All Together Now
Assistant professor Reginald Wilburn—who sings the national anthem at graduation—challenges students to develop their own voices.

(Also read the long version of Question/Answer)
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Reginald Wilburn

Reginald Wilburn, assistant professor of English

Q: What lies at the heart of your teaching?

A: I want to help students affirm the power of their critical voices. We each come to an idea with experience and perspective. I'm saying, take this opportunity to think innovatively, originally.

Q: A friend of mine tells her writing students, "We're all on the same road. Some of us are just a little farther along."

A: Even our placement on the road—how we got to the road—matters.

Q: How did you come to be on this road?

A: Being an African-American male has a lot to do with it. I experienced very little of what my mom and her siblings and parents experienced under the sharecropping system in North Carolina. But I heard the stories. They picked cotton before walking several miles to school, where they were taught with secondhand textbooks from the local white school. The value I hold for education and my passion for teaching are significantly impacted by my family's educational experiences under the Jim Crow South.

Q: And your own education?

A: I studied with many professors educated in white institutions. Dr. Andress Taylor had to sit in the hallway during graduate seminars. He was allowed only to listen.

Q: How did administrators explain that to him?

A: At that time at the University of Pennsylvania [the early '60s], nobody had to explain it.

Q: What's it like to teach African-American literature at a primarily white institution?

A: At times it's difficult because I feel like I am fighting so much. Not all of it is the course material. Some of it is beyond my control, like being a black male in a position of authority. For my female students it's an issue of gender compounded by my racial identity. Then, of course, the nature of race. And a third component is the rigid scholastics I provide.

Q: You're tough.

A: I'm tough. I see myself as providing a premium education. That comes at a price. It can't be simply showing up to class and sitting down. Or writing a paper the night before. Most of the subject matter I teach deals with the very things that make us uncomfortable. Students don't want to be considered racist.

Q: Who does!

A: I think there are some people who are banking on the fact that when they raise some stink bomb, you'll just become silent. I want my students to be keenly aware of those dynamics. When people are pushing buttons to silence you, you need to recognize what's going on. Then you can make the decision to speak or remain silent. White people talk about race, Latinos and Latinas talk about race, Native Americans talk about race, African-Americans talk about race, but seldom do we talk about it together. If we did, I believe we'd be able to walk a mile in each other's shoes. It does nobody any good if I do all my venting among people who look like me, because I stay trapped in that world view. I tell my students all the time: We have the luxury to sit in this space to talk about these issues. You will become leaders based on the strength of these discussions.

Q: Do you sing in class?

A: Of course I do. Last fall we read James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Negro National Anthem, so I sang two of the stanzas. ~

Rebecca Rule '76, '79G, is a storyteller, story gatherer and humorist and the author of Live Free and Eat Pie: A Storyteller's Guide to New Hampshire, The Best Revenge and Could Have Been Worse: True Stories, Embellishments and Outright Lies.

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