Glenda R. Carpio is Chair of the Department of English and Professor of African and African American Studies.
Glenda R. Carpio is Chair of the Department of English and Professor of African and African American Studies. By Joey Huang

Fifteen Questions: Glenda Carpio on Humor, Hum 10, and the Failure of “Success” Stories

The Chair of the English Department sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss rethinking the literary canon and immigrant narratives. “I was the lucky one, I survived,” she says. “What happens to those who are undone by the violence of having to be uprooted?"
By Jade Lozada

Glenda R. Carpio is Chair of the Department of English, a Professor of African and African American Studies, and lecturer for the flagship freshman literature course Humanities 10, otherwise known as Hum 10.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Why did you want to teach [Hum 10] when you came to Harvard?

GC: I think one of the major reasons why Hum 10 is so important is that it allows us to rethink the Great Books course. That template is so problematic.

I think about what it would be like to convey to first-year students coming in the importance of literary history, the importance of deep thinking across time, in different genres, that we still really believe in that.

I think Hum 10 at Harvard has tried — especially in the last few years — to really revise that structure to provide for students the benefits of Great Books courses without its Eurocentric biases. Of course, you can never quite get away from it. We repeatedly get criticisms from students that it doesn’t include this and doesn’t include that, but I don’t think you could ever have a perfect Hum 10.

FM: I was going to ask about that, getting that bad rap for being too white and too old and too male. I’m wondering how that shows up in your conversations in seminars and how you and your colleagues have tried to be inclusive of identities and different perspectives.

GC: We try different things. One year, Professor Greenblatt taught “Othello” but paired it with Toni Morrison's play “Desdemona,” which takes the perspective of Desdemona, and it becomes a conversation between Shakespeare and Morrison.

It was really productive for students to be able to talk about a Shakespeare play that’s controversial, but to have Morrison also, as someone — an ally — who’s there thinking through difficult questions. I think we have also tried to diversify who is at the helm. For instance, this last year, Professor Namwali Serpell delivered a few great lectures on “Frankenstein” and on Morrison’s “Beloved.”

We can never get away entirely from canon wars, but I think we are chipping at it.

FM: I’ve heard that there is a really good conversation that happens around the idea of the immigrant success story and how immigrants are treated in the United States generally. I’m wondering what you think about that. What are the questions that you ask your students in the conversation you start?

GC: When you think of immigrant literature, you're likely to think of a story about how one comes to America and makes a life in America. And, for me, I think that’s been a really important story and needs to be told again and again. But I do think that that acculturation plot papers over other major concerns that people are writing about when they write about immigration.

We need to think about things like undocumented migration. We need to think about how climate is already impacting migration, and I think keeping with stories that are about a singular person or community doesn't give us the broad perspective that we also need to understand migration. Some of my research in this area has informed our discussions in seminar.

I hope it’s an invitation for students to be curious about a whole set of artists who are not writing the acculturation plot and are employing different formal means to get us to think about migration in connection to climate, to politics, to economics, and not just the Bildungsroman of someone’s individual life or a community trying to acculturate.

FM: Where do you think Harvard fits into this spectrum of immigrant narratives from acculturation to really being a social and political examination of how the country works?

GC: There’s a spectrum, and one part of the spectrum is if you’re an immigrant and you’re at Harvard then you are the poster child of the so-called American Dream. So I think in that way Harvard is a kind of marker of a very well-rehearsed mythical story. And I think there’s a lot under that that’s more complicated. If you’re an immigrant at Harvard you also have a kind of social tax — do you really belong at Harvard? Experienced from the other side, there’s a sense of, it doesn’t feel like an American Dream at all. It feels like something else. It’s very challenging.

It’s a comforting American myth for those who are not immigrants, but see immigrants at Harvard. The underbelly of that is much more complicated for people who are actually immigrants at Harvard. And then somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is the reality that Harvard is also a place that hasn’t embraced migration as much as it could as an area of inquiry.

With the restructuring of arts and humanities — I’ve been part of the committee with Dean Kelsey — we’re really thinking about how we need to make that more of an area where students can come and understand migration from different vantage points. Not just from literature, from economics, or from politics, but really investigate this area of life that’s so affecting the world.

FM: I want to know a little bit more about your own immigration to the United States and what that was like for you.

GC: I came to the States when I was 12. I didn't speak English, and that was really rough, because 12 is a hard age for anybody.

I went to middle and high school in Westchester, New York — not very diverse. In high school, some really stupid people used to nickname me Taco Bell. It’s really rough stuff that can leave marks — I mean, really nasty, you know? I think it’s really important to understand just how much migration hurts psychologically, emotionally. But I also think that it’s important for me not to dwell on those things publicly, because I am one of the many, many people who have suffered, and sometimes I think the plot of acculturation is solipsistic.

