A Seat at the Table is Necessary

What I hoped to learn from this class is the importance of equality within an academic setting. To me, taking a course like “African-American Literature” seemed like an answer to dealing with a lack of representative classes one can take at Geneseo. Geneseo’s Learning Outcome for Baccalaureate Education (GLOBE) promises its students will develop broad and specialized knowledge, intellectual and practical skills, and integrative and applied learning appreciation. What stood out to me was the learning outcomes of each of these skill sets, more specifically, the learning outcomes for intellectual and practical skills. The seventh out of eight learning outcomes is ‘diversity and pluralism’; it reads, “to work effectively in a pluralistic society, recognizing and respecting diverse identities, beliefs, backgrounds, and life choices; to practice effective communication and collaboration across diverse communities and organizations; to critically reflect on the reasoning and impact of one’s personal beliefs and actions.” While it is great to see our college dedicated to incorporate these goals for students to take away after leaving Geneseo, I will admit that I’m still reluctant towards how much information and cultural understanding students take away from elective classes like this one.

Geneseo has a diversity statement on its commitment to making everyone, both on and off-campus, feel welcome in this community. This campus hopes “… all members of our community [can] share responsibility for the ongoing work of continually recreating a sense of inclusion, belonging, and empowerment, so that together we will achieve our individual and collective aims, and experience the intellectual liberation that is at the heart of the educational enterprise.” Since we attend a public liberal arts college, I find it valuable for the campus to recognize how interdisciplinarity can go hand-in-hand with intersectionality because everyone here has the same goal of bettering themselves with the education they receive from this institution. Geneseo also has a statement on Community Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It acknowledges how we are located on Native American territory and how “our differences, including those of opinion or perspective, makes us stronger.” I appreciate the awareness Geneseo has for its diversity factor; however, not to be the devil’s advocate, I still think that our college can do more and actively cause change.

For my first blog post, I used the epigraph from Dionne Brand that reads “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” From my understanding of this quote, I wrote about how my comfort level changes depending on the classroom I find myself in. For example, in my blog, I said how I might be more comfortable existing in spaces that relate more to my political science major, instead of stepping out of my comfort zone and taking courses that I may never have the opportunity to enroll in again. I mentioned Bernice Reagon Johnson’s article, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I See”; or, “By and By I’m Gonna Lay Down My Heavy Load,” because I appreciated how she spoke on the concept of intersectionality and ‘straddling’ for African-Americans in American culture (p. 115). Just like the epigraph I initially picked, I noticed the duality of how I portray myself in a dominantly American setting compared to being around people from my culture. However, I also saw how things that make us different might help us bridge gaps in our society and appreciate others from cultures that may not reflect ours. Now at the end of the semester, I read through my blog post again, and I realize that the goal I had for myself at the beginning has changed over time. While I still hope to become more comfortable in spaces that (in terms of major requirements) “aren’t meant for me,” I realized that what I want to take away from my time here is to encourage more of an awareness and acceptance of classes that revolve around different cultures outside of traditional  Western/American educational institutions.

The epigraph I finally decided on comes from a 1989 interview with Bonnie Angelo, in which Toni Morrison said, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” This semester, I learned that African-American Literature goes beyond just reading spirituals, poems, and plays. It’s more than the stories about the journey to freedom from slavery and other forces of oppression that we typically learn about in history class. This course has taught me to be more aware of what has occurred in the past and how to relate certain concepts to current events. What I’ve come to realize is that not only is educational equality essential for understanding between different groups of people, but the idea of equity needs to be brought into the question as well. Having a class on African-American Literature may open up new perspectives to people who would’ve never considered enrolling in a class like this. However, it’s important to remember what Toni Morrison said, courses such as this one should be viewed with more respect and appreciation like the traditional disciplines. In my opinion, Geneseo should require classes like this to be treated with the same amount of respect as Western Humanities. This would allow for students to fulfill the ‘diversity and pluralism’ learning outcome while in college and the conversation of awareness can continue years after they leave this institution.

To answer the question if the epigraph I chose relates to what we’ve learned in class, I’ll say that it goes beyond what I could’ve imagined. As mentioned earlier, Geneseo does have an “equity pillar” in its Community Commitment statement. Toni Morrison is right when she stated how black literature might be portrayed as less than or a second thought compared to traditional American disciplines. However, coming from a political science background, I actually find more similarities between our coursework than some might think. In politics, race is a major factor that is brought up when discussing elections, campaigning methods, policies, and other things of that nature. Politicians and government officials alike both refer to the ideologies of their constituents, sometimes making sure the laws they support reflect different cultural perspectives. I noticed the same trend occurring in this class as well. Although there weren’t explicit conversations revolving around politics per se, the literature we read appealed and celebrated a particular demographic. Even though politics and literature tend to stay in different academic spheres, I believe that there can be opportunities to provide interdisciplinarily courses considering how both discuss the significance of individuals and the backgrounds they come from. Going back to the concept of equity, classes that focus on having more conversations about marginalized communities, such as African-American Literature, should be encouraged, if not required for students at Geneseo to take. If the general education requirements can include Western Humanities that appeal more to European philosophers, then classes that discuss topics of other cultures can open opportunity for a better understanding and more conversations to occur.

Another thing that I never had the chance to experience in any other academic setting is how deeply some of the literature we read in class spoke to me. For example, when we read poems by Claude McKay, Pat Parker, or J Mase III, I felt like I was speaking through them in some odd way. I wrote about Claude McKay in one of my blog posts. I mentioned how in all my years in school I never was a fan of poetry, but reading work from a Jamaican writer made me feel like I too could appreciate the art of this form of literature. The two poems we read by Pat Parker felt like she was writing about things I have personally experienced in my life. For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend sheds light on how black people navigate life, dealing with individuals who make assumptions based off of stereotypes. However, I will say that this poem only shows a mere glimpse of other incidents that black people experience on a daily basis. Nonetheless, it’s still important to inform people of their internal implicit biases they may hold against others.

J Mase III’s poem, #AllyFail, exposed individuals who claim to be “woke,” but are ignorant in how they express allyship. An ally is supposed to be someone who shows support for another individual or a community without taking up too much attention from the issue(s) at hand. As a black/trans/queer poet, Mase hit the nail right on the head when he said, “You are the ally that never has to progress, because you have already proclaimed yourself to be my ally.” He mentions other incidents of passive allyship, but this quote speaks volumes. Going back to my political science background, the idea of people’s ideologies and how they might identify on the political spectrum as left-leaning or right-leaning is an identity that others judge them on before getting to know them. That’s why having classes like this one is important. It shows how even though we might hold different titles for ourselves, it’s imperative to take the time to understand where others are coming from and take the time to listen before speaking without knowledge.

Overall, I can say that I have enjoyed my time in this class. Not only did we get to read literature about black culture that DIDN’T revolve around slavery and how the Civil Rights Movement ended slavery; we celebrated works from these moments in history in a New Criticism context, or reading the words solely for how they appear on paper. In my opinion, African-American Literature not only helped me grow as a writer, but it made me appreciate the Diversity and GLOBE statements even more. Also, the “equity pillar” means a lot to me because equity is the key to being represented in different spaces. “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Morrison’s quote signifies how much more work still needs to be done in American academics. It’s great that classes such as this one exists, but for the naysayers who might not see this course as being significant enough to learn need to realize that times are changing and our society should progress by appreciating people from all walks of life.

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