21st century work appropriate, respond to, critique, or revise the 19th century work? How does the 21st century work respond to the 19th century more generally?
  • Whatever direction(s) you take this, make sure to pull out a chunk of text (or video, or whatever the medium is) from each work to show us and to compare.
  • Finally, prepare a question about the works for the class to discuss. Strive to move beyond questions that have to do with “did you like this” or “what do you think the author was trying to do here?” Root the question in the connections you are finding between African American literature and art in the 19th and the 21st centuries.

(Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Marilyn Nelson)

Sometimes, this really worked, as when one of my students compared Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, which is about postbellum, pre-Harlem African American music (from minstrelsy to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to early vaudeville and more!), to William Wells Brown’s play The Escape, both of which are formally experimental texts that make use of (and radically re-shape) minstrel texts. Another student compared the dramatic monologues in Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village to those in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, and she looked at rhyme and form in both poets’ work as well. In both of these cases, students kept their summarizing to a minimum, got quickly to the textual comparison, and provided the class with lots of visual aids to keep them interested. Both of these students also knew and were able to use literary terminology well in their analyses. Perhaps most importantly, these works really did speak to one another. It was easy to have conversation because the parallels between works were extremely clear.

When the 19-to-21 presentations didn’t work, it was largely for these reasons:

  • Way, way too much time spent summarizing (few things are more boring than listening to a lengthy plot summary of a book one has not read)
  • Speeding through the textual analysis before the class has had time to digest the comparisons
  • Lack of visual aids to keep class interested
  • Discussion questions that were largely unanswerable (these fell into a couple of categories: 1) why-did-the-author-do-this-and-not-that questions; 2) questions that were too closely based in the 21st century text, which the rest of the class had not read; or 3) questions comparing both texts, but without providing the actual texts for the class to look at)
  • Unfamiliarity with literary terminology, causing students to say wildly inaccurate things about the books they were reading
  • Lack of an interesting connection between the works, or trying to do too much (as you can see in the above example where Trethewey was paired with half the syllabus)

Meh . . .

 Of the nine presentations, we had three excellent ones, four that were just okay, and two that were truly taxing. (Both of the truly taxing presentations were heavy on plot summary and light on analysis, used few or no visual aids, and did not use accurate literary terminology.) I had such high hopes for this assignment, but presentation days honestly became one of my least favorite times of the term. I could see that most of the students felt the same way. Only my most committed students were invested in their peers’ work, and part of me just wonders if that’s the pitfall of presentations. (I’ve certainly seen this lack of engagement in other classes where I’ve had students do presentations.) There was a lot of zoning out, a lot of surreptitious phone-checking under the seminar table, a lot of notebook-doodling. This was a talkative class who liked each other and liked the nineteenth-century works, so the lack of investment in the presentations wasn’t from a lack of investment in the class or in each other. Perhaps most students weren’t nearly as curious as I imagined they’d be about twenty-first century books they hadn’t read. That’s my bad!

(Frederick Douglass and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins)

Looking forward: ideas for next time

 If I were teaching this as a fifteen-week course, I think I’d just build some of these twenty-first century works into the syllabus. (If those of you who are on the semester system try this, let me know how it goes!) Because we’re on ten-week terms at my school, there’s not really that kind of class time to spare. Here are some ideas I had that I might try next time:

  • Turning the assignment into a short paper instead of a presentation
  • Giving a demonstration of what I’m looking for to the class, rather than just writing it on an assignment sheet (no matter how clear I think my instructions are, they don’t always get followed; perhaps modeling a presentation would be a good idea)
  • Changing media and cutting down on options (for example, what if our class met outside of class time once a week to screen an episode of the current WGN television series Underground, then talked about all of our nineteenth century works in relation to the show?)
  • Asking students to provide excerpts of the twenty-first century works for the class to read a few days before the presentations (a couple of poems, a chapter of a novel, a scene from a play)

Or . . . I could just scrap it altogether and spend more time doing archival activities, which my students really enjoyed. I still believe in the relevance of nineteenth-century works to twenty-first century works, but I want to find a better and more exciting way for my students to make these connections. Can this assignment be saved? Let me know if you have ideas!