Book cover: Teaching Black: The Craft of Teaching on Black Life and Literature by Ana-Maurine Lara and drea brown (Editors), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021.

The truth is, we created this book because we needed it. Because we are Black queer poets who have survived by the mercy of ancestors and the words we ink out to heal centuries of lives we have and haven’t lived, and this matters. We are Black women creative writers who teach Black literature and Black life in our academic institutions and write and teach writing in our communities. 

And this matters. Our intention with this project was/ is to center the voices of Black creative writers who teach because as a part of this legacy historically we are culture bearers, history keepers, storytellers, soothsayers, and performers. 

It is through this lens that we offer the gift of Teaching Black.

Teaching Black literature, reading it, requires a vulnerability that dares consider Blackness beyond the boundaries provided by our canons and institutions, in order to give way to new forms of understanding. Blackness as too much and simultaneously not enough are warring ideas that enter our classrooms. The notion that there is not enough to talk about, that all Black literature is the same, that it is too difficult, too abstract, too Black to discuss, let alone teach in mixed company is rooted in a fear of Blackness. 

Black literature requires our emotional, and psychic attention; it demands we hold knowledge in our bodies and surrender to other forms of thinking and feeling that deepen our connections to lived experiences on and off the page. It demands we challenge long-held beliefs, let go of assumption, and step into new ways of reading and being that open to possibility, and perhaps something like freedom. 

Writers and teachers of Black literature and craft often create new pathways and wield pedagogical tools that are potentially unfamiliar to our students and/or colleagues, all of this in service to bringing the multiplicity of Blackness into view. Black is feminist thought, Black is queer and quare, Black is past-present-future, Black ain’t marginal, Black is belonging, Black is bringing the outside in, and Black is making space for what and who among us has been displaced.

As Black writers and educators, when we stand or sit with our students in community spaces and formal classrooms, we find ourselves asking questions that stem from our experiences within Black creative, intellectual, and cultural lineages. Because of how we ourselves have been informed by these lineages, these spaces are opened, transformed, and deepened by what we uniquely bring to conversations and practices of Black freedom and in turn, Black writing. 

But the guides and the tools to support educators (of any background) who desire to teach Black literature’s nuances, complexities, and contradictions are few and far between. Guided by the desire to share the fruits of Black intellectual labor, teachers of Black literature have often created new roads or wandered off the beaten track. Many of us enter into institutional spaces carrying backpacks stuffed with books, scanned and copied excerpts, printouts, pamphlets, CDs, DVDs, and other materials that are otherwise not readily available but that are absolutely necessary for our teaching. This means that what we bring with us is all that we have to work with, and often, we are committed to doing the extra labor of translation—even when we don’t call it that.

Because of prevailing social forces, many Black writers historically have not emerged from formal academic institutions, even though Black writers have influenced great social change within the larger American, European, African, and global landscapes. Black writers have not only created new work and generated new worlds and ideas, wehave also taught in college classrooms, community workshops, theaters, prisons, elementary schools, and as part of collective Black creative projects, and in many other kinds of settings—places where we find Black students, and those who desire to engage with and learn more about Black literary traditions. 

Historically, literature has been a tool of survival for Black people. From Harriet Jacobs’s and Frederick Douglass’s slave narratives to W. E. B. DuBois’s theorization of double consciousness, James Baldwin’s powerful fictionalized renderings of the struggles for Black life, Octavia Butler’s imaginings of Black futures, and Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” Black literature has enabled Black people to be seen, to be rendered human, to be rendered loveable and worthy of existence. 

The use of Black poetry and theater in workshops for our imprisoned kin has been a practice of freedom since the 1960s, bringing language and reflection for a commonly shared experience of oppression and marginalization. In our communities, poets lead work- shops for Black children, teaching them that breath exists. And among our students of all backgrounds but especially our students of color in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, there is a great sense of urgency and need for the presence of Black literature.

So much takes place in the collective effervescence of Black creativity. Often drawing on distinctly different registers of experiences, social locations, imaginaries, and language, Black authors have expanded the possibilities and context of American and international literature by shifting the reader’s gaze or changing the way of telling a story; by placing Black bodies on the stage; by shifting linguistic registers; by developing new forms of poetry; by telling stories nobody has ever told before. As a result, Black literature has often disrupted the assumptions and expectations of what literature is and can be. Like Black life, Black literature is not singular nor is it homogeneous.

Beyond our own experiences and the experiences of other Black teachers we know, there are many non-Black teachers who share our desire to engage Black literature—but they don’t know how or feel intimidated and unsure of how to do so. In part, the craft of teaching Black includes teaching students about Black cultures: spiritualities, worldviews, struggles, and cultural contexts; it means acknowledging and reckoning with rich and tenuous histories, recognizing that Black literary traditions across the world have historically responded to the conditions created by colonialism and sustained racism. 

Teachers of Black literature, therefore, must often move beyond traditional methods of instruction to be able to render these contributions, and the context in which they developed, visible. They must have a willingness to step into, seek out, and rely on other forms of knowledge and engagement than that presented by the standard Western literary can- on. This means understanding the ways Black writers challenge social and literary conventions because they seek to open spaces for active engagement with broader American and international publics.

We need not be afraid.

From Teaching Black: The Craft of Teaching on Black Life and Literature by Ana-Maurine Lara and drea brown (Editors), published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

Ana-Maurine Lara is a national award-winning novelist, poet, and scholar. She is the author of Erzulie’s SkirtKohnjehr Woman, and When the Sun Once Again Sang to the People. Her academic books include Queer Freedom: Black Sovereignty and Streetwalking: LGBTQ Lives and Protest in the Dominican Republic. Lara’s work focuses on questions of Black and Indigenous freedom.

drea brown is a poet-scholar and author of dear girl: a reckoning, winner of the Gold Line Press 2014 chapbook prize. brown’s forthcoming book, Conjuring the Haint: The Haunting Poetics of Black Women is concerned with haunting and grief, and the impact of these states of being on Black women’s lives and literature. 

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