- Who Needs Race Talk, Anyway?:Teaching African American Literature to Students of Color in Anxious Times
The truth is … that the oppressed are not "marginals," are not people living "outside" society. They have always been "inside"—inside the structure which made them "beings for others." The solution is not to "integrate" them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become "beings for themselves."—Paulo Freire (74)
"What do you do?" asks a young African American man, turning towards his classmates. "What do you do when you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach?" The class is African American Literature, and the assigned reading for the day is David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) with a supplementary article on the use of nonpeaceful tactics by the Black Lives Matter movement. "When you know that you've been trying so hard to do things the right way, and then something happens to remind you that nothing is ever enough?" The last remnants of the passionate conversation about Walker's righteous anger and the complexity of violent resistance against racial discrimination across the centuries fade out, as the students—most of them people of color—face their classmate's questions. "When you're reminded it's all about your skin?" Some look at him, nodding; others look away from this confrontation with not just his but also their own call for answers. "What do you guys do not to give in to [that] despair?" After the initial silence, the students start talking. Many talk about their frustration and fear and the ways they have learned to either channel or suppress both. I, the professor, say nothing.
The above vignette, based on a real scene in a two-year-college classroom in New York City, illustrates the kind of pedagogically challenging moment for which the scholarship of teaching and learning offers little preparation. The student in this scenario asserted his place as the subject of the educational process and negotiated an opportunity to make the moment as educative as possible for [End Page 164] himself and the other students. He took a risk by asking a question that demonstrated that he, as a young black man, had a tremendous stake in the subject of the assigned text. He also—whether he intended to or not—dared his classmates and me to let the remainder of the class period define whose needs the course responded to and let the rest of the semester define the place of the students in relation to the power structures that our readings described.
I knew I now had to squarely face the reality of my (predominantly nonwhite) students' lived experiences, which entered our classroom with those genuine questions. They were questions that neither my personal life nor academic training had equipped me to answer and which exposed the limits of my expertise. Yet there had to be something I could do to help students navigate future confrontations with emotionally taxing class material and to learn from it. Hence, I walked away from that lesson with the urgent task of responding to the challenge posed by Paulo Freire in the quotation that opens this essay, in which he calls on educators to "transform" the educational process into a tool that students can use to become "beings for themselves" (74).
While my silence in this scenario was a result of a conscious decision to allow the students to explore how they are implicated in the text, I admit that there have been other, similar situations in which I was rendered speechless by the difficulty of handling race-related content vis-á-vis the lived realities of my students. As a professor of multi-ethnic literature, I have encountered obstacles commonly explored in the literature on race pedagogy, such as resistance to "race talk" from some white students or racial microaggressions targeting students of color.1 Less frequent, yet equally challenging, is denial about structural racism expressed by students of color in the classroom.2 Yet the most common questions I have struggled with have revolved around the following inquiry: how can I teach race...