“Compelling But Lacks Depth: Joanne Kilgour Dowdy’s "Readers Of The Quilt"

“Compelling But Lacks Depth: Joanne Kilgour Dowdy’s Readers Of The Quilt: Essays About Being Black, Female And Literate”

What does it mean to be black, female and literate in the USA today? That is the question that the authors in Readers Of The Quilt are trying to answer. Literacy studies is a relatively recent discipline that defines its subject as more, or other, than the technical mastering of reading and writing. It is a way of interpreting, being recognized and gaining a voice in the world. As such, it sometimes has very little to do with formal education and everything to do with ways of knowing and successfully negotiating different situations in life. This collection offers compelling examples of African-American women’s literacy but unfortunately, also a lack of dept and tangible solutions to some of the problems that it identifies.

The essays are organized into three sections. Historical perspectives on black women’s literacy provides the background for the first essays. Of those, Lillie Gayle Smith’s “Lessons Learned In A Cotton Field” and “Lessons From Down Under: Reflections On Meanings Of Literacy And Knowledge From An African-American Growing Up In Rural Alabama” by Bessie House-Soremekun offer the most successful applications of a historical and theoretical perspective on personal experience. Smith describes how the literacy she gained from working on her aunt’s cotton field as a child could only by articulated after she had mastered academic literacy and attended a course that encouraged a re-definition of her Southern past. House-Soremekun’s personal account of Alabama during the time of the Civil Rights Movement describes the kind of literacy that the black population in the South had to develop to navigate safely through both geographical and psychological racist territory.
Essays in the second part of the book are written by white teachers who describe their experiences as teachers and tutors of black students. Of these, Joan T. Wynne’s account of the racism that hampers the academic abilities of inner-city students is worth a special mentioning. She describes how a project aimed at cultivating black and white teachers’ leadership skills revealed serious prejudices among all participants, but also how student-performance rose significantly once those prejudices were openly addressed and actively fought. Wynne suggests a re-education of teachers that encourages an approach to inner-city students “on their own terms,” although she offers exasperatingly few examples of what those terms are.
Some suggestions are provided in editor Joanne Kilgour Dowdy’s interview with Christine McVay, English teacher in the Pan-African Studies Department at Kent State University. Unfortunately, McVay’s description of how she interacts with her black students is far from problematic. She refers to the black colleague who encouraged her to apply to the Department as her “brother” and introduces her literature class by asking her students to write a slang- or black English-dictionary to make them comfortable with standard English, or as she calls it, “consensus” English. These flirtations with what she perceives as typically black forms of expression take on an added meaning when she acknowledges her fear of encountering the woman who once inspired her interest in black culture: “I guess I’m just afraid to know what she’s become. What if she’s a rich, beautiful Black woman who isn’t particularly interested in Black culture anymore?” What if, indeed? Admitting that she cannot bring “Blackness” to the classroom, she assigns that task to her students (“That’s your job.”), but the interview doesn’t reveal whether she stops to ask her students if this is what they want. One is left with the impression that for McVay, “Blackness” is inseparable from an anti-establishment stance and radicalism. Ironically, it suggests that in her classroom, black students are left with little space to define themselves beyond those terms.
The complexity of black identity in the USA is highlighted in Leonie Smith’s “To Be Black And Female: A Personal Journey In Education And Alienation,” included in the last part of the collection. The account of her journey through the American education-system reveals a black culture that is as segmented as mainstream society, where class, origin and wealth create sharp divisions. She also describes a white college-culture that is characterized by racism and class-consciousness. Smith’s account is a compelling example of how important is the investment in the cultural capital that each student brings to his or her schooling. Her safe-guard against the racial isolation in college turns out to be her strong Caribbean identity and a positive first experience of school.
The last section in Readers Of The Quilt also includes Mandi Chikombero’s analysis of Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Condition. Chikombero focuses on the female characters’ strife to acquire a formal education and the price that they pay in the process. By juxtaposing traditional African ways of knowing with the formal education that the characters receive in mission school (and the colonial cultural beliefs that inform it), Dangarembga, she argues, effectively reveals the sexism that underlies both belief systems. Chikombero’s essay is a welcome addition to the collection, since it acknowledges race, but also gender and geographical transitions as factors that both hinder and help black women. She acknowledges that the changes which the novel’s characters go through are painful, but perhaps inevitable. Culture, her analysis suggests, is not static but ever-changing, and change always involves sacrifices.
The majority of essays in Readers Of The Quilt originate in final papers by graduate students from editor Kilgour Dowdy’s class “Black Women And Literacy” at Kent State University. In an interview for the Trinidad Guardian, Kilgour Dowdy explains that the book was created partly to meet the need for new textbooks. As a course book for students with an interest in African-American culture, women and literacy, the book is meant to function both as a successful example of student-participation and an introduction to literacy understood in the contexts of race and gender. On the whole, the essays suffer from this double-purpose. As encouragement for individual students’ belief in the worth of their thoughts, the collection probably serves its purpose. But for serious research students, the personal anecdotes and sketchy accounts of social practices have only limited use. There is little data offered beyond the personal example. Wisely, the essays are backed up by generous reading lists.

Unfortunately, the poor editing and low academic caliber of some of the contributions also provide examples of the drawbacks of encouraging students to “fly” before they have acquired sufficient academic skills. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize authors who might never have gained a voice if it wasn’t for Kilgour Dowdy’s provision of a classroom that gave them a feeling of safety and self-worth. Yet one can’t help to wonder whether, at times, the need for positive encouragement has not taken precedence over the ability to create strong arguments. Regardless, these authors must now be prepared for the public criticism that their work will be exposed to.

A collection such as this cannot possibly speak for everyone. Some of the essays that discuss middle-class- and Caribbean students suggest that black culture is rich in variation and not free of internal frictions, yet further emphasis on the distinctions within black women as a group would have been welcome. A similarly restraining demarcation of the subject of black women and literacy informs the series-editors’ introduction to Readers Of The Quilt. When they, in all earnestness, claim that “whites cannot understand [. . .] that literacy is embedded in the contexts of life,” they reveal a profound ignorance of the impact of class and gender in the lives of people of all colors, and negate the value of comparisons that are not based exclusively, or primarily, on race. Such a dismayingly separatist worldview does little to bridge the very existing knowledge gaps among racial, socio-economic and cultural groups in the USA today.
The quilt-metaphor in the title of this collection encourages the reader to view the essays as individual and sometimes dissenting contributions to a more general commentary on African-American women and literacy. One may disagree with some of the opinions that underlie the collection as a whole, yet many essays do acknowledge the complex relationship among race, gender, class and literacy and will, at best, spark an interest in the reader that will encourage him or her to explore the subject further. The book will be of interest mainly to students of gender, literacy and/or African-American culture, and to some degree, to teacher educators and scholars.

Review by Malin Lidström Brock

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