Class Profile: Beth McCoy applies housing crisis to literature

When millions of individuals and families lost their homes with the crash of the American housing market, an opportunity arose to craft a lens through which to explore the narratives of the event as they pertain to slavery. Usually, we look first to economics, statistics and finance in the discourse surrounding the 2008 meltdown that resulted from heavy and fast lending of mortgages.

What Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Beth McCoy aims to do in ENGL 237: Voices and Perspectives: Housing Crisis is to dispel the notion that events like the crisis stand alone.

In a literary and cultural study of houses, homes and dwellings and the role they play in well-being, McCoy introduces the theories of Duke University's Ian Baucom and Yale University's Joseph Roach that explore the housing crisis and credit lending and how they date back to the Atlantic slave trade. McCoy then applies the theories to literature and art.

“It's one thing to say that these theorists say this, but what about an artist?” McCoy said. “It's kind of like cross-checking your facts. You want to see that if your story works out in one perspective, it works in the other.”

McCoy's course introduces students to both nonfiction that covers the crisis directly, including Michael Lewis' The Big Short, and fiction pieces that use the home as a central theme. The class just began reading Toni Morrison's A Mercy.

“We're looking at what the literature and film can tell us at a very human level because the students have been really great about observing that and a lot of the accounts of the housing crisis,” McCoy said. She added that much of what is missing in the modern reports of the crisis is “the accounts of the human toll and the affective toll of this big structural thing that happened.”

“You scratch the surface,” she said. “And you find that after the second scratch you reveal stuff that's grounded in slavery.”

In a class discussion of Morrison's novel of slavery in 17th-century America, McCoy explores themes and motifs with students.

Junior Sean Neill was the first to note the use of the house as a symbol of class, race, religion and gender, as McCoy said that in books akin to Morrison's, “often people use [homes] to kind of shape their world.”

“What we try to do is look at the idea of home, what it means both economically and affectively. So what emotions and feelings do we put into it, but also how are homes in the novel very much reliant on slave labor and violence against women,” Neill said. “It's a more cyclical idea of history, of things resurfacing.”