I developed my first course in African American literature in 1968, that tragic year of assassinations, urban riots and chaos in Vietnam. It was a time of racial crisis in America and students all over the country were requesting and sometimes demanding courses in African American history and literature as a way of somehow understanding the racial problems afflicting the United States.
Over the years I have offered, on a regular basis, many versions of my initial course in Black literature, have integrated Black writers into most of my other courses and have team taught on several occasions interdisciplinary courses combining African American literature and history. I have worked in these areas in a wide variety of settings ranging from Canisius College to Attica, Collins and Wyoming correctional facilities.
Those who staunchly oppose teaching “Critical Race Theory” complain that such study offers a false narrative of American culture that teaches students to hate their country and forces white students to become overwhelmed with guilt over participating in a culture characterized mainly by racial oppression.
None of this happened in the courses that I taught for over 50 years. Instead, students were given the opportunity to freely explore and understand parts of American history and literature which were never carefully examined in their previous educational experience.
Far from offering a false narrative which either vilifies or romanticizes American history, these courses filled in blind spots in the students’ educational background and enabled them to develop a richer, more complex vision of American culture. Instead of burdening any students with debilitating guilt they challenged them to see their cultural past more truly and imagine reforms which are necessary if we are to do a better job of harmonizing our democratic ideals with our actual practices. (For the most part, African American writers have endorsed these ideals while justly criticizing our failures to live up to them.)
We are now facing racial difficulties as grave as those we faced in 1968. As James Baldwin often reminded us, our racial problems cannot be solved unless they are honestly faced. Courses in Black studies help us to do precisely this.