With heartfelt thanks to each and every student I've had the privilege of working with.

Last year, in a contemporary literature class, I taught Brandon Taylor's debut novel Real Life (2020) for the first time, and I was intrigued by the image of "the edge" that recurs throughout. Set over the course of a single summer weekend, the novel tells the story of Wallace, a young, gay, African American man who is undertaking a PhD in biochemistry at a university in the midwestern United States. After his lab work is sabotaged, Wallace considers leaving his doctoral programme. I could write (and indeed am writing elsewhere) at length about Real Life itself, but for now all I wish to say is that the novel, like Wallace's scientific enquiry itself, frequently ventures to the edge. Sometimes, this is a thrilling place to be. As a researcher, Wallace recently felt as though he was on the "edge" of discovery, as though something new was about to come into focus.1 Later, with his lover, he finds that "The edges of his body tingle, like the electric range coming to life."2 Sometimes the edges are less desirable: Wallace feels shunted to the margins and perimeters of the predominantly white middle-class world of scientific doctoral research in which he finds himself. "He always got stuck on the edges, talking to whoever pitied him enough to throw him a bone of small talk" and he feels "the edge of shame" in his interactions with interlocutors who struggle to discern the limits of appropriate conversations about race.3 During sex, both Wallace and his lover, Miller, push the edges and bounds of consent and safety. And so we read the novel achingly and with a sense of trepidation. We are waiting for something to drop for Wallace to finally decide to leave college, or for the person who sabotaged his project to face the consequences. And we wait with bated breath in smaller ways too, for the glass of water that Wallace pours his lover to spill as it "wavered on the very cusp of the container that meant to hold it, the point at which things swell to an unbearable height before giving way, the point at which something must either recede or break and extend."4 And we wonder: how much is too much? Will Wallace retreat? Will he traverse? At what point will his surface tension burst?

Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere: edges. The idiom of the edge captures our desire to put words to a particular type of feeling. To feel as though we're at the edge (of reason), on the edge (of our seats), on edge (as in nervous), or on the cusp of spilling over are hugely powerful emotions covering the affective spectrum. We use this language to articulate a sense of our limits, to convey how far we think we can go, to explore our capacity for pain, for joy, and to reach towards the anticipatory. The language of the edge speaks to feelings of marginalisation, recklessness, and anxiety, as well as promise, expectation, and hope. It conjures visions of interstices, precipices, and of the unknown, of cliffs, of gaps, and of danger. The edge is a contradictory and ambivalent emblem of potential and demise, possibility and loss, its poetics tumbling over themselves like jesters. And as with all idioms, there is something about edge-language that essentially fails at a linguistic level. To speak of the edge is to reach towards or even away from description; it is to summon an absent referent, to gesture towards that which is promised but hasn't yet arrived, to that which can't yet be named. It denotes something unsayable, unnameable, unutterable. It is the language of excess, signifying beyond the phrase itself.

This language of the edge holds enormous significance for how we read, teach, think about, feel about, and talk about contemporary "black literature" as a nebula of text and image that encompasses the sometimes diffuse and atomized resonances of blackness that exist across time, space, form, and genre. Specifically, it invites us to think about the limits of what we're called to know, understand, grasp, and articulate in the classroom. In these notes, I want to sit with a question: what if, as teachers and students, we resist viewing black literature as an object in itself (like a snow globe in our hands containing an image of black life for us to observe from without), and instead view it as what Margo Natalie Crawford and Hortense Spillers describe as a "critical edge"? That term I take to mean a vantage point, a gateway, a threshold, a theoretical and critical entry point towards or perhaps even away from something.5 How might such a shift in perception alter the way we plan, deliver, and engage with the teaching of black literature? What are the implications of such an approach for black teachers of black literature?

