Of Teaching, Token Gestures, and Textual Access — AS

[Although I said that I would be publishing these essays in no particular order, this fourth one follows logically from Kadri Naanu’s, since it ends with an account of the author’s visit — with Kadri — to Fort Sumter, and both students’ dismay that none of the staff at the Visitor Center there could even direct them to Toni Morrison’s “bench by the road.”  Before that moment, however, AS has already raised a series of interesting points about her role as a New Jersey-born woman now a teacher herself  (in middle school and at a community college), and she goes on to ask whether living in Charleston gave her access to the texts we were reading or whether the texts we were reading gave her access to Charleston.  SKL]

2 May 2014

Time Stamp: 10pm (1/5) – 1am (2/5)

Dr. Lewis –

I considered submitting a handwritten letter, but decided this would be more legible. I think this letter will provide you with what it has meant for me – a white teacher – to read these texts here and now, and hopefully give you a few other “something[s] of value.”


Although my mother always told me stories of the racist slurs and attempts of violence against her friend A. (my “Aunt” A) while they back-packed America and Europe, I don’t think I fully understood the cultural work both my mother and my aunt decided to take on in the 70’s.  We spent many summers with my Aunt A. and cousin V., so while I knew that they weren’t my “real” family it hardly felt otherwise. And both women – which I think I’m only beginning to understand now – took on the not-so-easy work of beginning to break down barriers at the personal and familial level. My mother lived in a small South NJ town with only whites, and my Aunt A. lived in Newark with only blacks. Although I could tell you some fascinating stories about their friendship and they ways in which they taught V. and I to interact (especially with one another’s hair, which [retrospectively] I see the importance of), I think the one thing my mother stressed to me as a (white) girl was that the world was going to work for me in ways it wouldn’t for V. My mother did not quote any Peggy McIntosh or Richard Dryer as Seddon does, but I think her point was the same: check your backpack full of white privilege at the door and do not walk around with something as counter productive and self indulgent as white guilt. I was to be aware of history, act accordingly, and work to change and challenge both the culture and myself as I grew into the world.

But despite all her lectures, I am unsure of what that world was or is, and if 2014 is even close to what both of these women hoped it would be. And even if changing my own view seems within reach, challenging the world around me is much more difficult to negotiate. Just last month I walked by student waving a Confederate flag on the College of Charleston campus, his poster claiming it championed diversity. I was taught to hate that flag and be suspect of anyone who loved it. But since moving to Charleston I’ve seen that flag every day, not just on campus in support of Glenn McConnell. And even after this class I keep wondering how exactly to confront this. I do not tell people it bothers me that they have this flag on their home…or their belt buckle, which seems especially perverse since it’s typically men. In the end, I did not confront the student. I thought ignoring him might be better than giving him a chance to get the attention I perceived he wanted. And would I just be another white liberal up in arms about a flag that does not “really” concern me?

As a white public school teacher (I taught middle school) and current technical college adjunct, I do not want to be like many of the abolitionists in the text we’ve read who co-opt narratives for a cause, or the few “good white folks” in Morrison’s Beloved. If I saw myself at all in these texts – and I think it is important that I often did not see myself – it was as these white people. There is a real danger here, I think, to end up as the kind of “moderate white” Dr. King addresses in his letter from Birmingham jail – the kind of white that claims equality and justice and yet does very little to dismantle the structures of white power and privilege that provide them their lives. (Not to suggest abolitionists didn’t do productive work.) I wonder if in walking by that student I was guilty of such moderation since now (I think) I have the right language for that discussion. When I first started teaching, I felt like I did not have enough history or the right language to address race in the classroom – especially as a twenty-one-year-old white woman just outside of D.C.

So thanks to these texts, this class, and much of the news, I spent most of this term at Trident Tech attempting to confront race (and gender) in open and productive ways, continually pointing out where whiteness and maleness were assumed as “neutral” within the texts or selecting works that directly challenge that assumed cultural narrative. Although I could have done this in another state, I think having access to this course in the context of Charleston changed how I approached teaching. Simply being in Charleston, surrounded by the immediate history of slavery and engaging my students with that history, deeply affected how the class engaged with the texts and one another. I often brought news about Glenn McConnell and items from your class to mine (like the Quashie painting and the news about the ironing board). I tried to explain that it was important to me, as a person and as an educator, to be taking a class like this in Charleston as I did not grow up here and felt sorely my lack of historical knowledge. I think this ultimately helped to build a dialogue that – while academic – was less student-teacher oriented and more student-student oriented in a way that allowed for a different kind of communication than if I asserted my teacher hat.

