An award-winning African American professor of English, I have taught African American literature and cultural studies for more than 25 years at predominantly white universities. Despite having earned degrees from reputable institutions and having mastered Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dickinson, Milton, Chaucer and the rest, I didn’t realize the power of literary studies until I read African American poet and playwright Ntozake Shange.
Through Shange, I understood the enthrall of Etta James, the linguistic profundity of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, August Wilson’s lyrical stage dialog, W.E.B. DuBois’ philosophical musings, and the transformative power of storytelling in Zora Neale Hurston. Discovering African American writers expanded my imaginative and spiritual horizon, my personal and political belief in the power of individual and communal possibility. Not one of these ethnic American texts taught me to “feel oppressed” or to “hate or resent white people for African Americans’ or women’s oppression,” as some state of Arizona politicians allege.
My college ethnic studies courses focus on American literary texts not typically taught in our public school curricula within specific contexts historically, politically and socially. Ethnic American texts offer me and my mostly white students the chance to experience the world literally and figuratively from multiple and diverse perspectives. Such texts present the world through the eyes of those who do not look, think and write like Shakespeare, Blake, Austen or Joyce.
African American authors offer Negro spirituals, blues matrices, jazz and hip-hop tropes, gossip, sermons, folklore, signifying and folktales as creative responses to what cannot be controlled in our personal worlds – the dehumanizing institution of American slavery, the nonsensical Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and the horrors of lynching, among other things. Ethnic American studies courses document and celebrate a familiar that is unfamiliar to most whites and even to most non-whites precisely because of what Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne calls “ethnic chauvinism” of those who choose the limited texts that become the “classics” that all must study to be “educated” in our American system.
Were Horne and Gov. Jan Brewer to sit in on an ethnic American studies course or two, surely they – as truly educated and informed American citizens – would see that ethnic studies courses demonstrate the vast range of what it means to be American, a world citizen, and to be human.
Dr. Neal A. Lester chairs both the Department of English at Arizona State University and the Board of Directors of the Arizona Humanities Council.