On May 25, Robert B. Stepto, Yale professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies, spoke to a group of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students and faculty members on a variety of topics that included reoccurring themes in African American literature.
The high school English Department and school librarian Sandy Mott organized the visit. In two separate presentations, Mr. Stepto read from his recently published book, “A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama,” (Harvard University Press) and spoke with students and teachers about themes in works that ranged from president Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” to “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott.
Mr. Stepto said the candidacy and election of Barack Obama served as an important inspiration for his book that began as a series of lectures. He explained that he was writing about 19th century African American writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass during the 2008 presidential election for the 2009 W.E.B. DuBois lecture series he delivered at Harvard University. “Something happened in terms of writing about Douglass in the midst of that presidential campaign and having history and current events come together,” professor Stepto said. “I decided that there was a project to be done involving reading the classics. In this particular case, African American classics.”
Professor Stepto focused on the importance of learning that takes place within any school outside the formal curriculum. He read portions from his book in which he analyzed Barack Obama’s experiences at Punahou Academy.
“One of the reasons these episodes interest me is because something often happens in school in which people are learning something other than what is in the books,” professor Stepto said. “There are all sorts of things they are finding out about themselves. They’re finding out how the world looks at them, how the world considers them, and matters involving race and ethnicity.”
Professor Stepto’s examination of the importance of the schoolhouse episode in “Dreams from My Father” provided an opportunity for teachers and students to explore the role schools play in student learning beyond specific curriculum material.
“I thought Mr. Stepto’s talk was especially relevant to a school,” history teacher Corinne Kurtz said. “Sometimes it’s really important to be reminded that you’re learning so much and not just history, or English, or math.”
Personal narrative was another area professor Stepto spoke about. “I would just say that an abiding interest of mine is autobiography,” he said. “One of the reasons I am attracted to autobiography is that it is not the property, if you will, of any one field. Historians are interested in autobiography, people in literature are interested in autobiography, and so on, so that the opportunity to read autobiographies and to write about autobiographies is an opportunity to work in a kind of interdisciplinary way and to build an interdisciplinary intelligence. That is what attracts me to the area.”
Professor Stepto then described the five important types of American narratives that he teaches in his American autobiography class. The categories include Indian captivity narratives, slave narratives, nation building narratives, immigrant narratives, and cause narratives. “I feel it is incumbent on me to think about what types or forms of autobiography might be distinctly American,” he said. “Not necessarily exclusively American, but distinctly American because of our history and our circumstance.”
Julia Sadowski is a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School senior and will attend Mount Holoyke College in the fall.