You should know that this was not the “race unit” of the intro to theoretical reading (officially “The Pursuits of English”) course I co-teach. On the first day of class, I worked with students in my section to develop a more nuanced reading of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” that moved beyond a sexist/not sexist discussion of the lyrics. When we read Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” we used a poem by the bi-racial poet Ross Gay to think about how we read a poem called “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ 8:00 am” when we don’t know who the author is. In fact, we were actually talking about New Historicism for this unit, and our primary texts came from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes. This is not just true about race. We’ve been thinking about Queer Theory long before our unit on it that we’ll start next week with Kiss of the Spider Woman. We read Sedgewick with Sense and Sensibility and consider the Sapphic tension in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
You should also know that as much as I loved“When Your (Brown) Body” and wanted my students to read it, I wasn’t sure if teaching it was actually a good idea. It’s not just that I happen to adore Tressie and so was worried about appearing biased towards her argument but that it’s such a provocative piece that I wasn’t sure it would be productive in the classroom.
In this instance, I’m the choir and Tressie is the preacher, but there’s a fine line between teaching critical analysis and proselytizing and I am loath to cross it.
But since the loose theme of the class is “the body” and we had already decided to teach Lucille Clifton, it actually made sense to at least consider adding her essay to our syllabus. In addition to its argument, it’s rhetorically interesting, and I thought my students might see in this essay a useful strategy they could adapt for their own writing. It’s difficult to build an argument with personal anecdotes, but this essay is a good example of how that can work.
The main thing, however, was this: As much as I love Hughes and Clifton and enjoy teaching them whenever I can, they keep race and bodies at a safe remove from how people of color move through the world. Hughes feels so historical and “canonical” at this point and Clifton uplifts, and while we know in theory this uplifting is born of pain, it’s all too easy to forget that poems like “homage to my hips” or “won’t you celebrate with me” reflect racist, sexist systems. Appiah and McMillan Cottom, I hoped, would provide a lens through which to read those works that demanded a more nuanced, analytical response to their poems.
My colleague suggested Appiah immediately and after thinking about it for a few months, I sent him Tressie’s piece and asked if he thought it would be useful. His reply was an immediate and decisive “yes!”
The unit ended up being:
Kwame Anthony Appiah—“Race”
Lucille Clifton—Selected Poems
Langston Hughes—Selected Poems
Audre Lorde—“On the Uses of Anger”
Tressie McMillan Cottom—“When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”
My colleague thoughts students needed background, so we posted these youtube links to give them some context for McMillan Cottom’s piece:
The Miley Cyrus VMA Performance (video removed)
Azz Everywhere: How Bounce Music Hit Big Time
Big Freedia The Queen Diva
We did not watch them in class.
We spent the first week on Appiah and Hughes and the second week on Clifton, Lorde, and McMillan Cottom.
I’m not going to talk specifically about my students’ work with these texts (even if I don’t name them, I don’t want them to feel they are the subject of this post as it might make them feel they need to perform something in the classroom), but the intersection of these texts demanded that I develop a new strategy to help my students think critically about all texts in general and texts that point to race and racism specifically. I had to think carefully about how to frame this as an exercise in literary criticism and not simply a consciousness-raising session. So I lead with the literature, returned to the literature, and asked my students to write their responses to the class discussion.
The thing is, you can’t talk about race and racism in a university classroom without raising something. I know this on some level, but initially I wasn’t paying too much attention to this truth. But the raising of something or other required something. I realized I needed to articulate some of what might hinder a careful consideration of a painful and complicated topic. On the final day of the unit, after having the class listen to and write short reflections on Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” I put up six points of clarification about privilege and then asked the class to consider the core question (#7 below) in the context of how we read Clifton. In other words, I wanted us to think about how we respond to all of these women of color.
Using Power Point (because that’s just how fancy I am), I put up the following:
1. You can benefit from the privilege that comes with your race/ethnicity, sexuality and class and still have a pretty difficult time of it. In other words, being white, middle or upper middle class and heterosexual, or a man (or all of these things at once!) doesn’t mean your life is a bed of thorn-free roses.
2. It’s a hard truth, but, as Appiah reminds us, race is used as a way to make hierarchies and hierarchies mean that some people are considered more valuable than others. It can be disconcerting to live with the fact that you benefit from a system you had no part in creating.
3. Benefiting from racism is not the same thing as wanting to benefit from racism.
4. We tend to think of racism in the broadest terms—dragging someone behind a truck, hurling racial epithets, Stand Your Ground laws. In reality, it permeates so many different parts of our culture that it’s difficult to avoid.
5.You can enjoy Miley Cyrus and still consider yourself a good person (but it does mean you probably have awful taste in music ☺)
6.Miley Cyrus ≠ All White Women
And then finally:
7. As an intellectual exercise, consider what the world is like if McMillan Cottom is 100% right. What does that mean for you and how you live in the world?
We talked for a little while about one through six and then we walked slowly through McMillan Cottom’s post, particularly the early part where she recounts how white women and men react to her body.
I asked the women in class to consider how many complicated social contracts were broken in those moments by saying that as much as we want to live in a society that respects women at all times, we know that, as women, being out with a man can protect us from unwanted advances. It’s a complicated, sexist truth, but it’s one most of us rely on from time to time.
We pivoted from there to the video of Peggy McIntosh talking about how she came to write “Unpacking the Knapsack of Privilege.” It’s seems so old school to me that I was tempted to simply pass the essay out, but the video is even more compelling than simply reading the essay. She speaks so compassionately and honestly and the list rolls up so slowly that it demands careful attention. Watching rather than reading the essay shifted the dynamic in the classroom and lead to a thoughtful conversation.
In response to student questions about “what can I do!?!?” I thought it useful to show Jay Smooth’s now famous “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. Knowing how to frame the conversation seemed a good place for those interested in doing so, and it’s also an amazing rhetorical feat (something several of my students noticed immediately). It’s also funny:
Class discussion then moved in and out of all the texts with students “relating” to all of the above and then, more importantly, thinking critically about how we read different representations of oppression.
I explained the Angel/Whore configuration of femininity that peaks in the Victorian period and argued that it gets raced in modern society with the Oprah/Precious configuration. I also talked about what I call “The Oprah Winfrey Syndrome”—one that makes it so that black women are most popular when they are inspiring figures that middle-class white women can look up to while feeling good that they like a black woman who is not sexually threatening. I returned to the question of what it means if McMillan Cottom is right and how we can think about what we seek in poems by authors of color.
Without going into details, I can say that students were engaged, critical (in the best ways), curious, and did a lot of writing on their own.
It’s tempting in a class like this to measure success by some ideological outcome, to hope that my students will run out and be bold activists and/or allies in the fight against racism. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I’ll get some e-mail message in a year or so telling me this. When I used fairy tales to teach theory several years ago (see Matthew, Patricia A. and Jonathan Greenberg. “The Ideology of the Mermaid: Children’s Literature in the Intro to Theory Course.” Pedagogy 9.2 (Spring 2009): 217-233. ), I would get e-mails that would send me over the moon about how reconsidering “The Little Mermaid” was life changing for students who now “read” the world as texts to be carefully considered. But I know that the work of the classroom is to model engaged, critical thinking, and I saw that happen in class this week.
And, for now, I call that success.