Students and faculty members across the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus have engaged with Baldwin’s influential 1974 novel as part of the inaugural Common Read. McKnight, an associate professor of graphic design, used the book as the basis for a typesetting project in her “Advanced Problems in Graphic Design” course.
“It seemed like an exciting opportunity for the students to participate in a larger project if we used the Common Read this semester rather than another text,” she said.
Students chose 15 pages from “If Beale Street Could Talk” to typeset into a book and paired those excerpts with text from another author. The response was electric, as students connected with Tish and Fonny’s story. They championed a variety of themes including family, motherhood, race relations and romantic love.
“There was something for everyone,” McKnight said. “Everyone identified with different parts of the book.”
A variety of authors resonated with the students, as well. They chose to pair Baldwin’s work with writers from a number of eras and backgrounds, including Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paulo Coelho, Langston Hughes and Kiese Laymon.
McKnight felt Baldwin’s work was so impactful because it’s a story that seemed real to her students – more like their own experiences. She noted that much of the narrative revolves around overcoming adversity.
“Everyone is working very hard,” she said. “Every student I work with is working very, very hard to be in the classroom and do their personal best. I don’t know if they always know that we realize what a sacrifice it is to do that.”
McKnight believes that perseverance is something that sets apart UMSL students. They make sacrifices to show up and do the work, and that spirit showed through in the results of the project
“They were so proud of their final books – more proud than I’ve seen a group of students in a long time,” she said.
Aside from engaging McKnight’s students, the Common Read also fostered a sense of community with the rest of the campus.
“It’s so interesting with the Common Read to see everyone’s take on the same book,” McKnight said. “It’s nice to have one narrative in all of our hearts at the same time.”