I finished up Best African-American Essays last night. Overall, as a writer and a reader, I'm pleased with the selections, though some of them would not have been my choice.
I was particularly moved by BIll Maxwell's three-part essay on Stillman College (not Spelman College), one of 100 or so Historical Black Colleges largely in the South. Maxwell writes of his personal experiences as a English and journalism professor who, as Langston Hughes poetically wrote, had his "dream deferred." He arrived at the college to find a body of students too poor, too lacking in prior academic skills, and too marginalized socially and politically to handle the rigors of college-level education. He spent a couple of years trying to turn things around, only to find students increasingly apathetic about their own academic achievement.
It's interesting, however, that he never ponders or doesn't say why students enrolled in the college in the first place. Did they enroll because they had nothing better to do? Money didn't seem to be the answer because the college didn't seem to have any. It also seems that Maxwell, and other educators in this situation where trying to bring a model of education to a community that was largely ill-prepared and indifferent to that model. He could have learned something from Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which provides a critical analysis about education based on the needs of the community, rather than the paradigms of perhaps far different communities.
Colleges and universities in these type of poor communities need to let go of traditional elite paradigms where knowledge is something passed down to students who in turn are tested on that knowledge. Friere's notion was that teachers and students build the curriculum together based on the conditions from which students derive. In other words, their community is their textbook. When people get to the state of passively rejecting their own freedom and advancement, the solution is not close colleges or to even be awe-struck by their immaturity and apathy. It's not even about simply caring for students as if they are you own, which is how the college president would encourage the faculty to treat the students. No, it's about making the community the classroom where everyone is engaged in problem solving and building, or even rebuilding the community. Maxwell struggled to get the students, for example, to publish a campus newspaper. They were only able to publish one issue for the entire term. Maxwell, I think, was sincere in his efforts, but like so many educators in this country, he tried to base his teaching on a pedagogy that was largely resisted by most students. So don't try to force students into a system they didn't' create. Challenge them to build a system that starts with where they're at and where they want to be.
The above is not so much a criticism of what Maxwell, but rather a dialogue with myself (and maybe a few readers of this review) in response to the essay. For that's what I found most useful about the collection. Nearly each piece engages argument and reflection, as good writing should do. The last few essays by writers, Thomas Sowell, Stanley Crouch, and John McWhorter were not just based on these pieces being the "best," but I think more on the ideological views of the editors. It's hard to tell, however, because the editors don't state what criteria they used to select the "best essays."
Nevertheless, a few more moving essays that I liked were Barack Obama's "One Nation...Under God?", "A Slow Emancipation," by Kwame Anthony Appiah , and "Searching for Zion," by Emily Raboteau. Each of these essays explore the contours of race, class, religion, and politics that sadly are absent from public conversation and in any form of public media. What Obama writes about in his essay could not be a prolonged public discussion and debate in this country without the man even as president being mocked as "un-American".
Appiah's personal story about slavery on both sides of the Atlantic will probably never be the way the history of slavery is studied and discussed in any college classroom on the planet, and yet it should be. When he concludes that "Emancipation is only the beginning of freedom," I had to wonder whom is it that he's telling this to that would actually understand and listen. Could even his own students understand his story--the story of people of African descent who still have not shook off the shackles a slave mentality, the long range effects of that oppression. And finally, Raboteau's personal experience of traveling to learn about African/Black people living in Israel is equally insightful, in which racial, national, and religious identity are conflicted and tortured, with little signs of resolution to the conflicts, not even in the distant future.
Well, enough said. Though I may not agree with all the selections made for the Best African-American Essays, it's good that the series has been started. Most of these pieces I would have never read if they had not been republished in this book.