Student Terrence Thorington (left) gets a quick lesson on drumming from Fode Moussa Camara, a member of Ballet d'Afrique Noire, during a master class held Jan. 31 on the University Park campus. The dance troupe performed on campus at Eisenhower Auditorium as part of a kick-off celebration of Black History Month. The observance of African American heritage continues with a performance of Philadanco, one of the premiere African American dance companies in the country, on Friday. Feb. 11. For more information on the event, click here.
Photo: Greg Grieco
Exploring African American
students to deal with diverse populations
By Karen Trimbath
Thirty or 40 years ago, prominent Jewish writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth claimed center stage on the American literary scene -- but now the argument could be made that African American writers like Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed have taken their place, say Bernard Bell and Keith Gilyard, both professors of English.
While Morrison, Reed and other African American writers tell very different stories, scholars in the Department of English are examining how they define themselves and express these distinctive voices in literary terms. These insights are being shared with a new generation of students, according to Bell, who is in charge of the department's undergraduate emphasis in African American literature.
"American literature is multicultural in nature, and African American literature is central to this tradition," he said. "African Americans must reconcile two cultures, the dominant white culture and their own subjugated ethnic culture."
Bell, who began implementing an interdisciplinary focus to the undergraduate program after joining the University in 1991, wants students to receive a more thorough grounding in African American literature, culture and language. This expansion means continuing to recruit the best faculty and graduate students, as well as showing undergraduate students how examining African American writers will prepare them for careers that deal with many populations -- everything from law to communications to social work.
Gilyard describes the 25 undergraduate students enrolled in his African American poetry class as eager to explore poetry and identity, a conflict that doesn't bother Gilyard, a prize-winning poet.
"My students ask, 'Are these poets or African American poets?'" Gilyard said. "For me, there is no question -- I am African American first, but others say they are poets first."
The department has a long tradition of supporting African American and other minority literatures, a direct result of Professor Fred Lewis Pattee's pioneering efforts to include American literature in colleges and universities at the beginning of the last century. Pattee, who joined the faculty in 1894, became the first in the nation to hold the title of professor of American literature, a field then considered a minor subdiscipline of English literature. He helped make Penn State one of the earliest centers for American literature studies.
Historically, African American writers and scholars have struggled to be taken seriously by traditional critics and scholars, even though white and Jewish scholars began publishing their own studies of African American history and culture during the 1920s and '30s.
Challenging authority is necessary to change the traditional canon, and this struggle continues today, Bell tells his graduate students. During his seminar on black science fiction, detective and gay novels -- which is based on his landmark study, "The African American Novel" -- he urged students to frame their assessments carefully and if supported, to disagree with established opinion, even his own.
The department's offerings integrate the interdisciplinary approach now favored by literary scholars, drawing upon global and multicultural perspectives to explore the rich legacy of past and present writers. It has a successful track record in recruiting faculty with distinguished records of scholarship, including five to the department who specialize in African American literature and seven African American faculty. Many have written authoritative texts, created poems and prose, or edited widely used anthologies, including Into & Out of Dislocation, a prose work by Cecil Giscombe, associate professor of English, and the forthcoming The Amistad Unshackled: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone by Iyunolu Osagie, associate professor of English.
Other books by Bell and Gilyard include Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited by Bell and William Harris, associate professor of English, and Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, edited by Gilyard.
Both Gilyard and Bell say that African American literature is on the move at Penn State. They and their colleagues are poised to connect with more students, faculty in related disciplines, and donors interested in funding research and outreach efforts. One possibility, still in the future, would be the formation of a center devoted to interdisciplinary studies in African American literature and culture.
"We want to expose students and the community to conversations among writers and critics," Bell said. "No student can be serious about American literature without having studied African American literature."
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