Douglas Manuel Tells His Truth
During Fall Module 1, I had the pleasure of taking African American Literary Traditions with Douglas Manuel, a new adjunct English professor. Our discussions in class were always comfortable and humorous even as we dove into the often difficult subjects of Black history in America. “Dougie Fresh,” as he once referred to himself, made students want to engage with the material we covered by giving daily writing prompts that inspired us to think critically about what we were reading and allowed us to react to it with our own opinions. These prompted writings also provided useful anchoring points during our class discussions, which, while rooted in literature and history, tended to go further into how the readings impacted us or how they connected to the world around us.
Throughout the module, Professor Manuel was extremely open about his family history, including his father’s prison sentence and his mother having passed away when he was eight-years-old. Professor Manuel does not talk about his family history in order to gain sympathy. Instead, he speaks in a matter-of-fact way, that gives context to both his writing and life experiences. Some of his most identifiable pieces very prominently feature his family, like his debut full-length collection of poetry, Testify and the poem by the same name. Family is also the focus of his upcoming book Trouble Funk, which will serve as a prequel to Testify.
For Manuel, part of Trouble Funk is sharing a lifelong journey of recreating the memory of his mother. Manuel is also using his writing to reverse engineer the man that he knows his father to be, and tracking the development of his parent’s relationship through songs. Each chapter is defined by the title of a song that his father, a former DJ, used to spin. In addition, Professor Manuel is constructing an image of what America was like in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He will include the last recorded public lynching, which occurred in 1981, and which he depicts his parents having witnessed. Testify and Trouble Funk show different pieces of the same story, but are told in dissimilar manners with regard to perspective. Professor Manuel explains that, in Testify, he is writing from his own account; Trouble Funk, on the other hand, is written from the third person, using a collection of memories and experiences from relatives, his partner, and himself.
Manuel told me that he fell in love with Romantic Era poetry in his youth. Several Romantic poets have influenced his work throughout his lifetime, including Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Jonathan Keates. These are the poets from whom Professor Manuel brought up the notion of “negative capability,” which has allowed him to find treasure even when the truth is uncertain. This takes shape while piecing together the fragments of his mother’s memory, which helps Professor Manuel reconnect with someone who he loved and lost. As he put it, “I’m trying to tell a truth, not the truth.” The fickleness of truth is a concept very prevalent in literary history, which Professor Manuel is finding his place in. He also brought up an anecdote about “A Raisin In the Sun,” a play by Lorraine Hansberry that he especially related to: “People ask Larraine Hansberry how she was able to tell such a universal story, and she goes, ‘All I was tryna do was tell a story about black people on the Southside of Chicago.’ Sometimes, through your specificity and your individualism, that’s when you can also move out and make things bigger.”
Douglass Manuel’s writing draws on a wealth of creative influences from the Romantic Era, to Golden Age Hip Hop, and modern writers like Nikki Giovanni and Yusef Komunyakaa. As Manuel was writing with all these influences in mind, he proposed to add his perspective on life to the long and ever-evolving canon of Black writing. Professor Manuel said, “I’m thinking a lot about the Gwendyln Brooks quote that, ‘Poetry is life distilled.’ I’m trying to get these little pictures of a couple trying to make it, who are young and living in Indiana in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.” Manuel faced the same question that many other Black artists face — whether or not to include typically Black themes in his work. He answered this the same way as Hansberry, by highlighting the nuance of reality, focusing on his own story rather than what people might expect. He goes on to describe his hometown of Anderson, Ind. being segregated now, although it has apparently improved since his father’s childhood. As Professor Manuel recalls, an incident occurred where his father hit a white kid with an afro pick, which escalated into a race riot that shut down his high school. Moving away from his hometown experiences, Professor Manuel also considered the circumstances of Black love while writing his last book, which, he suggested, has never been easy. He noted, “So many things are going against having a simple relationship, whether it be economic crisis, the crack epidemic, the aids epidemic, to just urban plight in general, to welfare reform — all these things like that.”
In talking to Douglas Manuel, I found us connecting on a level of being misunderstood. We discussed never fitting into the boxes others, especially non-Black people, want us to fit into.
I think I want to also display other ways to be Black and the ways that I was received. I think that we haven’t had many kinds of examples of legible Black masculinity for Black men. I think Black men are told there’s only one way to be a Black dude. There’s only three ways in pop culture and the white imagination of a Black dude and all of them end up with you being a white boy’s buddy. Like one is that you can hoop or play sports; the other one is you can entertain them in some way, (and, in one way, I do that with my poetry; in one way, you do that in education), and then the other way is to be the help, to be a worker. Those are the kind of three legible ways that the white imagination imagines us Black men being. Later Manuel added, “a threat,” to the list, which while not initially considered, often is an extremely consequential way to be perceived.
