Eyes Opened, Black Literature Claimed Him
When Richard Nixon announced he was
sending combat troops into Cambodia
in 1970, student riots and class boycotts
broke out at universities across the country.
William L. Andrews ’ 70 (MA, ’ 73 PhD) was
studying English at Carolina that spring.
It was a time of tremendous turmoil. Many
students — some of them Andrews’ friends —
wanted to close the University to protest the
widening of the Vietnam War. Civil unrest was
exploding in the nation, but it was civil rights
that drew Andrews’ fire.
“I wanted to go to class because I was reading
black writers like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B.
Dubois, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Malcolm X,” he said.
Blyden Jackson, the first tenured black professor at Carolina, introduced Andrews to the intellectual history of black America. That kept him
from cutting class. It also changed his life.
Andrews grew up in Richmond,Va. — during
the Civil War centennial, in the former capital of
the Confederacy — where segregation was
entrenched. He lived a few miles from
a middle-class black suburb, but his
closest connection to that world was
the radio. He visited a lot of battlegrounds in his schooldays but learned
nothing about slavery.
Reading allowed him to widen his
lens. He was particularly struck by the
works of Frederick Douglass, who
combined craftsmanship with the dis-
cussion of important issues of social
justice. “I knew that reading literature gave me
the best access to a kind of human experience
that I was most interested in,” Andrews said. “It’s
really great to spend so much time in the com-
pany of so many first-class minds.”
Now senior associate dean for fine arts and
humanities and E. Maynard Adams Professor of
English, Andrews has made African-American literature the focus of his career. His mission has
been to construct a historical framework of
African-American literature from the beginning,
he said, to show the development of the expression of a people’s consciousness. His specialty is
the formative years of the 19th century. He wants
to tell the story of the storytellers.
He wrote The Literary Career of Charles W.
Chesnutt in 1980; To Tell a Free Story: The First
Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-
1865 in 1988; co-edited The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and was a co-editor of The Literature of the American South: A
Norton Anthology in 1997; and wrote North Carolina Slave Narratives in 2003 and The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature in 2006.
Most recently Andrews helped edit and publish The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride by
Julia C. Collins, argued to be the first novel published by an African-American woman. Written
in 1865 at the close of the Civil War, the novel, a
story of romance and melodrama, tells how a
young mulatto woman discovers her past and her
love for a white man.
“[The novel] imagines a world in which a
William Andrews —
a UNC alumnus,
English professor —
realized that one
could grow up in the
capital of the
know nothing of the
literature. He has
written extensively in
an effort to “tell the
story of the storytellers.”