Centering Black Life and Resistance: The Common Read Program at Clemson University

Maya Hislop smiles at the camera and poses in front of a grey background.Maya Hislop is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Clemson University. She has been at the University for five years and has been actively promoting the Common Read program since the beginning of the program in 2021.

The Common Read program allows students in general education and literature courses to discuss the history of anti-Black violence and resistance. As the chair of the Arts & Humanities Literature Committee, she received a suggestion to establish a common read program for 2000-level literature courses in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“After the uprisings in the summer of 2020, in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others, the department was talking about ways of responding, and somebody mentioned a common read. I just thought it was a really great idea and I just sort of ran with it and got to developing it,” Hislop said.

Creating Common Read was a way for the University to show support and solidarity during a time of great grief and alienation for many students, faculty and staff.

During the Common Read program’s first year, Claudia Rankin, a famous poet, was virtually brought to campus due to the pandemic. In addition to Rankin, novelist Jesmyn Ward also visited Clemson to restore voices in the Black art space.

Normally, the program only has a keynote in the Fall, but Hislop and members of the Arts & Humanities Literature Committee wanted to do something different in the Spring of 2023. In addition to a discussion, she wanted to add a film to appeal to more students. Hislop said, “I was really trying to figure out a way to [organize a common read in the spring], I was talking to Desiree [Bailey] because she was already coming to Clemson as a member of the English faculty.I was able to just talk to her about the read and ask her if she was interested in doing it.”

The goals of Common Read is to focus on centered discussions and readings that emphasize the importance of issues related to Black life to give them the attention and importance they deserve. By focusing onBlack life, the program aims to create a space for critical thinking and reflection on the experiences and perspectives of Black people.

Bailey wanted to create a list of films to accompany her book. She aimed to choose films that resonated with her book and her identity as a Caribbean author, so she suggested several films, including “Black Orpheus,” which is mentioned in one of her poems, and “Daughters of the Dust,” which was influential to her work. Additionally, the films “Small Axe: Mangrove” and “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” were selected for their connection to her vision. Hislop envisions that this author-curated film list will serve as a model for future year-long events across the country.

Hislop hopes that the audiences of the Common Read will understand the history of      white supremacist violence in America and globally, and how this is being represented through Desiree’s poetry. Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of discussing the resistance to this violence. 

She stated, “The immediate instinct is to go, ‘I want to make sure we have opportunities to discuss this violence’ … the history of Black life in America is tragic and sad and unfortunate. And that’s the end of that. And that’s, that’s too often kind of a way for people to dismiss it or act like it’s not something that can be something that’s not living and breathing now.” 

Overall, Hislop hopes that all audiences will appreciate the representation of Black life in a way that acknowledges the history of violence resistance. The Common Read program at Clemson has provided a unique opportunity for students and faculty to discuss the history of anti-Black violence and resistance. Ultimately, the program is a significant step toward creating a more inclusive and equitable educational environment.

 Written By: Pravi Bomrah

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