Scenes of Instruction

A Memoir

Scenes of Instruction

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 22 b&w photographs Published: December 1999

Author: Michael Awkward

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs

Scenes of Instruction is the memoir of noted scholar of African American literature Michael Awkward. Structured around the commencement ceremonies that marked his graduations from various schools, it presents Awkward’s coming-of-age as a bookish black male in the projects of 1970s Philadelphia. His relationships with his family and peers, their struggles with poverty and addiction, and his eventual move from underfunded urban schools to a prestigious private school all become parts of a memorable script.

With a recurring focus on how his mother’s tragic weaknesses and her compelling strengths affected his development, Awkward intersperses the chronologically arranged autobiographical sections with ruminations on his own interests in literary and cultural criticism. As a male scholar who has come under fire for describing himself as a feminist critic, he reflects on such issues as identity politics and the politics of academia, affirmative action, and the Million Man March.

By connecting his personal experiences with larger political, cultural, and professional questions, Awkward uses his life as a palette on which to blend equations of race and reading, urbanity and mutilation, alcoholism, pain, gender, learning, sex, literature, and love.


Scenes of Instruction in an up-from-the-ghetto book, as some readers have observed, but that designation hardly does it justice. Awkward has incisive things to say about the Million Man March, the black public intellectual, the infamous Benetton poster of a black woman nursing a (possibly) white child, the school cafeteria ‘black table’ (and other ‘Chocolate Cities’), and a host of other things we’ve all thought about, but not necessarily in print. And while short, his remarks on authors including Morrison, Richard Wright, ntozake shange, Randall Kenan, and Paul Monette are fascinating precisely because Awkward’s mission is to tell us how their texts have burrowed into the inner reaches of his life. But his higher mission in his work with the author who is his mother. While it is jarring to see words like discursive and interrogate in expressions of the most personal, heartfelt feelings, there can be no doubt that in this memoir Awkward is lovingly attentive to his mother’s narratives—indeed, to his mother.” — Robert B. Stepto, African American Review

“Absorbing. . . . Awkward confronts his demons head-on with clarity and candor. . . . [A] tangled yet appealing memoir.” — Publishers Weekly

“Powerful. . . . Many moments in Awkward’s narrative—his musings on the death of his abusive father and on his mother’s descent into and recovery from alcoholism, for example—are imaginatively unsettling or intellectually provocative. . . . At once a sobering memoir of one particular African-American child’s triumph over brutality and long odds, and an extended consideration of cultural issues. . .” — Kirkus Reviews

“Awkward, an English professor, provides a personal memoir in the context of his specialty—African American female writers. . . . He reflects on his coming of age, a black boy’s search to find what it means to be both a man and black. . . . This is a most interesting and revealing journey, worthy of viewing in its own light. The contrast and comparison with other African American literary characters to his life are often enlightening. . .” — Booklist

“Grounded in literature and theory, this thoughtful, accessible account provides compelling moments. . . . Awkward’s life is a microcosm of the dilemmas African Americans face and a reflection of the collisions of the U.S.’s intellectual and frontier traditions.” — T. Bonner Jr., Choice

“The author applies his background as a literary and cultural critic brilliantly to connect his personal experience to larger issues and in the process adds a rich chapter to coming-of-age stories about the Black experience.” — Emerge

Scenes of Instruction marks an important contribution to various subgenres of memoir. Awkward gives insights on what it means to make the radical cultural shift from black economic poverty to the brutalizing world of extreme white privilege. He crosses from one shore to another (a remarkable cultural journey, presented here with intelligence and sensitivity), and generously allows the reader to understand what that crossing costs, on any number of levels.” — Cathy Davidson, author of 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan

“Each page of this book is filled with significance, each page a work of art. Awkward revisits his past from multiple perspectives—through his own body as a child or teen, and in a kind of outer body experience as a scholar reflecting on why things happened the way they did. Scenes of Instruction is one of those rare memoirs that will last a long time.” — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America

“This account of the education of Michael Awkward is tender, thoughtful, and illuminating. Scenes of Instruction is a great autobiographical achievement.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Unafraid of his own brilliance, Michael Awkward has given us a penetrating portrait of the growth of an intellectual, of a man, and of an African American. He uses his honesty to illuminate the wounds into which his keen intelligence slices, and his invaluable insights are a balm toward understanding. In dealing with blackness and gender and double-consciousness and class, Scenes of Instruction goes to the hearts of the matter.” — Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century


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Price: $49.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael Awkward is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. His previous books include Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality and Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Author's Note

Awkward Silences

Introduction: "Don't Be Like Your Father"

Section I: The Mother's Mark

Section II: " Are You Man Enough?"

Section III: "Chocolate City

Section IV: "close in silence"

Section V: "The Mother's Breast"

Coda: Tippin' In

Works Cited or Consulted
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2402-7
Publicity material