On a given day in Jarvis McInnis’ classroom, you may hear lines from a Zora Neale Hurston story alongside sounds of an early blues or gospel recording.
Meanwhile, in Taylor Black’s Southern literature class, the sounds of blues great Robert Johnson may follow a passage from Flannery O’Connor.
For Black, McInnis and Michael D’Alessandro – the three new arrivals in Duke’s English department this fall -- words on the page are just one aspect of the study of English literature. All three explore relationships between stories and novels and other American art forms, including music, theater and film.
“So, we listen to, say, a 1920s blues recording by Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith alongside Langston Hughes’ poetry,” McInnis said. “And we consider the relationship between the literary form and the musical form.”
For McInnis, love of music goes beyond the classroom. A vocalist as well as an academic, McInnis recently participated in an American Songbook program at Lincoln Center curated by his friend, vocalist and composer, Imani Uzuri.
He draws upon his musical knowledge in his Spring course “Sonic Fugitivities: The Soundscapes of African-American Literature.” The class pairs plantation tales alongside blackface minstrelsy, for instance, and blues poetry alongside jazz, gospel and other musical forms.
“I’m interested in what black folk have been able to create out of some of the most oppressive conditions,” McInnis said.
Black also makes frequent use of music in his classes. One Spring course considers the enigmatic songwriter and performer Bob Dylan. Another uses the blues to illuminate the Southern grotesque. Students also read works by O’Connor, William Faulkner and Edgar Allen Poe. And at the heart of the course lies a knotty question.
“I’m going to invite students to construct their own answer to the question ‘What is the South? How does it appear to you?’” Black said. “I’m interested in mysterious entities that we can’t fully know or comprehend, and in questions that don’t necessarily have answers.”
If Black and McInnis straddle the worlds of literature and music, D’Alessandro’s work moves between written literature, theater and film. In his course on utopias and dystopias in American literature, students read works such as Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” and view films such as “Snowpiercer.” Another course looks at American crime through the lens of 19th century novels, stories, plays and early movies.
Like Black and McInnis, D’Alessandro is adjusting to the tempo of life in Durham after years spent in a large northeastern city. D’Alessandro moved here from Boston, while Black and McInnis relocated from New York.
For Black and McInnis, however, coming to Duke represents a return to the South.
McInnis grew up in Mississippi, and his work explores connections between the American South and the Caribbean, such as the influence Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute had on poet Claude McKay.
Black, meanwhile, was born in Durham and grew up in Durham and Winston-Salem before leaving for New York City at age 18. He still has family in the Durham area.
“Place is important for me,” Black said.” When I’m in New York I feel like a Southerner and when I’m down here I feel like a New Yorker, especially as I’m getting used to the way people move around in parking lots and in grocery stores.
“I’m learning to be patient and remain calm.”