School days and family ways: Education in African American literature, 1903--2005

Date of Completion

January 2010


African American Studies|Black Studies|Literature, American




School Days and Family Ways investigates the positions of educated characters in response to their families and communities in twentieth century African American literary settings. I examine the moments when characters in a dozen texts published between 1903 and 2005 return home. Their native communities typically expect them to serve as leaders or ask them to give up opportunities in favor of domestic responsibilities. Many of the characters in my study rebel against their families' wishes, carving out new paths for themselves through their intellectual pursuits. A few find ways to maintain family connections while meeting their own goals. In my dissertation's five historically contextualized chapters, I discuss the relative success with which each character negotiates a space between the dichotomous poles of family expectation and educational aspirations. I argue that most of these characters want to find a balance between school and family, but few succeed. ^ Entering existing scholarly conversations about education and ethnicity, I focus on African American literary representations of familial and educational responsibilities. I situate my research at the intersection of multiethnic American literary criticism, African American educational histories, and theories of liminality. I employ studies of intergenerational ethnic experiences, such as Werner Sollors's Beyond Ethnicity, to contend that these characters search for their identities in the space between their families of "descent" and their communities of "consent." Histories of African American education contextualize my study of fictional representations of schooling at key moments in the twentieth century. I apply theories of liminality, such as Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands, to establish the middle ground that most of these characters hope to occupy. I locate my work at the junction of literature, education, and ethnicity where no scholarship currently exists.^ My dissertation expands our understanding of education in African American literature by challenging the once-dominant view that schooling for black literary characters has been predominantly about literacy and employability as modes of achieving upward social mobility. I argue against a traditional understanding of education as progress and uplift to suggest the complicated pull of families and communities on characters who have new options because of their educations. ^