New city school class features black literature
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Life in late 17th century America wasn't as simple as black or white, slave or free.
Native American servants, indentured Europeans, mail-order brides and free blacks were part of the mix, too.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison captured the different voices in her 2008 novel "A Mercy," one of the works Pittsburgh Public Schools students will study in a new black literature course to debut in the fall.
The course will be offered to seniors at all high schools. Seniors may take the new course, an Advanced Placement English course or the standard 12th-grade English, which includes black authors.
"I think what is different for us is that we're offering it as a core course. Many districts offer it as an elective," said Diane Carroll, a curriculum specialist who is part of the team writing the new course.
The broad sweep of black literature offers many potential themes for a new course. Pittsburgh's team decided to give students what Mrs. Carroll called a "different perspective on the African-American experience."
The course will raise potentially unfamiliar subjects, such as the diversity portrayed in "A Mercy."
It will explore familiar subjects, such as slavery, in unfamiliar ways. The reading list includes Octavia Butler's "Kindred," about a 20th-century black woman who repeatedly travels back in time to the antebellum South to rescue a planter's son. The boy will grow up to be one of her ancestors.
The course will emphasize Pittsburgh, both the literature produced here and the city's role in works written elsewhere. The reading list includes plays by Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson and "Blood on the Forge," William Attaway's account about three siblings who get swept up in the Great Migration and end up working in the Monongahela Valley's steel industry.
"We're also attempting to tie some of the historical periods to literature," said Richard Purcell, assistant professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, who is helping to develop the course.
Besides Mrs. Carroll and Dr. Purcell, the team includes teachers Rachael Hittinger and Jacqueline Hale. Ms. Hittinger is spearheading a unit on black feminism.
The course is one of several efforts the school district has taken in recent years to make curriculum more inclusive. A black history course was introduced at the high-school level about a year ago.
Officials said the literature course will be a college-level experience allowing students to delve deeply into important, if lesser known, black works.
Michelle Gordon, assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California, said black literature has deepened her overall understanding of literature.
Compared to the rest of American literature, "it is different, and it's not at all different," she said.
While black literature draws uniquely on jazz, blues, oral storytelling and the sermon, among other cultural elements, she said, white authors draw on comparable parts of their own culture. In the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," for example, Mark Twain incorporates the language and customs of Mississippi River life.
Anna Roseboro, a former high school English teacher active with the National Council of Teachers of English, said students in her black literature courses had various reactions to the material. Some were pleased with the content, but disappointed they hadn't seen it before.
"Many of them were shocked. Many of them were delighted. Many of them were appalled," she said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 2, 2010) One of the works Pittsburgh Public Schools students will study in a new black literature course is "Blood on the Forge." The title was incorrect in this story as originally published Feb. 1, 2010.
First Published February 1, 2010 12:00 am