To Be Seen: Black Feminist Literature Course Reflects Students’ Identities

BFL class for webIn a sunny room at the top of Warren Hall, students gather around the Harkness table to discuss Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Teacher Abby Cacho reads two passages from the novel, then the students write reflections on what they’ve heard. Water for tea warms in an electric kettle, and Sade provides some background music.

Big questions emerge from the reflections, sparking thoughtful debates: “In a relationship with God, or in a relationship with another person, where do we draw the line between commitment and submission?” one student asks.

Another continues the thought, asking,“Is there ever a relationship completely devoid of a power dynamic?”

The class is Understanding Intersectionality: Introductory Black Feminist Literature, an English department semester course that wrapped up last week. Abby, who is in her second year at Milton as a fellow through the University of Pennsylvania’s Residency Master’s in Teaching Program, created the curriculum around black feminist theory and works by black women writers throughout modern history, including Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective, Roxane Gay, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ntozake Shange. 

Assignments range from writing journal responses to the works to recording podcasts, creating artwork, writing poetry, and developing websites. The subject material can be heavy, covering topics of racism, marginalization, and violence. Abby makes sure to pause and allow the students time to fully process the readings. 

Abby’s master’s inquiry project—a culminating project that replaces a thesis—is on classroom participation. She recalls her own experience as a student in an independent school, during which the literature she studied did not reflect her identity as a black, queer woman. 

“English gives us a beautiful opportunity to reflect on our identities and see ourselves in the literature,” she says. “My question is, ‘How do I empower my students to participate?’ And I have focused directly on this course as a way of looking at different ways to empower students in the classroom. I like to teach English with the acknowledgment that we as humans feel real emotions, and students are allowed to be themselves and let their emotions out in ways they see fit.”

Discussions are lively, respectful, often funny, and supportive, in an environment where each student feels comfortable using their voice. While Abby reads aloud, or a student shares an insight, some murmur in agreement or make exclamations, expressing themselves and engaging as if they were in a college seminar.

“They feel seen,” Abby says. “Some of the students in this course have come out as queer, or identify as queer. I think they feel comfortable seeing their identities reflected in the curriculum and in knowing that’s how their teacher also identifies. They don’t put up a front when they’re talking about the books that reflect them.”

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