I assigned William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to my English 113 class this semester. I also assigned Flannery O’Connor, Kate Chopin, and Alice Walker. I wanted to assign Toni Morrison, but the syllabus was full. Could I cut out Faulkner, I wondered? I didn’t really want to teach Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” anyway, so maybe I could cut that.
This might be the only literature course my students ever take, and I had to make a lot of tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out. I left out a lot of classics: Joyce, Steinbeck, Hawthorne. Mostly “classics” by white men, as you can see. There just wasn’t time to cover everything, even if I limited myself to the accepted canon, which I refused to do. Our Analyzing Literature textbook, thankfully, covered a lot of ground, so I had plenty of material by women and people of color to choose from.
Even so, there were some works on my syllabus that I honestly did not think needed to be there. I just didn’t have the guts to leave them off.
I should have assigned Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” or something by Zora Neal Hurston, or Ralph Ellison. Instead, I taught Faulkner and Hemingway. Why? The first reason, the way I rationalized it to myself, is that my students will encounter these famous writers later in their education. I feel responsible for exposing them to the canon, even if I reject its limited scope. They need to know who Hemingway is, if for no other reason than to appear well-read to those who define “well-read” as knowing the traditional literary canon. Do I think they can be well-read without reading Faulker? Yes. Of course. But not everyone else will, so I play the game, and assign “A Rose for Emily.”
There’s another, more personally difficult reason I didn’t assign Toni Morrison’s story in particular, as brilliant as it is, as much as I longed to include it in my course. As a graduate student, I had watched a class I was in crush a white professor for attempting to teach The Bluest Eye. That book changed my life and my thought forever, for the better. But reading it in that setting instilled a sense of caution about how I can and cannot teach certain texts as a white woman -- no, more than caution, fear. That professor was the only teacher who ever assigned Morrison to me, in four years of college and four years of graduate education. So, I also feel ill-equipped to teach her work on a basic intellectual level (same with Baldwin, Hurston, Walker -- the list goes on).
Yet the story is so good, on so many levels.
Instead of teaching “Recitatif,” I assigned it as extra credit. Students had the option of reading the story, watching a youtube video of Junot Díaz interviewing Toni Morrison about race and writing, and writing a one page essay about how the video illuminated the story. Honestly, I think it was a brilliant assignment. Three out of nineteen students completed it, and as I graded those extra credit assignments I keep thinking, why didn’t I make all of them do this? Why didn’t I require it? As one student told me how the video of Morrison and Díaz made a lightbulb go off in her head, I lamented the lost opportunity for the rest of my students, who will likely never bother to read the story on their own. It would have been difficult, but wonderful, to discuss that video, and that story, with them in class.
But it was my first time teaching an English class, my first semester as a professor, and I was too scared. I don’t know Morrison’s work well enough, I told myself, and I certainly didn’t know if I was capable of managing what would be a heavy, potentially volatile, classroom discussion with a bunch of freshman.
Still, I assigned Alice Walker and Langston Hughes and Sekou Sundiata. Considering that it was only an eight week course, we had a decent number of conversations about race and literature, starting -- painfully, awkwardly, uncomfortably -- with O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the first week. It has been a challenge to summon the guts to imagine I have anything to say to my students about race while also balancing that courage and confidence with the humility needed to let the texts we study guide the conversation -- to let the authors speak instead of me.
I want to teach Toni Morrison in such a way that she teaches all of us. I’m just the guide. The needed “expert” on literature, asking leading questions, making my students talk to each other, and trying somehow to impart not only knowledge but wisdom.
And so if there is one thing I regret it is that I did not have the guts to assign that story. Sure, we had a nice discussion about southern gothic literature and foreshadowing in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” But “Recitatif” is a brilliant piece of writing, a story I will spend years making sense of, a story that could have taught my students so much more about literature, about the world we live in, and even about themselves. While most of them had never read Faulkner, most of them had never read Morrison either. And they should. Oh, they should!
Next time she won’t be extra credit. Next time, Faulkner will be. We’ll keep him on the margins, and put Morrison up front, where she should have been all along.
As for me, I’ll spend my summer reading some of those authors I should have read in college, but never did. I’ll read them so that I can teach them in the future, but first I’ll let them teach me.