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Faculty Success Story

Professor Probes Questions of Ethnicity in Literature

By Anne Bentzel


In his junior year of college, Keith Leonard read a review of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry that broke his heart.

“I remember looking on the back of the book and seeing this quote from a critic that said Brooks’ genius was that ‘she refuses to let Negroness limit her humanity,’” he says. “I thought, ‘How is it possible for an African American writer to transcend being black, to ignore who they are? If they do claim their heritage are they somehow not fully human?’”

It is a question that he explores in his recent book Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights, which examines how African American poets used traditional poetic techniques to not only create great art but to define their ethnicity.


Discovering Commonality through Difference

“I reject the idea that ethnic difference is absolute,” he says. “Instead what interests me is how literature can help us find commonality but only through allowing us to accept and understand our differences.” Leonard leads graduate seminars where he challenges students to do just that.

“I push my students to examine the relationship between the ideals, emotions, and values that we share on one hand and the different cultural forms through which those ideals, emotions and values get expressed on the other,” he says. “In short, I guide them towards the discovery that cultural differences can be a means to understand human commonality.”