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Cohen Winner Angelene Jamison-Hall Holds Fast to Her Dreams

Date: May 14, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Profiles

Teaching and preaching were the roles that seemed to attract the most respect while Angelene Jamison-Hall was growing up in a rural county of North Carolina. There never seemed to be a question that she herself would pursue the former, although which subject was not quite as definite.

Angelene Jamison-Hall

At first, she thought maybe math. But then she entered a short story contest as a freshman at the Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. "I won and changed my major to English right away," says Jamison-Hall, one of this year's two Cohen Award winners for Excellence in Teaching at UC.

Judging from the impact she has on students who study black writers in her classes in the Department of African American Studies, it's nearly impossible to imagine Jamison-Hall in any other profession or focusing on any other topic. "I love African American literature, that's the main thing," she says. "And I absolutely love teaching it!"

The trademark of her class discussions of Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Paul L. Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Ann Petry and other black writers is animated dialogue, prompted by one of Jamison-Hall's vocally dramatic readings from the authors' texts.

"I was once a Black clown but now I'm a man," she expressively reads a line from The Black Clown to her students one morning in a class on Langston Hughes. As she reads, she tells her students to think about Spike Lee's film Bamboozle (2000) and the black-faced, white-lipped minstrels of the early 20th century. "Can't you hear those tap dancers clicking against the floor as you're reading along?" she asks. "Now what does this poem say about all the great entertainers who have been relegated to minstrels?"

After class, African American studies major George Levy comments, "You can see the passion she has for African American literature as a whole through her teaching style." Levy admits he wasn't much of a reader until he took his first course on black women writers with Jamison-Hall. "She has a way of presenting the readings in such a way that just makes you want to read more," attests Levy, who took more courses with Jamison-Hall than his requirements mandated.

That's just the kind of response Jamison-Hall herself felt toward African American writers when she gained her first exposure to them as a graduate student. She first came to UC 30 years ago as a master's student on a fellowship to study black literature -- getting a recommendation and guidance from a notable African American alumnus of UC, Darwin T. Turner, who led a distinguished career in academe. Here, she began to read Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. She couldn't stop there.

"I discovered there were all these great black writers - women and men, and I knew I wanted to teach this literature. I tried to imagine what elementary school and high school would have been like if I had been reading this material. This was opening a whole new world of possibilities for reading and writing. It's like having a whole other education."

Angelene Jamison-Hall

By 1970, Jamison-Hall was hired as an instructor in the English department and the next year was appointed to the new African American studies department. Since then, she has earned a PhD from the Union Institute and University and developed courses on African American poetry, a nine-credit introductory sequence in African American literature, an advanced seminar on major African American writers, a six-credit sequence on black women writers and a six-credit sequence on black drama. Recently, she has also added courses on Black Popular Culture, Race in African American Literature and Religion in African American Literature to the curriculum.

Says her department head, Patricia Hill-Collins: "She has never wavered in her commitment to ensuring that African American literature is a crown jewel in our departmental offerings."

Jamison-Hall also has a significant influence on the teaching of the department as a whole. As the chair of the Departmental Curriculum Committee for the past two years, she oversees the review of new courses to the curriculum, reviews requirements for undergraduate offerings and acts as a watchdog to ensure high quality. She also has been instrumental in the department's revamping of the undergraduate curriculum.

Outside the classrooms of McMicken Hall, Jamison-Hall finds time to exercise and stay in shape. Despite great physical conditioning, the former runner has for the past three-and-a-half years suffered from renal failure. She has been forced to have dialysis for three hours a day three times a week. Usually, she gets the unavoidable treatment out of the way before her workday begins, going from 5 to 8 a.m. As she awaits a kidney for a transplant, she is working on a book about dialysis so that others may learn from her experiences.

Throughout it all, her students say she has maintained as much enthusiasm for teaching - and reading -- African American literature as she ever has. She continues to read as many authors as she can. She also continues to write her own fiction and has published six short stories. She has completed a novel that she hopes will soon find a publisher. River View Publishing recently awarded the first chapters from the novel a first place prize in its new fiction contest and is considering publication.

She feels pretty certain that a publisher will come forward so that someday soon she can add "novelist" as well as "teacher" to her career accomplishments. Like Langston Hughes says, she is one to "hold fast to" her dreams.

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