Black Texts Matter: Race, Empathy, and the Postcolonial Classroom

Nancy Comorau

“I was not sorry when my brother died,” reads the first line of Tsetse Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. This is the first sentence students read in the lower-level postcolonial literature course I teach. For many of my students, it is both their introduction to reading literature at the college level and to reading a book by an African writer. “I was not sorry when my brother died” is an odd way to begin a novel, and it is perhaps an odder way to begin a semester. I spend the semester asking my students to confront unfamiliar characters, writers, and settings. We read about Tambu, the protagonist of Nervous Conditions growing up in colonial Rhodesia, about characters who live on India’s northern border with Nepal, about recipes that travel with immigrants from the Bahamas to Canada and those that move back and forth between Jordan and the United States. When Tambu challenges my students with her open declaration of defiance of the cultural and gendered expectations that would constrain her emotions, she gets their attention. She seems to be defying them to connect with her, to feel the kind of empathy for the individual the novel is built on, just as her narrative welcomes them into a world very much unlike their own.

Very quickly, they do connect with Tambu. My students, most of whom are white, most of whom are American, about two thirds of whom come from the Midwest, empathize with this girl who lives without electricity, who walks miles each day to the river to bring water to her family, who feels shock the first time she rides in a car. It might be unfair to assume that most of my students have never heard of Zimbabwe, the contemporary name for the nation from which Tambu and her creator Dangarembga hail, but it would be accurate to say that most have never considered the place, imagined what it might look like, thought about the lives contained within. By the end of our week with Tambu they will have argued fervently about her obligations to her family and herself, the value and limits to her education, the problematic nature of the missionary education she receives, and the ways in which her race and gender affect her status in the world. For most of these students, Nervous Conditions is the first book they’ve read set anywhere in Africa; for some, it’s the first novel they’ve read with a black protagonist. Their relationship to Tambu and many other characters they meet in my classes helps them see—for many in ways they never have before—that black lives matter.

While I do not set out in this direction, our conversations in class often come back to discussions of American politics and movements, and many of my students—seeking professors who are willing to talk openly about race—seek me out to engage on these issues. I love having students who identify as “conscious” and “activists,” and I’ve been proud that they seek my knowledge and opinions on questions of race and equality, but this paper is not about those students. My activist students may learn a great deal in our classes and appreciate the representation of people of color from various parts of the world on our syllabi, many of them would have found novels like Nervous Conditions somewhere along the way. This paper is focused on the other students, those who have imagined themselves in terms of consciousness, those who have not heard the term woke, those who might otherwise shy from a class focused on people of color, not knowing if they belong in such a space, not sure what protagonists like Tambu or writers like Michelle Cliff, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Patricia Powell would have to say to them. It is my argument that the postcolonial classroom can be a space in which students can learn that black lives do in fact matter and that they should matter to them.

The postcolonial studies classroom represents an interesting space of convergence with the Black Lives Matter movement in that teaching students postcolonial literature can help them see the value and complexity of black lives. While any reader could avail him- or herself of the learning opportunities postcolonial literature presents, because the postcolonial literature classroom lacks some of the barriers that keep certain cohorts of students away from other classes about race and due to the ways in which literature, particularly the novel, teaches its readers about subjectivity and value, the postcolonial literature classroom is a place where otherwise resistant or disinterested students find themselves reassessing their understanding of race. In this case, the students’ lack of knowledge about the postcolonial world can help them draw conclusions about race and people of color with less hindrance from U.S. racial narratives. It is not just the unfamiliarity that helps; the literature can have specific benefits, and the novel in particular can do work in this area that is unlike the work other kinds of learning can provide.

At this point I feel I need to offer a few caveats about the scope of the claims I wish to make here. I want to be careful to note that my claims should be read as neither too big nor too small. This paper seeks to demonstrate that certain students—most of them Caucasian, American students—can learn something specific in the postcolonial literature classroom. I do not mean to argue that the purpose of teaching, writing, or reading postcolonial literature is to educate white Americans about race in the United States, and I feel a certain discomfort privileging the U.S. while talking about postcolonial spaces. Most of my students learn far more about the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. But despite this disparity, and likely because of it, they often use the U.S. as frame of reference and comparison to the things we discuss in class. I also want to offer a warning about the limits of my claims. Postcolonial literary study has received some (fair) criticism for a celebratory strain that overemphasizes moments of possibility and agency. I do not mean to weight these moments too heavily. In fact, my claims here are relatively modest. I argue that the study of postcolonial literature can lead students to see that black lives matter in ways that they had not previously imagined. I argue that the study of postcolonial literature can open doors to critical thought about race for students who might not have been willing to open those doors before. These two things are powerful, but they are, in the grand scheme of race work to be done, small. I do not mean to compare the work we do in the classroom to the daring and dangerous work of Black Lives Matter advocates. These two kinds of labor are not equivalent.

