Black Literary Leadership

What is the difference between a “black leader” and a “black politician”?

There is certainly overlap, but the key question of emphasis—most notably observed during the presidency of Barack Obama—is worthy of expansive intellectual contemplation, and will undergird the Black Literary Leadership topic this course. This course will consist of close readings between two classic 20th century novels: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952 as the civil rights movement was beginning to hit its most active phase, and Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, published a half-century later in 1996, long after the end of the civil rights movement. These two novels have much to say about that tension between leadership and politics. While Ellison’s ambivalence toward activism during the civil rights movement was somewhat unusual among black artists of that time, Beatty’s ambivalence toward activism was so common that it belonged to a late-20th century school of black art labeled “post-black.”

Students of all backgrounds will be fascinated by this deep-dive into two books in which the questions, problems, and practice of leadership figures so greatly. Blackness is a fundamental factor, of course, but both of these novels struggle to present “humanity” as being as important as “blackness.” Ultimately, the multiple points of similarity between these two novels—as well as telling differences between them as a result of the nearly fifty years between their publication—make them fascinating artistic documents through which to view what’s changed in those fifty years—and what hasn’t changed.

Inside the Classroom

Ashe and Hayter will begin the semester by exposing the class to the black vernacular tradition; then the class will read the first four establishing chapters of The White Boy Shuffle, using various supporting, historical- and cultural-contextual material that will flesh out American slavery and American multiculturalism. Then a huge middle section of the semester will be taken up solely with Invisible Man, also using historical and socio-cultural contexts combined with literary close readings to examine and explore the way black leadership is portrayed and discussed in Ellison’s novel.

The last third of the semester Ashe and Hayter will delve deeply into the rest of The White Boy Shuffle, again using contexts and close readings, as both a critical response to Invisible Man as well as its own commentary on traditional as well as contemporary leadership concerns. The creative and ideological tension between the two novels and their contrasting mid- and late-20th century emergence—as well as the productive pedagogical tension between the differing disciplinary approaches by Hayter and Ashe—should combine for a fascinating classroom experience that would greatly benefit students of all backgrounds who are willing to take the ride.

Outside the Classroom

Black Literary Leadership will make two separate visits to two starkly different institutions of higher learning in the U.S. There are important, extended scenes in each novel that revolve around each protagonist and their respective reactions to and readings of—and literary representations of—two monuments to African American leaders (each the leading black leader of their day):

  • The famous Booker T. Washington monument on the campus he founded, Tuskegee University, near Montgomery, Alabama
  • The Martin Luther King Jr. monument on the campus of his graduate alma mater, Boston University

We would not merely visit each monument; but arrive at these spaces intellectually equipped to examine and unpack:

  • the author’s reaction to the monuments,
  • the way each author described and represented the monument in their novel,
  • the way that description meshes—or doesn’t mesh—with the persona and perspective of the central character,
  • the cultural commentary their inclusion of these monuments made at the time of publication, and
  • how we, in the present day, personally respond and react to each of these monuments—and what they mean now, in the current political climate, particularly given how monuments are so much in today’s news.

We will use public art/monuments, along with literature and history, as a way to view, rethink, and examine contemporary American culture.

Research and Capstone Project

Monuments to black leadership will be the topic for the capstone project that Black Literary Leadership students will pursue in the course of their spring semester capstone experience. Students will work in groups and determine themselves whether they will explore their subject in an artistic or in a research project. For this, students may well create, examine or present on other black monuments, such as:

  • the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond,
  • the Maggie Walker monument in downtown Richmond,
  • the Frederick Douglass monument at Hampton University, or
  • the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington D.C.,

Students will transfer their newly-gained knowledge to what they confront, in front of them, as they view these important monuments to African American leadership.