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English Professor Rychetta Watkins Discusses Literary Contributions by African Americans

Publication Date: 2/15/2010

Dr. Rychetta Watkins, assistant professor of English at Rhodes, teaches courses on African American and Ethnic American literary traditions and discusses the contributions that people of color have made to the American literary canon.

Her Ethnic American Literature course reflects on the struggle that many ethnic groups have had in becoming American. Watkins says, “What can be more personal and more natural than our identity as Americans? For many of us, it’s not something we think about because we were born into it. In the class, we’re taking something that can seem self-evident and using the readings to reflect on and critique that concept.”

Watkins also teaches an introductory course on the African American literary tradition that includes methods for reading African American literature. “Because the literature grows out of the black experience in America, we need an array of historical, social and cultural knowledge in order to perform a productive close reading of the literature,” she says.

For example, Watkins suggests that a close reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man would involve understanding the political context of the 1940s and ′50s, the significance of the South in African American culture, the role of the historically black college and the importance of Harlem in African American history and culture.

She argues, “You have to grasp all these things to fully understand the narrator’s picaresque journey and his effort to belong somewhere. That longing to belong is a common thread that runs throughout much of African American literature. Thus, for many authors and readers literature provides a home for readers who might want to open up a book and find reflections of their life, culture and experience.”

Watkins also adds, “Another overarching theme is how to maintain a sense of identity and culture in light of changes in our society and economy. As what it means to be African American expands, how do we speak coherently about an African American experience in literature? Some writers are critiquing this unified sense of African American identity, but that willingness to critique it is what keeps the tradition vital.”

Watkins recommends that those interested in reading more African American literature consider works by contemporary writers who are continuing the tradition:

  • The Dew Breaker and The Farming of Bones – Edwidge Danticat
  • The Known World – Edward P. Jones
  • The Untelling – Tayari Jones
  • Let the Dead Bury Their Dead  and A Visitation of Saints – Randall Kenan
  • The Intuitionist and John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead

(Information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Brianna McCullough ′10.)

Tags: Faculty

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