In her book What Is African American Literature (2021), Crawford suggests that it would be a mistake to read black writing merely as a window into history (as a way to understand slavery, for example, or Jim Crow segregation).6 Her ideas are influenced, in part, by Michael Boyce Gillespie's arguments in Film Blackness (2016), which orchestrate a move away from a black text's "indexical tie to the black lifeworld" because this "forgoes a focus on nuance and occults the complexity of black film to interpret, render, incite, and speculate."7 As a corrective, Crawford borrows from Toni Morrison's description of her own writing as "something that pulls from closer to the edge" to suggest that African American literature is "more like an energy force than an enterprise, marketing structure, or stable, mappable tradition."8 It is instead closer to a happening, an energy, "an archive of feelings, the tradition of a tension between individual affect and historical structure."9 It is "edge work".10 No one here is suggesting that we do away with teaching historical context, but this idea of edgework does destabilize the notion that one of the main reasons we should read and teach black literature is in order to understand and map black life. It nudges that oft-used phrase "the black experience" from noun to verb, from concrete and consolidated, to something open and shifting, from something historicized to something contemporary. Returning to my snow globe metaphor, perhaps what we mean when we say "black literature" is more akin to feeling the movement of the snowflakes themselves than to securely hold the transparent orb that contains the flurry. After all, the black aesthetic, Crawford reminds us elsewhere, is never still or static; it is "vibratory", rhythmic. It is what Amiri Baraka calls "the changing same"; it is what Kamau Brathwaite describes as "tidalectic."11 I want to start thinking through the implications of this notion of the edge for how we learn and teach black literature in the classroom.12

The language of the edge dramatically upends the neoliberal university's transactional rendering of literature, black and otherwise, as a clear, comprehensible thing to be taught to be grasped, held, or understood. To teach from the edge resists closure or resolution. It challenges the ways that we construct and contain our week-by-week syllabi. It forces us to rethink how we assess students' understanding of black writing and the very notion of a learning outcome. It pushes us to confront what we hope to "get" from our time together in the classroom, and it gives us a means to articulate with less precision and with more feeling how we might go about this. How do we teach understanding in all its capacious complexity and possibility while still being able to assess work? How do we teach black literature without reducing it to something for students to get, know, understand, and grasp?  

Here in the United Kingdom, where I live, work, and teach, we ask our students to understand all the time. Last night, I was reading the latest Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) guidance on what we want students to "get" from the study of English Literature.13 This guidance informs how British academics articulate our learning outcomes on the modules (or classes) students take, that is, the "things" that we hope students will demonstrate in their assessments by the end of the module (or class) before they move on to the next. In this 22-page document, variations on the word "understand" appear 44 times. To be fair, this guidance speaks of understanding the subject, understanding form, understanding context, and yes, understanding complexity (there is space within the guidance for the edgework I'm interested in here). But I fear we've gotten into a habit of asking students to distil all of this complexity into an exam answer or a 3000-word essay often with fixed conventions and a strong conclusion. Persuade me, prove it, decide. Perhaps we overemphasize a certain type of understanding of black literature, black lives, and blackness itself that is more often than not reductive, fixed, and delimiting rather than nuanced and complex. We tend to ask our students to observe and frame the flurry of the snow globe, rather than inviting them to stand in the storm looking out.

I suspect from my own experiences as a student who studied abroad in the United States (albeit a long time ago) that here in the UK, our assessment strategies leave less space for uncertainty, experimentation, and failure.14 There is no chance at redemption via extra credit.15 Many modules have only a single point of assessment (not three, or four, or five as I had as an undergraduate in the US). When I studied at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, I can remember writing research essays and cramming for exams as part of my coursework. I could, therefore, demonstrate that I understood the facts, the contexts, the histories. I held the literary snow globe in my hand and could describe as accurately as I could what I saw within it. I'm not suggesting that we no longer test for comprehension or reasoning. But I also remember writing an autobiographical essay about a racist incident I experienced. I recall what it felt like to hold plantation records in my hands for the first time in my life. I still feel the joy of writing a review of an Ellen Gallagher art exhibition, and the nervousness of interviewing people who actually lived through some of the contexts that informed the writing we studied. I felt discomfort, uncertainty, apprehension. I learned that the blackness I embodied was highly contingent (a mixed-race girl from Croydon in the American South). This is edgework.

