Some of y’all–well my twin and my mom mostly–have known the dark side of my last two professional years.
When the profession gets out of the way of the work you get your magic. But with the recent consumer-driven model of higher education that magic can fail as it gets flat and stale.
Right now African Americans are a at a critical place in history, a continuum I try to present in all of my classes even as we talk about e’rything else. Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment; Mary Wollstonecraft; the Heart of Darkness and Jean Jacques Dessalines; Negritude and Notebook of A Return to the Native Land; Notes From the Underground; Chinua Achebe, Lorca, Walcott, and Heaney; strong thesis statements and sophisticated conclusions. Mostly a lot of shit in which they cannot place themselves nor their experience without some effort.
My efforts fail because learning cannot be taught. I know, newsflash. One has to learn on his or her own. And the connections I want them to make require a certain willingness to try your mind out, test drive it, and “open up” as my dad would do on open country roads behind Grandmom and Pop-Pop’s at uber illegal rates of speed. They’re not often given that option in the world of one-size-fits-all standardize everything model.
They’re not here for that, they’re told. They consume whatever I and their other professors give and leave with a handy letter of the alphabet, like a kindergartner’s gold star, that says as much. Once they stockpile about 100 of the alphabet–hopefully with many repeats on the low end of the 26, they get a piece of paper that says that’s what they did.
But I teach anyway. That is to say I expose, guide, and complete tedious administrative and assessment tasks. And sigh and question myself a lot. A. Lot.
So if you made it this far in this essay you, like I, want to know the point of this story. I’m literally at my desk grading. No for real. Right this minute. Final grades are due Friday and a girl is tryna squeeze e’ry bit of break she can out of these next coupla weeks. So let me get to it.
I have a paper from a student in front of me. Let me explain it:
I require my World Lit students–all upperclassmen–to attend or participate in at least one “cultural activity” during the semester. They are reluctant and I get tired of posting events and opportunities that they ignore.
But typically by the end of the semester they have learned, on their own, things that resonate in a way classroom lectures and readings cannot. One learned that Africa wasn’t a country. One learned about Asian culture and brought me a good luck frog to thank me for sending her to the exhibit because she “wouldn’t have gone on her own.” One decided to forgive his family after a play he watched about family issues and the redemptive power of forgiveness. Many learned that there is an art gallery not just a computer lab and even–gasp–paper books in the university library. Another discovered artist Kehinde Wiley.
Today, the young lady writes after a visit to the Ridgely plantation in Maryland, “All of the bells are in one hallway and off of the tone from the bell the slaves had to know which room of the house to go too. [sic] This was eye opening to know how intelligent the slaves were.”
There is so much work to do.
I haven’t joined a single boots-on-the-ground protest since the “unrest” (I kinda hate that euphemism) began. I also surprisingly have not cried once, and despite not being a very overtly emotional person these are things that, in my secret closet, I cry about.
In this moment, I realize I have been boots-on-the-ground since I began working with young people when I was a kid (but didn’t know I was a kid because college amplifies your perception of your adultness).
How can we tell them #blacklivesmatter when they have no concept of what black meant (and means); what it was and is outside of this moment, this place? When we say #blacklivesmatter it’s as if we feel obligated, in saying it, to assert our humanity. As if that does not go without saying. Like rain is water–does it need an announcement to qualify the statement?
When I read the young lady’s reflection on the slaves, what struck me is that we (elders; those who know a bit more–that ilk) have to know that some of the youth chanting #blacklivesmatter don’t know that humanity for certain; in their bones and are actually chanting it to make themselves believe too. In their defense, they are caught in an understanding of history, a socialization that shows them otherwise. And that makes me, for one, nervous.
My mother was telling me how much she learned about African history before slavery long after her school days ended. All of her teachers were African American. As I went through school a generation later not much had changed except that none of my teachers were African American. Well except for my middle school gym teacher. And apparently, not much has changed in the way of the general public education history curriculum since then. We have so much work to do, y’all.