category: Campus Conversations

Dr. Kemeshia R. Swanson discusses English 434, ‘Still I Rise,’ a Course Featuring African American Literature

Dr. Kemeshia Swanson poses with some of the books she will be using in her African American Literature Course.
Dr. Kemeshia Randle Swanson poses with some of the books she will be using in her African American literature course. Photo by Lindy Lynch / GWU Student Photo Team

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Kemeshia Randle Swanson will be teaching an African American literature course in the spring semester entitled “Still I Rise.” English 434 is open to any student registered at Gardner-Webb University.

In this Q&A, Swanson talks about why the topic is important to her and what students can expect from the class.

Q: What topics will be covered in this course?

Swanson: We will use traditional literature and other modern texts to examine the lived experiences and cultural practices of African Americans from the pre-Civil War era to the present. We will study memoirs, short stories, speeches, poetry, music lyrics, and even fashion (amongst other genres and expressions) to explore the long-standing tradition of African Americans displaying tact and tenacity, using their literature and lives to fight injustices and overcome adversities. 

Dr. Kemeshia Randle Swanson

Q: Why is this class important?

Swanson: Unfortunately, racial conflict and identity are embedded in our country’s DNA; political events over the past few years have only heightened the need for African Americans and all minority groups to be able to find a safe place to reflect upon their own experiences while learning about the experiences of those who came before them. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020, coupled with the unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in GWU students making a special request for a place to process and critically discuss their frustrations. This course is an attempt to begin answering the students’ plea. Though, this is not just a course for African Americans. It is a place for students of all races, genders, ages, socioeconomic standings, and abilities to learn the value of varied viewpoints and to practice empathy.

Q: What can students expect to learn and experience in this class?

Swanson: This course will indeed be discussion-oriented, as I strongly believe that part of the reason America has not healed from its past is because we have shied away from having the difficult conversations. Instead, we have placed bandages on our wounds and wished them away. This is not an effective problem-resolution strategy, however. As such, in addition to reading and discussing the literature, this class will also be hands-on in the sense that I will ask students to envision and create instruments that might help to improve their campus environment and their own individual communities, i.e. diversity statements, colloquiums, etc.   

Q: What do you hope students take away, learn, and experience as they move through the semester?

Swanson: As a professor in the Humanities, my goal, always, is to teach students to be self-reflective, to think and write critically and objectively, appreciate difference, become informed, and practice empathy and mutual respect.

A collage of six photos featuring pictures of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Cole, Serena Williams and Maya Angelou.
Some of the authors and contemporary personalities who will be featured in English 434: Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., J. Cole, Serena Williams and Maya Angelo.

Q: What are you most excited about the opportunity to teach this class?

Swanson: African American literature is my area of expertise, but I was hired here as an Americanist, and while my department chair has been pretty flexible and supportive and has allowed me to teach to my passions, this will be my first semester getting to teach this particular course, a course dedicated solely to the history, culture, and literature of African Americans. So I am just excited to get to do what I love, to introduce students to texts that I love, to engage in difficult but necessary conversations, and hopefully to affect change on our campus and in our communities.

Q: Why have you focused your scholarly work in the area of African American Studies?

Swanson: I grew up in an impoverished, majority Black town and attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) for undergrad. In both those spaces, despite my circumstances, I knew that my voice, my identity, and my life mattered. The history books and world outside of those hallowed grounds weren’t so reassuring, however. So, I dedicated my studies to learning more about African American history and culture so that I would never have to question my own worth. Though, I realize that Black experiences (and life experiences in general) are not monolithic, so I am able to see varied viewpoints and perspectives in literature, and I hope to share those perspectives with others, to encourage critical analysis and teach empathy and mutual respect.

Q: How did you choose the authors students will study in the course?

Swanson: Most of the authors students will study are well-known African American authors, those who might be found in an anthology—Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, etc. But others are non-traditional and contemporary, people in popular culture who do not consider themselves African American scholars but purposely disseminate knowledge—J. Cole, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, etc. We will also read two YA (Young Adult) literature novels that speak directly to police brutality and unjust penal systems, the very issues that sparked students’ push for this course. In a nutshell, I chose classic works that are foundational to Black identity and freedom as well as contemporary texts that speak to current topics and issues, and I am really excited about discussing them all.

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