Group finds common passion in African-American literature

Morgan State sponsors national convention

April 08, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

They were talking about inner-city tricksters and slave narratives at the Omni Hotel this week; about female griots and Zora Neale Hurston. The occasion was the 60th annual convention of the College Language Association, the national group of African-American literature and language academics.

The group, founded as the Association of Teachers of English in Negro Colleges, dates from the days when black professors were not allowed in mainstream academic societies.

Though the segregation has disappeared, CLA thrives as an institution where African-American literature is taken seriously, discussed and dissected at high intellectual levels.

"Most of us who teach African-American literature are the only ones on the campus to do that," said Jacqueline Jones of Washington College. "There's no one to talk to about it. Here we can talk to each other and not have to start at the beginning every time."

Though it has 1,000 members -- close to half are in Baltimore for the convention -- the CLA is dwarfed by the dominant Modern Language Association. Some say that size is part of its appeal.

"The only thing that has kept me away from a CLA convention is childbirth," said CLA president Emma Waters Dawson, a professor at Florida A&M in Tallahassee who has been a member since 1979.

"I will miss family reunions, but I will never miss the CLA," she said. "Every paper I have published has been through people I have met at these conventions."

Jones said the annual MLA conventions are, by contrast, huge and anonymous. "The people here [at the CLA] are more into literary criticism than theory," she said. "You learn things you can use in the classroom."

The CLA has been integrated since its beginning -- among its founding 10 members was a white faculty member who taught at a black college in Memphis, Tenn.

"When we come here, I don't think anyone sees race," said Anne Warner of Spelman College in Atlanta. "We just see people who are interested in what we are interested in."

Still, race is part of the CLA's legacy, which is on display in a documentary the group has financed.

"We want people to tell the story of this largely unknown chapter of the history of the American academy," said Dolan Hubbard of Morgan State University, which sponsored the convention.

Much of that history can be told by Ruthe T. Sheffey who started teaching at Morgan State in 1949 and joined the CLA the next year. She attended the 1951 convention in Baltimore. The group returned in 1974 and now in 2000.

"One of the great tragedies at the time the CLA was founded was that the intellectual abilities of African-Americans were vastly underestimated," said Sheffey, president of the Zora Neale Hurston Society, which will hold its convention in Baltimore in June. "These were people with degrees from Ivy League schools, from all over the world, who weren't allowed to join the other organizations."

Most of the CLA members in its early years taught at historically black schools, the only places African-Americans could get jobs in many cases.

Now there are whites teaching at historically black schools, blacks at historically white schools, a large contingent from the Caribbean, French-speakers interested in West African literature, scholars of all types studying cultural diasporas, all coming to the CLA.

"The barriers are breaking down," Sheffey said. "But there are still experiences that the African-American professors have that they can bring to these conventions, common experiences they can share."

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