Tips for Faculty Teaching African American Languages and Literature

PALS is excited to welcome a guest post by Carly Overfelt. Overfelt writes about the mistakes that white people can make when teaching African American languages and literature and provides information about how to do this better in the classroom.

Several weeks ago, a news story circulated on Twitter about a high school student who was upset by her teacher’s lesson on “African American Vernacular English” in preparation to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. According to the story, the lesson made her feel that her teacher was assuming that all African Americans speak ungrammatical/incorrect English, and she complained to her mother. The screenshot did look bad, especially out of context. What made it worse was that the way it was reported used language that supported the idea that African American language is indeed “incorrect” English. A statement by the teacher’s association did help answer some questions, but this “springboard to academic English” style curriculum is controversial, even with the context.

I’m not here to weigh in on that particular lesson. What matters to me is that the student was harmed. My goal is to share some tips here that might help prevent similar harm to students in the classrooms I am familiar with, like general education literature courses in college. I’m writing this as a white person for other white people, especially white faculty who teach African American texts (literature, film, music) and have no training in linguistics. Ideally, your institution will hire more people of color to teach those texts and also devote resources to professional development in the area of linguistic diversity and linguistic justice. Until then, this post may be helpful.

What you do in your classroom, of course, depends on your goals and learning outcomes. I have written this series of tips assuming that at least one of your goals is to show students that the language associated with a text like Their Eyes are Watching God is unjustly (and with real consequences) categorized in our society as “lazy” or “incorrect,” while it is actually as valid, complex, and innovative as any other English they may encounter in the study of American literature.

Decenter Yourself 

Decentering yourself is probably the first rule for white faculty teaching African American Literature anyway, but it is important enough to state outright here again. You are bringing your own linguistic and cultural background to the classroom, and part of your job as you raise the topic of language is to not use your own language background as the “norm” and default to which all other language patterns are compared. How can you decenter yourself?

  • Center your students’ languages/Englishes. You can do this by beginning with an activity that asks them questions about their languages/Englishes to first establish that linguistic diversity is here and it’s ok. This works for every student. There is no student who texts the same way they write, and speaks in class in the same way they talk to their mom on the phone, etc.
  • Center Black writers. African American writers are already dealing with these issues of language and power much better and more efficiently than you can, so start there. If you’re preparing students for a longer text, try beginning with something short, like a poem, and talk through it with your students. One great choice might be “Finna,” a new poem by Nate Marshall, or maybe the segment of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, where she describes meeting a therapist whom she had only spoken to on the phone before (18). Guide students through unpacking stereotypes our society associates with particular types of speaking and what is at stake. 
  • Center scholars. As much as possible, let the technical information (like syntactic structures, phonological patterns) about African American Language come from voices who study that and who are practiced in explaining it for educational purposes. As much as possible, these should be voices who identify as speakers of the language, or who identify as part of the Black community. For example, you can have your students watch Talking Black in America. You can also refer to trusted texts like The Oxford Handbook of African American Language.
    • Why even introduce the more technical linguistic information? I’m not saying you should or should not, but introducing some of the core features can help students understand that it is systematic. For example, when students learn the “rules” behind the distribution of zero copula (the optional omission of so-called “linking verbs” in some contexts), it might counter their notions that the language is “random” or “lazy.” 
    • What was so bad about the chart from the Fresno story, then? It showed that the language is rule-governed and what the patterns were, right? Context is key. I don’t know the dynamics of the room in that instance, but if you’re a white teacher in a predominantly white class, using a chart like that could make African American students feel like they are being studied like an object, and being flattened, whether or not they identify with the linguistic patterns portrayed. Because of the visual rhetoric and the terminology, that particular chart is not something I would personally use.
    • Avoid the idea of “translation” and don’t have students “translate.” This centers more privileged varieties of English as normative and African American Language as a foreign outlier (the thing that must be made legible). Just use resources that already include Standard American English (whatever that is) paraphrases if you’re wanting students to see meanings they might not catch. Even after reading about the context and learning outcomes for the translation exercise that offended the Fresno student, I still would not use that technique in my college literature classroom, as I don’t think the outcomes are worth the harm that they could cause students. If students who have command of the language have self-expressed interest in explaining aspects of it to other students, I think that could be valuable and empowering, but that’s different. If students who identify as speakers decide to use words like “translation” to talk about their Englishes, then of course let them, and ask them questions about why they chose that word. You and your whole class will learn.

