Student's Prison Course Yields Literary Insights

Graduate Student Patrick Alexander says he has a new perspective on African-American literature after teaching a course on it in a prison.

LeJhoyn Holland (left) performs his poem as Duke graduate student Patrick Alexander displays the subject of the piece.

For the final class in his African-American literature course, Duke University graduate student Patrick Alexander asked his students to write and perform a piece in response to a photograph. After his students performed their work, Alexander took the floor and rhythmically intoned his own spoken-word poem.

"Why don't you listen?" he said, responding to a picture in which a black woman stands before an American flag, wrapped in a white robe and holding a sign that says, "Listen."

"Hear the subaltern speak, unlock your ears, walk through the tear trails of years I've spent turning the other cheek -- just listen," Alexander said.

As he finished, the students rose to their feet, clapping and shouting. But the audience in this unadorned classroom was not the typical collection of Duke students. These students were inmates at the all-male minimum security Orange Correctional Center prison in Hillsborough, N.C.

Teaching the course -- "Express Your ‘Selves': The Art of Creative Self-Expression in African American Literature" -- has influenced how he reads literature for his academic research, Alexander said. Story continues below.

Before teaching the weekly two-hour course this past summer, Alexander had already been a part of a group of Duke graduate students who last year team-taught a course on anthropology at another prison in North Carolina. The idea to teach his own course at the prison in Hillsborough, came from conversations he had while participating in an ongoing church ministry there.

"I saw the class as an opportunity to expose guys to what a college classroom is like," Alexander said. "We spent the first hour or so on these actual texts having very critical discussions, really trying to build our close reading skills, but the second hour was much more what I would call ‘free,' where it was about creative writing."

His students say they appreciate his efforts.

"He's inspiring, that's what it is," said LeJhoyn Holland, a student from Rocky Mount, Va. "Being in here in prison, you don't really get to meet a lot of people who show you that they care and they're dedicated to what they're doing -- he comes across just like that."

In teaching the course, Alexander had to contend with dynamics unusual to college classrooms. At 24, he was much younger than his students -- one student had been in prison longer than Alexander has been alive. Some of his students were incarcerated for drug charges, others have life sentences. Some have associate degrees or had earned their GEDs in prison. The class saw significant turnover in the first few weeks as men opted out of the course, were released or were transferred, before it settled down to a core group of 11 students.

Juggling such forces felt like "a dance," said Alexander, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, graduated from Miami University of Ohio and came to Duke last year.

"When I say, ‘It's a dance,' it's me being willing to set aside my notes, my lecture notes -- and be vulnerable," he said. "When you dance you have to be willing to learn from another person."

Alexander's "dance" was engaging, his students said.

"I like to really sit back and listen, you know what I'm saying, but he makes you really become part of the class," said student Foma Fowler of Raleigh.

"He wasn't just lecturing," Holland said. "He would explain things and then give us a shot at it -- that's what made the class so interesting."

One theme that came up often was overcoming difficult circumstances as the class read from works such as Native Son by Richard Wright, Jonah's Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston and "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes.

"These are people who had it hard anyway from the beginning," Holland said about the characters in the books. "Us being here in prison, we can relate to that because the struggle is still before us."

Matthew Adams of Hillsborough, the only white student in the class, said he came away with a deeper appreciation for the struggles of African Americans.

"I have more empathy for people like the blacks today that go through things like the Jena Six," said Adams, who led a class discussion on the NAACP's campaign to have a funeral for the "n- word." "I'm more open-minded in reading what I see in the newspaper and how I -- interpret what they're saying."

"It took guts," Holland said about Adams' presentation on the racial epithet. "In prison, in a room full of black guys, and here you are approaching a very volatile subject like this."

Even as the instructor, Alexander said the class prompted him to read with a new perspective.

"Every time I look at a text, I look at it completely differently, you know, just based off the kind of reading that was done in class in that setting," he said. "My work there speaks in a very immediate way to some of my interests in engaging themes like captivity, confinement, isolation, etc., in a lot of African-American works."

Maurice Wallace, Alexander's advisor and a professor of English and African and African-American Studies at Duke, is pleased with the way the experience has enriched Alexander's scholarship.

"The appropriation of prison space into an enlivening and vibrant intellectual space, not a deadening one, is authentic and inspiring," Wallace wrote by email. "Few have thought through prison writing as carefully as Patrick. And being as young as he is, his work on the subject is only going to get better."

Wallace is not the only person cheering on Alexander. His students want him back.

"I appreciate you coming, man," Fowler told Alexander during an interview at the prison. "I could look at him and be like, ‘Man, why didn't I go that route?' -- Well, I can still try and become a better person and teach people."