Maria’s recent post about Emily Bernard’s essay, “Teaching the N-word” is richly haunting like reading a slave narrative or a bill of sale for a Negro wench or YouTube comments about President Obama’s Osama-ness. The logic that replays in my mind, causing my thoughts to dance is present in Maria’s point that: “It’s not that I think Emily Bernard should not have discussed this topic, one so precarious and booby-trapped, but her lesson, coupled with the essay she produced after the events took place, is clearly a process of cathartic exploration…The problem is the one platform, the classroom.”
The classroom. I’ve taken a job teaching at a salary that requires that I charge my summer living expenses and drudge my savings account to $100 because I get to control my work environment—the classroom. I can’t prove it, but I’d place a confident bet that teachers at every level stay another year on the job (even at salaries much higher than adjunct-pay) because the classroom is their dominion. It’s our dominion not just to teach and inspire knowledge, but to be ourselves. How can we say that we are not in class learning about human behavior through the osmosis of our teachers’ pain and pleasure? Ms. Blackshear, my fifth grade English teacher, went through a divorce during fall semester and I missed her encouragement dearly. I, born a loud-mouth, became the quiet student with glassy eyes. On the border of the blackboard, was a picture of a cloud, the word “IMAGINE” was superimposed on it. I sat and stared at it most days, hoping the teacher who loved that I loved to write would love singlehood soon enough.
Teachers always bring themselves to the classroom. The space is so intimate that it cannot study masks for long, and so I think that Emily Bernard’s students saw through her “lie” of casually discussing the pain and pleasure—for some, the word melts in their mouths—of the American conundrum, nigger. Yes, her students saw that their conversation was not really a teaching moment, but was in fact, a conversation—just an exchange. (We know very well that professors often use students’ feedback for/in their published work, so the moment was obviously most useful for Bernard, which I’m fine with if students consented). The most vocal female student in the essay is embarrassed for Bernard and therefore, comes to defend not using it. The most vocal male student obliges Bernard’s Open Door policy and therefore, comes to join her right to use nigger. My personal policy is to close the door on the word, to lock it up for daily use, pulling it out every now and then just to show I’m not afraid to use it.
History is Conscious Memory
More than discuss the space of the classroom as often about “cathartic exploration” seen and unseen, I want to discuss how and why this all matters to me. This matters to me because that cathartic exploration, instead of being just seen and unseen, is mostly unappreciated. So moving forward in my thoughts, I will echo Maria’s disgust about Ms. Fisher’s suit (Fisher v. University of Texas) and try to back her initial reaction to her students by making a few points about history.
Undergraduate students, and I know this from being a completely unsuspecting undergraduate student and from teaching the very freshman of them, generally haven’t read and experienced enough to really respect authority. Not just the instructor’s authority, but especially the authority of history. All of us are guilty of this at times. I find this out over and over again—that we diss what we don’t respect or don’t know intimately. When I’m dissin’ something, it’s usually something I don’t know well—I’m over it before it starts because I can’t see the contents in the glass. I simply see the thick glass of something I think—really feel that I don’t want.
That our students don’t respect history and prefer the individual to the community to boot, matters to me because, because…I once substituted for a grade school art teacher and realized that white is all colors and black is the absence of color. I substituted for one day, and couldn’t get that basic concept of color out of my head. Still, it stays. The anecdote of my lesson on color applies to our discussion as a metaphor. It’s so hard to reconcile being young, gifted and black when white people with less or the same as you have so much more potential to live their lives. I’m not talking about freedom. To be free is fine, but justice is better. And because the absence of color is not possible, I’ll take justice—the absence of being punished for color.
I’ve had a birthday since we first began discussing “Teaching the N-Word,” and so I currently think age is a big part of the essay. The Dodge Poetry Festival has also happened since then, and at one festival event Natasha Trethewey said that she’s constantly telling her students at Emory University to witness all the history around them. She referred to downtown Newark’s old, New World (my term) buildings, and Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, which now recognizes his affair with Sally Hemings as examples of—history.
So that Bernard brought history into her classroom was inevitable. The disconnect, for this older me, happens because she doesn’t act her age in the classroom. The N-word is shrapnel to a black person over 40 and several under it like me. Too, and I’m completely out of line, Bernard knows that one of her young and white students could have her job and frankly, she respects them. She has effectively earned the right to be white–success, and so she doesn’t want to be the authority on blackness–pain. To behave in this way begs the question, does she want their approval? Again, my comments are—OUT OF LINE, maybe.
Listen, I know so many smart black people, so many smart people of color, and what we all have in common is the unfortunate history that white people have a predisposition to more. In her talk, Trethewey clarified an oft-made opinion of her work, which is that she is obsessed with race. Instead, she said she’s obsessed with white male privilege. The reason history matters today and comes at times in the form of an angry, not passive brown woman is because, because…while riding with my friend who is in his early 60s the other day, he pointed to a theatre in Montclair, remembering how the police followed his black body to a seat, and yelled furiously if any black body emoted during the film. Students seem to think this is all over, but memory is conscious history.
So as Maria says, Ms. Fisher has audacity but no idea of the history of her privilege. For this, her proxy privilege should render her to the back of the line. That’s the problem. Affirmative action, at its inception, should have held 10-12 percent of white people back, then allowed that same percent of black people to acquire a history of wealth and privilege, and see what happened next.