This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Apryl Lewis (she/her/hers) is a doctoral candidate and graduate part-time instructor at Texas Tech University studying African American literature.
Ordinarily, I would bend to whatever made my students happy and comfortable, even at the expense of my personal stance on any issues. In Fall 2018, I taught a course on novels about football that were written by white men because I thought such a class would appeal to students at a university where college sports are not only a pastime, but also a way of life. The only dose of controversy came when students brought up Colin Kaepernick and other NFL athletes kneeling during the national anthem, and I did not shy away from pointing out my scholarly interest in Kaepernick and protests in sports. However, I walked away from that sports novels course dissatisfied because I taught books that did not push my students to think about issues of race, gender, class, and so on. Although the course evaluations were relatively positive and praised my teaching skills, I wanted more. This moment was a turning point in the early stages of my teaching career as a graduate student. During winter break, I researched African American novels taught in college classrooms and eventually went down a two-hour Google search of teacher blogs, Goodreads comment threads, and Amazon best-seller lists before I wound up selecting six young adult novels written by African American authors.
This spring, I went ahead with my introduction to fiction course titled “Overcoming Adversity: Voices in African American Young Adult Fiction.” To this day, I am asked “What is young adult African American fiction?” Hopefully, I hide my confusion when I respond, “It’s fiction written by African American writers for a primarily young adult audience.” Perhaps this well-meaning question was meant to make me think about how I’m going to teach these texts to my students. Nevertheless, I felt confident in the novels I chose: The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas, American Street (2017) by Ibi Zoboi, All American Boys (2015) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Monday’s Not Coming (2018) by Tiffany D. Jackson, Tyler Johnson Was Here (2018) by Jay Coles, and The Beauty That Remains (2018) by Ashley Woodfolk.
After about week four, I considered both of my Introduction to Fiction sections to have friendly, though at times resistant, students. Many of them empathized with Starr in The Hate U Give, especially when I asked students to reflect on how Starr and other characters navigate traumatic circumstances. Although a handful of students criticized the novel for what they thought was “too much anti-police talk,” there was nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until we reached the middle of February.
On a Tuesday, I greeted my class with some distance in my voice, mild pleasantries about how their weekends were and if they were getting along well in their classes. As they continued chatting, I looked down at my lesson plan and I momentarily second-guessed my decision to have what could potentially be a pivotal shift in our classroom rapport. Then, I turned to write a four-square on the chalkboard where each square included a word: “Black,” “African American,” “Person/People of Color,” and “Colored.” Little did my students know that some of their peers used the word “colored” in their critical response posts on Blackboard (though privately for my eyes only), and I felt dismayed as an aspiring Black professor teaching English classes.
I said, “Given what I’ve read by you all over the weekend, and the fact that it’s Black History Month, let’s have a conversation about word choice. I want you all to tell me what words or phrases you associate with these words on the board.” I pointed to the square labeled “Black” and they gave some responses. The same went for the squares labeled “African American” and “Person/People of Color.” Then we arrived at the square labeled “Colored.” The students’ discomfort was palpable and there were some reddened faces in the crowd. One student raised their hand and said, “water fountains.” I wrote it down. Another said, “buses.” Another said, “NAACP.” And another said, “antiquated.” “Racism” came from a student sitting in the back, which garnered heads swiveling in his direction. No one else responded or contributed.
“Okay, all of these are solid responses. There are some answers I didn’t expect, but it’s great they are on the board. So, I’m sure you’re all wondering why we’re starting class this way,” I began, my eyes sweeping across the room. “Well, I read everyone’s response posts on The Hate U Give and some of you used the word ‘colored.’” Many eyebrows were raised in surprise at this realization.
We discussed the word associations on the board, specifically with the square labeled “Colored.” I gave my students the opportunity to pose questions and explain why they chose the words on the board. Then, one of the students who used the word “colored” quite liberally in her critical response post blurted out, “I’m so sorry for using colored in my post. I thought it meant the same as people of color.” I wanted to facepalm myself and scream “Damn it, you weren’t supposed to out yourself!” Instead, I gave her a little smile and said, “Did our class exercise clear some things up about word choices?”
“Yes Ms. Lewis, but I still have one question. Which word do you want us to use?”
I looked back at the board before saying, “Any word or phrase except ‘colored.’” There were some chuckles at my response despite my sincerity and seriousness. Just when I thought we would end the conversation on a high note and return to The Hate U Give, another student raised their hand and asked, “Which word or phrase should white people use: Black or African American?”
