Tuesday, May 15, 2018
May 15, 2018: Spring Semester Recaps: American Literature I
[As another semester concludes, a series recapping some of the wonderful texts we read in my classes, along with some other Spring work of mine. Leading up to a preview of coming attractions for the Summer and Fall semesters. I’d love to hear about your work, past, present, or future, in comments!]
[NOTE: This is a repeat of a post from my Spring 2016 recap series—but it’s still all true, if not indeed more true still.]
On a long overdue, vital first step.
Ever since my first American Literature I syllabus, in the fall of my first year at Fitchburg State (2005-6), I’ve focused on the same central idea: complementing more familiar authors/texts and communities (what I call the Story of America) with less well-known and just as significant ones (other American Stories). While I’ve added or substracted individual authors and works over those eleven years, that core philosophy and structure for the course have remained constant, and I’ve been pretty happy with the results. (Not least because students have often been particularly drawn to and inspired by the unfamiliar authors and works, from Cabeza de Vaca to Annis Stockton and Judith Sargent Murray, William Apess to Fanny Fern.) But there’s been one noticeable problem across all those sections—my course’s version of early American diversity has featured almost entirely voices from the Native, African, and European American cultures and perspectives.
There’s something to be said for extending beyond the Anglo/Puritan focused narratives of America’s origin points, of course. But as I wrote at length in my third book, even the more multicultural narrative of American history and identity has tended to elide the many other communities and cultures that have also been part of America throughout its history: from the Moroccan Muslims (Moors) in Revolutionary South Carolina to the Filippino villagers in 18th century Louisiana, the longstanding Mexican communities throughout the Southwest and West to the Chinese arrivals to turn of the 19th century Alta California, among others. And leaving those communities out of our collective memories doesn’t just make our histories less accurate—it also makes possible arguments that these cultures (Muslim Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans) represent late 20th and early 21st century shifts in American identity, an image of a changing America that can all too easily play into “Make America Great Again” style mythmaking and bigotry.
The question I’ve faced, then, has been how to add these cultures—many of whom did not, as far as I know (and please correct my knowledge in comments!), produce written texts in their early periods—into my American Lit I syllabus. For this semester’s section, I decided to cheat slightly, and to include excerpts from Yung Wing’s autobiography My Life in China and America (1909, and thus well outside our class chronology although it begins with events from our last focal time period) as the course’s final reading. It couldn’t have gone better—the students really got into Yung’s portrayals of his arrival to the United States and his preparatory school and college days, as well as his evolving idea for the Chinese Educational Mission; and I was able to frame that specific discussion by presenting some of these precise ideas of expanding and deepening our understanding of American diversity and identity. Just one small step in that direction (and again, I welcome ideas for other authors and texts I might include to continue that work), but it felt like a really significant one nonetheless.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What have you been or are you working on?