Teaching Between the World and Me in a Literature Survey Course

[By Will Cunningham]

Survey courses are tough to teach; more specifically, it is
tough to decide what to teach in a survey course. Near the front of my syllabus
I have this disclaimer:

“…Whatever approach is
decided on, one thing remains the same: something is going to be left out. One
must consider both the “important” and “canonical” authors while also
understanding that both of those descriptors are temporally fluid and the
diversity of American literature mirrors the diversity of American
This is a softer way of me saying: “American
Literature” means white, or at least it has been for much of its formal
study. I attempt to redress this with the content of my syllabus, and I let my
students know that this problem is in some ways a subtle overture for the
entire class.
This particular survey course (“Civil War – Contemporary
Literature”) featured many excellent KU students, and by the time we arrived at
the last week of the semester, we had become a well-oiled discussion machine. I
guess on some level the students and I had learned to trust each other. While
this isn’t necessary, it proved most helpful when I decided to assign Ta-Nehisi
Coates’s Between the World and Me.
Image courtesy of http://www.culturalfront.org
I don’t even remember how I specifically prepped my students
for the text. We’d just finished reading selections from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and “Recitatif,”
​so it felt like a very natural transition from theory to text (I’d also
recommend Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet as an interesting and current counterpart). Because this was a
survey course, and because I taught this as the final selection of the
semester, I asked my students to focus on where and how this text connected
across the field of literature that we’d covered. For example, quite a few
students seemed to be influenced by their previous readings of Du Bois and Washington. More than one connected Coates’ back to those two debates, tracing
their influence through the Black Arts Movement and into the current
sociopolitical climate.

With Between the World
and Me
chosen as the KU Common Book for this year, I am sure it will pop up on a few Af-Am
specific courses, but my student’s demonstrated its usefulness in connecting a
wide variety of American Literature. I saved their responses, and I thought I’d
share a few of the more interesting ones.
One student observed (referencing a litany of passages like
“across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the
earth…”) the close connection between racial violence and the abuse of
the environment. No doubt drawing on influences from her environmental history
background, she connected this text to Rob Nixon’s theories of slow violence
with convincing ease.
One student wrote a compelling reflection on the unnamed
black slave from Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga” and Coates’
insistence on using names of black men abused by institutional violence. This
student also connected systems of whiteness that controlled the young boy’s
movement to and away from the battle with Coates’ “dreamers.”
Various student’s connected Coates to broader expressions of
the black diaspora, noting various French films which focused on regulating
public bodies, such as “La Haine” and “La Noire De…

Image courtesy of The Digital Fix

As I’ve mentioned already, quite a few students found
resonance between Coates’ language, rhetoric, and message and Du Bois. One
student also wrote a fine comparative analysis between Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s
We Wear the Mask” and Between the
World and Me
. ​We’d also spent a week on the Black Arts movement, and
students drew from poems like Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” and
poems from Haki Madhubuti and Gwendolyn Brooks in order to discuss various
aspects of Coates’ text.

Several of my students connected this text, with its
emphasis on education and systems of education, to Zitkala-Ša’s “TheSchool Days of an Indian Girl.” They noted the various degrees of
similarity shared by minority writers as they reflect on the purpose and system
of education in America.

Finally, my student’s had much commentary on the structure
of the piece. It is epistolary and autobiographical; demanding and reticent.
The text is “physical without being physical,” as one student put it.
In form, they said it reminded them of a mix between Du Bois, Gertrude Stein,
and Toni Morrison (noting if I’d had time to assign it, they would have also
said James Baldwin).

Will Cunningham is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Kansas and HBW staff member.