Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

19 January 2012

Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, a few days late

So,  Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and as part of it, my NPR station seemed to be continually streaming stories of the man and his cause.  At one point around mid-day, I heard an interview in which an African American teacher made the claim that only black people can and should teach out race.  I immediately wanted to respond to this remark, but I was driving, so that was not an option.  So I mulled it over a bit, then put my pen to the page, and here I am.

When faced with the inevitable race question on a job application, the only choice I can make is Caucasian, or "White."  I cannot call myself "Black" or "Asian" or "Hispanic"; and even in those times when I have applied for jobs in New York City, I could not choose "Italian American."  That's right: once when I was applying for a position at a Manhattan-based university, I received a form in the mail that asked which of the following applied to me:
African American
Pacific Islander
Italian American
So stymied by the inclusion of Italians, I chose "Other" and wrote in "Polish-Irish American."  And perhaps that is why I did not even get an interview.

But the point remains that Race is such an overblown, misunderstood concept in the U.S.A., while it is also perhaps  the most important issues for Americans to confront and discuss, and continue to discuss.  To say that I, one of Northern European ancestry, have no right to teach students about race is a racist remark in and of itself, and if being the object of racism qualifies one to talk about it, then that remark qualifies me to participate in that discussion.

found at "CensusScope"

And a discussion it must be.  One cannot "teach" race in any quantitative sense because that experience is so fraught with complexity, depending upon region, socio-economics, gender, and any other number of intervening circumstances.  Indeed, my understanding of racial inequality is no doubt not the same as yours, and this is why to "teach" about race is to open a discussion, and to do it with great compassion to the multitude of experiences, and to the very real fact that one's own experience might be proven limited or limiting.

I have taught the topic of racism, if we can define "teaching" as I do in the previous paragraph.  In my early years of college teaching, I would approach the topic through literature such as James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," or a favorite of mine -- the pairing of Death of a Salesman with August Wilson's Fences.    Or through essays on Ebonics or rap.  All of these provided, and still provide, starting points for discussion.  This was the 1980's, and there may have been only one or two black students in a room of twenty to thirty students; sometimes, they were brave enough to share their perspective, and I began working on ways to make those students feel comfortable enough to share, without feeling put on the spot.  I found it my job to listen, carefully, and urge others to listen carefully to each person's ideas before responding.  

I don't believe I succeeded in "teaching" race; that was, after all, not my intent.  Rather, my inent was, in the end, just to get people to talk and to share experiences, and by doing so, broaden each students' perceptions of this difficult topic, not to mention my own.

Without a doubt, the most profound experience I ever had when it comes to learning (and teaching) about race came when I taught for a year at one of the Historically Black Universities & Colleges (HBCU) in Mississippi.   Previous to this appointment, I had been living and teaching full-time in Turkey for four years, and I was grateful and excited to be offered a one-year full time appointment in the USA, even before I returned to the country.  In academia, stepping out of a full-time job without another one is almost certainly the kiss of death for your career.  For family and personal reasons, I had to return to America; my preference was to be in the North, but here was an offer I couldn't refuse, coming in just under the wire.  So, after succeeding in getting my Turkish street cat through U.S. Customs, I packed her up in my car and moved to the Deep South.  As someone who lived for over forty years in the North East, going from teaching in Ankara to teaching in Mississippi was like moving from one country to another, and neither of them were the America I grew up in.  

But I quickly came to understand, albeit on a pretty superficial level, that Mississippi is part of the United States of America, and by living there, I came to love my country even more.  But I also came to the conclusion that I mentioned above, that is: that race is the crucible issue in the USA, the one we must continue to confront if we are to grow as a healthy nation.

When I arrived in Mississippi, I was grateful to a fellow American who I met while living in Turkey; for simplicity's sake, let's call her "American Woman", or "A.W."  A.W. had left Turkey the year before I did, and had gained a tenure track position at this HBCU, which happened to be located near her home town.  Thanks to her, I secured this position.  She was Southern,  and white.  After driving alone through about six states to get to my new job, she let me stay in her new house, which actually dated from the antebellum period, for a few days after I arrived.  But she was eager to help me find my own place; she brought me to a secluded apartment community on my second day in town; she stood by my side while I signed a lease for an unfurnished two bedroom apartment there.  As we drove out of the parking lot, she said to me, "Oh, this'll be a good place for you; there are no darkies livin' here."

Mind you, this was in 2003.  

I moved my car full of kitchen supplies and camping gear into my unfurnished apartment the next day, and she never invited me back to her house after that.  Occasionally, when she walked past my office at school (remember, she was my colleague), she would peak in my door and say "How's the job search going?" then hurry down the hall.  Once or twice during the year, she agreed to meet me for lunch, but that was all.  I might consider myself lucky now for her coldness, but at the time, she was the only person I knew in the entire state.

