I teach American literature, but apparently I must teach it in a different manner from that of most college professors. Authors such as James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois appear on my syllabus with as much frequency as Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Some students react with surprise and others with a degree of resentment, believing that Baldwin and DuBois belong in a course entitled "Afro-American Literature" and not one entitled "American Literature." Indeed, why should a student at a predominantly white university study literature by blacks? Why take a course that includes the literature of an American minority when you are a member of the American majority? Is this literature important? Perhaps not.
Maybe there is no place for the teaching of black literature in the curriculum of a predominantly white university. Maybe students should not read Frederick Douglass--although a significant source of America's Civil War history would be lost; maybe they need not learn of America's development of a native music, jazz, through the works of the Harlem Renaissance authors such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes; and maybe Zora Neale Hurston should be included in this purge--though students would never know the origins of much of America's rich folklore legacy.
In fact, each of these writers has lucidly articulated American experience; they have become, in a sense, the "griots" of America, retaining much of the history that white, male authors might have been unable to perceive or might have chosen to ignore. Not to study black literature is not to study fully the American experience.
Always in the literature of America there were two interpretations of American history and culture. They would always be bound to each other, on some level, and their unequal relationship can be traced as far back as the history of slavery in America. Slavery had an unalterable impact on the cultural physiognomy of an entire nation as the cultures of black and white met.
Students who study Benjamin Franklin's and Thomas Jefferson's attempts to forge a political definition of and identity for this country must also note the slave narrative of Gustavus Vassa. It suggests that their definition might include an inhuman system which Vassa describes as he journeys from Africa to America: "The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each has scarcely the room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. . . . This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains. . . . The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable."
Students should know that as slavery became a permanent part of America's complexion, American history came gradually to be forged by two major races. No action within the political, social or economic institutions of America could ignore the institution of slavery. American authors were becoming aware of this growing racial duality, and their writing reflected the fact.
We do teach our students Joel Chandler Harris' vision of the two races blissfully coexisting in a Scarlett O'Hara South, as a "venerable old darkey," Uncle Remus, relates the antics of rabbits and foxes whose history was in Africa but who had entrenched themselves in the American imagination. Through this character and his young white listener, Harris weaves a nostalgic southern tapestry of slave life in "de ol' farmin' days." Should we not, then, teach Harris' contemporary, a black author named Charles W. Chestnutt, who also wrote a series of tales in the plantation genre? Chestnutt's tales, too, have an elderly ex-slave as their teller. But the image of the plantation depicted in the tales of Uncle Julius does not capture the happy adventures of animals but rather the tragedy of families being torn apart and the capricious beatings given many a slave.
The panorama of slavery and the concerns of black authors were to influence many American authors-- Mark Twain created from its legacy the tale of a young boy and runaway slave; and William Faulkner used it as the silent partner to his creation, Yoknapatawpha County. All students of literature should see that even the most "American" authors drew on the culture of black America.
Because of the "peculiar institution," the histories of white and black America are intertwined as each must define itself in terms of the other. To teach students to separate black authors from white results is teaching them a misconception of American society. It is in the works of authors such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison that America can see some of its most forthright, if not flattering, depictions; and in these works, the response to America varies: from Phyllis Wheatley's thanks for being brought here from her "pagan land" to Claude Mackay's assessment of America as a "cultured hell."
America is the environment that forged the experiences of both black and white authors. An accurate study of American literature should not ignore the black or white racial strands that intertwined to form America.
The writer is an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.