 We know there is no singular way to be black, that blackness itself is as fickle, capricious, and mercurial as the characters in a Toni Morrison novel. So, if blackness is, in the words of the critic Michelle Wright, "a mirage" that "evanesces," how can we grasp it?16 If black literature is not something that can be easily rendered, mapped, understood, or grasped, as Crawford suggests, how do we teach it? How do we convene it? How do we plan and organize our curricula? If we move away from readings of black literature as an "historical entity" which is "mappable" and turn to something other than chronology or historical events as the organizing principles of a survey module, what new conversations might we initiate?17 What might we learn of the "mood" and "feeling" of black literature and its aesthetics? What new freedoms might this present for the student and the teacher?18

So far, I've speculated about the pedagogic implications of edgework. Now I want to turn to some of the interpersonal repercussions of teaching and learning from the edge. The idea that we can ever really and fully understand each other (let alone a text), is a fraught one, especially when we add race to the equation. In The Poetics of Relation (1990), the Martiniquais thinker Édouard Glissant reminds us that "the verb to understand in the sense of 'to grasp' [comprendre] has a fearsome repressive meaning";19 this is especially true in the context of academia and Western ethnographic research. Glissant's translator Betsy Wing suggests that Glissant uses this form of "understanding," or grasping, to denote the "appropriative" and "almost rapacious" qualities of what it means to understand.20 At its most repressive and hateful, the impulse to understand is a dangerous one. Black people (be they the subjects of J. Marion Sims's unethical experiments, or Saartjie Baartman, whose body was exhibited in life and in death, or the unnamed black child in photographs taken by the scurrilous Thomas Eakins whom Saidiya Hartman so carefully writes about in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments) have been repeatedly objectified and grasped (physically, photographically, statistically) in the guise of formalized curiosity, in the interests of research and understanding.21

On the (considerably) less sinister (and well intentioned) end of this, many of us (and I hasten to generalize here) see reading as a way of learning empathy. "Diverse books," writes Elaine Castillo in How to Read Now (2022), are "most often prescribed to us as empathy boosters" by "well-meaning teachers" in order to help us "learn things" [emphasis mine]. She continues, "the concept of instrumentalizing fiction or art as a kind of ethical protein shake, such that reading more and more diversely will somehow build the muscles in us that will help us see other people as human, makes a kind of superficial sense and produces a superficial effect."22 I agree.

If I return for a moment to Taylor's novel, the characters in Real Life are similarly determined to reduce Wallace's experiences (that is, his unknowable and sometimes capricious being) into something they understand, or can grasp, hold, touch, feel, and get. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, when Wallace takes himself to the edge of the lake for some space, Emma pesters him to find out what's wrong. Not knowing what to do with his reply, she "hugged him ... fiercely" before actually kissing him on the lips, despite the fact she has a boyfriend and Wallace is gay.23 She cannot fully comprehend what he's feeling, and so she fills this gap in understanding with a hollow affective performance, a literal attempt at grasping, an embarrassing substitute for intimacy, empathy. These misreadings seem to take place across racial lines and boundaries in the book. Wallace cannot "understand" Dana, his white saboteur, seeing only "the flakes of dead skin collecting in the gingery hair that grew between her eyebrows", and while he reads Miller's body as "accessible," "understandable," and "legible", Miller grows frustrated with Wallace's obliqueness, telling him, "I didn't understand you I don't understand you."24 Their affair, their love-making, their violence constitutes a contested field where personal battles over mutual comprehension are staged and fought. Do you understand me? Do you want to understand me? Do you think I want you to understand me? Can any of us ever understand each other? And does trying to make things better or worse?

