Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Teaching Ferguson

I did not screw it up. Or, rather, my students did not screw it up. This was my intro to nonfiction class and my students are freshman and sophomores mostly. And they are new to college. They are a little shy. They can be easily distracted. And they are brilliant. I was nervous--maybe they'd be annoyed they'd read for class and we weren't going to talk about the text. Maybe because this is a creative writing class, not a political science class. Maybe because the phrase "white privilege" was going to come up and the knee-jerk response to white-privilege is to get defensive. 

The minute I came in I told them we would be talking about Ferguson. I said something like, "Look, mostly I'm a hand-wringer. Climate change. Wring hands. Citizens United. Wring hands. Unlawful murder. Wring hands. But I have to stop wringing my hands. Or at least wring them with you."

I asked, "So why do you think what's happening in Ferguson is happening in Ferguson."

I wasn't prepared (should have been) that some students didn't know what was happening in Ferguson. Fortunately, I brought a poem! one of my grad students wrote and posted on Facebook that did a good job describing some of the facts along with some of the helpful rhetoric we would talk about, "Forty seven days, you stand, pre-recording your message, not wearing your uniform, hoping we forget you are one of them."

I gave a short synopsis: that a black, unarmed kid was walking down the street and was shot by a policeman from more than 100 feet away for stealing a pack of Swisher Sweets.  I said, you know I have a little boy named Max. He is 4. If, when he is 18 years old, he steals a pack of cheap cigars, the worst that will happen to him is that he'll get arrested. The most likely thing is, he'll be told "don't do that again" and be sent on his way. Whatever it is, he won't be shot by a policeman from over a hundred feet away. 

And then I asked, "How many of you have heard the phrase 'driving while black'?" One student told me about living in Nogales. Every week, they drive to Tucson to shop or to visit their friends. Her mom, blond haired, blue-eyed is waved right through. Her dad, who is latino, is stopped at the checkpoint (fifty miles north of the border), every time even though the border patrol agents know him, know their car. Another student talked about being from Pittsburgh. She saw a black guy walking down the street. Some cops jumped him, beat the hell out of him, and left him in the street. One student talked about her criminal justice class and how a fellow student wrote a poem about white privilege, quoting lines about how she could go to the bar, walk down the street, buy doughnuts, without feeling like she was out of place, without being harassed, without being afraid that someone would point out she wasn't white. I handed out this poem.
alternate names for black boys
BY DANEZ SMITH1.   smoke above the burning bush
2.   archnemesis of summer night
3.   first son of soil
4.   coal awaiting spark & wind
5.   guilty until proven dead
6.   oil heavy starlight
7.   monster until proven ghost
8.   gone
9.   phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
       but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath


Then we talked about why poetry might work better for this, immediately. Because an essay argues even if it doesn't mean to. Because the images of the poem smack you in the face. Because the emotion is right on the surface. Because the "me" in the poem is so personal compared to the public "me" of the essay. Because the connective parts between images would require a "because." We talked about wanting to be a noun (person) instead of an adjective (black). We talked about the phrase white privilege. We talked about what we could do. (Talk more, was mostly our answer). We talked about how to begin to dismantle a system where there two boys live in two very different countries. One for white boys who can walk down the street without looking over their shoulder, who can steal a pack of cheap cigars, who can even mouth off to a cop without fear of reprisal and one for black boys, who can't. 

It was so intense, I got so tired. I imagine that if I were black, teaching, I would feel this tired every day. But it was so good.  Maybe the best teaching day ever, thanks to my students, who are so aware, and, even if not aware, amenable to becoming aware. 

5 comments:

Lisa B. said...

thanks for reporting back on this--it's inspiring. I've thought about putting together a set of links to frame a discussion of this next semester, but I wonder if the immediacy of it will be necessary. But I think I will anyway. It's so important that none of us forgets this moment, everything that led up to it, and that we keep paying attention.

Erika George said...

I came across your post on a friend's Facebook page. I never leave comments but felt compelled to let you know how much I've appreciated you sharing this. I am black. I teach constitutional law and as a consequence teach race...I suspect before I even speak a word about the case law. I appreciated your point about poetry as a way to enter this topic because it allows for space beyond the adversarial. Perhaps I'd do well to incorporate the occasional poem or piece of literature into my courses. And yes as you suspect "teaching while black" can be exhausting. Thanks for the insightful comment and the empathy!

Nik said...

I am grateful to you, Lisa and Erika, for your response. It is so gratifying to hear from you. Thank you both!

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What Now? said...

A hopeful post -- thanks so much.