Chief among the terms Professor Njoki McElroy uses to describe herself is “storyteller,” so hearing a story during time spent with her is both unsurprising and a delight for the listener. When I sat down with her recently, she did not disappoint, relating a story about a friend of hers who moved to the United States from Sweden during the height of 1960s racial unrest. This friend, without laundry facilities in her home, went to a public Laundromat and, when confronted with the sign on the door – “COLORED ONLY” – panicked at the idea of having to find another place to wash her white laundry.
Prof. McElroy laughed out loud after telling this little anecdote. Despite the years that have passed since it happened, she was still amused, yet her laughter didn’t belie the seriousness of the underlying issue: the racial divide. A conversation with Prof. McElroy never strays far from the subject of race and the thorny issues surrounding racial inequity in this country, and anyone who has taken her class “Wit and Humor in African-American Literature” will recognize the story above as an exemplar of one of the coping mechanisms African-Americans have employed since the days of slavery – the use of humor to deflect sadness, fear, isolation, brutality, horror.
Njoki McElroy has been personally confronted with the problems created by racism nearly all her life. Not only did racism impact her husband and his fellow Tuskegee airmen who faced discrimination, but also her early years teaching at Northwestern University, when African-American and white students found themselves at odds, despite the somewhat level playing field that should have been created by their membership in the same student body.
Since joining the MLS faculty in 1987, however, Prof. McElroy has found the MLS student body members accepting of one another and more than willing to work together to create the sort of semester-end project that has been a staple of her class assignments since her days at Northwestern. She said of those days, “having an annual project was one of the ways I tried to break down the polarization. I knew that if students worked together on a group project, they would work together to succeed.” She added, “Because MLS students are adult learners, I don’t have a lot of immaturity to deal with, and polarization is not a concern in the class. The students and I tend to form a cohesive family early in the class and we do these class projects without the racial conflicts.”
Prof. McElroy is happy with her “family” at SMU, and with her experience teaching in the MLS program, a course of study she recommends both for its “diversity in course selection,” and for surprisingly diverse class rosters like hers last fall, comprised of MLS students hailing from Hong Kong, Eritrea, Kenya, and Montreal. “Through classroom diversity,” she says, “we can learn about cultural differences and experiences; we can solve the issues that create racial divides.” She is also happy with the MLS program because she believes that “studying the liberal arts creates fully-developed, educated people who can serve more completely and help society.”
Professor McElroy practices what she preaches, doing her part to help society by making presentations in high schools and community colleges. She is also polishing her one-woman play script; preparing to publish an anthology of her plays, stories, and her study of African playwrights in Africa; and, working toward the day when her semester-end projects are staged both on the SMU campus and out in the Dallas community. And she is still promoting 1012 Natchez (excerpt below), her delightful book chronicling the first half of her life, and which she published with the help of Dr. Janet Harris, another MLS faculty member.
Publishing may be a goal for many of those who submitted work to this inaugural issue of Pony Express(ions), much of which is devoted to the previously unpublished poetry, short stories, short dramatic works, and other writing submitted by current and former MLS students. Prof. McElroy’s advice for these aspiring writers is to “read, read, read, and write, write, write. Reading other people’s works is your training, your school. That’s where you really learn. You learn from other authors, other writings. And you must have a variety of reading, beyond your area of interest. If your passion is poetry, you should read fiction and non-fiction. And if you love non-fiction, you should read poetry. You must develop an interest and a love for literature globally.” Unsurprisingly, her advice for writing and being published is akin to her approach to life: celebrate diversity.