By Samantha Walla, Staff Writer
Manhattan College’s annual Fall Honors Convocation was held on Sunday, October 15 at 3 p.m., at which undergraduate students were inducted into Epsilon Sigma Pi honor society. At this event, Katharine Capshaw, class of 1990, was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
Katharine Capshaw earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Manhattan College before receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut, where she currently teaches English, specializing in children’s literature and African American literature.
In addition to teaching, Capshaw directs the University of Connecticut’s minor in Diversity Studies in American Culture. Capshaw’s books on racialized childhood, including “Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks” and “Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance,” have won the Scholarly Book Award from the Children’s Literature Association, among other awards. Most recently, Capshaw co-edited “Who Writes for Black Children? African American Children’s Literature before 1900.”
Capshaw points to a course at Manhattan College in African American children’s literature taught by Bill Kenney as her introduction to the material she now studies.
“I had always been interested in African American literature and culture because my siblings are black, but I had not read widely in the field. Professor Kenney’s course was electrifying for me – such a body of brilliant, experimental, courageous literature,” she said.
During graduate school, Capshaw discovered “The Brownies’ Book,” the first major periodical for black children, written by W.E.B. DuBois. This lead to Capshaw’s dissertation work and research for her first book.
It is important to study African American children’s literature because of its importance in society, which has been underscored and underappreciated in scholarly studies until very recently.
“I think it’s valuable to study texts that have been neglected by literary history, since scholars have traditionally focused on white writers for adults,” she said. “We are currently in an exciting moment for African American children’s and young adult literature. For instance, it’s an exciting time to be working in the field of African American children’s literature.”
Capshaw has seen an increase in the coverage of African American childhood in both academia and literature, noting Angie Thomas’s novel of the Black Lives Matter movement, “The Hate You Give,” which has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for many weeks, and the first graphic novel engaging our current civil rights movement, Tony Medina’s “I Am Alfonso Jones,” which was released a few weeks ago.
“Because my father passed away at age 53, I have been acutely aware of the brevity of life,” Capshaw said when asked about the early stages of her research. “So when I think about what to research, I am always thinking about whether it’s worth my time and intellectual engagement. Life is short and there is so much that could be done. I want to do work that has implications for social justice. When I work on an article or book, I try to keep in mind the stakes of the project for actual children, whether historically or in the present.”
In an effort to increase the coverage of this genre, Capshaw teaches an undergraduate course at the University of Connecticut on black childhood as it is depicted in literature. In this class, students read a variety of texts by African American authors, both written about childhood and for children. This reading list includes Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and James Baldwin’s essays, as well as children’s texts by June Jordan, Virginia Hamilton and Rita Williams-Garcia.
“This class lets us think about and sometimes question the way we categorize literature as “for children” and “for adults”; it lets us see the commonalities in concerns between the two bodies of literature, and permits us to consider what is special about children’s literature. I just love it,” she said.
Capshaw describes her increased excitement at being awarded an honorary degree because of her connection to the college, both personally and professionally.
“Manhattan College has meant so much to me and to my family. My father was an English major at Manhattan in the late 1960s and I know that my love of poetry and my commitment to social justice comes directly from his experience here. That’s a beautiful legacy. Plus, the professors at Manhattan were superb and helped propel me towards my graduate work. I am grateful to them and to the entire community at Manhattan,” she said.
Manhattan College served as more than an academic institution for Capshaw, as she met many friends, as well as her husband here.
“We’ve been married for twenty-five years and are raising four terrific children,” she said. “My favorite memory was the first time I saw Steve. He was playing pool with his brother in a dorm at West Hill, where I also lived, and seeing him was like being struck by a lightning bolt!”
When asked how Manhattan College has changed since she attended, Capshaw said, “Manhattan College has always been a diverse community, drawing on a variety of people from the US and internationally. The celebration of this diversity at Manhattan in the last ten years has been particularly gratifying. There’s nowhere like Manhattan College in terms of its warmth, openness, academic rigor, and inclusiveness. I am very proud to be a Jasper.”