Telling Stories, Saving Lives: The Importance of Teaching Trickster Texts in the Classroom and Beyond

Dr. Renee Lewis
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In the oral narratives of the slaves, tricksters taught listeners what to do, what not to do, and who to avoid. Although couched in entertaining allegory, trickster figures like Brer Rabbit and John-the-slave used wit to outsmart, outthink, and outmanoeuvre much larger, stronger opponents. Historically, the African American trickster tradition, then, has been able to provide lessons of survival.

In 2003, I completed a doctoral dissertation in which I contend that the trickster is a trope and analyze his culture-building function in the texts of select writers spanning the last two centuries of the African American literary tradition. Since then, I have been teaching "trickster texts" in my Freshman composition and American literature courses. Thus far, I have used Frederick Douglass's "Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Written By Himself", Charles Waddell Chesnutt's "The Conjure Woman", Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man", and Toni Morrison's "Sula" and "Tar Baby".

In these courses, I have continued the tradition by using the trickster as a culture-builder within my classroom. Some of my discussion questions for the courses are:

1)Is there a need for the trickster today? 2)What trickster "lessons" are relevant today? 3)What cultural groups might use the trickster as a culture-builder today?

In addition, I share my personal "trickster story". In 1989, just before my high school graduation, I was threatened by my Honors English teacher who told me: "You will never amount to anything! And, I will fix it so you will never have a career anywhere!" I was the only African American student in the class.

Each year when I share my story and teach "trickster texts", I see my students — Asian American, African American, Arab American, Hispanic American, and even Euro American, literally "open up" and share their own experiences with stereotyping and labeling. Ultimately, we are able to discuss positive ways to handle these experiences and even save lives. In fact, our collaborative efforts have led us to develop a website to bring awareness to stereotyping and labeling around the world.

This presentation will relate my story. It will emphasize the fact that "trickster texts" must be taught. Finally, I will discuss how this experience has transformed my life, the lives of my students, and the lives of the human beings we touch every single day.

Keywords: Tricksters, Storytelling, Literature, Pedagogy
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies, Knowledge, Teaching and Learning, Ethnicity, Difference, Identity, Immigration, Refugees, Race, Nation
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Renee Lewis

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Middle Tennessee State University

Ref: H05P0540