While obtaining my B.A. in English at Fontbonne University, I enrolled in an Independent Study course “African-American literature from Reconstruction to the Present”. The syllabus for this course piqued my interest immediately. During this time my now teenager was enrolled at Ritenour Middle school and Black History month was approaching and I couldn’t wait to see what the school had planned. I was introduced to Charles W. Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, and also on the list was Alex Hailey’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X”. I felt as if I’d been placed under a spell, I was ready to dive right in once the course began the literary works captured me in such a way that excited me and also made me sad that something so significant yet I was not introduced to this part of literature until now.
It is in my frustration in the lack of African American literature and history being taught at the middle school level that prompted me to share my experience with my middle school age child. Instead of discussing Frederick Douglas or W.E.B Dubois my son’s class read The “Diary of Anne Frank”. February came and went along with the opportunity to dive into a very important part of history, Black History.
Now that I’ve completed the class and received my degree my appetite for African American literature and History has continued to grow. I’ve decided that if left up to my child’s school he may not learn about Nikki Giovanni, Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks and countless others. We’ve done the research together and we are both amazed at where our journey of discovery has taken us.
It is this experience that inspired me to create my own slave narrative for my Senior Thesis, which was a requirement in order to graduate. My narrative centered on a dialogue between a mother and daughter passing a folktale from her mother’s mother to her daughter. Then the daughter going to school sharing her knowledge with her class. Within the story is a story of a historical, fictional female slave hero that visits plantation after plantation saving slaves from the hands of vicious slaveholders. It is in reading narratives by Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, and a list of others that inspired me to write this and present it to the Fontbonne Faculty, Students and Staff. This experience has inspired me to continue learning about the African American history and be an inspiration to my teenager and maybe he will be an inspiration to his friends until the schools are forced to bring back the celebration of Black History month by celebrating Black History.
Young students need to know that Slave narratives are important because they tell a story that otherwise would never be told. They often share tales of triumphant, victory and sacrifice. Often times we are introduced to tales that expose us to African American women writers of the 19th century. Writers such as Hallie Q. Brown, Olivia Ward Bush, Josephine Brown, Pauline E. Hopkins and a list of others. When it comes to teaching literature African American literature needs to be included because of the benefit for African American students. “It is through literature children construct messages about their cultures and roles in society.” It is in African American children’s literature that helps students find themselves Hefflin and Ladd state that “From the time children enter school most African American children read literature that seldom offers messages about them, their past or their future. All too often books used in primary classrooms contain too few African American characters, or they include characters who are African American in appearance only. Many of these stories say little about African American culture or they present only the history of African Americans as slaves without including any. In short today’s African American children often cannot find themselves in the literature they are given to read.” I can only hope that by reading with my child and sharing my experience with others will spark many more discussions about the importance of incorporating African American Literature in the classroom at the elementary and middle school level.