In many of these discussions, I admitted to my lack of knowledge, explained that for three hours each Monday I was also a student having my concept of the world challenged (in ways that I believed productive). Most of the time this allowed for meaningful and challenging discussions about the past and present day Charleston, and my students expressed genuine interest in trying to work out these issues with one another, or even their own gaps in historical understanding. But, I did have one student (the only white male) tell me after classes that he was tired of reading about “women and black people;” however, on the last day he finally admitted it was not “so bad” that I constantly presented ideas that were altogether different from his own. I like to think this means I did something right, and that attending this class has better equipped me to make my classroom a productive social and political space.

But I am also very aware that all of this came from the mouth of a white person, and sometimes I honestly do not know what that signifies. I want to challenge the way the world works, but I don’t want to be the “good white folk” or the blind abolitionist. In short, I do not want to set up a classroom paradigm that reads “white savior.”  My fear is that this would be quite easy to slip into. If someone were to take a snapshot of my class, it would depict a white person in the front and mostly black people in the seats. I am not suggesting I feel guilt over this, as I agree even that is a kind of privilege, but I think it is important I recognize this dynamic

A good paper would come full circle and reference my first story, but since this is a letter, allow me to close with another narrative I think you will find valuable in light of this class.

Kadri wanted to see Ft. Moultrie and the Toni Morrison bench, and I was able to take her last Friday. (I also wanted to see the bench because even though I had seen the fort, I never remembered seeing a bench like that near the beach.) The first time I was at the visitor center, I didn’t have the kind of historical appreciation for the little bit they do have on the Middle Passage in the museum. I think in my memory, there was much more on the Middle Passage and slaves and less about white soldiers, but I concluded it was probably because this class has changed so much of my framework for Charleston. Not that that two Yanks (my husband is also from NJ) didn’t love to point out the distinctly Southern white-washed narratives around town, but now I feel more acutely aware of the poor attempts at recognition and remembrance. I don’t know what is worse: the token gesture, or none at all?

After Kadri and I spent some time discussing the above question in the museum, we asked the (white) lady where the Toni Morrison bench was located. She had no idea about the bench, or even who Toni Morrison was, so she asked two (white) men who were also working at the park where it was located. Looks of confusion all around. I’m not entirely sure why I expected this to go otherwise. I do not know which one of us was more stunned, so we simply thanked them and walked out to explore on our own. Listening to Kadri process this encounter was fascinating. I think it was a clear testament and connection to Charleston culture that, while explained in class, became very real to her as she witnessed it first hand. Whose surprise was greater that none of them knew the name Toni Morrison? I still could not tell you.

We finally found the bench, and we couldn’t decided if perhaps it was appropriate it felt sort of wayside and underwhelming or that is was sad it overlooked the oil-tinted marsh water and a broken down boat. There were also two half eaten rotting apples near the bench, but I assume those aren’t always around. What surprised me, at least, was this sense that the texts we read (particularly, I Belong to South Carolina) so affected my access and perceptions of Charleston. At first, I very much thought of it in reverse – that having moved to Charleston gave me a better access to the texts. Ultimately, I think it is a combination of both; however, I’m more inclined to say that the texts are what have given me a different view of the area I hope to call home for at least another year.

Although your exam question was quite clear – what does it mean to have read these texts in Charleston right now – the answer is rather subjective to each student and my own response could have manifested in many ways. However, I decided on the stories about campus, teaching, and Kadri because it was in all those circumstances where I felt my education do what I think an education should do – that is, affect my daily life and make me (re)consider how I function in the world. And I decided on a letter because: 1. I love writing letters, 2. I wanted a slightly less rigid form and tone, and 3. you put the word “experimental” on the assignment sheet and that seemed like an invitation. So, I hope I did this right for the test, but mostly I hope it was “something of value” as your assignment sheet could be boiled down to that one statement.

– AS


Filed under: Jubilee Project

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