- Pedagogy and Its Anxieties in the Post-Race Era:Teaching George Schuyler's Black No More
My sociology teacher had once said that there were but three ways for the Negro to solve his problem in America[:] … "To either get out, get white or get along." Since he wouldn't and couldn't get out and was getting along only indifferently, it seemed to me that the only thing for him was to get white.—George Schuyler (8)
We have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused.—Audre Lorde (115)
Tonight, my friends—I find, in being black, a thing of beauty: a joy, a strength; a secret cup of gladness.… Accept in full the sweetness of your blackness.—Ossie Davis (81)
Classroom consensus often disguises an unsettling peace. I teach English and African American studies at a large, state-supported metropolitan university that is annually recognized by U.S. News and World Report as being the most diverse campus in the nation. There is a profound sense of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from teaching a student body recognized for its diversity of race, class, ethnicity, national origin, economic background, and language. The students are neither resistant to nor uncritically sympathetic to multi-ethnicity—either textual or pedagogical—in their classrooms. Multi-ethnic texts are not simply something they exclusively encounter as classroom assignments. Their lives, particularly as their lives are experienced on campus, are multi-ethnic texts. This is not to suggest the kind of post-racial, post-racist narrative that has so often been reproduced in the new, post-identity millennium. My students struggle with the same threats to multiculturalism that they see reflected in national discussions about immigration, income inequality, and the disparities that function around incarceration, social justice, housing, education, and health care. My interest [End Page 60] here is to think through some of the practical and theoretical implications of teaching multi-ethnic literature to a diverse student body at a time when the challenges and anxieties surrounding that particular pedagogical endeavor are so pronounced.
The questions I bring to the classroom are: What is the role of African American literature in an environment of political activism that has as its objective to disrupt and reconfigure all aspects of contemporary assumptions about race and how it is valued, measured, lived, and understood in the United States, particularly as those rubrics relate to public policy, social attitudes, and racial justice? How can I best convey to my students how African American literature has served a transformative cultural role that goes far beyond simply describing the disparities of race relations, particularly as those elements apply to transnational interests that, in conjunction with social media, allow for sustained political activism? What are the consequences of interrogating and reconsidering essentialist assumptions about race and the way race is manifested across class lines? Thinking through these questions, I have come to realize that my pedagogical confrontation with race is actually a confrontation with the ways students understand the workings of identity in an environment that has variously and sometimes interchangeably been referred to as post-racial, post-identity, race neutral, and even color-blind.
Although I come to the classroom with specific learning objectives, I also hold the belief that one of my primary roles is to develop and encourage a rigorous, supportive learning environment that encourages students to recognize, evaluate, and perhaps revise their thinking, regardless of how difficult and uncomfortable that process might be. Given my students' diversity, I do not want to erase difference or homogenize opinion. I want them to work through their ideas in whatever directions that work takes them.1 Early in the semester, we discuss what questions they bring to the course; what background, if any, they have in the course material; what they hope to learn; and, perhaps most importantly, how they might use what they learn in the future.
The diversity on my campus is most often read in terms of race and ethnicity, but it is firmly inclusive of all metrics of diversity, including age, class, and national origin. Many of...