I worry I've become implicated in a certain mode of "learning" because here in the UK, I teach on literature programs that are predominantly white and I mainly teach writing by black authors. I once delivered a guest lecture at a predominantly white university in the South of England on non-fiction about racial justice. As I was speaking, a student raised their hand and asked me, quite emotionally but in the spirit of care: "How? How do you do this? How do you cope?" This moment made explicit that which I long suspected, that my audience (and I'll come back to my choice of the word "audience") were making connections between what I was teaching, who I was, how I felt, and how they should feel. It is the possibility of this dynamic that has been weaponized by politicians who believe that university efforts to decolonize the curriculum are driven by an intention to evoke negative affect among white students (specifically, guilt). I had become a conduit, a channel, a medium for, maybe even a diviner of racial feeling. My teaching was read as affective. I was facilitating a particular type of grasping. There's more to unpack and question here, but the question of sadness (this kind of tristesse noir or black melancholy that the student seemed to identify) stayed with me. The lingering sense of negative affect I left in my wake. I think of the legions of dissertation and thesis proposals I've received over the years that take black trauma as the object for study. I wonder whether I had been teaching black literature and history in a way that meant white classmates and colleagues were not only unable to see around the edges of our pain but wanted to devote their time, their intellectual labor to dwelling upon it, to positioning it as the telos of our pedagogy and research.  

In his Substack essay "the tiny white people in our heads," Taylor suggests that "the minute you acknowledge the existence of a white audience, you find yourself othering your own subjectivity. You become object."25 I used the word audience earlier with hesitation, because it suggests a passivity on the part of my incredibly engaged students who might listen to me, yes, but who are ultimately independent critical thinkers, co-producers of knowledge who help shape our learning. But, if I stretch the analogy a little, when the black teacher of literature acknowledges that their audience is white do we become object? Do we become complicit in objectifying the black authors and black characters we read? Do our students inevitably associate us with the topics of our teaching by virtue of our visual proximity to its characters and authors? It's not just black teachers of black literature who will be aware of this dynamic. I suspect there will be resonances here with individuals who teach women's writing, queer studies, disability studies, religious studies and other areas. There is something about teaching that draws attention to the ways that our identity can be more legible and obvious or more ambiguous or opaque depending on the topic at hand. If one is rendered unidentifiable in some way does this undercut attempts at grasping? At understanding? At empathy? At learning?26 And if we are unambiguously read as, for instance, black, how can we assert what Glissant describes as our "right to opacity"?27 Given that Black Studies as a discipline (as the research field that informs so much of our thinking on black pedagogy) centers questions of identity, experience, and identification, how might we equip black teachers to negotiate these dynamics of "reading identity" in the predominantly white classroom on our own terms?

Recent developments in the critical theorization of blackness around subjectivities, illegibility, temporalities, and affect require us to adapt and adjust how we learn and how we teach. How do we reconcile the suspicion of teleology, time, history, and totalizing definitions of blackness in works by Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, and Michelle Wright, with our sector's neoliberal insistence on legible metrics, outcomes, and well-mapped strategic plans in higher education? What do we do with what Rachel Greenwald Smith describes as those "personal feelings" that arise in the classroom, those which emphasize "the emotional specificity of personal experience" and the ethics of personal empathy?28 What can students do with those "impersonal" feelings which "are not easily codifiable or recognizable," that "do not allow for strategic emotional associations to be made between readers and characters" or for that matter between student and student, or student and teacher, and which "emphasize the unpredictability of affective connections"?29 In other words, what if a black teacher exercises a right to opacity? What if I resist being read "as" my subject? What are the political implications of this move? Where does it leave the work? Where does that leave me and my students of all backgrounds for whom I care?

There is no doubt that when I teach black literature, I am read as a living, breathing extension of the novel or poem that I am teaching. Black teachers of black literature stand at a peculiar threshold of understanding. I'm left wondering: am I "paratext"? This is the word that the French theorist Gerard Genette uses to describe things like "an author's name, a title, a preface, [or] illustrations" which "surround" and "extend" the text in order to "present it."30 He states that these items become "a threshold ... that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back"; they constitute "an edge" or "a fringe".31 This cluster may have an introduction, a title, a framing, a blurb that you have used to determine whether to step inside or turn away from the threshold of my language, from the story I am telling. This is the work my body does in the classroom. Am I the text? Or am I more Janus-like, on the edges of it, inviting you to peer over, into, and through something?

