“…Literature can be our teacher as well as our object of investigation”
—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
To say that being the only African American woman professor at a small, liberal arts college in the rural United States is a series of racial microaggressions (and macroaggressions) waiting to happen is something of an understatement. And still, you are hopeful that the aspirational institution that sent for you will be able to support you on its campus. Initially, you may ignore being regularly mistaken by your colleagues for the other (only) Black woman on campus, or be willing to patiently explain that the institution’s expectation that you mentor every Black student is not only unreasonable, but not conducive to successful tenure. By the time you encounter the catch-22 of seeming uncongenial, in part, because you carefully consider the social spaces you inhabit and very few of your colleagues seem to notice the confederate flags that casually drape the windows of cars parked in front of too many local watering holes, you begin to feel less hopeful.
In that American outpost, teaching became my refuge. With very little interference, I began to create courses which integrated canonical material from my subject areas of African American Literature, African Diaspora Literature and Black Studies with urban fiction, Hip Hop music and other forms of less traditional Black literary expression. These types of courses on a stodgy, rural, liberal arts campus encouraged a faithful student following, and that following felt like protection against the racist and sexist campus community outside the classroom. But it was not real protection; it couldn’t be. Through the experience of teaching Black urban literature, I soon came to realize that continued innovation cannot thrive in hostile spaces and that students’ goodwill cannot substitute for professional collegiality. For as bell hooks argues in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom “‘engaged pedagogy’ … means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” (15)