Examining August Wilson's African-American voice raises York student's career sights

This summer we celebrate the small-college experience that gives York its distinct personality in the City University system. The close student-faculty relationship here encourages undergraduates to engage in high-level academic research, from first idea to final presentation. Here is one team that makes the connection:

Chanae Bazemore has her eyes on a big prize – teaching on the college level – and she says her thesis adviser, York English Professor Michael Namphy lifted her sight to the target. 

“I took a semester off” after Boys and Girls High School, she said recently.  “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted a ‘feasible career’ and I started at York as a teacher education major.”

Then she took a Shakespeare class with Dr. Namphy. She found a new major and a major new role model, a career goal and the CUNY Pipeline program to get there. In the fall, she starts a graduate program in English at Hunter College.

The CUNY Pipeline Program for Careers in College Teaching and Research provided a stipend, a summer research program at The Graduate Center and seminars during the senior year. It also required a senior thesis.

Bazemore’s thesis – “Dilapidated Facades of a Progressive Nature: August Wilson’s Rejection of Double Consciousness” – drew from an English course called “Uncommon Women in Theater” and examined themes in August Wilson’s “Fences.” (A revival of “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, is now on Broadway.) She presented her project at York’s Student Research Day and at the spring Pipeline Conference: Dr. Namphy said his student “made connections among art, theater, literature, social science and cultural anthropology. Really, culture and the struggle.”

The thesis also included an exploration of art, especially Romare Bearden, whose paintings were an inspiration for Wilson. For decades, Bearden was a social worker in the city, painting at nights and on weekends. The study led Bazemore to add a minor in studio art and follow the connection between art and literature.

The “double consciousness” theory championed by intellectual giant W.E.B. DuBois asserted that African-Americans had been forced to look at themselves through the eyes of others. Bazemore argues that Wilson’s plays reject one of the outcomes of  double consciousness – changing your own identity to fit the perceptions of others.

“I say August Wilson goes against that theory, writing with a distinctly African-American consciousness,” she said. “He was able to have nine of his ten plays produced on Broadway, yet he doesn’t lose the feeling of the African-American authentic experience. … Wilson is in touch enough with African-American culture to surpass the double consciousness theory.”

“That’s all her,” Namphy said. “That’s a real scholar. She can connect the dots. She just kind of picked it up and ran with it. This thesis is already three or four chapters’ worth of doctoral dissertation and what will be her first book on black theater.

“She is going to be the kind of college professor who will be equally adept at music, art and literature.”

That’s the teaching atmosphere Bazemore said she found in Namphy’s classes and in his steady stream of directed reading for the thesis research. “Namphy is a really great mentor, not just an editor dealing with structure. He goes through each sentence and gets me to think about where to go next,” she said. “To look for the deeper issues involved in the paper.”

And that deeper look has changed who Chanae Bazemore is and where she wants to go.

“I am a better student,” she said. “I know that doing this level of research prepares me for the culture of graduate school. I am prepared to go further, now that I have a better understanding of where my passion is. I want a focus on African-American literature and theater.

“What has really changed is the way I look at a college professor. I have a different outlook; it’s not just about being passionate about literature, but passionate about your students, too. Keep your door open. In Prof. Namphy’s class, we sit in a circle, look at literature through music and art. He listens to us and gets us thinking in a different level.”

For Dr. Namphy, that spirit is returned again and again.

“We can provide the environment in which she can take charge for the discussion and we all learn from it. Her growth – the breadth and gregariousness of her analysis – helps us all grow.”

Namphy has taught at Rutgers and at Princeton, where he earned his PhD in African American Literature. Though they are into and through graduate school themselves, some of his students still meet with him at a graduate-prep reading group on Saturdays at York. It’s his way of connecting York students to a community of scholars.

“It’s valuable for Chanae to be part of that conversation, to interact with Masters and PhD students” he said. “We just talk about a book or an essay for a couple of hours. It’s like a salon, or Oprah’s reading group.

“It’s better [to do that] here than someplace like Princeton. We’re here in the neighborhood. That is the reputation and the image we want for York. I’d like to think that would be the model and not the exception. … This is the universal academic culture, the ability to do scholarship so that students from working class and working poor background have a reasonable chance at a PhD.”

That translated into what Bazemore called “a real family spirit at York. We have professors from Yale, Harvard and Columbia. They bring something to the community. It has made me look at life and at the life around me in a whole different way.

“It changes who you are to have that support from teachers.”

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