by Aimee Mepham, Program Coordinator, WFU Humanities Institute
This fall, the Humanities Institute sponsored two co-curricular (non-credit bearing) faculty-student reading groups. The groups were led by Omaar Hena and Erica Still, both associate professors in the Department of English.
Each group of around 7-12 students will meet four times throughout the fall semester. Both groups read and discussed Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates prior to his Voices of Our Time lecture on November 17th, in addition to other short texts that engage the issues of race and inequality. The groups were formed in response to student requests for a follow-up to last year’s Humanities Institute Teach-Ins on Race and Human Community, and both groups filled in less that 24 hours after registration opened.
At the time of this story, Erica Still’s group had met twice and will meet twice more before Coates’s visit to campus. Still paired Between the World and Me with Bad Feminist, a collection of essays by Roxane Gay (click here to read Gay’s interview with Coates from August 2015), which the group discussed during their first two meetings. Still commented that students in her group said the readings prompted them to raise “questions it never occurred them to ask” and that they developed “a kind of language they didn’t have before” to discuss issues of both racial and gender equality. One of the essays from Gay’s collection that the group discussed was “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help.” The article is a critical response to the film based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. One student’s initial response was, “I really liked that movie,” but through the discussion of the essay came to understand and appreciate Gay’s perspective. The essay prompted a discussion of what we bring to the text as readers and the importance of hearing a response that it not your own. Still was looking forward to discussing the students’ responses to Between the World and Me and to seeing how the students could bring what they explored in Gay’s essays to bear upon Coates’s memoir.
Omaar Hena’s group met three times and will meet once more before Coates’s Voices of Our Time Lecture. During the first session, Hena’s group discussed some foundational texts by James Baldwin and Richard Wright as well as Coates’s own June 2014 piece from The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” Hena wanted to introduce the idea for his students that Between the World and Me is a personal narrative that addresses social and racial questions in a contemporary way, but also that the text engages the long intellectual history behind it. After conversations continued over email, Hena added an extra session to more fully discuss white privilege and white supremacy. He consulted with colleagues who teach African American literature to identify some key texts that he could share with his students. “I was able to get my own education,” Hena said. The third session focused solely on Between the World and Me, and in the upcoming fourth session, the group will read and discuss feminist responses to the book, including Michelle Alexanders response and texts by bell hooks.
Both Hena and Still stated that the experience has been a positive one and that they would be more than willing to participate in a similar program in the future. They both also talked about the initial tendency some students had to look for a prescriptive solution to complex problems to come from the texts they discussed. Both groups spent time discussing this issue and both Hena and Still worked to direct students back to the text rather than focus on individual anecdotes. “The point of the seminar,” Hena said, “is to look at the arguments that these writers are making and to ask how we can give ourselves over to these perspectives and let the material provide our discussion and vocabulary for talking about these problems.”
Voices of Our Time
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Race in America
Tuesday, November 17
7:00pm, Wait Chapel
Admission is free, but reserved tickets are required. You can order them here.