- Training Gendered WhitenessTeaching Thomas Dixon's The Clansman after Charlottesville
In March 2017, I agreed to teach a literature course titled The Nation and Its Discontents, and, as is perhaps the case for many, I wrote a course description with only a vague idea of its ultimate content. While I knew I would approach the course from my (inter)disciplinary investment in black studies, through the end of July I was still undecided about whether the course would focus on the literature of black nationalism, southern nationalism, or some combination thereof. Then, while trying to make sense of white northerners bemoaning the loss of their Confederate heritage and antifascists punching Nazis, on August 13 my course discovered its subtitle: From Southern and Black Nationalism to the Alt Right and #BlackLivesMatter.
Course readings followed as I attempted to make sense of it. I would begin at the beginning with the Declaration of Independence, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," and The Confessions of Nat Turner, introducing the course's thematic concerns with the recurring tension between revisionary and revolutionary politics. I planned to conclude with Calvin Warren's "Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope" to question whether either revisionary or revolutionary politics is relevant or adequate to understanding the demands for justice being made today. With the course taking shape as a chronological exploration of masculine, heteropatriarchal conceptions of nationhood interlaced with feminist and queer critiques, I added a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, a letter to an English abolitionist, an essay [End Page 126] from any one of twelve angry southerners, a James Baldwin essay or novel, some Amiri Baraka, and other Black Arts poets, and William Faulkner's Light in August. To do justice to recent histories of black women in politics—such as Brittany Cooper's Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women and Ashley Farmer's Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era—I added Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, Sonia Sanchez's poetry, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen.
Slavery apologists? Check. Black men calling for civil rights or revolution? Check. Black queers complicating the heteropatriarchal construction of black nationalism? Check. White men navigating shifting race relations? Check. Black women reimagining gender roles in the nationalist imaginary? Check. But the more I tried to make sense of Charlottesville and the larger context of Donald Trump's election with these texts, the more I was plagued by my inability to address two questions. The first was about Charlottesville's lone civilian casualty, a white woman named Heather Heyer. In the days that followed the August 13 clash with "good people on both sides," Heyer emerged as a symbol for both. If Heyer became a martyr and heroine to some, to others she represented something as worth getting rid of as Confederate statues are of preservation. Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi online newspaper Daily Stormer, wrote that Heyer was a drain on society because she was, among other things, childless, writing that "[a] 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value" (qtd. in Weber). Was Heyer simply an unfortunate victim, vilified as a form of damage control, or did Anglin's words portend a more essential ideological connection between white supremacy and misogyny? The second question was why did Antifa—rather than, for instance, Black Lives Matter—represent the most visible opposition to the alt-right?
Teaching Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, one of southern literature's more infamous texts, allowed me to address both of these questions. From neoslave narratives such as Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada and Edward P. Jones's The Known World to Afro-pessimist critical texts like Frank B. Wilderson's Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms and Jared Sexton's Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiculturalism, contemporary black intellectual work often foregrounds an ahistorical abjection of blackness that considers Emancipation as a nonevent that failed to fundamentally alter the condition of black life in the United States. In the realm of politics, the most visible black movements since the murder of Trayvon...