What Professor Manuel points out is a very real struggle for Black students in predominantly white institutions, or other spaces, where we’re a minority. While school tends to be where the expectations to fill a certain role become highly visible because that’s where a lot of our social learning happens, this is a lifetime struggle. There are countless examples of artists, such as Logic or Childish Gambino, who chronicle their struggles with perception, particularly whether or not they fall within the confines the white imagination has set for them.
Thinking back to the days of actual classrooms, even in my most engaging courses, I would often find myself gazing out a window. Classrooms having merged with our professor’s residences, the window has been replaced by paintings. During “African American Literary Traditions,” there was a white pit-bull on a field of blue that overlooked the class from the wall behind Professor Manuel’s laptop camera. However, in our last meeting, I noticed the dog had been replaced by a minimalist, single-line painting across three canvases of Biggie Smalls bordered by the words: It Was All A Dream. Those words deeply resonated with Professor Manuel, having grown up in “the trap” and having made it out. Although his father served time, Professor Manuel himself stayed out of trouble. We discussed this dichotomy as both a part of his development and as one of the quintessential tropes of hip-hop. In this minimalist depiction, Biggie’s crown was tiled like in a Basquiat piece, a subtle sign of the visual history the painting holds. Professor Manuel admires the painting and proudly told me that it is the work of his partner, Kirsten “Kay” Boles. She is also a professor, teaching Gender Studies at Santa Ana College. With both of them being academics forced to work from home, they’ve adapted their guest bedroom to serve as a lecture hall — featuring a closet library, a bed filled with papers to be graded, and a treadmill overrun by books.
While examining his goals as a teacher, Professor Manuel said he values his students’ personal growth far more than just getting good grades. “From that, I realized that my best angle to help out is through teaching great critical thinking skills.” Professor Manuel said, “You know what’s really important in my class, teaching close reading strategies, and teaching being a really good person, like being a good citizen, being nice to each other and caring and creating a community. I care more about those three items than you learning everything in the world about the subject matter. I want you to be able to think, I want you to read closely, and I want you to be a good citizen.”
Although Professor Manuel very clearly cares about every student and wants them to learn, his classes and writing provide comfort and a safe space for every ‘blerd,’ a word Professor Manuel has chosen for individuals like ourselves — those that might otherwise be labeled Uncle Toms or ‘white’ Black boys. Professor Manuel compares what he hopes to accomplish by teaching to what Ta’Nehisi Coates did for his son in Between the World and Me. He said, “My job is to tell you what I know about my path while giving you room to walk your own. That’s what I try to do [for] you guys, and that’s what I feel like my OG Black people didn’t do for Black men.” He explained that, as he was maturing, a lot of his predecessors would try to undercut his masculinity because they gained cultural capital in ways that young Professor Manuel did not want to go through.
In 2018, as part of an international writing program, Professor Manuel had the opportunity to read and teach his poetry in Eritrea, which he said was the most important thing that’s happened in his life. Thanks to his Testify, Professor Manuel was able to become the first in his family to return to the African Continent. Although his genetic line traces back to Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa and he was teaching in East Africa, the experience was still extremely meaningful.
I was actually in the mountains of Eritrea, and I was walking with Samuel. He was our guide, one of my students, and we were in the mountains. [. . .] On the way up to the mountains he put his arm by mine and he goes, “same same same same,” and for a white Black boy who has never really felt accepted for Blackness to be on the continent and have Samuel say that to me, killed me. So then we go on walking through the mountains and, you know me, I got a journal; I always got a journal on me, I’m Doug. I pull it out and Samuel goes, ‘Can I write with you?’ and I go ‘Yeah, of course,’ and he goes ‘Will you give me a writing prompt?’ He didn’t say that; he said ‘Will you give me something to write about?’ so, at that moment, just out of nowhere. I said, ‘Let’s find five images to write together. What do you see? It’s the equivalent of I spy.’ He would say that he sees something, and then we would both write that image, and we shared it, and we went back and forth. [ . . . ] We did five of those, and that was the most meaningful teaching experience I’ve ever had, and it wasn’t in a classroom [in the traditional sense], but I know Samuel and I saw each other. That’s what education is about for me.
Professor Manuel offered a final piece of advice for students, “Money will always be hard for everybody, until you get it, but the real hard thing — whether you have money or not — about being grown, is making this thing matter — is making a reason to get up and make this s—t matter the next day because it all seems very arbitrary, if you’re not careful. [ . . .] So, instead of thinking about what you want to do to make mad bank, [or] what you want to do for the rest of your life? I would encourage you to instead think, how can you help?”
Feature image: Courtesy of Stephanie Araiza of Opening of the Eyes Photography.
Emmanuel Jones began writing for the Quaker Campus in January of 2019, and is currently the section editor for Features. He particularly enjoys interviewing and writing personal stories, however he tries to show a variety of skills. He challenges himself by writing about a wide range of subjects, as well as creating a majority of his own visual content.