And so I return to this precarious, unsettling, excessive language of the edge. The notion of teaching from the edge (which is to say, teaching in a way that resists the objectification and transparency of the text, its authors, its interlocuters, and its topics) has offered me much-needed respite, permission to say no I won't be a conduit for your feeling, even as I care about how you feel. I lean into a praxis of teaching "on the edge" which allows me to convey and articulate my ambivalence. I am double-voiced: I can write a constructively aligned learning outcome and indulge a pedagogy of uncertainty. I can create a climate of care and mutual respect without being (solely) responsible for facilitating racial empathy. Perhaps it is time for me to step-aside and gesture towards the bounds, the edges of what I think it is possible to achieve in the classroom, and in academia itself.

Janine Bradbury is a poet, critic and Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Writing and Culture at the University of York, UK. Her wide-ranging work on contemporary literature and culture has been published by Bloomsbury, Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge, the Guardian. Her debut poetry pamphlet is forthcoming with ignitionpress(2024). Janine has been a repeat guest on BBC Radio 4. Her current project explores the relationship between love, feeling, and reading. She is @janinebradders on X, @janinebradburywrites on Instagram, and her website is www.janinebradbury.co.uk


  1. Brandon Taylor, Real Life (London, Daunt Books, 2020), 9.[]
  2. Brandon Taylor, Real Life, 84.[]
  3. Brandon Taylor, Real Life, 17, 24.[]
  4. Brandon Taylor, Real Life, 58.[]
  5. Hortense J. Spillers, "The Idea of Black Culture." CR: The New Centennial Review 6, no. 3 (2006): 26; Margo N. Crawford, What is African American Literature? (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021), 9.[]
  6. Crawford is responding here to Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).[]
  7. Michael Boyce Gillespie, Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 2.[]
  8. Margo N. Crawford, What is African American Literature?, 1.[]
  9. Margo N. Crawford, What is African American Literature?, 6.[]
  10. Margo N. Crawford, What is African American Literature?, 2.[]
  11. Margo N. Crawford, Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty-First-Century Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 1-2.[]
  12. While Crawford is writing about African American literature, I want to think about black literatures more broadly as they are taught across the black diaspora. On a third-year specialist module titled "Contemporary African American and Black British Writing," I ask students to read Crawford's work in the first week. []
  13. QAA, Subject Benchmark Statement: English. Fifth Edition. (Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2023). []
  14. I am an external examiner of courses at another university, and I have to say this isn't universally true. I've seen some really innovative modes of assessment, too.[]
  15. Is there a British University that offers extra credit as part of a literature degree? []
  16. Michelle M. Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 2.[]
  17. Margo N. Crawford, What is African American Literature? 22.[]
  18. These questions are as relevant to our consideration of the contemporary as they are to our consideration of race for this category is similarly unstable and contingent. I want to recognise, too, Xine Yao's line of questioning in the "Introduction" to Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021). I want to accept the opportunity to "speculate about the possibilities of feeling otherwise" and to "consider disaffection to be the unfeeling rupture that enables new structures of feeling to arise". See Yao, Disaffected, 28, 6.[]
  19. Édouard Glissant. Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 26.[]
  20. Betsy Wing, translator's introduction to Glissant, Poetics of Relation, xiv.[]
  21. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (London: Serpent's Tail, 2019).[]
  22. Elaine Castillo, How to Read Now: Essays (London: Atlantic, 2022), 29-30.[]
  23. Brandon Taylor, Real Life, 36.[]
  24. Brandon Taylor, Real Life, 74, 269, 101.[]
  25. Brandon Taylor, "the tiny white people in our heads: black subjectivity, elaine de kooning, autofiction," sweater weather, Substack, 11 May 2021. []
  26. Brandon Taylor discusses writing, race, and empathy in "There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You," Literary Hub, 25 August 2016.[]
  27. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 189. For a complication of how we read opacity and race, see Tyrone S. Palmer's "'What Feels More Than Feeling?': Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect." Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 2 (2017): 31-56.


  28. Rachel Greenwald Smith, Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 2-3.[]
  29. Rachel Greenwald Smith, Affect and American Literature, 2.[]
  30. Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, translated by Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1.[]
  31. Gérard Genette, Paratexts, 2. Genette clarifies that he borrows the term "fringe" from Philippe Lejeune.[]