Acculturation takes the suffering that you go through and says, “Yes, but look I’ve survived, and I’m successful!” I’m less interested in that and more interested in the millions of people who don’t make it — like what happens to those who undone by the violence of having to be uprooted, often separated from families, living under what I call carceral migration, which is the kind of waiting for papers, being undocumented. I think it behooves us to look up and see what I call in my book “migrant solidarity.”

FM: How did your experience in high school and your initial years in the United States bring you to the Teach for America program?

GC: In college, I remember I didn’t want to go work for “the man.” I have to do something, right? So I went to Compton. I was only 21 and, as an immigrant, I had traveled from the so-called third world to the first world. But I hadn’t actually seen how the third world can be within the first world.

Compton looked to me and felt to me like Guatemala, and it made me ask really big questions about why. I was teaching eighth grade my first year, and I had students who were basically illiterate. They couldn’t really read and write, and they had a great deal of shame about it. And I really asked myself, “We’re like a half-hour drive from Hollywood, and what disparities of wealth and power — how?” So I think that made me want to go to grad school and understand America, not as the place that I longed to acculturate into but as the phenomenon that includes so much injustice within this democratic structure. So for me, Compton was a real school.

FM: Why did that lead to English and African & African American Studies as your specific areas of scholarship?

GC: With my eighth graders in Compton, we would listen to books and read along, so that those who couldn’t really read could hear, and they started to be able to know stories about Malcolm X or Frederick Douglass, or really hear ideas and concepts that they didn’t associate with school. They associated school with doing time. For them, the carceral and school were very much interlinked.

I think some of the bigger questions that my students and their lives there made me ask led me to specialize in African and African American Studies and to writing about Black humor, which has a whole different set of intellectual questions about why we laugh. It’s such a big part of the human experience. I wanted to explore that and see how humor has been used not just as a coping mechanism, but also as a way of protesting without falling into sentiment or falling into straight aggression.

FM: When do you think that change in public awareness or public conversation happened where we started to focus so much on what's not funny? When did we change the way we joke?

GC: I’m about to teach a course that I haven’t taught in a long time, which is my “Black Humor” course, and so I think this question that you asked is a real pressing one, for which I don’t have a straight answer.

It’s not just political correctness, which was something else in earlier decades. It’s something like, we’re so hypervigilant about truth and not truth, and like fake images and fake narratives. I think it’s part of a broader question about how our realities are made and when we don’t share the same reality. Humor is about having an understanding, that you have a basic point where you do meet. You might not find it fully funny — people laugh in and out of synchronicity, depending on your race or gender — but I think the common denominator is a respect for humanity.

FM: I’m wondering when you think humor is more effective: when it's used for the cause of social justice — like the jokes people use to reappropriate things that have been used against them — or when it's used to reinforce stereotypes about an oppressed or marginalized group?

GC: There are so many times when we find ourselves confronted by humor that is just really evil. Condemning it wholeheartedly is actually not the best strategy, because it seems to push it down, and inevitably, it comes up anyway. One of the things humor does is to keep yourself nimble and to be able to see something that’s life-threatening and to be able to skirt it somehow.

I think we need to know that our particular social moment is particular because people didn't have the internet before, you know. But there have been instances where similar challenges have been posed to humans, and we could learn from the past.

FM: I heard that you split your time between Cambridge and Venice. I’m wondering how Cambridge could ever compare?

GC: One of the things about Cambridge is that really, it’s about the intensity of Harvard. We have so many people come through when the semester is going that it does feel like there’s a kind of intensity that’s like New York, which is my other city.

It’s not as beautiful as Venice, but few places are. One of the things that Venice allows for as well for me is some perspective. When you’re at Harvard — often because of the intellectual richness, but also because it’s very aware of itself as a brand — people lose perspective. It’s a great university, it’s an amazing place, but the world is bigger. So when I leave, I appreciate that perspective, because I think it makes me better when I come back to Harvard.

FM: My very last question is if you could tell me something that no one knows about you? As in, no other writer.

GC: This is pretty personal, but I had to divorce my family, which is very painful, so it made me have to think about the concept of family. I think that when it works, it’s amazing. I have many dear friends, and their families are so lovely, and I’m invited to be part of that. I think when family works, it’s an amazing institution. But when it doesn’t, it also shows you that it can be a very oppressive cultural institution. Even though it wasn’t easy, it did show me that you don’t have to follow societal norms. If your wellbeing is challenged by that norm, that norm needs to be gone.

FM: Thank you for sharing that. I’m glad I asked, because I think I’ve met a lot of students who could benefit from hearing that advice.

GC: I think we should be able to say more about that. It’s often not because people are evil. It's just that people have intergenerational trauma. And it gets to a point that somebody has to break it.

— Associate Magazine Editor Jade Lozada can be reached at

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