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  • Teaching Realism of Jim Crow America
  • Sherita L. Johnson

“Could it have gone any better if I’d planned it?!” Thinking back to March 2020, this was my first reaction when I reflected on the transition to online teaching that occurred at mid-semester just as we turned our attention to the post-Reconstruction era in a survey course of African American literature. This class would become precursory to a series of convulsive events that no one could have anticipated but that mirrored the dark decades in the U.S. over a century ago. It would make me question our fractured realities today. For the last half of the spring 2020 semester, I taught black writing produced in response to the crisis of racial terrorism, segregation, and social injustice in the late-nineteenth and the dawn of the twentieth centuries. In other words, I taught realism of Jim Crow America.

The Unasked Question: What is Realism in African American Literature?

Reacting to the pandemic, I had to abbreviate the unit on Reconstruction, but the aesthetics of reconstruction provided an apt metaphor for black identity in the transitioning.1 The creative impulse to harness the aspirations of achieving full citizenship against seemingly insurmountable odds in the modern era I find most characteristic of African American literary realism since Emancipation. Yet W. E. B. Du Bois’ ever “unasked question,” “How does it feel to be a problem?” rightly addresses the positioning of African American writers in the American literary canon and culture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The generation of black writers [End Page 204] in my survey course who either were born after slavery or were just youths at Emancipation—Pauline E. Hopkins, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, and Ida. B. Wells-Barnett—all appear in standard anthologies of American literature, though in the market-leading Norton Anthology of American Literature, no African American writer is featured in the special cluster of works of Realism and Naturalism.2 It might appear then that the merging and/or marginalizing of minority writers into the canon is consistent with the segregated American culture from which the genres emerged. While the focus on literary form provokes debates (then and now), I contend that the writers named above were realists because they introduced into the canon the real-life experiences of being “black” in segregated America.

Racism then is a conceptual framework for teaching African American realists, although given the conventions of the realist literary movement the term “realism” is simply inadequate to cover the broad spectrum of black writing during the early modern era. A diverse body of works addresses the so-called “Negro problem,” a cultural phenomenon produced by ideologies of white supremacy immediately following the Civil War. The African American writers were most often not just creative artists but also activists, committed to doing “race work” that they believed could eliminate the stigma of racial inferiority. They were realists in techniques that make ordinary experiences of black folks relatable. Such are key themes in their fiction, poetry, drama, and political commentary: citizenship and patriotism, gender / racial equality, and race pride / celebration of black culture. These writers fought to achieve civil rights and to seek social justice by exposing racial prejudice as embedded in American culture and traceable to slavery.

Some of the writers I teach also produce texts that integrate romance and sentimentalism to appease audiences while revealing hard truths about black survival. For example, unlike most tragic mulatto tales of sentimental literature, Pauline Hopkins’ short story “Talma Gordon” has an intricate mystery plot of murder, racial prejudice, and romance about life on the color line, especially involving interracial characters in segregated society. “Talma Gordon” originally appeared in the October 1900 edition of the Colored American Magazine, which Hopkins served as literary editor from 1900 to 1904.3 Teaching the short story as a work of realism I think requires placing it in context of its publication history in order to consider also its reception in American periodical culture. Especially neglected are early African American periodicals in the emergence of print culture and periodical studies that provide access to archival materials for research and teaching purposes...