December 17, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
“The Black Man in Contemporary Society,” a course offered through BMCC’s Center for Ethnic Studies, was taught this semester by professor and author Zetta Elliott.
“Some of you are probably surprised to come in and see me at the front of the classroom,” she tells her students on the first day of class.
Many assume the professor will be a man of color, she explains, so she asks them, “What makes me qualified to teach this class? and they’ll say, ‘You’re Black’. And I’ll say, ‘Am I?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, mostly … you’re African American’. And I’ll say, ‘Actually, I’m an immigrant. I’m Canadian’. “
Confronting assumptions, it turns out, is what the class is all about.
“We talk about stereotypes of Black men,” says one of her students, Kuhinur Jahan, who emigrated from Bangladesh, in 2010.
“Professor Elliott makes us think deeply about Black community in New York and the contribution of Richard Wright, Malcolm X and other writers.”
Elliott explains that she has studied gender for many years, “and one of the reasons I started off being interested in Black masculinity was because I wanted to end violence against women—but when I started studying masculinity I realized that the majority of the victims of male violence were other men and boys.”
It falls to reason then, “that if you have men and boys in your life that you love and care about, we have to be invested in the construction of masculinity,” she says, and guides the class as they consider the question, “How do Black boys evolve into Black men?”
Students write essays examining these ideas, and their readings center on biography and autobiography.
“We start with Byron Hurt’s essay ‘Redefining Manhood’,” she says. “We read The Life of Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Malcolm X’s autobiography. We read a section of Don Lemon’s book, Transparent—he’s the CNN anchor who came out as gay a couple years ago and he’s a conservative Black man.”
Other readings, she says, “include Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; we did an excerpt of Mike Tyson’s memoir, Undisputed Truth, and we finish up with Jay Z.”
Readers become writers
A challenge in teaching the class, Professor Elliott says, is that it seems many college students “do not read recreationally—and if you aren’t reading for fun, and you don’t think reading is fun, then having to read for class is tedious and a chore.”
One of her goals is to helps students understand “the connection between being a good reader, and being a good writer.”
“They have so many dreams and aspirations,” she says, “but when you ask them, ‘How is writing going to feature in your life? When do you see yourself writing?’, a lot of them say they just don’t.”
Professor Elliott is determined to change that reality.
“In almost every text I teach,” she says, “either the person writing the memoir or the protagonist says, ‘Reading opened up my mind, it made me feel mentally alive, it showed me how the world actually worked’, and the students write an essay about that.”
In the process, they also tackle the mechanics of writing.
“Every time we do writing assignments, Professor Elliott helps us outline it first,” says Kuhinur Jahan. “She’ll give us clear direction about citations.”
Another strategy the students use is peer review, “where we read each other’s papers,” says Jahan, “and whenever I read someone else’s paper, I see they have different ideas than in my own.”
Mirror, then window
When students have texts that are a mirror, Elliott says, and reflects their lives or their neighborhood, they become much more invested.
“But then you have to go beyond that, to texts that are a window,” she says. “They can’t only expect to read texts that give them a reflection of their own world.”
Kuhinur Jahan is one student whose life is probably not reflected—at least not literally—in the course’s assigned reading.
“I’m the one and only student in the class whose first language is not English,” she says. “My relatives told me, community college will be good for me because they really care about people whose first language is not English.”
Professor Elliott relates to the experience of international students, she says, because, “as an immigrant, I often share their ‘outsider’ perspective. I remember how desperately I wanted to fit in when I first moved to NYC to study, and it took time for me to feel less self-conscious and more willing to share my culture and history.”
She has also observed in her class, the positive impact of Jahan’s perspective—that of a South Asian woman—on Black masculinity in the U.S.
“She can talk about the way people stereotype her, and have limited expectations of her, based on her accent, or her appearance, and don’t want to actually engage with her and find out who she is and what she knows,” Elliott says.
Zetta Elliott is a widely published playwright, essayist, poet and novelist.
Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was released in February 2010; her second novel, Ship of Souls, was published in 2012, and her latest novel, The Deep, was released this year.
Both Ship of Souls and The Deep are ‘speculative fiction’, Elliott explains, a genre that encompasses fantasy and science fiction, as well as paranormal, horror, and alternate fiction.
The books are also considered “urban fantasy,” she says, because they involve ghosts, spirits and “fantastic” elements.
“The landscape is really important to me,” she says, “and the idea that something marvelous or fantastic can happen in a place you consider so everyday and ordinary.”
She remembers a discovery within the landscape of her own Brooklyn neighborhood that triggered a central story idea for The Deep.
“I was walking up Flatbush at Grand Army Plaza,” she says, and near the famous arch, she saw—though it seemed highly improbable—what looked like an elevator.
“It had a sliding door and buttons on the side, and then I got up close, and realized it’s just a public toilet—you put your quarter in and the door opens—but that idea, that you could take an elevator and go down really deep beneath Brooklyn, stuck with me, and I kept coming back to those two words, ‘What if?’”
Elliott’s 2012 novel, Ship of Souls—a finalist for the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and a Booklist Sci-Fi/Fantasy Youth Title—involves malevolent forces existing beneath Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and earthbound ghosts of Revolutionary War soldiers.
The Deep, equally fantastical, “plunges readers into a dangerous, underground world policed by members of ‘The League’, a secret group of women and men who use their intuitive abilities to detect energy surges far below the earth’s surface,” according to a review in the online journal, Black Girl Nerds.
Black girl in a space suit
“African American writers struggle so hard to get published, and one of the things publishers have said is, ‘There’s no market for your book’,” says Professor Elliott.
“They assume that Whites don’t want to read books about Black people—which is not true—and they also assume that Black people just don’t buy books.”
The African American novelist and poet Alice Walker “kind of blew that apart,” says Elliott, “and so did Terry McMillan, Tony Morrison, and others, but now publishers are more interested in ‘street lit’; they’re interested in really gritty, graphic urban tales, and if you’re a writer of literary fiction it’s hard for you.”
Recently, she pitched a story idea to Bitch magazine, about Black girls needing heroes, prompted by a phenomenon she sees in popular culture.
“All these young adult novels are being made into movies,” she says, “and you think, ‘Black girls go to those movies, too, so what would it mean if they went to a film and it was the Black girl in a space suit?’”
Her decision to self-publish The Deep at this time, rather than accept a publisher’s offer to release it in 2015, came from realizing, that those young girls “have been waiting all this time—I’ve been waiting all this time. I didn’t have books like that when I was growing up.”
She’s also hoping to finish another novel over winter break.
“Writing within the academic calendar, I do have a bit more flexibility, which helps a lot,” she says.
Meanwhile, she shares her insights as a reader and a writer, with each new class of students she meets at BMCC.
“She’s very organized. She’s very helpful,” says Kuhinur Jahan. “Even if she’s on vacation, if you send her an email, she responds, and when I see her I want to be like her. She looks confident.”