In teaching the course Black Feminist Literature, Assistant Professor of English Mecca Jamilah Sullivan has aimed to help students challenge power from an intersectional perspective.
“I hope students not only become familiar with the foundations of black feminist literature, but also learn to think, read, and engage the world from an intersectional interpretive stance that will serve them in all their courses, and throughout their intellectual lives,” she says.
Within the one year that she has been at Bryn Mawr, Sullivan’s classes have been extremely popular. “I think many Bryn Mawr students are interested in seeking out voices they have not been exposed to elsewhere in their educational experience,” she says.
Sullivan hopes that the theoretical concepts studied in her courses will help students apply understandings of power and difference to literary texts and to their own lives.
She classifies Black Feminist Literature as a multi-genre study in “intersectional experience,” noting that “since before terms like ‘feminism,’ ‘queerness,’ and ‘intersectionality’ began circulating as they do now, writers of the African Diaspora have always used their work to critique racial, sexual, gender, and economic power structures, along with many others.”
For Sullivan, teaching this course in 2018 means that she and her students can engage with “a living archive.”
“Many of the figures on our syllabus are actively producing work, responding to each other's work, collaborating, debating, theorizing and co-creating,” she says.
In order to explore this “living archive,” Sullivan has invited multiple guests to speak to her class, either in person or through Skype calls. Black trans history and literary studies scholar C. Riley Snorton was the first to visit the class. Black feminist novelist Marci Blackman, author of Tradition and Po' Man's Child, visited the class next. Fiction writer and creator of the black feminist web series Quare Life M. Shelly Connor also participated in Skype meetings with the class.
Sullivan also arranged a Skype visit for another course she is teaching, Reading and Writing Difference, with poet and essayist Kamilah Aishah Moon.
“I want students to see these personal, collective interactive dynamics up close, so they can begin to envision how they might do similar work in their own lives,” she says.
Sullivan has had quite a personal experience teaching this course. “One of our great black feminist writers, Ntozake Shange, passed away very recently. We had just been discussing her work during the previous class meeting, and it was my dream to bring her to campus one day. She's someone who is very important to me, and I was grateful to be able to take extra time to discuss her work during the next class, just after her passing. We got to share space together as we honored and reflected on her tremendous legacy. This is the kind of engagement a class like this makes possible. I think it's very special.”
Sullivan hopes her students see the lasting necessity of black feminist literature, and says “I've learned a lot about the experiences of black, brown, and POC students in the TriCo from teaching the class this semester, and I look forward to teaching it again soon. I feel quite grateful to be doing work that matters in the classroom. I feel the vibrancy of these writers in our class every day, and it makes the course a true pleasure to teach. We have fun in there!”
Sullivan began teaching at Bryn Mawr last fall. Her research focuses on explorations of gender, sexuality, and difference in literary cultures of the African Diaspora. Next semester, Sullivan will teach Narrativity and Hip Hop as a part of the new Tri-Co Philly Program.