Literature as Mirror and Window: Creating Connections for the 21st-Century Student

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A National Symposium

November 17–18, 2017

Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana

Teaching the broad range of students in the 21st-century classroom poses many challenges, including that of recognizing the invisible diversity embodied in, for example, the Haitian-American student at an HBCU, the Vietnamese-American student viewed through the more general term Asian-American, the Puerto-Rican student lumped into the vague category of Hispanic, and, of course, the host of gender identities that often disappear entirely from the discussion. Our use of contemporary memoirs from Africa, traditional epics, and a modern revision of an epic attempts to provide material for discussion that opens pathways for all students, whatever differences they bring into the room. These discussions create frames through which students can view the world from multiple perspectives, and they function as mirrors to reflect individual diversity and to reveal willful distortions.

We all have a life story, a narrative to convey our understanding of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. When we tell our stories, when we listen to each other, when we hear each other’s stories, we can see the similar threads that lead us to a better grasp of our common humanity. Once we are touched by narrative, we can feel the common human emotions of joy and sorrow. We begin to understand what makes us laugh and cry. It takes time, but eventually it sinks in that we are the all the same under our skins. We all have hearts and souls. We are all human.

How do we address our common humanity? Many universities require all students take courses in the humanities. At Hampton University, these required courses in the general education sequence bring together students from all the professional programs, including pharmacy, business, nursing, and journalism, as well as those in the liberal arts. The approach offered here incorporates a nuanced discussion of leadership models as the common thread connecting traditional and non-traditional texts. Juxtaposing traditional and contemporary texts highlights the global relationships that have linked cultures across geographical boundaries from the earliest evidence available, and requires students to investigate major ideas independently through the arts and cultural history.

The diverse students we teach in our humanities courses are encouraged to see themselves in others and to draw on their unique backgrounds to enrich our negotiations with “otherness.” We open with a reading and discussion of two contemporary memoirs by African women engaged in movements for social transformation in Liberia. Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf serve as living examples who students can observe in action while they engage with their published stories. The stories of these two Nobel Peace Prize recipients have powerful connections to the epic tradition, including the trope of the journey of the hero, and at the same time they break new ground for discussions of leadership in civil society. Mighty Be Our Powers relates the actions of an “army of women in white” who work to restore sanity to a nation gone mad, a people caught up in a brutal civil war that rips apart the very fabric of their society. The women exhibit endurance, solidarity, and courage to face men with guns, who they ultimately convince to stop fighting so the healing and rebuilding may begin.

This Child Will Be Great describes Sirleaf’s journey home to become the first democratically elected female president of an African Country, and intertwines her personal narrative with the political and economic history of her nation, Liberia. Her insight into the fundamental rift between the elite settlers, the Americo-Liberians, and the indigenous people leads her to warn her compatriots of the danger of the increasing disparity of wealth and power between these two groups. She was in the middle of the fray once the unbearable tensions erupted in a violent military coup and ensuing civil war. She moves between Liberia and the larger global community during the war, and is then inaugurated in January, 2006, for a six-year term as the 23rd president of Liberia. Following the events described in her book, Sirleaf went on to serve a second six-year term in 2012, after a hard-fought election. But during the most recent elections in Liberia, Sirleaf chose to step down and attempted to create a peaceful and equitable transition of power. The results were, unfortunately, mixed, as a popular sports figure won the election while she herself was expelled from her party. This vivid example can be placed in dialogue with the contentious nature of the recent elections in the United States and France.

In addition to reading these texts, students view the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which serves as a visual counterpart to Gbowee’s memoir, recording the women’s peace movement in Liberia. It is part of a larger series entitled Women, War, and Peace, which places the Liberian experience into a global context. Again, the documentary gains new relevance as it intersects with the current #metoo movement, facilitating discussions of power, gender, and abuse.

After viewing and discussing the film, students read and discuss the memoirs and work in groups to discover the history and culture of Liberia. The structure that we advocate is one that travels back and forth across boundaries of time and space. The students journey with contemporary authors whose memoirs are of epic proportions. This links them to the ancient past of the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Greeks and the Romans, the usual fare of western humanities courses. It gives new meaning to the beginnings of our common humanity and emphasizes both shared experiences and the specific experiences that can lead to new questions and new solutions. In reading Homer’s The Odyssey in conjunction with a performance text of Son-Jara, an oral epic from ancient Mali, students can view questions of culture and leadership from multiple perspectives.

Finally, by reading Homer’s Odyssey and Son-Jara against Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, we return to questions of leadership, the exercise of power, and gender. The Penelopiad is a short novel commissioned for a series of re-writings of traditional mythological material. Atwood structures the novel as a provocative critique of Homer by voicing Penelope and the maids who were executed for disloyalty. This brief novel becomes an explicit critique of the exercise of leadership that results in the deaths of so many innocent people. The chorus of maids performs (as a sea shanty) a synopsis of the journey of Odysseus costumed as his crew, and they close with this analysis of their leader: “So, a health to our Captain, wher’er he may be,/Whether walking on earth or adrift on the sea,/For he’s not down in Hades, unlike all of we -/And we leave you not any the wiser!” (98). Their indictment enters into dialogue with traditional interpretations of Odysseus as the model for the leader who works with his brain rather than with his brawn.

Absorb the wisdom of the past and present. Use the knowledge others have accumulated to be fully engaged. Think before speaking or acting. Think critically to act intelligently. Travel—first in books and then out into the world. Gather knowledge that will help expand our common culture. Do not be complacent. Do not sit back and wait for others to do the work. Be part of the story. Add new chapters to our text.

The current situation is very complex, very complicated. The task of both teachers and students is to study the past and understand the myriad intricacies that have led to the current situation.

Today’s students are anxious and ask, “How, how, what shall we do?” We cannot answer those questions for them. They must find the answers in their own time. But let them see that the first tentative steps towards those answers is knowledge. That knowledge creates the windows and mirrors the students will use to enter new worlds and reveal their own identities. It is up to instructors to lead them to the brink. Push them and watch them fly to new heights.


Atwood, M. (2005). The Penelopiad. Canongate: New York.

Gbowee, L. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. New York: Beast Books, 2011.

Johnson, J.W. (Ed.). (1992). The epic of Son-Jara. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sirleaf, E.J. (2009). This child will be great. New York: Harper Perennial.

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Spring 2018: Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom