English professor tells story behind the story
He teaches the material with an undeniable passion and an assured familiarity.This teacher recounts the stories told by African-American authors almost as if he had been there himself.
It should be noted that the teacher himself is not African-American. He is, in fact, a European-American with Italian and French ancestry. He is a white man teaching a black subject,but there is no one that does it as well or as passionately as he does, according to his students. James Levernier has taught at UALR for over 35 years, but for a little over a decade now, he has taught or helped to teach a class on African-American literature.
“He is such an interesting teacher, and he knows his subjects so well and has a passion for it,” said Carla Smith, a senior English major who took his class last summer.
“I think that it should be a requirement,” said Scott Bollen, a senior biology and English major. “How is Shakespeare any more important than Nat Turner is to current day English majors?”
Levernier has the respect of both students and faculty, being one of only a few teachers to win the Bailey Teaching Award as well as the Faculty Excellence Award for teaching.
Levernier starting teaching African-American Literature as a joint venture with former history professor Leroy Williams, who retired in 2011 and is African-American. Levernier took over as sole teacher of the class after one semester of teaching with Williams. Levernier credits Williams with helping guide him through the first years of the class.
“Listening to Dr. Williams, as an African-American professor, talk about African-American history provided me with a whole education that I hadn’t had and opened up a whole new way of thinking and teaching that I hadn’t understood,” he said. “I’m greatly indebted to him for teaching me how to teach.”
After initially being hesitant to teach the subject, Levernier found out that if he had the interest and willingness to learn about the material, he should be able to teach the material. One of the biggest surprises for him was the open reception of African-American students as he attempted to learn about and teach the material.
“I think that students recognized that I went at it with a sense of awe and respect,” he said.
Levernier’s passion for literature started at an early age. “I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve especially loved to read American literature, because it’s about us and about who we are,” he said. “I was trained, though, in a very traditional way – in a traditional canon – and I didn’t realize that there was a lot more to American literature than the writers and ideas that I was being taught. I was given, in essence, a very Eurocentric view of American Literature,” Levernier said.
Levernier grew up near Chicago and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Marquette University and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
“This school (UALR) had just become a state university and it was growing and it was a great, great opportunity to develop as a teacher and scholar,” he said.
When he was asked to teach African-American literature 10 years ago, it changed everything. “It changed the way that I read and taught about America,” he said. “I begin to see that there was a story behind the story of America that I hadn’t been taught, and that the writers who told that story were heroic people of tremendous genius, who were in fact telling the real story of America,” he said.
Among those authors are Olaudah Equiano, Phylis Wheatley, Francis E.W. Harper and Henry Louis Gates to name a few covered in the class. When Levernier was only teaching what was in the “canon,” stories such as those of aforementioned Nat Turner went untold, but today the professor sees things differently.
“Now I see that teaching this literature is the most important thing that I’ve ever done, as an educator.”
Indeed, the professor has made African-American literature his passion, having written many essays and discovered many documents on the works of poet Phylis Wheatley for himself and becoming a foremost authority on her. He is scheduled to speak about Wheatley at a Yale University conference next month and two years ago he spoke in London.
Smith said the class was an eye-opening experience. “I may have read some of the material, but I don’t know that I would have really found that story behind the story that he helped us to find in there,” he said. In addition to African-American literature, Levernier also teaches standard American literature and is involved with the McNair program.