Interview with Dr. Sarita Cannon

Back in June of 2020, WordSpaceStudios collaborated with Dr. Cannon to offer a course entitled “Narratives of Black Resilience and Resistance” over a 6 month period to explore important texts in the context of our tumultuous current times. WordSpaceStudios’ Elizabeth Hoover took time to interview Dr. Cannon about her experience teaching this class. All course supplements are now offered to the public here.

What inspired you to create this course? What are your desires in how this course will impact its participants? 

Naomi and I had been talking for quite some time about organizing a book club through WordSpace Studios.  When George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department in May 2020 and protests erupted around the world, I felt compelled to offer something that would contribute to conversations (and action) around white supremacy and racial injustice. Creating a study group focused on Black literature in the past two centuries seemed like a way to meet both goals. I hoped that participants would gain a greater understanding of the different ways that generations of Black people in the United States have thrived and created life-sustaining art and literature even in the face of violence and oppression. I also hoped that participants would reflect on their own complicity in structures of oppression and think about the ways in which they can contribute to racial justice in their own lives. 

What kinds of impacts did you observe in the participants of this course? How do you see these impacts importantly contributing to personal and collective revolutions concerning the problem of white supremacy?

It was very moving to see how participants brought their whole humanity to the course. We analyzed works of literature, yes, but we also discussed how these pieces affected us personally.  I believe that learning, by its very nature, is uncomfortable, but the space in which that learning happens should be a supportive one. I was impressed by how everyone in the group listened with respect and compassion, especially when people were grappling with difficult feelings and reactions. Being able to have those uncomfortable conversations with people who are different from us is an important foundation for doing the kind of anti-racist work that needs to be done in this country (and in the world).

Describe your experiences of teaching this course. What did you notice about teaching this course, particularly in 2020, when dialogues and acts of resilience and resistance of white supremacy have seemingly amplified due to the murder of George Floyd committed by police and the global protests that ensued? How do you think this year and everything it contained, (pandemic, ongoing Trump catastrophes, etc) impacted how participants engaged with it?

Our monthly meetings energized and inspired me.  It was wonderful to get to know the participants of the course over the course of many months and to link our conversations about these works of literature to the events of 2020.  Each month there was so much to digest, and our meetings provided an opportunity to pause for a moment, to breathe together, and to check in with each other. I also appreciated the wealth of life experience and interdisciplinary knowledge that the participants brought to the course. 

How did you choose course materials for this course? What elements of these materials are particularly important to you and why?

First and foremost, I chose books that I love and that (in most cases) I have taught before.  I was also interested in reading books that corresponded to different moments in Black/American history. I always provided literary and historical context for each text in an attempt to show how literature and history are intertwined.  I also wanted to read books that dealt not just with the trauma of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy, but also with the joy and beauty of Black life in the United States.  Black people should not be defined simply by the ways in which we respond to oppression.  So thinking about the life-giving force of the erotic in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, considering the eruption of Black joy in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and reflecting on the power of motherhood in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl were very important to me.

In what ways did teaching this course impact you?

I suspect that I will be processing this effects of this course for a long time. Even after teaching these texts multiple times, the conversations in this course made me think about these works of literature in new ways.  For example, one astute participant called our attention to the multiple connotations of the word “spell” in Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and I have been chewing on that comment ever since. I also realized that community and connection are possible even when we are meeting via Zoom and we can’t make eye contact with each other. While we didn’t have physical proximity because of the pandemic, we could still support each other and hold space for each other. There was something sweet about being able to click a heart or a thumbs-up or an applause emoji in response to the conversation. There was something delightful about being able to chime in on chat with a comment or a link to a relevant website without interrupting the flow of someone’s thought. There was something tender about seeing a beloved pet or a pajamaed child join the video frame. This experience made consider the ways in which Zoom might offer both new forms and new definitions of intimacy.

When will this course be available again? Who can join? How do we join?

I will be offering another 6-part course in February of 2021, this time focusing on women’s narratives of transformation. I’d like to read literature of the past century written by women from around the world and explore the ways in which transformation is central to their personal and artistic growth. Naomi and I are still working out the details, but we will send out an announcement on social media and post information on the WordSpace Studios website as soon as the dates are solidified.  Anyone is welcome to join! No previous literary experience is required. I am looking forward to another wonderful course, and I am so grateful to Naomi and WordSpace Studios for facilitating this.

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