And thus I began to understand how region colored the issue of race in many subtle ways.  I was a Northern White, the second generation progeny of working class immigrants, but with a Ph.D. from an intimidating Northern university (N.Y.U.)  She was a Southern White Ol' Miss graduate, whose family (as she was very pointed in letting me know) had settled in this area in the early 1800s, and who had once owned quite a bit of land, and -- no doubt -- slaves to boot.

My loneliness was matched only by my great longing to return "home" -- and in my mind that was either New York State, where I had lived for over a decade before moving out of the country, or Turkey, whose people had made me feel very welcome.  In Mississippi, I tried to teach lessons I had taught in both places, and was met by confusion.  But I will say to this day that I was treated with great respect, as well as a large amount of fascination, by my students who were, 100%, the children of former slaves.

I could tell many stories about that year, but I will tell two, because these two taught me some vital lessons about Race in America.  From the beginning, I made it a point to always refer to the majority of my colleagues and students as "African American," the term I had learned was proper during graduate school in the North, in the 1980's ad 1990's.  One day, one of my colleagues took me aside and said: "Listen, you're really making me crazy with this African-American thing.  To begin,  I'm not African.  My family was slaves in Georgia, and they were brought there from the West Indies.  And somewhere in there, somebody got in with some Indians - Native Americans you'd call them - so I have plenty of that blood, too.  Look at my skin. . . " (she held her dark arm against mine, which was pretty pale for want of sun) "I am Black.  Call me Black.  Call us all Black.  That's what I am, just like you are the whitest White Girl I've ever seen."  And then she invited me to lunch.

Black and White: that's what she taught me.  In the Deep South, it's about the color of your skin, and the "brighter" a Black person was, the better off they were.

So I watched what I said, carefully, often going to this colleague for advice.  I listened to what people called each other.  One term that I heard used a lot, with my male students, was "boy."  My white colleagues called young black males "boys," so did my black colleagues; the football coach called his team "boys."  In the grocery store, any black male of any age whose name was unknown was called "boy."  

One day in class we were discussing an essay about gender, and I decided to break the class into groups - male and female.  When I referred to the groups, I called them the "Men" and the "Women."  Quite frankly, I always call my students Men and Women, because, after all, at the university level they're old enough to vote, get married, and go to war.  In my current classes, students giggle when I call them Men and Women.  In a Black university in Mississippi during the 2003-2004 academic year, when I used these terms, it was a different story.

The women liked being called Women.  They seemed to sit up straighter when they heard the term.  The men, mostly football players, looked confused, and whispered between themselves, until finally one young man spoke up, in a very confrontational tone:

"Excuse me, M'am.  What is that you keep calling me?"

I paused, trying to remember the last few minutes of conversation, trying to figure out what I had said that was wrong.

"I'm calling you Men," I said.

"What?" he said.  He had a deep Northern Louisianna drawl that I could barely understand.  (The following week, I pointed that out to him, and he told me he could barely understand me, either.)


"I'm sorry, I still don't understand what you are saying.  What are you calling me?"

The women in the class chimed in then, to help me -- "She's calling you a man" -- while I wrote the word "MAN" on the board.

And for a stupefied moment, he and all the other men in the room were silent, and then he said:

"Pardon me, Miss.  I didn't understand you.  But yes, you're right.  I'm a man." 

Later, one of the young women explained to me that that was a term that young black males rarely heard applied to them.

I will let you form whatever conclusions you would like about these stories.  For me, these incidents, and others, helped me realize that Race in America is far more complex than anyone can imagine.  One would have to travel and live in every corner of this huge nation to experience its subtleties.  But most of all, one would have to take the chance of talking and listening to how we talk or don't talk to each other.  (This reminds me of another black student I had in the late 1980's - in the North East - a single mom who decided mid-semester to move back to Georgia with her toddler son.  When I asked her why she expressed her concern for her son, then said: "at least in the South the racism is clear; in the North it's all hidden behind politeness.")

To teach about racism in the U.S.A.?  No one person has the ultimate authority.  But we all have the right - and the freedom - to share what we've experienced.  What we really need to teach is how to listen, compassionately, carefully and without judgement,  and how to be brave enough to admit that our own experience is only an entrance point to any true conversation on the subject.

1 comment:

laurak@forestwalkart said...

this is a very good post...and a nice 'tribute' to a man who prayed for peace...and equality.

it reminds me of the BIG difference (i have experienced) between the North & South.

i was raised in father was 'colorblind'. when i was growing up, the blacks were referred to as 'colored' people. if anyone ever said that term in front of my father, he would say...what color is that? people are doesn't matter what color their skin is.
he was one the most UNprejudiced people i ever knew.

when i moved from NY to CA...that was no big deal...but then moving to FL...YIKES!! what a (rude) awakening that was. and STILL is!!