I felt my face grow warm as my students seemed to wait with heightened anticipation before I rendered my proverbial verdict as both the instructor and as a Black woman. Taking a breath, I said, “Well, I cannot speak on behalf of an entire group of people. No one should have to carry that responsibility, regardless of identity. For me, I use both because I identify as Black and African American. But, if you or anyone is ever in doubt, you can always just ask.” This response seemed to satisfy everyone as we refocused our efforts to finish discussing the novel.
After going through the same word choice class exercise in the second section, I needed to decompress. However, the feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome began to seep in. Am I still a good teacher? Should I have even made a big deal about some students’ writing? I mean, it was only a few instances. Was it a mistake to even teach these novels?
I wanted to tell someone else about that day’s class, so I went to my supervisor’s office and she gave me a knowing glance before asking, “Rough classes?”
Dropping my teacher persona, I rubbed my eyes as I told her, “My students are testing me. We had to have a talk about not using the word ‘colored’ to refer to Black people.”
Her eyes widened and she leaned forward in her chair. She asked, “What did you do?”
I told her about some students’ use of the word “colored” in relation to characters in the novel. Moreover, I described how I devoted the first twenty-something minutes of both classes to go over word choices using the four-square.
My supervisor said, “Oh my gosh, I would’ve never thought to do that. You handled the situation so well!”
Still swimming in doubts and worry, I could barely discern the praise. She continued, “Apryl, you are more than qualified to address something like this with your students. You are the authority figure and ultimately, by merit of the books you’ve chosen this semester, it may be better to have this conversation with them now rather than later.”
On the way home, I reflected on the conversation with my supervisor. Talking with her reminded me of a day, years ago, when a student walked past my classroom looking for an office in another building. I gave the student directions to the office, but she lingered and asked me if I’m a professor. Back then I was still working on my master’s degree at a university in east Texas and was still in the midst of my first year of teaching. The idea of identifying as a professor was foreign to me not only because of my limited teaching experience, but also as a first-generation student navigating graduate school.
I responded, “Yes, I teach first-year writing courses here in the English department.”
This student smiled at me and said, “You know, you’re the first Black professor I’ve seen here.”
“Really?” I asked in shock.
“Yes ma’am. I’m graduating this year and I’ve never had a Black professor.”
“I know the feeling,” I replied, both amazed and disappointed that this was our experience in college to this point. In fact, I was the only Black student in my cohort and in my classes for most of my graduate school experience. I knew there were plenty of Black professors at the university, but I never crossed paths with them.
Before the student walked away, she said, “Keep going. We need more professors like you. Have a good day!” I stared at the empty doorway as her sentiments echoed in my mind. There’s no way she could have known that I visited the university’s career center last week in tears because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life (because surely, I wasn’t good at teaching) and my parents were getting wary of my indecisiveness. There’s no way she could know about the nervous sweats I got every time I stood in front of my classes for fear of sounding like a fraudulent teacher and graduate student. And yet, this young woman who didn’t know who I was and never had a class from me, told me that my presence is significant. I never caught the student’s name, but I swore to not let her down.
Now, I’m here—in an English PhD program, a year away from graduating, and with many years of teaching experience and acquired wisdom from my time in the classroom. I want to leave readers with advice on navigating difficult classroom conversations in light of my own experiences. First, do not feel as though you have to confront or challenge a student in the moment; rather, take time to compose and gather your thoughts. Then, you can transform what would be an admonishment of a student’s words into a learning opportunity for everyone. Lastly, do not take on the task of being the representative of your race or identity. While you may be an authority figure in the classroom, you are not responsible for speaking on behalf of a group, or groups, of people.
As I finish my last semester of teaching before I enter my fellowship year, I cannot help but reflect on my teaching experience so far. I had the pleasure of teaching young adult African American fiction, as well as contemporary African American fiction such as Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward and An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones. These books make students consider representations of trauma in literature, marginalization of Black men and women, and the pervasive nature of systemic oppression. My choice to study trauma’s impact on African American communities is a passion most people would be reluctant to pursue. Ultimately, the stories of African Americans, as well as other communities of color, deserve to be told and studied. The work we study and teach is important, even when that importance is not readily apparent to others. While we may encounter resistant students and peers in our time as graduate students, as well as deal with difficult classroom conversations, I believe that we are all capable of overcoming our adversities.