As preparation for the final meeting of the African-American literature course he taught last summer, Duke graduate student Patrick Alexander asked his students to write and perform a piece in response to a photograph. The photograph, taken from the cover of a local alt-weekly newspaper, depicted a black woman wrapped in a white robe, standing before an American flag, holding a sign that says, simply, "Listen."
After all of his students had performed, Alexander took the floor and rhythmically intoned his own spoken-word poem.
"Why don't you listen?" he said. "Hear the subaltern speak, unlock your ears, walk through the tear trails of years I've spent turning the other cheek—just listen."
As he finished, the eleven students rose to their feet, clapping and shouting. 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 nearby Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Teaching the weekly two-hour course—"Express Your 'Selves': The Art of Creative Self-Expression in African American Literature"—has shown Alexander, a second-year graduate student in English, how themes in literature can be shaped by the settings in which they are read.
In each class, he says, "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."
"He's inspiring, that's what it is," says LeJhoyn Holland, a student from Rocky Mount, Virginia. "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 twenty-four, he was much younger than his students—one 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.
Juggling such forces felt like "a dance," says Alexander, an Ohio native who attended Miami University of Ohio as an undergraduate. "When I say, 'It's a dance,' it's me being willing to set aside my notes, my lecture notes … and be vulnerable. When you dance, you have to be willing to learn from another person."
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," student Holland says of the characters in the books. "Us being here in prison, we can relate to that because the struggle is still before us."
As the instructor, Alexander says the class has given him new perspectives, influencing the way he reads literature for his academic research. "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."
"The appropriation of prison space into an enlivening and vibrant intellectual space, not a deadening one, is authentic and inspiring," says Maurice Wallace, a professor of English and African and African American studies and Alexander's adviser. "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."
Patrick Alexander, helping inmates find their voice
April 1, 2008