Monday, May 11, 2015
May 11, 2015: Semester Conclusions: I Can’t Breathe
[As another semester winds to a close, a week’s series on some of the moments that have stood out to me and what conclusions I’d take away from them. Leading up to a weekend post on some of my summer and fall plans. Share your spring follow ups or summer/fall plans in comments, please!]
On perhaps my most radical moment as a teacher—and why it wasn’t.
As part of my semester preview series back in January (has it been four months already?!), I highlighted my plans to address the social media, public scholarly concept of the #FergusonSyllabus: the collective goal of providing students with texts, authors, frames, and contexts that can help us talk about and understand the histories unfolding all around us. As the recent events in Baltimore (among so many other places) have made all too clear, that goal remains as vital and meaningful as ever. And as I wrote in this Talking Points Memo piece on the Ferguson riots, one ironically but appropriately reprinted verbatim during the Baltimore ones, I don’t know that there’s any American history more important for us to remember in that context than “race riots” like that in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898—nor, thus, any American literary work more worth our collective reading and engagement than Charles Chesnutt’s historical novel of that event, The Marrow of Tradition (1901).
So as I wrote in that January post, I put Marrow back on my American Literature II syllabus for this semester. I’m glad I did, although we still struggled with the same issue I mentioned there (the inability of many of my students to get all the way through that admittedly challenging novel and to its particularly significant and powerful conclusion). But as it turns out, it was another novel in a different class—Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which has been on the syllabus for my Major American Authors of the 20th Century course every time I’ve taught it—that provided me with the occasion for a far more overt #FergusonSyllabus moment. As we concluded our four days of conversations about Wright’s novel, I took a step back from the students’ strong points about Wright’s style, his creation of his protagonist Bigger Thomas, his depiction of his Chicago setting, and so on. I provided a number of statistics about racial inequities in the justice system in 21st century America, about the disturbing trends on the ground in communities like Ferguson, about death row and sentencing and the war on drugs and many other related issues. And then I removed my sweater, revealing the t-shirt underneath: stark black, with “I Can’t Breathe” in striking white letters.
For someone who prides himself on not bringing my personal politics into the classroom—I know my choices of authors and texts, among many other pedagogical details, are certainly political ones in their own right, but I still find those different from overt statements of my contemporary political affiliations or attitudes—this felt like one of my most radical classroom moments by far. (After 10 years in the classroom, I don’t get nervous too often any more, but I was shaking like a leaf at that moment.) I can only imagine what fodder it would provide for critics of higher ed, those who like to rant about the “liberal indoctrination” we seek to carry out on our students. Yet the more I thought and have continued to think about the moment, the more I would argue it represents far more of a continuity with than a contrast to my other pedagogical choices. After all, I know of few texts, in any genre and from any period, that force us to confront difficult, unsettling, controversial, vital American truths—present and ongoing as well as past and originating—more than Native Son. Asking students to read and talk about that book is thus a deeply radical move—not in the narrow sense of partisan politics, but in the broader and much more important sense of impacting and affecting perspectives and conversations. Which is to say, whether I break out any more t-shirts or not, I’ll undoubtedly continue to wear my AmericanStudier heart on my sleeve.
Next conclusion tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this semester conclusion? Ones of yours you’d share?