Let the Literature Speak for Itself

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the dialogue spoken by Black characters in African American literature is somehow a real-world transcript of African American English, as described by linguists. It is a literary creation for a specific purpose and should not be taken too literally in most cases. That is, “In what way does the author imagine African American speech, and what seems to be at stake?” is probably a better question for your classroom discussion than, “Is this an authentic/realistic depiction of the variety we know of as African American English?” I’ve written and given talks about this, and I’d love to have separate conversations with folks about this approach, if/when they’d like.

Disrupt Labels

State over and over again that categories like “African American Language” or “Southern English” or “Standard English” are labels for ideas, and that they do not capture reality. That means that just because there is something linguists call “African American Language” or “African American English” does not mean all African Americans speak that way. Many do not. Your African American students may not use those features, or may not identify with what you’re describing at all. And many who do use some features, do not use others. And probably some features are used that are not yet observed by any linguist. That’s ok, and that’s how language works.

Don’t Make Assumptions about your Students’ Language Attitudes

Remember that your students who use the stigmatized features of African American Language often feel negatively about them in certain ways and see “Standard English” (whatever that means) as superior for classroom and other purposes. Your Black students are not sitting around waiting for you to realize that their language is valid, and then feeling proud of how woke you are when you do. It’s more complicated than that. Some of them have mixed or negative attitudes about their own speech or the speech of their families. It makes me sad and I wish they did not, but it’s not about how I feel or what I want. Don’t argue with students or position yourself as the expert on their language (“You should love your language! I will teach you how beautiful it is!”). Rather, if they express negative attitudes, ask them questions about how they feel and why, and how it relates to the texts you’ve been reading by African American authors who grapple with this. Give them space to think and talk it out if they feel comfortable doing so; your whole class will learn, including you.

Do Not Say or Use the “N Word”

Do not under any circumstances use/say/pronounce/articulate/write the N word. The time period of the literary piece does not make it okay. The fact that you’ve heard people say it or sing it does not make it okay. This word has a complex place in American society and a complex relationship with African American linguistic culture. If you don’t understand why you should not go near this word, or you don’t understand how to teach certain texts without it, listen to Koritha Mitchell’s piece for the C19 podcast about this.   

Educate Yourself

One key take-away from Koritha Mitchell’s podcast episode, especially for white people, is to “do the work.” Do the work to educate yourself on what language actually is and how it works. If you believe in the white supremacist ideology of Standard English, you will not be able to help using euphemisms and coded language that undermine any point you are making. You need to get right with yourself first. Educating yourself on these issues is a process, and is never complete. I am only able to offer these tips because I have, myself, made many mistakes and I am still learning. You can refer to any of the resources and texts I’ve already mentioned, and here are a few more good entry-level, popular-audience resources you can check out:

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race (2012) 
H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

Vocal Fries Podcast: Interview with Nicole Holliday

Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (2000)
John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford
(This text increasingly feels dated but still does a great job hitting a range of important topics, including literary texts, for a lay audience.)  

Bio:

Carly Overfelt is the Multilingual and Intercultural Program Coordinator at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she is a tutor, advisor, and instructor for the international and multilingual students. She also regularly offers faculty development and campus programming around issues of linguistic diversity and linguistic justice. Before her work at Gustavus, she got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she specialized in linguistic approaches to literature, and taught composition and general education literature courses. 

Teaching Failure: Aunt Phillis’s Cabin

PALS blog contributors highlight their best teaching experiences and most successful lesson plans as a means to inspire other educators in the field of American literary studies. Yet all of us have had experiences when we were not at our best, we let our students down, or something just did not work in the classroom. Acknowledging our teaching failures, along with our successes, is part of a reflective pedagogical practice that ultimately enhances our own teaching and our students’ learning.

Looking back on it, I can now see that assigning Aunt Phillis’s Cabin (1852) by Mary H. Eastman, a pro-slavery response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. Yet even this teaching failure was an opportunity for pedagogical reflection that has helped me rethink what I am trying to do in my classroom when I ask my students to consider the legacies of slavery and racism in American literature.

