Today I talked about the value of oral narrative in three different classes, in reference to Homer's Odyssey, African-American folklore, and marginalized cultures in colonized Africa. I asked my first-year students why space exploration matters and what drives people to undertake difficult journeys, and then I asked my Honors students whether fate or free will are responsible for Odysseus's trials. Where else do 18-year-olds get the chance to wrestle with such questions?
In postcolonial class we discussed Doris Lessing's short story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," in which a young white girl in South Africa comes to understand the complexities of colonization and how possession and privilege can alienate person from place, and I thrilled to read aloud this stunning paragraph:
The fear had gone; the loneliness had set into stiff-necked stoicism; there was now a queer hostility in the landscape, a cold, hard, sullen indomitability that walked with me, as strong as a wall, as intangible as smoke; it seemed to say to me: you walk here as a destroyer. I went slowly homewards, with a empty heart: I had learned that if one cannot call a country to heel like a dog, neither can one dismiss the past with a smile in an easy gush of feeling, saying: I could not help it, I am also a victim.I asked my students how the story would be different if the Old Chief Mshlanga had told it, just as I'd asked my African-American Lit students how many songs and stories might have been washed overboard during the Middle Passage, which made this paragraph from a folk legend of the flying African even more compelling:
And as he spoke to them they all remembered what they had forgotten, and recalled the power which had once been theirs. Then all the Negroes, old and new, stood up together; the old man raised his hands; and they all leaped up into the air with a great shout; and in a moment were gone, flying, like a flock of crows, over the field, over the fence, and over the top of the wood; and behind them flew the old man.They remembered what they had forgotten and recalled their power--this is why we study literature, why we struggle with philosophical questions, why we hone our communication skills, so that together we can fly off into a less oppressive future. I don't mind being the old person bringing up the rear as long as I have the chance to show my students how to fly.