While some of our white students will seek out opportunities to learn about race, many do just the opposite. In my interactions with students in both teaching and advising roles, I see two key barriers to these students learning about race when they come to college—the belief that classes about race are not for them and a set of limited narratives about racial progress in the United States. The first becomes prevalent when I help our incoming first-year students build their schedules in summer registration. “There are seats in Short Stories by Black Writers/Introduction to Black World Studies/African-American History,” I say after the student has expressed an interest in literature, social science, or history. Some students smile and warm to the idea, but on many (usually white) faces I see a look of uncertainty about how to turn down the option I’ve offered. “I don’t think so,” comes the reply. Sometimes, they can’t even manage to verbalize their rejection of these courses, offering a strange look and a head shake. Were they hoping for a class on Harry Potter when they declared an interest in literature? Are they unsure if they would belong in a class focused on a race other than theirs? Are they resentful, as Cheryl Johnson has suggested, that space usually given to white voices and subjects has been ceded to people of color (311)? Are they fearful of being a racial minority in the room? I cannot read their concerns, and I do not know them well enough to ask. Our university, like many small liberal arts colleges, sees our summer registration sessions as important moments during which the students connect to campus; we are to be welcoming and supportive. I cannot use this moment to challenge or question their motivations, so I offer up a different course and we move on.

While I cannot speak to the motivations of these first-year students, I do know that most of the Caucasian students I meet come to college with an extremely narrow understanding of race in the United States and even less of an understanding of race beyond our borders. They recognize that slavery was practiced in the U.S., that there was segregation after slavery, and that there was a civil rights movement. They tend to see this as a narrative of progress—problems and solutions. I doubt any would argue that anti-black racism doesn’t exist, but they have no understanding of structural racism beyond slavery and segregation, and they think of both of those eras as past. I rarely hear students make comments that they intend or perceive to be blatantly bigoted, but I do hear certain knee-jerk reactions oft repeated. They have grievances, the same grievances we can see nursed in the national conversation. From the white students who give voice to racial apprehension, most often the white male students, I hear a fairly consistent belief that their whiteness, or more precisely their lack of a “special” minority status has kept them from scholarships, admission to colleges (presumably colleges other than ours), and will someday keep them from jobs. Occasionally they will note there is a Black History month, which is figured either as an unfairness—something minorities get that they don’t—or an noncontroversial imposition that forces them to learn things for class, something no more or less offensive or useful than the quadratic equation or the Gettysburg Address.

While they have limited narratives about Africa, the Caribbean, and other postcolonial spaces as well, these limitations can actually work in my favor in the classroom. They imagine the spaces of the Global South primarily as landscapes—beaches, savannahs, and jungles. For the most part, when these students have imagined the people who live in these spaces, they see people who have charitable needs, people in need of fundraisers, international adoption, and church mission trips. In other words, my white students do not see people of color from other places in the world as problems that have been solved, nor do they see them as people who might take their jobs or places in universities. While most of the characters my students read about are from the African diaspora, their blackness is not fixed in the American imagination in the same way as African Americans. As white students can simultaneously believe that postcolonial spaces are beautiful landscapes empty of people and filled with people who desperately need white, Western intervention, so too, they believe that racism is no longer much of a problem in the U.S. and that people of color are not fully citizens or subjects in the same way they are. They have been taught that they live in a meritocracy and that they should be colorblind in issues of race. They have also been taught, simultaneously, that the black body is “dangerous, subhuman, despicable, and unruly” (Yancy xx). George Yancy explains that even when white Americans come to believe that racism is “epistemologically false,” racism may still “have a hold” on them because of the “social and historical matrix” in which race has been constructed, reinforced, and lived (3-5). Shifting our focus and discussion to spaces outside the United States can help us break this hold.

