European Studies and Madison High Schools Compare Literary Movements in France and the U.S.

Jun 17,2021
Eleanor Conrad

In May of 2021, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for European Studies was honored to sponsor a virtual lecture presented by Professor Michelle Wright of Emory University, organized in collaboration with local high school French departments. Professor Wright addressed the topic of the twentieth-century French literary movement, Négritude, in the lecture titled, “My Cowardice Revealed: Négritude and Dangerous Futures.”

Professor Michelle Wright
Professor Michelle Wright, Emory University

Professor Wright is the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. As an expert on African Diaspora literatures and theories, Professor Wright drew parallels between the American literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance, a topic well-known to the high-school students, and the unfamiliar French Négritude movement and the differing philosophical views of its founders, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sedar Senghor. During this virtual lecture, Professor Wright explained the historical and cultural background of both movements, the changes in the literature, and its relevance to the present day.

The participants, many of whom had been studying the works of Césaire and Senghor earlier in the week, had a variety of questions for the professor. After the lecture, students commented about how much they enjoyed it.

“I loved the virtual visit!” said East High School student, Freya Lee. The speaker, she said, “taught everyone in a very engaging and informative style centered around story-telling.”

East High School student Boubacar Sanagre illustrated how learning about the history and culture of seemingly faraway places through events such as this helps students better understand the world, saying, “I took away that even though we are separated by an ocean, the Black Lives Matter struggle is just as difficult in France and it made me more empathetic towards their struggle.”

The audience was comprised not only of French language students, but also English language learners, social studies and geography students, as well as teachers and interested administrators from Madison La Follette and East High Schools.

East High School French teacher and primary organizer of the event Kelsey Aouane said of the lecture:

Professor Wright’s presentation was a great opportunity for myself, students, and staff to learn more about la Négritude movement. Professor Wright brought such passion to the presentation, and my students and I were very impressed. I cannot wait to augment our unit on Négritude so that future students can discover this movement so important to the francophone world.

La Follette French teacher and event co-facilitator Neely Hoegen thanked Professor Wright for the opportunity to further discuss the movement:

Je suis reconnaissant pour l’opportunité pour avoir accueilli Professeur Wright cette année. J’ai appris tellement de choses et mes élèves étaient vraiment impressionnés par le discours. Professeur Wright nous a donné l’occasion de parler plus sur la négritude et sur les impacts d’aujourd’hui. Merci à Professeur Wright et à UW pour l’opportunité.

[I am grateful for the opportunity to host Professor Wright this year. I learned so many things and my students were very impressed by the discussion. Professor Wright gave us an opportunity to talk more about the Négritude and about its impacts today. Thank you to Professor Wright and to UW for the opportunity.]

The support provided through the Center for European Studies federal National Resource Center Title VI grant made not only this this event possible, but has also helped the Madison East High School French Department assemble materials to augment this literary movement lesson into a full unit for the department to be used in future French classes.