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Southern Cultures 11.4 (2005) 47-75

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Teaching Southern Lit in Black and White

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Figure 1
Although Fisk University's Jubilee Hall is visible from the campus of neighboring Vanderbilt, interactions between the two institutions — one historically black, the other predominantly white — have been minimal. In an experimental effort the bridge the gap, Vanderbilt English professor Michael Kreyling taught his southern literature course to a combined class of students from both universities. Jubilee Hall, courtesy of the Nashville Room, Nashville Public Library.
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When I taught my first real college class in literature in 1975, I had never taught an African American student, never had an African American classmate until graduate school, never "mixed" with African Americans except on a high school basketball court. (Even then, "they" were all on the other team.) Little had changed when I taught my first southern literature class a semester or so later. That first class was a three-hour evening session at the Mississippi State branch in Meridian. A vanload of us would hit the road for Meridian in the late afternoon and hit it again about 9:30 that night, plowing north on Route 45 for Starkville. Sometimes the driver would take Route 19 through Philadelphia; once, flashing past a dusky clay road, he hitched his chin toward the piney darkness and said something like, "It was down there they found those boys." "Those boys" were Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Earl Chaney. When they were murdered on June 21, 1964, I was probably practicing jumpshots in my driveway.

After thirty years of teaching southern literature in three southern universities, I thought I'd use the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education to find out how much, or how little, I had learned over the decades. I have taught slave narratives and neoslave narratives, Supreme Court decisions like Plessy and Brown, dialect tales like Joel Chandler Harris's "The Amazing Tar Baby Story," and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison (southern in part). More recently, I'd read Houston Baker's Turning South Again (2001) and essays by Stephen Carter and Shelby Steele, which Baker criticizes. Most of the students in my Vanderbilt classes in southern literature were white. What, I wondered, were we really learning about the issues of race embedded in these works when all our classroom exchanges took place between mostly white, southern students and their white, southern—and male, I might add—teacher? Why not, I thought, share the class with my students' mostly African American counterparts just a few blocks away at historically black Fisk University?

Not too long before I decided to teach the Vanderbilt course at Fisk, I'd read Steele's "The Age of White Guilt" in Harper's. Maybe Steele triggered the idea. He challenges both white and black, but I took the challenge to whites to heart:

White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America's historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative—that they are not racist—to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity.1

I did not want "mere white skin" to be my epitaph, and as a product of sixteen years of Catholic education, with Saint Augustine a favorite, I thought I knew a [End Page 48] thing or two about guilt. "We have come a long way but there is still much work to be done," ran the lifeless, clichéd media coverage of the Brown anniversary. Had I come a long way? Just how legitimate were my credentials? Was it enough just to drive by that nameless road in Neshoba County and know the wrong of what happened there?

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Figure 2
When African American poet Langston Hughes visited Nashville in 1932, he was welcome...


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