English professors emphasize role of Black literature

Dr. Coretta Pittman shares the importance of literature in Black history. Photo courtesy of Baylor University

By Sarah Wang | Staff Writer

Just like many other fields to which people of color have contributed, African American writers have had strong impacts in multiple U.S. literary movements.

Black History Month allows citizens to reflect on the past and recognize the role of African American people in U.S. history.

Dr. Ryan Sharp, assistant professor in the English Department with a specialty in African American literature, said understanding how Black writers have contributed to the history of literature and writing is a big question in the literary field.

Writing can have great ideological and political power, judging from the fact that literature participates in many other sorts of movements that people tend to think as being “uniquely American,” Sharp said.

Literature is not just a representation of the history and culture of the particular times; Sharp said it has also shaped the culture and history at the time.

“I don’t think you can talk about the literature of the U.S. without the plurality of voices that have constructed the U.S. both literally and figuratively,” Sharp said. “In that way, I don’t think you could have a complete literary canon without including the contributions of Black writers.”

According to Dr. Coretta Pittman, associate English professor, African American literature began with the slave narrative.

“I’m encouraged by and fascinated by people who can write in the 19th century and tell a story that many people want to keep silent,” Pittman said. “It’s not just that [Black writers] contribute in terms of content, but they also contribute in terms of participating in the literary field — speaking to and speaking with other authors.”

Sharp said his concern about Black History Month is people tend to highlight a few Black heroes while there are a multitude of Black writers who have not been emphasized in the same way. He also said he has made it a mission in his life to encourage and inspire people to be engaging with Black literatures.

“It’s nice to acknowledge Black literature, Black history and Black culture in February, but it’s also important to consider Black histories, Black contributions to the U.S.,” Sharp said.

Sharp also said scholars of Black history and literature are regularly asked about the use of studying Black history and literature when February rolls around. He said this is true of other minorities and marginalized communities as well. When their week or month comes, they are asked to similarly defend or persuade of the necessity of their study. Yet few ask questions about the rich history or where the literary works originate from to delve more into the culture’ center, he said.

“It seems those histories’ and literatures’ value is accepted as a given,” Sharp said. “Some might argue that this is because those histories are not allotted a particular week or month, though we might further consider how there is seems to be more to it.”

Pittman said she has mixed feelings on Black History Month; she said she wants Black writers to be highlighted, but on the other hand, she thinks they ought to be highlighted every month.

“I don’t want February to be the only month where people take a moment to read Black writers,” Pittman said.