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"But Mostly I Lie A Lot" - The African American Short Story in the 21st Century

Seminar Leader:
Herman Beavers


As it is understood in the present moment, the African American short story is fed from two distinct tributaries: the tales and sketches of 19th Century writers like Poe, Twain, Hawthorne, and Irving and the tales featuring Anansi the Spider, which came to these shores during the Middle Passage and which later become the Brer Rabbit and John the Slave tales of the antebellum and Reconstruction periods. In light of these developments, the African American short story has often sought to balance its performativity against its penchant for social commentary. Our seminar looked at the short story as a literary form that turns on its economical use of language, rapid forms of plot and character development, and conscious attention to methods of closure. The African American short story dates back to the mid-19th Century, emerging at a time when African Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line were considered property. As it evolves in the 20th Century, the short story proved to be a useful literary form for a population involved in a mass migration from a rural lifestyle to an urban one. Indeed, the short stories produced during the New Negro Renaissance often revealed the fault lines created when blacks raised in the North encountered blacks recently arrived in the city after escaping Jim Crow in the South. For example, in stories like Wallace Thurman’s “Cordelia the Crude” or Chester Himes’ “Headwaiter,” we find characters whose understanding of their environment is shaped by their need to please. In Arna Bontemps’ “Summer Tragedy,” a black writer looks back on life in the South and finds it totally bereft of anything worth living for. Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded-Six Bits” dramatizes the tension that arises between a husband and wife when she falls under the spell of a smooth-talking city dweller.

But as stories by Sherley Anne Williams, John Wideman, Toni Cade Bambara, and Cyrus Colter demonstrate, life in the city is equally challenging, fraught with the disillusionment produced by soul-destroying circumstance. Williams’ “Tell Martha Not to Moan,” and Wideman’s “newborn thrown in trash and dies,” dramatize the struggle of its characters to overcome undernourishment of the spirit and its concomitant impact on their aspirations. Colter’s “The Lookout” and “The Beach Umbrella,” reveal the disillusionment that accompanies upward mobility in the black middle class.

Unlike the novel, which emphasizes events on a grander scale, the short story’s limited scope in terms of geography, its propensity to portray interactions between individuals in small units of time (e.g. a bus ride, a meal, a casual conversation at the end of hard day of work), and its intensity of emotional conflict, makes for a distinctive reading experience. Though African American literature has been characterized as being preoccupied with the politics of racial identity, gender, class, and sexuality prove to be equally compelling aspects of the short story. In Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” we encountered a story that resisted efforts to determine the racial identities of its characters, helping members of the seminar understand that entering a story with preconceived ideas about race can prove to be an obstacle to gleaning its deeper resonances. James Alan McPherson’s “A Sense of Story,” or Wideman’s “microstories,” challenge the conventions of the well-made short stories through experimental approaches to storytelling.

The trajectory of the seminar was grounded in the notion that storytelling can assume a variety of forms, especially as it moves from the realm of the written word and takes up residence in video culture. Though the main emphasis was on conventional examples of literature, we turned our attention to other forms of media. “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which has been distributed via YouTube on the Web, is indicative of the ways that black women writers have sought to expand our understanding of what it means to be black and female, by focusing on all the ways that life for a single black woman turns on her ability to overcome fear and uncertainty to find love and happiness. Given the primacy of the cinematic and televisual image, we ruminated on the possibilities they hold for the 21st Century classroom.

The units produced by participants in the seminar are exemplary in their ability to use the short story to accomplish a number of imperatives in the classroom. Each is distinguished by the desire to empower students in elementary, middle, and high school settings, which use the short story as a way to help them develop interpretive strategies, perspectives on everyday experience, and a greater appreciation for their communities. What is perhaps most inspiring about these units is that they reflect the deep-seated belief these teachers have in their students’ abilities. Though they represent a tremendous amount of imagination and organization, as the seminar leader, I can attest to the ways these units reflect the seminar participants’ unshakeable commitment to academic excellence.

Unit TitleAuthor


How Does Media Affect Our Identity?

Jacqueline Adam-Taylor
Keywords: Identity, Media, Recitatif

Picturing Our Lives Through Written Tales, Oral History and Photographs

Dale Apple
Keywords: oral history, photographs, smart phones, social media, stories

“I Even Encountered Myself”: Exploring Identity Development in Literature During the Middle School Years

Erin Bloom
Keywords: Identity, Literature, short stories

Fly Away North: African-American Short Stories of the Great Migration

Bonnee L. Breese
Keywords: Great Migration, short stories, US distinction, US migration

African American Short Stories: Author Studies for Elementary Level Students

Sue A. Christmas
Keywords: African American stories, Faith Ringgold, Jacqueline Woodson, Julius Lester, short stories

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things: African American Short Stories in the Jazz Tradition

Sydney Hunt Coffin
Keywords: African American short stories, Jazz, short stories

What’s That You Say Neighbor?

Lynn Gourinski Fahr
Keywords: Civil War, storytelling, The Great Migration

Intentional Diction, Code Switching and Character Development — Oh My!

Mary Beth Grady
Keywords: character development, diction, Identity, self-awareness, self-identity

Teaching American African Males Using Short Stories

Keysiah M. Middleton
Keywords: African American males, African American short stories, short stories

Short Story Encounters: Pathos in Action in African-American Fiction

Stacia Parker
Keywords: African American fiction, pathos, short stories

Teaching Characterization and Metacognition using African-American Short Stories

Jessica L. Shupik
Keywords: African American short stories, metacognition, Recitatif, short stories

School Daze: Engagement Strategies for Middle School Readers

Joan Taylor
Keywords: African American short stories, cognitive strategies, reading strategies, short stories

Do You Know My Struggle? A Writing Unit Designed to Explore the Voices of Middle School Students

Michelle Todd
Keywords: external conflicts, internal conflicts, literacy, short stories