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Course examines African American literature and U.S. pop culture

Valerie Babb, who joined the Emory faculty in January as Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities, has spent a career deciphering the outsize role that culture plays in racial identity and interactions. Emory Photo/Video

As a scholar, Valerie Babb’s research has focused on African American literature and culture, the mapping of communities and the constructions of race.

In “African American Literature and Pop Culture,” Babb weaves those topics together for two dozen Emory College undergraduates enrolled in her first course as Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities.

“I’m trying to get students to understand the impact pop culture has on shaping ideas of blackness,” says Babb, who holds joint appointments in African American studies and English. “At the heart of it is the question, how do we know what we think we know?”

The course name had some students expecting an academic critique of current books and perhaps some touchstones in music and film, such as “Black Panther.”

Instead, the course builds on the literary history of novels from the mid-1700s through today, examining everything from dialects to author perspective, to show how texts influence and draw from the broader culture.

As for movies, in one class session focusing on early black authors who used their writings to change racial notions, Babb showed segments from “The Birth of a Nation.” The overtly racist, if cinematically groundbreaking, silent film challenges the idea of equal rights and portrays members of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.

“It was terrifying to me but also fascinating to see this idea — that black men in power would mean no whites had power — play out on the screen,” says Jard Lerebours, a junior in the course who is double majoring in creative writing and film studies.

“It hurt to see a talented guy using art for such evil purposes, but I realize there is a history of that happening in art and culture in the United States,” Lerebours adds. “You still see those images now, with the same message.”

A career examining race through an interdisciplinary lens

Babb, who joined the Emory faculty in January, has spent a career deciphering the outsize role that culture plays in racial identity and interactions.

That research has taken her to different places. She has been a professor and administrator at the University of Georgia and Georgetown University and taught in the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.

She has also brought history, art and law to bear on the study of African American literature in her book “A History of the African American Novel,” published in 2017, and on the creation and contemplation of white racial identity in “Whiteness Visible,” published in 1998.

“Not thinking narrowly allows you to be more aware of the world and of the subtleties of how we perceive the world,” Babb says.

White authors tended to be the first to tell African American stories, with the literature both shaping and not necessarily undercutting popular culture.

When black creators intervened in the 19th century, the voices and perspectives changed. But, Babb says, culture did not change as quickly.

“It’s not just about how the story was told,” she says. “It’s also about how it has been retold.”

Questioning the “facts” from pop culture

Students tackled that idea one recent morning, with a discussion of simultaneous readings of short stories by Joel Chandler Harris and Charles W. Chesnutt.

Harris, a white Georgian, told the “Uncle Remus” stories in the dialect he heard from slaves in his childhood. Chesnutt, a black northerner, used a similar dialect in his first book, “The Conjure Woman.”

But the stories had vastly different aims. Harris wrote for a white audience, using a black character’s words to portray the idea that African Americans were happiest during “de fahmin days,” his euphemism for slavery.

Writing two decades later for the same audience, Chesnutt is more subtle. He reserves the dialect for a former slave who, instead of celebrating history, reveals the brutal history of plantation life in folksy, sometimes mystical tales.

Maya Foster, a junior with a double major in philosophy and African American studies, spoke up about the differences, noting that Harris’ stories “promote Remus as the ‘good model,’ who can say that blacks don’t respect power and their freedom is going to their heads.”

Foster is well aware that such a conclusion is seen by some as a politically correct reading of “Br’er Rabbit” and what have become bedtime stories. She sees the benefit, though, in revisiting her earlier conclusions from it and other books she read — and the “facts” those works revealed — before she could analyze literary devices in the context of time and place.

Such analysis changed her understanding of the name of the lead character in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for instance. Frequently “Uncle Tom” remains a slur for an excessively subservient black man, especially toward whites. But Foster now sees Uncle Tom as a complex character, just trying to survive in the stark reality of slavery.

And the conventional wisdom that lighter-skinned slaves were better treated by working in owners’ homes? Such ideas betray the reality that those slaves, usually women, had countless household duties and were also subject to rape and abuse by their owners.

“I’ve thought about this very heavily, and I can see how these false ideas and ideologies get passed down,” Foster says. “I have to slow down and think. I’m slowly unpacking the ways I think or know about what society thinks.”

The course boils down to understanding how meaning is made. Babb is not surprised that students quickly grasp the concepts and are able to read critically by examining rhetorical devices, images used and other author decisions that shape the work.

Interrogating what they may not have questioned before enables students to examine and query what they read, or see, next.

“Pop culture educates us more thoroughly and widely than formal education, but we rarely question it,” Babb says, “even as it shapes the process of creating and defining our identity.”

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