In fall 2015, I taught a freshman seminar entitled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An American Classic on Trial.” The purpose of the course was to familiarize first-year students with Stowe’s novel, its popularity, its problematic racial politics, and its cultural longevity. While we studied its success as an abolitionist novel, we also considered Stowe’s use of pernicious racist stereotypes. We read both glowing and critical nineteenth-century reviews of the novel along with James Baldwin’s scathing critique, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” At the end of the semester, students read Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987), another portrayal of nineteenth-century slavery, escape, and redemption. I wanted students to see all perspectives on Stowe’s novel—positive, negative, historical, contemporary—in order to think about the power of literature to change the world.

Because this seminar was also a general education requirement connected to the teaching of writing and critical thinking skills, we examined how the novel used specific characters to make anti-slavery or rebut pro-slavery arguments. To that end, the class learned about “anti-Tom novels” by southern authors, a plethora of which appeared soon after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These responses to Stowe’s successful novel were written with the aims of “defending the plantation as a good place… [and] depicting blacks as either happy in slavery or racially aunt phillis cabinunfit for freedom.” Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is was the most popular of these novels, selling 20,000-30,000 copies.

I assigned Aunt Phillis’s Cabin as an example of the pro-slavery arguments Stowe had to address so that my students could better appreciate the milieu in which her work was originally written and received. Since the novel responded to specific scenes and characters from Stowe’s work, reading it would engender discussions of intertextuality and deepen students’ thinking about the success, popularity, and effectiveness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an abolitionist novel. The students had already researched the various pro-slavery and anti-slavery debates in the nineteenth-century, including nineteenth-century theories of racial difference, but as I found, they were not prepared to read Eastman’s novel.

They hated everything about the book. First, it is an overtly racist novel and many students were distressed and upset by that. Some of the students thought I was presenting Eastman’s pro-slavery novel as a literary and moral equal to Stowe’s abolitionist novel—just another “equally good” perspective. Second, it is poorly written and very bad literature. I had planned for us to discuss its cultural significance, not its literary merit. But that did not matter.

After reading Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, the students came to class outraged. They did not want to discuss the questions about intertextuality and argumentation I had carefully prepared for class discussion. They just kept asking, “Why did you make us read this?” For these first-year students, the fact that a college professor had assigned this book and placed it on a syllabus signaled the book’s legitimacy. I soon realized that whatever pedagogical point I was trying to make by teaching the novel was lost.

I clarified the reasons why I had assigned the novel, and then admitted that my reasons were no longer relevant based on the class’s unified reaction. I told the students that their response was so strong that I would never teach Eastman’s novel again in that course. (If I ever need to explain “anti-Tom literature” in upper-division American literature classes, I will provide an excerpt.) I apologized to the students, specifically to those who were upset by the racism expressed in Aunt Phillis’s Cabin. I encouraged students to come to my office hours if they wanted to discuss their concerns with me more.

I had built enough rapport with the students over the semester to assure them that I was not trying to provide a platform for Eastman’s racist worldview. I cut the novel from the syllabus altogether and gave students the option to write about something else for the response paper I had assigned on Aunt Phillis’s Cabin. To be sure, many students wrote on the novel anyway and had a great time tearing it to shreds.

The next week we moved on to reading Beloved which is a challenging, explicit, and controversial novel, but one written to expose the racist legacies of slavery, not to perpetuate that racism. Today those students—who will graduate in May— tell me that Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved are among the best books they read in college. I query them hopefully, “I bet you don’t even remember that one book that everyone in the class hated. What was it called again? Aunt Phillis’s Cabin or something like that?” Nope. They still remember.

I realize now that even if I had sound pedagogical reasons for teaching a pro-slavery novel that the effect it had on my students and my classroom was not worth it. Indeed, racist and white supremacist discourse has received so much renewed legitimacy in recent years that I would rather use precious class time and syllabus space to amplify unequivocally anti-racist voices—to the extent that I no longer even teach Stowe. The seminar on Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a useful pedagogical exercise to help students think through the complicated racist politics of Stowe’s day and our own. But I now believe it is more pedagogically responsible to teach inspiring examples of social justice and anti-racist activism through the work of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, William Wells Brown, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles Chesnutt.

To my students from that 2015 seminar who had to suffer through Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, I’ll say it again: I am so, so sorry! As you go into the world and make it a better place, I know that each of you will follow Harriet Beecher Stowe’s commandment to “feel right.” But I also know you will do more than that as you live your values of equality of justice. You are going to follow the spirit of Sojourner Truth and make this nation “rock like a cradle.”