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My classes for the semester ended this week. One of them, called “Diversity in Black America,” explored a variety of histories and experiences that fall under the banner “Black America”; ethnicity, sexuality, disability, class, multiracialism, and region are among the themes we examined this fall. In our final session, I told the students that I’ve struggled with this class in the past. Some courses are great ideas in theory but pose a challenge when it comes to making them gel. This was one such course.

But I decided to do something different this year. Rather than have the students read ethnographies or social-scientific data or works of history, each week’s course material was organized around a memoir, a work of historical fiction, or a film (and, in some weeks, around all three).

The class worked this time. There was something about the intimacy of the narrative form that resonated with students. Our discussions were lively and probing. They were also detailed. I worried we might lose track of the social, historic, and political factors that shaped the lives of our subjects, but in fact, the opposite was true. Students were remarkably attentive to context, even as we read about particular lives. Moreover, they were emotionally invested.

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