Trapped by the historical weight of the limited narratives about the black subject, white America finds itself unable to imagine the lives lived in black bodies. This lack of empathy stands as one of the barriers to white acceptance of antiblack racist movements. In areas from law to medicine to legislation, white people have proved unable to feel the pain of black subjects or to imagine their lives. [1] When whites see black bodies, they cannot imagine the subjectivities that inhabit them, instead fitting black people into a set of predetermined narratives. Trying to convince a room of students that what they’ve been taught about race and policing (and for that matter, the egalitarian nature of the United States) can be a futile cause. They easily retreat into the narratives they have learned—that the U.S. offers equal opportunities to all. Studies in confirmation bias have shown that we struggle to incorporate ideas that are antithetical to our already held beliefs. When presented with conflicting facts, not only are we rarely moved from our disproven positions, but we will actually dig in, becoming more firmly entrenched in these positions. Try to walk them through an angle where they have less connection or preconceived options—a history of housing policies to show them how government policies have legislated a separation of black and white lives, for example—and most will glaze over. But offer them a novel about black Britons on a housing estate, and they may find enough interest that they can come back to those other topics with a more open perspective.

In addition to moving to more unfamiliar terrain, the form of the novel itself holds unique possibilities for teaching students to imagine the complex and varied subjectivities of people unlike them. The ways in which the novel helped to forge the modern understanding of the subject makes the form particularly suited to this kind of work. I do not mean to argue that we should teach or can only learn from novels, especially when we’re talking about the importance of race and representation. There is a strong case to be made for the power of poetry, as those who have had English thrust upon them reinvent the language into hundreds of global Englishes. Drama and film are particularly powerful in providing much needed visual representation of nonwhite bodies on stages and screens, presenting blackness as beautiful and desirable, and showing people often made invisible through history, politics, and labor markets. We need all of these forms working together, as we need art, and history, and sociology, and economics. But literature, and the novel in particular, can provide pathways for those who might be otherwise resistant to understand race in new ways and, ideally, then find their ways to other disciplines.

A recent study suggests what humanities professors have known for a long time: reading can engender empathy (Kidd). There has been some controversy over the data from the study, but whether or not this experiment offers quantitative proof, those of us who teach literature have no doubt that reading literary fiction can, and usually does, create empathy. As our conversations begin, my students consider how they relate to individual characters, and how they might act if put in the situations they read about. This kind of reading tends to be discouraged in twenty-first century university literature classrooms, dismissed as being too personal and superficial. I hear my colleagues lament that their students fail to push beyond the psychology of the characters in their readings. While there is certainly other work to do throughout the semester, these moments of connection can be productive in a number of ways. In fact, these conversations show my students reading like eighteenth-century readers, who were expected to be sentimental, that is, to feel an emotional connection to the characters about whom they read. Though the sentimental novel was only in vogue for a few decades, the genre and philosophy behind it helped shape the novel we know today (Mullan 237). The goal of the sentimental novel was for the reader to feel the pain the protagonist felt, to “suffer with those of whom he or she read” (Mullan 238). This feeling of emotion, like the feeling I seek to recognize and cultivate in my students, had social aims. The belief was that deep feeling could make good citizens, that “sentiments might be both vivid emotions and moral judgment” (Mullan 249).

The English novel has sought to instruct readers on questions of morality and judgment since its original rise in popularity the eighteenth century, as the novel developed from earlier forms of the conduct book (Armstrong, Desire 109-11). As imperialism and colonialism fundamentally altered the nature of Britain in the eighteenth century, the nation underwent changes that confused long-standing notions of status, wealth, and Britishness. Colonial expansion widened Britain’s boundaries to reach places in far-flung corners of the globe, and British citizens experienced mobility—geographically, economically, and socially—like they never had before. Questions arose as to how the society should measure and recognize the worth of its subjects. James Thompson calls this a “crisis in the concept of value” (18). The novel provided answers, easing concerns about the changing nation and economy by separating the worlds of political economy and the home into spheres of public and private and locating the value of a household in the newly-stable female subject. Within the realm of these novels, domestic subjects taught their male counterparts and readers of all genders how worth could be demonstrated outside of title and wealth; or, more accurately, that title—or at least wealth—would follow worth. The novel form offered answers, and while there were initial concerns—especially in terms of women reading and writing—about the social good the novel might do, by the nineteenth century, English MPs were arguing that literature was the best way to create colonial subjects who would be “English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect” (Macauley). Englishness, and by extension Westernness and civilization, could be taught by novels.

