English Professor Sarita Cannon: Delving into Opera, Beyoncé, Audre Lorde

Thursday, July 12, 2018
Photo of Sarita Cannon standing next to concrete columns

Associate Professor of English Sarita Nyasha Cannon’s expertise goes beyond her focus on 20th-century American literature. She is also an opera singer who performs with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and in productions throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Born and raised in San Francisco to parents who both earned master’s degrees from SF State, Cannon has published articles in Interdisciplinary Humanities, The Black Scholar, Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies, Callaloo, MELUS amongst others.

In this Q&A, the soprano talks about her teaching strategy and how she has been able to balance her passions: her love for the opera combined with extensive literary research.

Can you expatiate on how the interest for teaching autobiography in a grad seminar began? Also, how do you research and plan topics?

Ever since graduate school, I have been interested in autobiography. I am fascinated by the ways in which autobiography is not simply a record of one’s life but also a reflection of the way that memory works. We actually create memories through the telling and retelling of our lives. As human beings, we need and want to create meaning in our lives, and creating a narrative of our lives is one way of doing that.

My current book manuscript examines different modes of self-inscription (including scrapbooks, oral histories, portrait photography and musical performance) by people of mixed African and American Indian ancestry in the past 100 years, and that project definitely influenced me to develop a graduate seminar on autobiography.

There is often a reciprocal relationship between my teaching and my research, so frequently the new courses that I propose stem from my own research interests. Graduate seminars also give me the opportunity to explore a topic that intrigues me but that I might not know much about. I am inspired by the fresh perspectives that my students bring to my fields of interest.

What are your hobbies and how does it help you relax especially with the demands of teaching?

I love spending time outside with my rescue dog, Frida. Walking around the neighborhood, going on a longer hike in the area, or checking out the dog parks in the area gives me a chance to spend time with her and to enjoy the natural beauty of the Bay Area.

I also love to cook, though it’s hard sometimes to carve out time to do so during the semester. I’m a vegan in perhaps the most-vegan friendly area in the country, so it’s fairly easy to find ingredients to cook both new and familiar recipes. Cooking definitely helps me to de-stress and I can eat the fruits of my labor! I also love to travel, and being in academia has allowed me to see parts of the world I would never have imagined. Academic conferences have brought me to Australia, Ghana, Portugal, Japan, among other countries. I love the challenge of navigating a new culture (and sometimes a new language), and I treasure the opportunity to create cross-cultural connections. Traveling closer to home also gives me a chance to recharge; I especially love visiting Ashland, Oregon, and seeing productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

What was your inspiration for writing a conference paper making comparisons between Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and Audre Lorde’s Zami?

This paper was inspired by my English 614 course, Women in Literature. Students had just handed in a paper on Lorde’s 1982 biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and I decided that we would watch and discuss parts of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade in class. I drew connections between Beyoncé’s work as a feminist artist and the writings of black women we had studied in the course so far. I saw a link between Beyoncé’s self-fashioning in this album and Lorde’s self-creation in Zami, and after the semester ended, I explored it further.

How is Lemonade, the visual album and EP by Beyoncé, a genre of autobiography called biomythography?

Beyoncé’s Lemonade exemplifies the genre that the late black lesbian author and activist Audre Lorde invented in her 1982 text Zami: “biomythography.” A combination of “biography and history and myth” (in Lorde’s own words), this new genre allowed Lorde to reimagine herself using a variety of sources but always within the context of a larger black female community. I argue that Beyoncé does something similar in Lemonade: not only does Beyoncé’s “I” speak to and for a larger “we,” but she also celebrates African and African diasporic practices. Beyoncé’s invocation of the collective experiences of black women and her multiple allusions to spiritual traditions throughout the African diaspora resonate with the form and content of Lorde’s biomythography.

Although Audre Lorde and Beyoncé might seem like unlikely bedfellows, even a preliminary examination of their masterpieces demonstrates their similar interests in telling stories that evoke the richness of the African diaspora and provide space for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. Especially for African-descended people, the individual’s story is always created, consumed and understood within the larger context of the group. This can be onerous when one feels burdened to represent the group in the best light possible by only sharing the most unimpeachable version of one’s self. But from another perspective, the interconnection between the self and the group may serve as a source of strength, a way to assert shared values and visions, even while honoring different individual experiences. The woman-centered communities of care, connection and empowerment that both women represent and cultivate in their respective works provide a bulwark against the oppressive forces of racism, sexism and homophobia.

