Teaching Black Writing in Wuhan

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.] 

Teaching graduate students in the School
of Foreign Languages at Central China Normal University is rewarding. They are
less jaded and more receptive than their American peers, more conscious that a
university education is a privilege rather than an entitlement dispensed by a
secular god. Lacking familiarity with our democratic hypocrisies and noteworthy
disdain for humanistic inquiry, most Chinese students bring innocence to the
study of foreign literatures. 

They are better situated to appreciate
the entanglements of language and literature in historical and international
contexts, despite their having been nurtured by a peculiar diet of Western
misinformation. The challenges and pleasures of helping them to increase their
knowledge of black writing or African American literature are greatly
determined by the need to deconstruct American mythologies. Teaching in China gives
one distance from the fountain of myth and encourages a rigorous re-examination
of the purposes innate in what a sustaining education might be.  One learns as much from teaching as one
possibly transmits.
During my current stint as an Overseas
Professor at CCNU from September 16 to November 16, I am conducting a seminar
on four African American texts: Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Toomer’s Cane, and
Ellison’s Invisible Man. The students
and I are immersed in close reading of these texts, which are crucial for the
study of African American male writers, gender-angled ideas and selected
responses to change in American society. Our focus is on the use of such genres
as autobiography, poetry, short fiction, the essay, and the novel to
characterize the racially marked history of the United States from the
enthrallment of slavery to the deceptive freedom of modernism.  One objective is discovery of how the
rhetorical successes and failures of genres enable male writers and their
readers (immediate and remote) to become aware of spatial and temporal
locations, of complicated historicity. Thus, certain facts about American and
African American histories as narrated processes, about the instability of what
is multicultural, and about patterns of reading must inform our project. 
My students are encouraged to acquire
background information from The Cambridge History of African American Literature. To maximize primary engagement with
the texts, we give minimal attention to the large body of scholarship and
criticism germane to the study of the four texts. What I am advocating does
have its own disadvantages. On the one hand, it limits breadth of understanding
in some ideological aspects of black writing. 
On the other hand, the procedure increases depth of self-reliance and
relatively independent critical thinking, a stronger sense of how reading black
writing must navigate the imaginary spaces between subjectivity and
The losses are offset, to a small
degree, by the gains of absorbing the texts. Or, to quote one of my students
without correcting her English, “DuBois’s stress on the humanistic education to
realize all-around development of people also fit China.” Earlier in her
response paper on Chapter III of The
Souls of Black Folk
, she made a striking comment on educational progress: “The
overemphasis on the practical subjects and ignorance of humanistic subjects
mold students to be machines without thought.” 
This is modest evidence of the contemporary value of dwelling with ideas
in classic black writing and using those ideas in cross-cultural dialogues.
As we move from Douglass to Ellison, I
am learning from real experiences with my Chinese students why discovering
parallels and differences between cultures is an important twenty-first century
enterprise, although the discoveries offer only momentary relief from the
dreadful global problems that human beings insist on manufacturing with
perverted alacrity. I am also re-learning why making connections among black
texts has not outlived its potential to make us a bit wiser. Consider how DuBois
uses a few of Douglass’s autobiographical strategies to address the problem of
the twentieth century (which remains a problem for the twenty-first century); how
it might be argued that Toomer’s recovery efforts and vexed modernism
concretize some of DuBois’s insights and forecast aspects of Afro-Futurist discourses; how Ellison’s novel may be a tacit exploitation of Toomer’s artistry
as well as a silent echo of Toomer’s post-racial agonizing. 
Our seminar is an experimental
stepping-out-of-the-prison of romanticized realism into the combat zones of
untamed actuality. It is the work of a pre-future to evaluate our performance
in building knowledge on the foundations of African American literature as a
special iteration of the totality of black writing.