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Dr. Howard Rambsy on Black Authors, Jay-Z, and New Perspectives on Race
As an author and professor of African American literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Dr. Howard Rambsy has spent decades studying creativity and conflict in times of duress among African Americans. With recent events putting a spotlight on racial injustice in the U.S. and across the world, many are turning to experts like him for guidance on what they can do to listen, understand and take action against inequality.
Recently, ProQuest invited Dr. Rambsy to present at a virtual monthly speakers’ series for employees. After his presentation, he spent a few minutes answering questions about the Black writers who inspired him, growing up in the South, and how educators can begin to understand race and racism from perspectives other than their own. Here is a summary of his Q&A.
(Note: Dr. Rambsy is an advisory board member for ProQuest One Literature.)
ProQuest: You’re well-known on campus and beyond for your unique curriculum. What courses do you teach?
Howard Rambsy: I teach an Introduction to African American Literature course to a variety of different audiences, including all first-year Black women and first-year Black men. I also teach a course on representation of African Americans in comic books, a course on rap music, and a course that focuses specifically on the artist Jay-Z. I consider Jay-Z a “gateway” artist – listening to his work will lead you to so many other artists. In fact, I have a younger brother who’s also a professor and he and I both teach Jay-Z courses.
You and your brother both teach Jay-Z courses? I assume that’s something few other siblings can say. What sparked your interest in a career in literature?
My mother was an English teacher and my father was a music teacher, so I grew up around literature and the arts. When taking undergraduate classes at Tougaloo College – a historically Black college/university, or HBCU – I found that the literature classes sparked the most interesting conversations. By the time I got to graduate school at Penn State, I was having what I call “conscious” conversations with my professors and peers about the intersection of literature and culture.
Looking back on your years as a student in both K-12 and higher education, what discrepancies or inequities did you see in the way African American literature was taught?
I’m from Tennessee originally, and I can’t think of any Black writers who were assigned in K-12. I had to read them on my own. Now, every so often, I come across an undergraduate student who had an African American literature class in high school, which always surprises me. Black literature classes are still considered a luxury, and certainly one I didn’t have growing up. We still have a long way to go.
Who are some of the Black writers who have influenced and inspired you over the years?
I discovered Richard Wright at an early age, and consider him to be my gateway author. Later, I discovered Toni Morrison, the poet Amiri Baraka, and once I got to graduate school, Colson Whitehead.
Aside from bringing in more Black voices, what advice would you give to faculty, teachers and librarians for helping build anti-racist views in the classroom and beyond?
My greatest advice would be to pay close attention to differing views among African Americans on topics with regard to race and racism. The discussions we have in my all-Black classes are very different than the discussions we have in my classes that are made up of students of all races. There are many assumptions made, many things taken for granted.
For example, if you closely listen to the discussion within the Black community on Black Lives Matter, you’ll see that there are different voices even among the activists. Some say the movement needs to focus on Black men, others say it needs to focus more on Black women, others look toward Black Trans people. That’s a discussion that would rarely take place outside of the Black community. It’s important for people to immerse themselves into a space where they’re discussing race and racism from others’ perspectives.
If you could recommend three works for someone looking to open their mind and challenge their own views about racism, what would they be?
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. She was more adamant than any Black writer I know about understanding what it means to write for a Black audience. Her work really speaks to the complexities within the African American community.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. This book tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a Black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee who is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy.
And finally, I recommend The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabelle Wilkerson. It’s a book about the Great Migration – the decades-long movement of Black Americans from the south in search of a better life. It’s a much longer work than the other two I recommended, as it blends history and personal narrative.
Thank you so much for your time. And I can’t end this interview without asking: what’s your favorite Jay-Z track?
My favorites are What More Can I Say, and What’s Free, a collaboration he did with Meek Mill and Rick Ross. I really like Jay-Z’s verse at the end.