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11: Afterword

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    Jennie Snow, Ph.D.

    Assistant Professor of English Studies

    The students of “Ethnic American Literature” – Chris, Kayla, Shianne, Tre, Rebecca, Sam K., Alice, Nicki, Kerns, Cyan, Juan, Justin, Isaiah, Derek, Pedro, Jorjia, Danielle, and Ketia – are the first students I met when I started at Fitchburg State University in Fall 2022. I had prepared what I thought would be an eclectic syllabus to build a conversation about the moniker “ethnic American literature” and what’s really caught up in it. We wasted no time and kicked off our first meeting by reading out loud from James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook,” the first part of The Fire Next Time. One student immediately seized on the message of love that rang through Baldwin’s letter about the American traps of race and racism — this student expressed the challenge of holding the tension in his text, why would Baldwin emphasize this message? In many ways this became our investigation for the next two weeks, which then set the framework for the rest of our discussions that semester as we explored indigenous, Latinx, Asian American and African American literary expressions.

    In the syllabus I offered this description of the course:

    This course examines the complex, intertwined histories of race and ethnicity in the U.S. through literature by focusing on two key inflection points: 1965 and 1865. We begin with the surge of “ethnic” American literature in the 1960s when Black, Asian, U.S. Latinx, and Indigenous groups fought for more recognition of their traditions and innovative contributions to American culture as part of the broader struggle for Civil Rights. This moment is key to understanding how we recognize ethnic American writing as such. However, as James Baldwin reminds, the struggles of the mid-twentieth century were nothing new; this fight was a reverberation of centuries-old struggles for rights, recognition, freedom, and in the case of Native Americans, sovereignty. Thus, we must look back to history to see how these groups have always spoken up and spoken truth to power. To this end, the second part of our course will critically frame the first by revisiting a previous era, circa 1865, through both contemporary and historical voices.

    Putting this all together, we investigate how multiethnic American literature is innovated and received. Rather than focalize a particular identity, community, or history, this course will foreground multiracial formations and solidarities. We are interested in particularity and nuance among different communities but will resist the temptation to isolate or essentialize a single ethnic group’s experiences. We instead question how “ethnic” American literature expands our understanding of “America” and what it means to be “American,” and we will explore key issues, fissures, and tensions across these literary traditions. Some of these topics include: race and ethnicity, white supremacy, identity, gender and sexuality, class, (im)migration, memory and storytelling, homeland(s), cultural traditions, hybridity, and political activism.

    While I was responsible for the initial design, it was merely a shell to provide us a space for discussion, and the students really created the course. In the first part of the semester students wrote their own “concept meditations” in which they identified a concept that related to a number of authors/texts and analyze the meaning across them. Students explored how these concepts revealed common themes and messages and how meaning shifted in different contexts, histories, and positionalities. Students then worked together to connect these concepts into a framework that we could analyze in the second part of the semester as we read Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking Beloved and a contemporary companion in C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills. We traced our main concepts – self identity and resistance – through our new readings and began discussing the power of writing and gathering writing in an anthology. The anthology as a genre itself embodies our themes. The act of collecting is an assertion of identity that can also be leveraged as resistance to dominant culture, mainstream stories, or forgetful histories.

    As best we could, this text was made to reflect our semester of collaboration and conversation. When we analyzed Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we wrestled with the double-sided politics of L. Maria Child’s editorial power. How differently do we encounter Jacobs’ voice than we do Sethe’s or Morrison’s? How might Child’s stewardship play out within our own context of the university, with student and teacher, with our own collective text? In addition to student-written entries, students served as the editors with the responsibility of introducing the anthology as a whole. We often returned to the significance of the Aiieeeee! Anthology of Asian-American Writers and how this challenged the perceptions of what counts as literature, who counts as a writer, and how to challenge the inertia of the publishing industry. Likewise, we took time to discuss the meaning of creating an open educational resource for others and how creative commons licenses would permit individual writers to share their work with the public while claiming their rights as authors. All said and done, the student-writers showcased in this collection opted for some degree of open-access with the understanding that their contributions – their knowledge – could build forward.

    We hope this anthology, one interpretation of ethnic American literature, can be a starting point for discussion, an inspiration for discovery, and a provocation for collaboration. To the students of ENGL 2650: it was an absolute pleasure to learn with you, and from you, during our course together.


    11: Afterword is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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