Odyssey Beyond Bars offers new multicultural literature course at Oakhill

Edward, a current student enrolled in Afro Am 155, reads intently from his course textbook

“We often search for scars which lay bare on the outside, never considering the more hurtful scars present on the inside. Having served nearly 25 years of incarceration, I know firsthand that the hidden scars are the ones that can hurt the most . . . In reading this, I found myself reflecting on how beautiful the mind can be. It can take the ugliest scene and turn it beautiful. It is capable of transforming trauma into strength, fortitude, and passion.”
—Edward, current student in Afro Am 155

Even though COVID has brought a number of obstacles for programs providing higher education in prisons, new technology and support from the prison staff at Oakhill Correctional has allowed the Odyssey Beyond Bars program to expand. This semester, OBB students at Oakhill are taking a new course on Multicultural American Literature from UW-Madison’s African American Studies department, taught by instructors Craig Werner and Anthony Black over Zoom.

The course asks students to engage in a variety of challenging texts and works of art that explore the dynamic interplay between poverty, race and incarceration in contemporary American society. One week, the students might discuss the complex effects of anti-Black racism in James Baldwin’s essay “The Uses of the Blues.” The next, they might interpret Natalie Diaz’s harrowing depiction of drug addiction and intergenerational trauma in her poem “When My Brother was an Aztec.”

Each week, students write responses to these texts, like Edward, who wrote: “With Natalie Diaz’s poems, for the first time I was compelled to write a long response… Diaz’s poems moved me, dug deep, and touched emotions, which evoked the response that spilled out onto the blank canvas of this paper. I have grappled and fought with those closest to me on the topic of addiction and how to best deal with those we know suffering from it. The subject gets deep!” Students then share their responses with their classmates. In the process, they see how a single work can generate innumerable points of view and that everyone’s perspective adds to the classroom community.

Professor Craig Werner says, “I’d been a guest lecturer at Oakhill before, so I had a sense of what the students would be like and I was looking forward to teaching Afro 155 with Anthony. But what’s happened the first half of the semester has blown away anything I could have imagined. The guys have taken ownership of the class, reading closely, grappling with the tough parts and responding in ways that bring together feeling, life and thought… Can’t express my gratitude highly enough to the staff, at Oakhill and Odyssey, who have made this possible.” A massive thank you to the Department of Corrections for all their support!