These two biomythographies perform the healing possibility of drawing upon the strength of the ancestors to transform our dreams into language and that language into action that benefits the whole.

You are an opera singer and stage performer. How are you able to combine your love for performing with pedagogy?

I am so grateful to be in a department with colleagues who support my musical endeavors. Being able to share that part of my life with my colleagues and with my students is very special. In graduate school, I often felt that I had to keep my performing life and my academic life separate, so it is wonderful to merge them.

Sometimes it can be difficult to juggle all of my commitments. This past spring, for example, while teaching three classes and an independent study, I was also singing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and at my church job in Berkeley on Sundays and performing in an all-female production of Jesus Christ Superstar with Ray of Light Theatre in San Francisco. This may have been too much to take on all at once, but I feel so fortunate that I can pursue both of these passions.

I often bring music, art and dance into the literature classroom, encouraging students to see the connections among different art forms, and my own investment in the arts animates my teaching. And as professors, we are “onstage,” always considering our audience and thinking about how effectively to tell a story and how to engage students. So those two passions complement each other nicely.

What are your long-term goals for course selections in the English Department? Do you plan to teach a Beyoncé course soon?

I would love to teach a Beyoncé class! I think there are many ways I could frame it (for example, Beyoncé in relationship to black feminist thinking and activism), but it will take some time to propose and plan a course that meets the learning outcomes of the English literature programs.

I would also like to teach a course on the work of James Baldwin, who is having a revival thanks to the recent collection of essays by contemporary black writers The Fire Next Time and the excellent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin has a great deal of wisdom to offer us in these challenging, divisive times. I am also thinking about designing a course tentatively titled Literary Chicago. This would examine the ways that Chicago has been represented in American literature by authors such as Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, Sandra Cisneros, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorraine Hansberry.

If you had a chance to invite someone living or dead to one of your literature seminars, who would it be and why?

I would have to say the great black lesbian writer and activist Lorraine Hansberry. Best known for her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, she wrote several other plays that shed light on the pressing issues of her time (and ours), including colonialism, racism, the legacy of slavery, homophobia, class struggles, and misogyny.

A few years ago I designed and taught a course on her work and since then have been fascinated by her life story and her legacy.

I would treasure the opportunity to have her in any of my seminars but especially my Women in Literature class, where we are often grappling with how to connect what we do in the classroom with what we do in the world at large, a very troubled and divided world at that. And, of course, I would love to have her in my Lorraine Hansberry seminar so we could pick her brain about her own writing.

What is your advice for students who are interested in becoming English professors as well as combining other passions?

As many people know, the academic job market is bleak, especially in the humanities. Even a Ph.D. from a top-ranked university, excellent teaching evaluations, rigorous scholarship, and strong recommendations do not guarantee a tenure-track position. More and more university classes are taught by hard-working adjuncts who often have to cobble together five or more courses per semester (often at different institutions) just to earn a living wage. I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a career as a professor, but I think it’s important to go forward with eyes wide open to the challenges of that path and to cultivate skills that will allow them to find employment outside of academia. I’m a fan of giving oneself as many options as possible.

As far as combining passions, I would say not to keep those passions separate but to find ways to integrate them. It wasn’t until a mentor urged me to include my performance background on my CV for academic jobs that I realized that could be an asset, not a detriment. I do think that being a singer for 30-plus years has positively impacted my ability to communicate my ideas to diverse groups of people, which is what we do as professors and scholars both inside and outside of the classroom.

In the fall, you will be teaching a Toni Morrison graduate seminar. What can students expect?

Students will embark on a whirlwind journey of the works of the greatest living author in English (in my humble opinion). We will read all 11 of her novels as well as some of her nonfiction work. She has written many incredible essays about race, American literature, and the role of the artist, and these essays nicely complement her novels.

At the heart of my graduate seminars are weekly presentations by students, in which they bring in relevant secondary sources and facilitate a discussion of some aspect of the novel at hand. I have ideas that I want to cover, but I am also committed to giving students the opportunity to shape the conversation.

The pace of the seminar is quick, but in the past most students have been up to the challenge. Morrison’s work shatters and heals us, sometimes in the same breath, and I feel so privileged to explore her corpus with students.

— Ufuoma Umusu


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