One source that has been very helpful to me in this journey to understanding me and my students’ lived experiences reading Great Books literature, is the biography. The Adinkra symbol Sankofa , means “return and get it.” For me to understand the relevance of these texts to my African American students, I had to look at this phenomenon from a historical perspective. I had to “return and get” the significance of these texts from the ancestors who traveled this road before. Specifically, those ancestors who came from West Africa through slavery. The Adinkra symbols were derived from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and were created in order to share thoughts of wisdom, inspiration and enlightenment. The Sankofa symbol inspires me on this journey because to understand the phenomenon, I had to realize that it was not an isolated thing. The African American’s pull towards reading the Great Books has transcended time. Moran (2000) writes:
Our consciousness of being affected by history belongs to the manner in which we understand everything. When we understand an object, we do not grasp the object as it is in itself, but rather we grasp it through the accumulations of its historical effectiveness what it has evolved into being for us, it’s…effective history, the “history of influence’ of the object on human communities. (p. 252).
Gadamer’s thoughts on history helping the researcher to understand the phenomenon ring true for my study. It has been a challenge for me not to turn this study into a detailed study of the Great Books being connected to the social uplift of the African American people. Over and over—through every biography, the pattern was the same. There was illiteracy, there were feelings of being “less than”, there was a sense of being lost and then they would discover one of these texts (Frederick Douglass loved to read Cicero), then read another and another until an understanding of their equality (no longer identifying themselves as a slave, or just African, or as three-fifths human) came into place.
History in conjunction with hermeneutics delivers this practice from being too objective. Gadamer (1975/1989) raises the question, “…how hermeneutics, once freed from the ontological obstructions of the scientific concept of objectivity , can do justice to the historicity of understanding” (p. 268). Objectivity lends itself to the researcher just standing back and trying to glean understanding of a thing where it is in space and time. However bringing history into the practice of hermeneutics moves us to seek understanding of the thing across time and outside of space. Moran (2000) explains Gadamer:
What he wants to oppose is the view that these horizons are mutually exclusive or that our world-views are hermetically sealed. Gadamer wants to emphasize that in fact our horizons are open to other horizons, that they can overlap and indeed are overlapping…Gadamer is emphatic that we can and do reach mutual understanding. This is a process of interpenetration of our horizons, or what Gadamer calls ‘fusion of horizons. (p. 252)
Bringing in history to my study is my practice of “returning” to the ancestors and “getting” an understanding of why they felt the need to read these texts. Writing about these experiences in conjunction with seeking to understand my phenomenon where it is currently, invites the ancestors into the dialogue to gain understanding.
I have read the stories of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Phillis Wheatley, Marva Collins, and many others, all so I could get an understanding of the lived experience of African Americans reading Great Books literature. Primarily, I have looked into why historically African Americans have read this collection of literature in connection with their liberation. I recognize that many deem these texts as too culturally distant from my students. There is a concern of students becoming so immersed in these texts that their culture and background is not appreciated. However, reading the biographies of those listed above revealed the opposite to me. Many of the biographies I have read revealed that reading these texts brought healing to a lost soul. They brought understanding to those living in a world that seemed so foreign. In the midst of this, they embraced their own culture even more but were able to fit it into the context of their new home. My students are far removed from slavery, so in this day and time how will this literature help them? How am I able to put into words how this literature has helped me as well?
It is not unusual for biographic texts to contain rich ore of lived-experience descriptions for phenomenological analysis or for converting into anecdote or story. (van Manen, 1997, p. 72)