I emphasize the eighteenth-century novel not only due to its importance in understanding the contemporary novel, but also because we, as a nation and a community of universities, are undergoing a crisis of value similar to that of Britain in the eighteenth century. We fail to understand how race functions in our world and how it should be a part of our post-secondary system of education. [2] As eighteenth-century Britons struggled to understand how the empire’s subject could include both English Anglo-Saxons and the inhabitants of Jamaica and India, the election of Barack Obama challenged perceptions about race, upending the understanding that many white Americans had about their place in the racial hierarchy of the nation while simultaneously allowing for a false narrative of a post-racial America to emerge. Faculty members witness the changing demographics of our nation and the students who attend our nation’s universities, yet we have often failed to consider how our changing demographics should affect our curriculum and pedagogy. Recently, our students have presented us with a changing set of concerns. Black Lives Matter groups and student groups both related to and inspired by them have provided specific sets of demands that we make black subjects and the needs of black communities visible. These changes have been wrought by mobility and technology, much as those that created the conditions for the rise of the novel in English. Hundreds of years ago, the printing press makes books more inexpensive, the burgeoning middle class creates a group of readers, and the social and economic mobility of that burgeoning middle class creates anxiety that is met with a relocating of stability and value. In the twenty-first century, social media, cell phone cameras, and streaming technologies allow victims of police brutality and other forms of violence inflicted on the black community to be shared and seen by exponentially more people.

Our nation and our universities face crises of value similar to that of eighteenth-century Britain, and as arbiters of what topics or texts we include in our curricula and syllabi, faculty members transmit value statements to our students each day of the semester. For most of this paper, I’ve focused on the possibilities the postcolonial classroom holds for white students who show reluctance toward or distance from the Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements, in large part because I believe they would not find the texts we discuss in class on our own. For my students of color, however, I know that presenting syllabi filled with black writers and thinkers provides them with something they don’t get nearly enough of in their college education and shows them they and people like them are valued by the university. Tamara Adams argues for the importance of creating a space for students of color to consider their creative and intellectual histories as “black students are seldom exposed to scholarly work related to the Black experience” in predominately white institutions (285). And while there has been some diversifying of the canon in recent years, a visit to the Open Syllabus Project ( ) shows that most of our commonly assigned texts are written by white writers. Adams notes that if black students cannot see themselves reflected in the curriculum, they may “internalize their marginalized status” (286). Our white, Western focus leaves black students feeling, rightly, that the university has not been designed for them. I have had students of color confide to me that they and others feel that the university values them primarily so it can claim a “diverse” student body. These students need us to show them, throughout the curriculum, that we value black art and black thought.

Furthermore, in addition to the dangers I noted earlier, I will admit to a certain discomfort in centering white students, and particularly white students who aren’t particularly interested in questions of race and equality. I work at a predominantly white institution, and English is not a top major or minor among our students of color. While the postcolonial literature classroom may remove barriers between the subject of race and some of my white students, my whiteness and the structures of the university can easily erect barriers between me and my students of color. While I feel confident and glad to present students with syllabuses that insist upon the value of black lives around the world and the value of black literature, my confidence is tempered with the understanding that when I stand in front of the room, I am an agent of the university and a subject who enjoys white privilege. Though most of them are used to having white instructors, they cannot know how I will act from the beginning of the class. They may assume my position as a white, American professor creates a distance between me and the subject matter that will be a problem (Koger 44). They cannot know if I will take them seriously, provide appropriate historical context for black texts, or if I might try to turn them into native informants, and, until I prove otherwise, they may resist my authority. I know that I must earn their trust. The ways in which we show we value black lives cannot end with syllabus revision. If we are truly interested in teaching all our students that black lives matter, we, as faculty, must take black lives seriously—not just those in the subject matter we teach, but also those in front of us in the classroom—and we must model that behavior for all of our students.

