Graduate Course Shifts Focus on Black Women Writers, Away From the ‘Single Story’
Disclaimer: Beth Ann Downey is currently a student in “Black Women Writing: Short Stories (CW T680),” the class that is the subject of this story, as a second-year MFA student.
Trapeta Mayson and Yolanda Wisher, adjunct instructors in the Department of English and Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, had their students watch author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a TED Talk video during the second week of their “Black Women Writing: Short Stories” class this winter term.
In her talk, titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” the prolific Nigerian writer describes how stereotypes manifest both in society and in literature. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” she said in the 2009 address. “They make one story become the only story.”
It is this same kind of myopia that the class aims to address — and why it was folded into the curriculum of Drexel’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program in an effort to diversify faculty representation, then further affirmed by Drexel’s renewed anti-racism efforts — by presenting and thoughtfully exploring the works of 19th century through 21st century Black women writers so often neglected within the American literary canon.
“I think Yolanda and I talk a lot about just the erasure, or the fact that these writers often are not put on the platform that they need to be put on and are not as widely known as they need to be,” Mayson said.
“Because we are imprisoned by a white literary canon, how many stories are not being told and how much of the American story is not being seen?” added Wisher, who experienced this firsthand as a high school English teacher for 10 years when she wanted to champion these writers in her classroom. “There's so much that we get through these Black women writers’ stories about our country and the history of this country and what it means to be an American. The literature of Black women writers gives you a very different perspective and in a very different voice. It speaks to a wider group of people and a wider readership.”
In addition to Adichie’s nonfiction and short stories, the class of 16 graduate students also studied work by Alice Walker, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan. Mayson and Wisher chose to focus on these writers due to a number of factors, including their many accomplishments, their pioneering and diverse styles, and the instructors’ joint admiration that they hoped would translate into excitement and engagement for students.
“In each of these women's hands, the short story form takes on different proportions and has different powers and potentials,” Wisher said. “When I look at all of these women, they're kind of renegades in a way. They're outlaws of the form but also of literature.”
Nomi Eve, an assistant teaching professor for the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the MFA program, recognized the importance of centralizing these writers and their work in the curriculum she had set forth for the MFA, as well as making it available to other graduate students. Eve tapped into Mayson and Wisher’s authority in teaching the material established through an iteration of the class they hosted through The Rosenbach museum in the summer and fall of 2020. Mayson and Wisher are both on The Rosenbach’s board of directors.
“I believe that we must centralize Black voices in all of our courses,” Eve said. “Students need to read this work and consider these perspectives and learn this part of literary history if they are to graduate and make literature that is relevant and write stories that will move the needle on the greatest of issues facing us today — that of social justice.”
Moving this needle also means facing head-on the difficult topics addresses by the Black women writers in the class — those of racism, sexism and classism that are still relevant today. Wisher and Mayson agree that their co-teaching style and shared ownership of the texts helps promote a safe space for these poignant conversations.
“It stems from our desire to have real talk, to create a curriculum that invites discussion about the things that make us really deeply or tragically or violently human,” Wisher said. “We need spaces to talk about this. And I think the arts and literature provide a layer of creativity and empathy that allow us to have those kinds of conversations in safe, supportive, reflective, but also direct and frank ways. We just want to be real, and the work allows us to do that.”
Jeannine Cook, a second-year MFA student as well as community activist and owner of Harriett’s Bookshop, first witnessed the instructors’ “masterful co-teaching” as part of the initial Rosenbach course, and now again as part of her graduate coursework. Everything she is learning, Cook said, makes her a better writer, a better businesswoman and a better Philadelphian.
“I think what Drexel and all institutions get to understand is that a healthy future depends on our ability to amplify the voices that have been stifled — the voices that are going to lead us and guide us,” Cook said.
Cook’s proof point came once again in week two, when students were asked to respond to the Adichie video with their own TED Talk outlining when they first realized this trope of the “single story.” Several students credited a high school or college class with providing this important perspective or mental shift — one that opened their eyes to such inclusive or familiar work like that which “Black Women Writing” teaches.
“I think of universities and colleges as places where you go to learn how you think; to learn how you think differently from other people, and more importantly, knowing all of that, how to get along and do things collectively and achieve mutual good,” Wisher said. “That's what I think you you're supposed to learn at college. Colleges, schools, and educational centers are the front line of this work.”
“[These courses should be taught] just like anything else is. … It expands that worldview, that global perspective, that ability to thrive,” Mayson said.
Eve plans to offer the same course or similar opportunities within the MFA curriculum moving forward. Similarly, Mayson and Wisher will continue to discuss ways to create spaces for Black women and other women of color to gather around this work without the presence of white readers.
But no matter who is studying or reading along, each educator is dedicated to this divergence from the single story.
“What's most exciting about this course is the times when we do get together and just talk about characters,” Wisher said. “People that we've never met — and who don't exist — but who give us a way to talk about the hard stuff.”