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Q&A: Meet Marcus Smith

The February issue of Charlotte’s Pride Magazine contained a feature spotlighting teacher Marcus Smith and his approach to teaching African-American literature at Providence Day.

Q: How have you been teaching African-American literature this school year?

We have been looking at a body of texts through a thematic lens that roughly goes from the pre-Civil War era through the post-Civil Rights era. To do this, we had to establish some foundations - what we refer to as “origins” and “patterns” that we use to navigate through our texts and American history. The other distinguishing factor is the high inclusion of collaborative teaching.

Q: How has the collaborative teaching worked?

I’ve had several teachers join the class for discussions and/or presentations on specific topics. Dr. James Edge presented three poems from various time periods that are thematically in conversation with one another. Ted Dickson, the History department chair, led a discussion on what the Constitution says on the issue of slavery and the various arguments that followed. Dr. Ryan Welsh joined our class to give us the political context and ambition of the 1953 graphic novel “Judgement Day.”

Q: How did you get the idea to approach the class this way?

At first when I was bouncing around ideas with Dr. Clint Crumley, the English department chair, I felt overwhelmed with trying to cover so much in a one semester elective, so there were some challenging choices to make in both content and organization. All the while, the subject of “race” moved more onto the national stage and soon culminated into what some refer to as the summer of “racial reckoning.” This created both an opportunity as well as a challenge.

On the one hand, there was a vibrant backdrop of living history, but on the other hand, I wanted the rich body of texts to be the primary driving force of our class discourse. The class structure, texts, and method aspired to find this balance.

As for the collaborative teaching, I not only wanted to encourage students to have conversations about “race” and history, but I wanted to demonstrate, to some degree, what they can look like.

Q: How has it been working so far - any surprises?

Since we were fundamentally interested in a narrative that is concerned with an American identity, it soon became clear that I would have to incorporate some narratives that played an important role in that conversation. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, for example, are not authored by African Americans but are indispensable to the discussion. This, of course, raises some interesting questions about the inherent political nature of the African American narrative. 

One of the big lessons for me as an educator is how much context outside of African American authors is necessary to fully understand the scope of a great African American narrative. Historical context is something we hold dear in the English department, and this class posed some challenges that I did not anticipate. In the end, I concluded that I would have to include texts that were part of what I would call a “defining moment.”

Q: What are your hopes for what students will gain from this approach?

Social media and media in general are often reactionary and consequently less in the business of understanding. They often lack thorough context and interest in understanding. If we don’t understand the narratives and its historical echoes, then the pertinent questions around “race” and more importantly, truth, evade us.

I hope in some way that the class gives students the ability to see how African American writers have both helped define and preserve what it truly means to be an American. In turn, I hope this insight aids them in their own journey of understanding their own American-ness.  

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