Calling back to my earlier comments, I want to be reasonable about my claims. Reading postcolonial literature does not teach my students all they need to know about the historical and contemporary constructions of race. Some of them leave my classes without really understanding the difference between Nigeria and South Africa or colonialism and imperialism. None of them, however, leaves my class without being touched by at least one of the lives narrated in our texts. Often, I see students who did not think much about race begin to foreground its importance in the way they view the world. This process generally works in three steps. Students find this new literature strange but intriguing enough to want to connect with the characters and their world. Once students have identified with these characters, they feel something when they see these characters inhibited by racism. They begin to ask more pertinent questions about race and representation than they had previously and start to question where the U.S. fits into the new pictures they have. These students have been conditioned to respond to the stuff of novels. As modern subjects who have been reading fiction throughout thirteen years of formal schooling, they have been conditioned to respond to novels. And despite the problematic racial narratives they have learned, most have also been told that they should not be racist, that racism is shameful. These teachings help them come to question how they’ve been asked to believe that people of color have little to contribute, that racism is mainly a thing of the past, and that slavery is over so race is something we should forget about. Reading race outside of these constraints of American racial narratives can help many of them to rethink race inside those constraints and to question the narratives they’ve been offered.

“I never knew” becomes a refrain in my classes. They never knew of the wealth of literature outside the American and European worlds. They never knew of the ways in which the U.S. was merely a part of a larger European colonialism and chattel slavery practiced throughout the Western Hemisphere. They never knew about the history of the places that have been colonized or the ways in which the U.S. is entangled in those histories. Once they start to see these things, some of them come to see the ways in which black lives haven’t mattered historically. They come to see the need for the Black Lives Matter movement, the reality of structural racism, and the ways in which their education and reading lists have been mostly colonial. As they realize that have not been taught much of the history of the West, they often begin to realize how limited their historical narratives—and particularly their narratives about race—have been. As they come to these realizations, as they imagine the lives that their privilege keeps them far from, they start to recognize that privilege with less defensiveness.

And here I feel the need to return to my earlier warnings about the ways in which I mean to offer this information. I feel discomfort in suggesting too much progress in my classes and a greater discomfort in centering the narrative of white, American students in what should be a space to hear postcolonial voices of color. Our classes are about the literature. My students learn about places and people most of them had given little thought to previously in their lives. But in learning about those places and hearing those voices, our conversations invariably come back to the worlds my students know. These are the ways we take in the world. I hesitate to conclude on too high a note. Returning to my earlier caveats, I do not wish to overstate the power of one class or a few books. Not all of my students go through this process. Not all of them leave my classroom with a changed understanding of the world. And though I know few would admit it to me, I am sure that for many, black lives will matter no more to them than they did before.


1. There are many studies that show people of color receive different treatment, and specifically less pain treatment from doctors and hospitals. For one, see Trawalter et al. Likewise, there has been a great deal of work that shows disparity in the ability of judges and jurors to believe black defendants and imagine the effects of their penalties; see the cited James D. Johnson study for one example.

2. While it is outside the scope of this article, I feel it necessary to point out that much of our work in the humanities rests upon promoting a vision of the world that stems from Enlightenment thinkers. Yet we tend to do so unproblematically, failing to interrogate for our students the ways in which the freedom, nations, and societies these thinkers advocated for did not include people of color as subjects and thrived by making people of color into objects. This is one of those areas we discuss in postcolonial and black studies, but rarely outside of our fields.


Works Cited

Adams, Tamara. “Establishing Intellectual Space for Black Students in Predominantly White Universities through Black Studies.” The Negro Educational Review. Vol 56, No. 4, (Winter 2005), pp. 285-299.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford University Press, 1987.

—.How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Dangarembga, Tsetse. Nervous Conditions. Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2004.

Johnson, Cheryl. “Participatory Rhetoric and the Teacher as Racial/Gendered Subject.” College English. Vol. 56, No. 4 (Apr 1994), pp. 409-419.

Johnson, James D et al. “Rodney King and O.J. Revisited: the Impact of Race and Defendant Empathy Induction on Judicial Decisions.” Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 32, No. 3.  (June 2002), pp. 1208-23.

Kidd, David Comer and Castano, Emanule. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science. Vol. 342, no. 6156 (October 2013), pp. 377-80.

Koger, Alicia Kae. “Dismantling the Wall: A White Professor and African American Students.” College Teaching. Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring 1995), pp. 43-6.

Macauley, Thomas Babington. “Minute on Indian Education.” Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism, ed. Gaurav Gajanan Desai and Supriya Nair, Rutgers University Press, 2005, pp. 121-31.

Mullan, John. “Sentimental Novels.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 236-254.

Richetti, John. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1-8.

Thompson, James. Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel. Duke University Press, 1996.

Trawalter, S, Hoffman, KM, and Waytz, A. “Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others’ Pain.” PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 11 (2012).

Yancy, George. Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race. Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.