Rice University has appointed Houston native and acclaimed writer Bryan Washington to the newly-created position of Scholar-in-Residence for Racial Justice.
The two-year appointment is a joint initiative of the Office of the Provost, the School of Humanities, the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice, the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS) and the Department of English, with whom Washington will be working closely throughout his tenure.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Washington said of his new appointment. “A lot of it is going to be finding different ways to see what they need, to see what I can do to help and to see how we can best supplement each other for the students and create something that benefits the students most of all, because that's the point at the end of the day.”
Washington’s debut collection of short stories, “Lot,” prominently featured Houston and was included among President Barack Obama’s top 10 books of 2019. The book has won numerous honors since its publication, including the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Lambda Literary Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
He has also been a prolific contributor to the New Yorker, among many other publications, covering everything from the grocers on Houston’s front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic to the George Floyd protests downtown, illuminating the experience of living “in the shadow of total police impunity” as someone “without the benefit of the doubt.”
Washington’s first novel, “Memorial,” will be published in October, halfway through what will be his first semester as Scholar-in-Residence for Racial Justice. During his tenure, Washington — who will also hold the title of George Guion Williams Writer-in-Residence — will offer courses in creative writing, including a course titled “Writing Black Lives.”
This won’t, however, be his first semester teaching at Rice; Washington served as a visiting lecturer in creative writing in fall 2019 and spring 2020.
As a teacher and mentor, Washington received high praise from Rice students, who described him in their evaluations as a “great professor” who “makes everyone feel like their input matters” and who “teaches different techniques and elements of fiction writing … which leads to a really inclusive class and fruitful experiences.”
It’s mutual admiration, to say the least.
“I was lucky to work with them,” Washington said of his students. “They were deeply receptive to talking about form and structure and open to reading a lot of different stuff, which isn't always the case within a creative writing program, irrespective of whether it's an M.F.A. or an undergrad creative writing program, so it was really heartening.”
As Scholar-in-Residence for Racial Justice, Washington will also work with CAAAS as it launches a new undergraduate minor and graduate certificate this fall, and with the Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice on creating campus events centered around the topic of racial justice.
“It's going to be a position that's going to be pretty ripe for a lot of stuff,” Washington said. “And working with both (CAAAS and the English department) will be helpful for setting it up for the next person who has it, so that they can continue to expand on it and provide a tangible benefit on campus.”
The creation of this new position at Rice, Washington said, is both “an act of good faith” and a vital response to ongoing national and global discussions of such weighty matters as civil rights, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think it's important because it's one way of showing that the university cares about creating an inclusive environment and is open to having the conversations that could be uncomfortable,” Washington said. “And it shows that they’re game for it, which is really big of Rice.”
“I don't think that it is surprising in a city like Houston to have a position like this,” he said. “It feels deeply natural, given the city's diversity and given that we have so many folks coming from so many different places. Working toward equity and inclusion is something every instructor should be doing already, implicitly. But this seems like a necessary position.”